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A Magnet for Opera in the Midwest

Opera Theatre of St. Louis creates a place where the art form - and the audience - can grow

IN May of 1976, Richard Gaddes founded a modest new opera company, offering eight performances of operas by Mozart, Britten, Menotti, and Donizetti, all performed in English in the intimate modified-arena theater at the Loretto-Hilton Center at Washington University. Today, Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL) is still in its same home, offering 26 sold-out performances in just over four weeks, acclaimed by audiences and by critics from around the world, many of whom return annually. Ideal elements

What sets OTSL apart from other companies is the combination of young singers, superior musical and theatrical preparation, and the palpable enthusiasm of all involved. And while Mr. Gaddes chose to move on to other things, the triumvirate selected to replace him - Charles MacKay (general director), Colin Graham (artistic director), Stephen Lord (the newly-appointed music director) - has maintained his vision.

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Mr. MacKay says of his colleagues, "It's fascinating to have the balance of Colin and Stephen - Colin going much more for the dramatic side, the staging side, and Stephen going much more from the musical side, and having a vast understanding of the voice. [When] the three of us sit in auditions and hear people, I have fun being the fulcrum and the mediator!"

Mr. Lord is well prepared for his new assignment, since he has served as head of the music staff since 1981. I asked him if it felt any different being music director: "What it feels is incredibly liberating. I have so many of the same responsibilities now that I had before. However, where I used to be one voice in four, now I'm one voice in three."

Lord knows opera from the inside out. He gained prominence as a vocal coach, but his work with such companies as the Houston Grand Opera prepared him for his new role today: "I'm so happy for all the years of being forced to conduct stage bands ... and be chorus master, be the prompter, be the pianist, be the coffee-getter, do all those things." Today, he has moved beyond coaching to conducting in the tradition of so many operatic conducting legends of the past.

Lord believes that St. Louis fulfills itself only if it pursues its role as a training center, and MacKay agrees: "I think the company is in a very good place right now to really establish itself as an important training center for all phases of opera presentation and production, not just the young-singers element but bringing into focus the areas of technical, production,... and administrative training. [We must be] emphasizing the company's importance in terms of the art form, and of training people in

every area of the operation."

Success has forced OTSL into a major new expansion - an added week of performances beginning in 1994. "That's been a very complex negotiation with the symphony, with the university, and frankly just a matter of raising the money to pay for it, because the theater is so small. You know, we earn only 18 percent of the budget at the box office, so it means for every performance that you present you're having to go out and raise a bunch more money." Even with that startlingly low figure, MacKay also points o ut that they are, he thinks, the only company never to incur a deficit.

OTSL manages to stay afloat financially because of its overall excellence. The choice of repertoire is always challenging - a mix of favorites and the unfamiliar with at least one 20th-century work thrown in - and the productions are almost always provocative. This year for the first time, OTSL unveiled a permanent wall at the back of the stage, a brick-like creation designed by Derek McLane to create a character-ful yet neutral background in the tradition of the permanent polished-wood Shakespearean bal cony structure at the Shakespeare Festival stage in Stratford, Ontario, which is Mr. Graham's favorite stage.

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"It's been worrying me for a long time that opera has been depending very much on its trappings rather than on what goes on with the performers in recent years ... and I've been finding there's been a tendency to ignore what's going on in the composer's voice and to allow the audience to sit back and receive rather than having their imaginations stimulated to work with what the composer is saying.

"We decided we wanted something that had a character of its own, that could be functional, that has a lot of entrances in it at different levels ... and really to try and start a style of performance as well as production which is spare and distilled and really depends very much more on what the performer does and what the audience fills their imagination with," Graham says. Scintillating season

Lord and Graham kept the opera's 17th season stimulating and varied. In addition to "The Vanishing Bridegroom" and "Turk in Italy" (see story at left), OTSL produced "Madama Butterfly" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The Puccini was presented in the so-called Brescia edition, which adds a fair amount of music, of which the third-act inserts are particularly worth hearing. The production, by Graham, was simple and direct, as was the translation by Margaret Stearns and Graham. Marie Anne Chiment's designs were simple yet evocative.

Of the cast, only the rich-voiced mezzo Mary Ann McCormick gave any sense that she was singing a role she would be offering on larger stages soon enough. Rick Moon was an inexplicably miscast Pinkerton. In the title role, Guiping Deng brought tremendous honesty to a part that, for now, is only possible for her in this intimate-theater context. Stephen Lord is that rarity today - a genuine opera conductor who is solicitous of his singers yet highly aware of the drama, and able to elicit consistently sumpt uous sounds from an orchestra.

To my taste, Britten's operatic setting of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is not his finest work for the stage, but it does grow in power from its tepid opening to its bewitching close, and Graham's production was a delirious blend of mood, passion, drama, and comedy achieved with apparent simplicity.

The action unfolded on an "upside down" set - the cast walked on stars under inverted trees. The fairies were punk-rock street kids; Oberon was Little Richard; Tytania was a glamorous pop-singer; Puck was stage director Peter Sellars, and so on. The remarkable sets and costumes were designed by Mr. McLane and Martin Pakledinaz. In the large cast, Elisabeth Futral (Tytania), Thomas Barrett (Bottom) shone brilliantly for their vocal and histrionic accomplishments. In the pit, an impressive Robert Spano evi nced a firm grasp of the Britten idiom in specific and of operatic conducting in general.

In all four of the season's operas, Cary John Franklin deserves credit for his fine work with the chorus, Christopher Akerlind for his exceptional lighting in all of the productions (each show had hauntingly beautiful moods and hues), and finally the St. Louis Symphony which played superbly for Lord, Spano, and Bergeson.

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