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In 2016, Opera Theatre celebrates our 41st year. We have always believed that experiencing opera's power and beauty can connect diverse audiences and that creating bold new works can shape the future of opera – and of our community. Each year, we deepen our commitment to produce work of the highest artistic caliber during our annual festival season.
Each season we offer a mix of popular classics, rarely-heard gems, and world or American premieres. Over the course of our history, we have produced 24 American premieres and 24 world premieres, including many original commissions. Our New Works, Bold Voices cycle introduces audiences to new American operas, by American composers on American themes. By commissioning new opera, we expand the operatic canon and give new operagoers and connoisseurs alike the opportunity to discover an opera together for the very first time.
Our artists come from around the world, with many of our principal singers, directors, and conductors regularly appearing at the world’s major opera houses — from The Metropolitan Opera to La Scala.
However, we also nurture opera’s brightest future stars through our two young artist programs: Gerdine Young Artists and Gaddes Festival Artists. These artists appear in our ensembles, in featured roles, and in special programs like Center Stage, A Little Lunch Music, and Spotlight on Opera each year. Over 1,000 singers apply for these highly selective programs. In 2016, 38 were selected.
After each performance, those artists join our audience in our gardens for a time-honored OTSL tradition, sharing cocktails under the starlight. It’s a chance for you to get closer to these singers than you probably could anywhere else.
While we bring international-caliber artists to St. Louis to fill our stages, the highest caliber artists in St. Louis make the costumes, sets, and props that fill our stage each year. In most cases, what you see on stage was built here in St. Louis by over 100 members of our production staff. Once we’ve produced an opera, those designs often travel the world — to audiences from Vancouver to San Francisco and from San Diego to Wexford, Ireland.
Outside of the festival, we are a year-round presence in the community — reaching over 11,000 students in close to two dozen school districts and connecting all members of our community through programs like our annual Spring Sing! and annual artist residencies. We encourage you to read more about these activities in our season program book, which you will receive when you attend the opera. It’s a glossy 168-page keepsake, FREE with the price of your tickets.
Of course! At Opera Theatre, we are committed to ensuring audiences experience opera the way it was experienced when it was first created hundreds of years ago — in the language of the audience. That’s why we perform all of our operas in English. Plus, with projected super titles, you can always read along.
Before you attend, there are plenty of ways to learn more about each opera. General Director Timothy O’Leary’s Tim’s Takes videos on our website provide an excellent introduction to each performance. We also offer two special programs before the season begins: Illuminating Opera, providing in-depth musical analysis on Thursday and Saturday mornings in April, and Spotlight on Opera, a panel/concert series on Monday evenings in May and June that introduces you to the artists behind each production, along with musical highlights. Then, an hour before each performance we host free opera previews in the recital hall at the Community Music School, next door to the Loretto-Hilton Center.
Leave your ermines and furs at home! (After all, it is May and June in St. Louis.) While part of the fun of coming to the opera can be dressing up, there is no formal dress code at OTSL. We often tell people to dress as they would for a summer wedding. You’ll see cocktail dresses, jeans, khakis and polo shirts, and coats and ties. Wear what you’d like — be comfortable!
Applause etiquette for opera varies widely and has changed across the centuries. There’s no hard and fast rule, but when in doubt, if everyone else is applauding and you feel moved to do so as well, go for it! You might find it happening after a song (or aria, in opera) or at the end of a performance during bows.
However, applause isn’t the only way to celebrate a great performance. Since so much opera started in Italy, there are a few Italian words that are traditionally shouted after a stunning performance or during bows. Think of it as elegant cheerleading. Say bravo (BRAH voh) for a male singer, brava (BRAH vah) for a female singer, or bravi (BRAH vee) for a group of singers. You can always practice at home before going to the opera.
When a composer imagines a character, he or she must also imagine a voice for that character. When Puccini first thought of the beautiful young seamstress Mimì in La bohème, he gave her a voice that could fly through the stratosphere. The highest female voice part is soprano. Slightly lower is the mezzo-soprano, such as the earthy and flirtatious Musetta in La bohème.
Male voices are also based on vocal range. In the early days of opera, the most heroic voices (such as King Richard 2015’s production of Richard the Lionheart) were the highest voices. Back then, some male singers even underwent surgery to keep the high soprano voices of their youth to sing these important roles. They were called castrati. Today, these roles are either sung by female mezzo-sopranos dressed as men or by countertenors. A countertenor uses a robust falsetto voice (much like the Beach Boys or Smokey Robinson) to recreate the castrato sound.
Starting in the classical period, romantic heroes increasingly were cast as tenors (such as Rodolfo in La bohème and later Bacchus in Ariadne on Naxos). Lower male voices are baritones (Marcello in La bohème) and basses (Banquo in Verdi’s Macbeth). In the chorus of an opera, composers will typically write for a range of all of these voice parts, allowing them to create rich harmonies.
We can credit the ancient Greeks for the idea that is central to opera — that is, the use of singing or chanting to tell a story. It wasn’t until the late Italian Renaissance (1597) that a group called the Florentine Camerata began producing staged works that we’d recognize as opera. Through great creativity and extensive musical and dramatic exploration, the Camerata mainly produced secular entertainment for the nobility. Yet, what started as pleasure for a very few was quickly adored by the masses.
Within 40 years, the Teatro San Cassiano, the first public opera house, opened in Venice (1637). By the end of the seventeenth century, there were sixteen public opera houses in Venice alone, and from there, opera quickly spread across Europe. Lully is widely credited with inventing the comédie-ballet in France, working closely with Molière to integrate music, theatre, comedy, and ballet into a single performance. In England, Purcell and Handel (of Messiah fame) began writing operas in both Italian and English for the British public, focusing on stories from mythology or history.
Perhaps the greatest influence on opera as we know it today was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A product of the Enlightenment, Mozart revolutionized opera with both his narrative and musical forms and with his choice of subject matter — weaving the stories of common people with the stories of the nobility into a single fabric. Writing in both Italian (Cosi fan tutte, 1790) and his native language, German (The Magic Flute, 1791), he aspired to ensure that the enjoyment of opera could be within reach of all people — a belief Opera Theatre still holds firmly today.
Opera has continued to evolve since then. Bel canto (literally ‘beautiful singing’) style opera dominated the early nineteenth century (Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, for example). Grand opera flourished later in that century with great compositions by Verdi (Aida) and Wagner (The Ring Cycle). Under the verismo style of later Italian composers, articulated most eloquently by Puccini (Madame Butterfly and La bohème), there was an increased emphasis on the day-to-day lives of everyday people.
Today, the possibilities for combining the power of words and music to tell a story are limitless. With each new creation by contemporary composers like John Adams, Jack Perla, Terence Blanchard, Ricky Ian Gordon, or Tobias Picker, passion, whimsy, and heartbreak are once again awakened through music for a new generation of audiences.