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Patron-centered style helps opera to thrive under the Arch

Many companies are having to cut back on shows, staff and services. But St. Louis' Opera Theatre has a working solution.

June 27, 2003|John von Rhein | Chicago Tribune

ST. LOUIS — Opera professionals from around the world wore smiley faces last week when they convened for their annual conference presented by Opera America, the national service organization. But, behind closed doors, most of the attendees could not hide the fact that they are worried.

To keep the most expensive of the performing arts alive in a slumping economy, opera companies are cutting services, staff and productions, dipping into cash reserves and adjusting their budgets for lean years ahead. And administrators from two of the three mid-size opera companies said they were dropping works from next season's schedule.

The wolf's at the door, and opera folks have no place to hide.

It was agreed that one key to survival would be for companies to find new ways to make opera touch the heart of the communities they serve. It seemed like poetic justice that the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which hosted the gathering, has achieved that very thing.

Giving its audience what it wants without diluting the artistic product has made the Opera Theatre a standard-bearer among regional opera companies for three decades. Presenting its repertory in the language of its listeners keeps them engaged, so does the intimacy of the Loretto-Hilton Center, a 987-seat theater with a thrust stage and good acoustics. Patrons may picnic on the lawn outside the theater before performances and mingle with the artists at a party tent after.

"A lot of our success has to do with the smaller scale of our operation, which makes for a much diminished risk factor," explains Charles MacKay, the company's gentlemanly general director, who boasts of never having had an operating deficit.

While ticket sales for the company's 28th season are running about 86%, down 2% from last year, box-office revenue is up for an opera festival that includes Mozart's "The Abduction From the Seraglio," Puccini's "Tosca," Massenet's "Thais" and the U.S. premiere of Jonathan Dove's "Flight." The operas will alternate in repertory through Sunday. All four works were discerningly cast and solidly produced, drawing partly on rising young American stars, tyros from the company's apprentice program.

One might describe 2003 as St. Louis' season of the diva, given the high percentage of exceptional performances in leading soprano roles. Jennifer Welch-Babidge's vocally stunning Constanze and Celena Shafer's delectable Blonde rose above a somewhat routine "Abduction." Cynthia Lawrence's vibrant Tosca attested to the high quality of the training she received at Lyric Opera. Mary Dunleavy's first Thais was the genuine article, stylish and alluring despite the singer having suffered from allergy problems the first night.

The Puccini and Massenet productions -- staged by Neil Peter Jampolis and Renaud Doucet, respectively -- exemplified how resourceful directors and designers can revivify a warhorse ("Tosca") and freshen faded Gallic kitsch ("Thais").

Even so, it was the new opera, "Flight," that proved the crowd-pleasing hit of the season. Indeed, it's rare to find a contemporary work that grabs and excites an audience as much as Dove's piece, which was premiered in 1998 by England's Glyndebourne Opera.

The plot outline reads like a Neil Simon farce: Put 10 passengers in an airline terminal and have them trade tart dialogue. But the opera cuts much deeper than that. Caught in an anodyne limbo between Earth and heaven, these characters are in transit to nowhere. "Flight" ultimately is about loneliness and hope.

Dove's post-minimalist score might be called John Adams Lite. Pulsing bass lines, dappled repeating rhythms and glinting showers of tuned percussion underlie surges of beautiful, singable melody. The music suits the tight conversational cadence of April de Angelis' shrewd libretto. So what if "Flight" doesn't challenge the audience musically? Entertaining us is quite enough.

The witty staging by St. Louis' artistic director, Colin Graham, the whimsical set design by Jerome Sirlin and the energetic conducting by William Lumpkin gave the opera a perfect liftoff. Of the excellent ensemble cast, countertenor David Walker stood out as the gentle, pathetic Refugee who binds all the other characters together.

*

John von Rhein is music critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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