For operagoers who have never had a chance to visit St. Louis, the city’s deep cultural roots can come as a surprise. But in his autobiography, the hyper-erudite Virgil Thomson — the first major American composer to get a Harvard degree — makes clear why St. Louis was dubbed “the Paris of the West.” And thanks to the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, it has been an important destination for opera for almost fifty years.
Thomson was born in the Show-Me State in 1896. By then the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, America’s second oldest, was fourteen years old — older than the Boston Symphony Orchestra and with a more established roster of musicians than the New York Philharmonic. It was affiliated with a first-rate choral society and boasted a well-earned reputation for programming seriousness and high performance standards. Affiliation with this orchestra, which continues its major international standing today, is an important asset for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, a summer festival that dates back to 1976 and offers an alluring mix of traditional and new operas with production values geared to today’s audiences. In the OTSL’s own words (excerpted from the festival’s website) —
We believe in creating, interpreting, and performing world-class opera productions combining great music and great theater.One of our most important goals is to identify and nurture outstanding artistic, technical, and managerial talent.
[We offer] a diverse repertory that encompasses standard operas, contemporary operas, and new works in a variety of production styles ranging from traditional to avant-garde.
We champion opera in the language of the audience, since opera is for the masses. [i.e., English-language performances using translations in modern vernacular as needed].
Opera Theatre has a long tradition of discovering the finest young singers and promoting the work of living American librettists and composers. As of the 2023 Festival Season, Opera Theatre will have presented 37 world premieres — which may be the highest percentage of new work in the repertory of any U.S. company.
OTSL kicks off the U.S. summer opera festival season today (Operahound.com posting date Friday, May 26), making it the earliest of the major U.S. festivals. Operas run through June 25. The festival opens with a new, expanded performing edition of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha that promises to strengthen this unusual work’s relevance to today’s audiences. Opera performances run through June 25.
This year’s productions include —
• Treemonisha (Joplin), opening May 26.
• Tosca (Puccini), opening May 27
• Così fan tutte (Mozart), opening June 4
• Susannah (Floyd), opening June 10
Information and tickets: go to opera-stl.org.
Know before you go:
The festival is located in a scenic preserve within the city of St. Louis where commercial development is restricted and there are no hotels. The performance venue is on the campus of Webster University. Hotels within St. Louis are typically a twenty-minute car ride by car to the festival grounds. Plan on have a vehicle at your disposal or traveling by Uber, Lyft or taxi.
Picnics on the grounds before the performance are a festival tradition and outdoor seating is plentiful, but not unlimited — call ahead. Explore the festival website to discover coordinated events and activities both on campus and off.
Watch for performance reviews of all four operas by Operahound.com editor Michael Clive on this site and in Opera Magazine, opera.co.uk.