Opera Preview: Opera per tutti al fresco, a conversation with Opera Theatre's Andrew Jorgensen
- Written by Chuck Lavazzi
Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL) opens its 2021 season on May 22nd, once again on the Webster University campus but this time outside of the Loretto-Hilton Center instead of inside. I chatted via Zoom with OTSL General Director Andrew Jorgensen about the coming season and how it will be both similar to and different from the OTSL experience in the past.
Chuck Lavazzi (CL): I wanted to talk about what differences people can expect this year. I know it will be significantly different for people who are used to the traditional experience but for the rest of us, maybe not so much.
Andrew Jorgensen (AJ): I think the name of the game this year was adaptation. More than anything I wanted to ensure that we planned an opera season that wouldn’t be cancelled. We had to do that a year ago and we all understand why that was the right thing to do. I’m grateful to our community of supporters for helping us to do so in a way that we were able to make a settlement with all the company members who didn’t get to come work with us last year. But as we turned our attention in the summer of 2020 to what we would do in 2021, two things quickly became clear to us: the pandemic was going to last longer than any of us expected and so therefore we should not plan a return to normal.
And so that, with the encouragement of the board from Opera Theatre, opened the door for the staff to say “OK, what can we do that will be safe, artistically satisfying, and financially supportable?”
CL: Time to think our of the box and out of the building.
AJ: Yes, time to literally think outside of the box. We met with a small task force of board members that we assembled who were deeply connected with COVID response, at hospitals, and at large institutions, and this group said to us, “don’t count on normal.” That opened door to the question of how you adapt in a way that insures you can put a season on. That's how we arrived, all these months later, at the festival season that we are going to have.
We’re turning the parking lot next door into an outdoor opera house. We have just shy of 300 seats in socially distanced pods of two. So, you can come and have your picnic in our picnic area—that tradition will continue—with socially distanced picnic tables. Then you put your mask on and to into the outdoor seating area and take in a live performance.
With the collaboration of my artistic and production colleagues, we have basically turned the kind of stage you would see at an outdoor rock concert into a beautiful opera stage—full sets, full costumes, full lights. With the collaboration of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra will be with us outside. So, we’re planning a series of productions that actually, I think, represent (albeit in a very different way) the best of what you’d get in any Opera Theatre season.
With the advice of the medical team, we’ve planned for no intermission and no performance which is longer than 75 minutes, so that the logistics of coming together are made a little bit easier. We have smaller cast sizes, different forces; but even within those parameters we’ve planned for four different productions that I think represent the best of what Opera Theatre has to offer.
We have a classic comedy that we haven’t done in over 40 years, “Gianni Schicchi.”
CL: Yes, I remember that first production.
AJ: It’s one of the great comedies, and we haven’t done it since 1979! In William Grant Still’s “Highway 1, U.S.A.” you have a one-act opera which is beautiful: beautiful music, incredible orchestration. It’s a brilliant work by a brilliant composer whose opera have been terribly overlooked. He was called “the dean of African-American composers,” but no one produces his operas. It is so within Opera Theatre’s mission now more than ever to bring that work back to, literally, center stage.
CL: You know, like a lot of people—especially those of us who cover classical music—I know William Grant Still as an instrumental composer, but I had no idea that he had even written any operas.
AJ: That’s perfect. That you say that delights me, because that, for me, is exactly why it’s so exciting to give productions of operas that need to get back into the center of the Canon—as Opera Theatre has done for so many wonderful pieces.
In “Le Voix Humaine” of Poulenc we have one of the great stars of the opera world, Patricia Racette, in an electrifying one-woman performance in a great piece. And then we have not one but three world premieres as part of our “New Works, Bold Voices Lab," which I’m really excited about. It’s a unique collaboration, a unique project; I think it represents the best of Opera Theatre’s ingenuity.
So within the context of all of these adaptations we found a way to put artists back to work, to reunite artists and audiences safely, and to keep art happening. And that, to me, is the most exciting thing.
CL: All this will be familiar to people who go to the St. Louis Symphony a lot: the limited time frame, no intermissions. All this stuff is going to be familiar to a lot of your audience.
AJ: That’s because all of us are working with the same team of doctors that are working with the St. Louis Symphony. We’re all responding to similar public health guidance and setting the health and safety of our company members and our audiences are our highest priority. I think many of us are coming up with similar kinds of solutions about how we can safely adapt despite the fact that even with a rising vaccination rate, we’re still in this pandemic.
CL: Yeah, we have a long way to go. Has it been easy to work with the union involved? I know there has been some friction between Actors Equity and performers who are represented by Actors Equity. I don’t remember the name of the union that represents your singers.
AJ: It’s called AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists. And I have to say I am so grateful to Webster University, to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, to the singers’ union, to our stagehands’ union. Everybody has come to these conversations and to this season with good will, with flexibility, and with a desire to get back to work. And I think we recognize that we can all come together and collaborate and that we can make this happen.
Opera Theatre will be one of the very first opera companies and one of the first major art institutions in the country to return to large-scale live performance. And I think that is exciting and meaningful to so many artisans and artists who are eager to get back to their work.
CL: And you’re one of a limited number of venues—I suppose Tanglewood would be another—where it’s actually feasible to do this because you can work in an outdoor setting.
AJ: Well, we don’t really have an outdoor setting; we’re turning a parking lot into an opera house.
CL: Well, but you can create one.
AJ: Yes, and I think many different companies are finding ways to do just that. Many of my colleagues at other opera companies are inventing different kinds of solutions, and when it’s not terrifying it's really exciting to have this opportunity to re-invent our business model and find new ways to produce opera and to make art happen despite all these challenges.
CL: Now in addition to the regular season, you’re doing some other programs this year. Could you talk about those?
AJ: Absolutely. The first is that we will continue our annual Center Stage concert, which puts your young artists at the center of the action.
CL: Which is a tremendous show.
AJ: Yes, it’s a tremendous evening. So many of these young singers are at the start of brilliant careers and I’m always excited about who we’ll hear that evening because I’m sure we’ll see their names in lights going forward. Patricia Racette, who is the director of the Young Artists program, has brought together a fabulous group of young singers this year.
We also will launch a new concert called “I Dream a World.” It’s presented in collaboration with the Missouri Historical Society. It will be at the History Museum and will be curated by Nicole Cabell and Will Liverman, two singers of color who are the leads in the “Highway 1, U.S.A” production. We are so excited to offer our platform to their vision of how we can celebrate Black Music Month, how we can observe the occasion of Juneteenth, and how we can continue to grow outside of the work that we have done, and to celebrate this extraordinary musical tradition that so many of us are not well-versed in.
It’s just an exciting opportunity to work with Nicole and Will and to see them spearhead this effort, bringing artists together and commissioning work.
CL: Because this is a new situation for your audience, I wonder if you could give people a quick overview of what they can expect when they come to see one of the operas. Because it is going to be a different procedure.
AJ: The first thing to say is that when audiences come the crowd size will be smaller. And everything that we’re planning has been thoroughly vetted with all the authorities and the doctors.
Upon arrival we’ll check everyone in. We’ll do temperature checking and make sure that everyone is feeling OK and that we’re ready to come together. We will ask people to be wearing masks when at their picnic tables and we’ll ask for masks at seats. We will continue our picnic tradition with prepackaged picnics so that people can feel good about coming together at a physically distanced picnic table. I think you can expect the Opera Theatre level of quality and customer care, but with lots of adaptations to make us all feel comfortable.
Instead of printed programs, we’ll have program books that are part of our new app that we’ve created, with all the information. We’re having contactless ticketing so people can print their tickets or have them on their phone. We’ll have lots of little adjustments that will enable people to feel comfortable after coming back into public settings—for many of us, possibly the first time back in large public gatherings.
CL: Will you be checking for proof of vaccination, or is that something you feel would not be that helpful at this point?
AJ: We talked about that. With the collaboration of the medical team what we’ve planned for are safety protocols that assume nobody has been vaccinated. And that was important to me because while many of our audience members will have been vaccinated many of our singers and staff are not yet vaccinated. So we are trying to maximize everybody’s health.
I am incredibly reassured that many of our company members and audience members will be vaccinated, though. That is the ultimate “belt and suspenders” in this context, but we planned in way that insures that even those among us who are not will also be safe.
There are also many adaptations on the singer and company member side: smaller casts, each cast in its own bubble so there’s no crossover between the productions and there's a regime of testing and quarantining and physical distancing so the cast members can self-isolate. They rehearse in masks. They will only unmask when they are singing so they don’t have to physically distance on stage. It’s about finding ways to set the art and the health as priorities and set protocols that support that.
CL: You folks did a really nice job of that with your digital season. Those were shows where no one wore a mask, but they had all been isolated together beforehand for two weeks, right?
AJ: Exactly. We learned so much with our collaboration with Nine Network, our “Songs for St. Louis,” our Holiday Concert, our wonderful “Pirates of Penzance” for our education programs—all those different efforts. So now we’re just “super sizing” those efforts as we bring a full festival company together.
|L-R: Angel Riley, Ryan Johnson in
The Pirates of Penzance
The other major new initiative this year is that we’re inaugurating a program of free tickets called “Phyllis’s Seats.” We’re celebrating the legacy of Phyllis Brissenden, a long-time donor and board member—one of our founding members, in fact—who was so dedicated to the company and who left us a very significant bequest. She believed so passionately that opera could be for everyone. She loved to invite new guests to the opera. And so, celebrating that commitment we will have 30 tickets each night which are completely free, starting two days before each performance.
We’re operating at about one-third of our capacity—from 1000 seats down to less than 300—and from almost 28 or 29 performances down to 17 or 18. So there's a reduction of inventory, but we want people to know that they are invited and they are welcome, so that’s why we launched this program of free seats. And we will continue it and grow it as we come back into the opera house in future years. Which signifies this commitment that we believe that opera can, should, and will be for anybody. We want to include as many members of our community at Opera Theatre as we can, and we don't want cost to be a barrier.
CL: A couple more practical questions: I know that the stage will be covered but the audience area will not be (just like the Muny), so I wonder if you could tell us what kind of arrangements you’ve made for the weather in case it doesn’t cooperate. Which, this being St. Louis, it might not.
AJ: (laughs) Yes, so I guess the first answer is that it never rains in St. Louis, but I think you’d know if I said that, that I was probably not on the right page. Of course, we’d rather contend with the weather than with the virus, so that’s the boat that we’re in. We’re considering a number of different approaches.
We will delay the start of the performance if we feel by doing so that we have a better shot, and with shorter performances that might not be the worst thing. We might pause and continue with only piano if that’s an option. We’re having ponchos made up so that if it starts to drizzle, we’ll give audience members ponchos and we’ll all grin and bear it together.
We are also exploring the possibility of video capture of the season so that audiences who are rained out or who can’t get tickets may have access later to some of these performances. Obviously, we hope that every evening will be a beautiful evening, but we also understand that it’s a fact life and we will work with our audiences. If it gets rained out, we’ll refund your ticket but in general we hope that our audiences will make the best of it with us.
CL: And I guess, speaking of that, we should understand that the Loretto-Hilton Center will be closed and can’t be accessed, so people won’t be able to use those restrooms.
AJ: That’s right, but we have other arrangements that we’re making for company and audience members. And, again, that may be one of the benefits of shorter performances.
CL: That too, yes. One quick question: are you finding that you have to work with a smaller orchestra given the space, or is it about the same?
AJ: It will be a slightly smaller orchestra for the two larger pieces, “Highway 1, U.S.A.” and “Gianni Schicchi” because we’re also observing the same distancing requirements that the Symphony has in place for the players. But this is still an extraordinary orchestra.
The “New Works, Bold Voices Lab”—these three short commissions—are actually designed with very small orchestral forces in mind. We commissioned those pieces this year for socially distanced forces so they could be performed during the pandemic. And the Poulenc is done with just piano, which is often how “La Voix Humaine” is performed.
CL: Is there anything else you want your audience to know that we haven’t talked about?
AJ: Just to underscore how excited we are to be returning to live performances, how grateful we are to our community for supporting us and making the best of this moment, and that we can’t wait to welcome everybody back to the opera after a very challenging year and after seeing so many things cancelled and pushed off. It feels really great. As I look out my window, I can see the tents being erected. It feels great to be returning to our work and we can’t wait to share it with all of you.
CL: Thanks, and we’ll see you at the opera.
The Essentials: Opera Theatre of St. Louis opens its 2021 season with Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” on Saturday, May 22nd; William Grant Still’s “Highway 1, U.S.A.” on Saturday, May 29th; Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine” on Saturday, June 5th; and the “New Works, Bold Voices Lab” on Thursday, June 20th. The productions will run in rotating repertory through June 20th at the OTSL outdoor theatre on the Webster University Campus.
“Center Stage: A Young Artist Showcase” takes place at the same location on Saturday, June 19th at 8 pm and Sunday, June 20th, at 1 pm. “I Dream a World: A Celebration of Juneteenth” takes place on Tuesday, June 15th, at 6 pm at the Missouri History Museum.