Opera Theatre of St. Louis marshalls resources, keeps loyal fans, offers strong season

Anne Midgette (c) 2014, The Washington Post. ST. LOUIS — At the end of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” 16 nuns are killed, one by one, on the guillotine. At the Opera Theatre of St. Louis this summer, in Robin Guarino’s staging, each nun froze as the sound of the blade sliced through the room, and then took a seat, almost prosaically, as if boarding a bus. It seemed anticlimactic — until the moment when two of the singers who had been singing marvelously all night, Kelly Kaduce as the timorous protagonist Blanche and Ashley Emerson as a radiant Sister Constance, locked hands and eyes in a single brief gesture. The moment was so small and yet so powerful that when the ovations began — and they were vociferous — both singers came out to take their bows in tears.

You don’t always need grand gestures to make compelling opera.

Opera companies are in trouble. Even the Metropolitan Opera, the flagship of American companies, is complaining about dwindling ticket sales and donations. Earlier this month, the company’s general manager, Peter Gelb, articulated the fears of many big American repertory companies in an interview with the Guardian. “If we’re not able to create a more sustainable business model now,” he said, “we know we will face a bankruptcy situation in the next two or three years.”

But the Met and its ilk do not represent the only face of opera in America. There are already other models, and some are working. The Opera Theatre of St. Louis is in its 39th season. It is unique among major American companies in its mandate of presenting opera in English; internationally, singing opera in translation is often thought to be provincial, but St. Louis makes strong cases for the idea that a good translation can enhance a work’s theatrical impact on an audience, backed up by strong dramatic values and good singing.

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Audiences, and donors, evidently agree. Donations are up 26 percent over the past five years; the endowment has grown to $27 million (up by more than 50 percent since 2008), for a $9 million annual operating budget. Even subscription sales, which are in a steady pattern of decline across the industry, have seen an uptick this year — with a retention rate of about 89 percent.

“During the year, subscriptions are spread out so far [that people] are not feeling they want to commit,” says Stephen Lord, the company’s longtime music director. “But you can come and see four operas really pretty quickly.”

On the artistic front, too, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis shows itself perfectly capable of holding its own. The 2014 season wasn’t uniformly great, but offered enough musical and dramatic highlights to provide a glow of satisfaction. If you didn’t like all of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Twenty-Seven,” a St. Louis commission that had its world premiere last week, it was hard to resist the pleasure of hearing the powerhouse mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe singing the role of Gertrude Stein. If Guarino’s “Carmelites” had its quiet moments, it also offered film-like acting and some glorious performances, including Meredith Arwady’s as the Old Prioress, dying an anguished death that seemed all the more immediate in English, and that of the radiant Emerson (who will take the same role, Sister Constance, in WNO’s production next season).

“The Magic Flute,” directed by the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, was a lackluster production set on a Hollywood soundstage with dancers acting as body doubles for the main characters; but it was redeemed by a glowing Pamina (Elizabeth Zharoff) and some other beautiful singing. And some audience members say that the one work I didn’t get to see, Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love” set in early 20th-century America, was the hit of the summer.

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In short: The Opera Theatre of St. Louis has offered a season that’s every bit as satisfying, and almost as extensive, as that of the Washington National Opera — on between one-half and one-third of WNO’s budget.

“I don’t mean to pretend that we don’t have major existential challenges, the way that everybody else does in the field,” says Tim O’Leary, the company’s 39-year-old general director. “But I believe that the combination of the right scale of operation and the right product is something that we can keep building on.”

He adds, “I really think festival is a great format for opera.”

A summer festival has particular challenges. With that relatively slender budget, St. Louis has trouble affording the fees for big-name artists. Festivals find different ways to compensate for this and make themselves attractive to singers. Some of them offer a place where a singer can spend a pleasant summer with his or her family: in Santa Fe, or at Glimmerglass on the shores of Otsego Lake in New York. Some of them offer the lure of a plum role.

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“In our theater, the occasional Stephanie Blythe is a really good thing,” says Lord, referring to Blythe’s star cachet at the box office. “But we don’t pay Stephanie Blythe fees, so there has to be some reason for her to come — in this case, an opera written for her.”

Another strategy in St. Louis is to cultivate new talent — something at which Lord, who took on his present role at the festival in 1992, is particularly adept. Under his guidance, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s young artist program has become notably strong, even in a field crowded with young-artist programs. This summer, bass-baritone Daniel Brevik stood out among three capable young singers in a range of auxiliary roles (including Ernest Hemingway and Henri Matisse) in “Twenty-Seven”; while the Three Ladies in “The Magic Flute,” Raquel González, Summer Hassan, and Corrie Stallings, were so outstanding that for the first time ever, I wished their parts were longer.

And once the young artists have left the program, St. Louis often continues to hire them, helping them to establish themselves professionally — and sometimes grooming them into stars. Corinne Winters, who will sing Mimi in the Washington National Opera’s “La Bohème” this fall, got her start working her way up through the St. Louis hierarchy. So did Christine Brewer, the veteran soprano, now in the twilight of a notable Wagnerian career, who shone as Mother Lidoine in “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” And both Zharoff and Emerson are alumnae of the program. Not all alumni are equally successful, of course; Matthew Anchel, in “The Magic Flute,” made a subpar Sarastro, despite his strong low notes.

The company’s success with its outreach to younger audiences — its young-patrons program this year completely sold out — may or may not be aided by the fact that its general director is still of an age to take part himself. O’Leary, however, has been anything but a new broom. “Much of what was great about the festival,” he says, “existed since Richard Gaddes started it. . . . There are a few basic ingredients that make it work, and they remain the same.” St. Louis has a long track record of fiscal responsibility and strong work; O’Leary’s challenge has been simply to find ways of extending the tradition.

“I think we’re trying to reinvent ourselves at OTSL,” says Lord, “without throwing away the old paradigm.”

One focus of O’Leary and his staff has been finding new ways to plug into the local community. A major and successful production of John Adams’s controversial opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” in 2011 helped the company develop new avenues for discussion of social topics. The opera is about the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, and it has been called anti-Semitic due to its giving a human voice to the Palestinian terrorists as well as the Jewish man they killed and his grieving widow. It has grown so contentious that the Metropolitan Opera this month announced that it would not be broadcasting, on film or radio, its production this coming fall. Opera Theatre of St. Louis, by contrast, put together an advisory committee of people from all walks of life to help lead a variety of discussions, including one moderated by high-school students of different faiths. This model worked so well that it has spawned more steering committees at the opera and furthered at least one independent organization, Arts & Faith St. Louis. This year, this group hosted an event with Sister Antona Ebo, a 90-year-old Franciscan nun from St. Louis who took part in the voting rights marches in Selma, Ala., in 1965; the event was part of the lead-up to Opera Theatre’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.”

Then there’s new work: Last year, the company presented the successful world premiere of “Champion,” an “opera in jazz” by Terence Blanchard co-commissioned with Jazz St. Louis, which represented a serious attempt to open up the operatic format and reach new audiences. This year’s “Twenty-Seven” was less pathbreaking. Ricky Ian Gordon is a much-commissioned opera composer who produced a tuneful, energetic and likable score, resulting in a pleasing 90-minute show in which great 20th-century artists appeared like bits of local color in a skit, leaving viewers on the outside, looking in. The next new commission, by Jack Perla, will open in 2016; it is based on Salman Rushdie’s novel “Shalimar the Clown.”

“We have to be honest with ourselves about what the limits of the appeal of opera are in our culture,” O’Leary says, “but then never ever stop working on the issue.”

St. Louis is not alone, of course, or even unusual, in trying to connect opera to the outside community and create work with social relevance. It’s refreshing, though, that it’s managing to keep the dialogues mainly focused on the work and the issues it raises, rather than on the state of its own finances and its future.

“I do think a festival has natural advantages,” O’Leary says. “We have all the time and mental capacity to think about this stuff for months leading up to what we’re doing.”

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The Opera Theatre of St. Louis season concludes June 29. For a full review of “Twenty-Seven” online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/pb/anne-midgette.