When most people think of opera, they think stuffy, arrogant and pompous. It will be sung in Italian, French or German so there is a language barrier as well. They couldn't be more mistaken. The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) is working hard to eliminate those notions, remove barriers, and make opera accessible to everyone. They're succeeding on every level.
Attending a performance at the OTSL is like going to a festival, with outdoor dining and picnicking, a cash bar, a free talk about the opera before the show, a wonderful production sung in English and a reception under the tent with the artists following the show. It's a unique way to spend an entire evening with friends and family. If you've never been, the OTSL is a hidden gem.
An evening at the OTSL begins with picnicking on the lawn or under a massive green and white striped tent. Operagoers may bring their own picnic baskets, or boxed dinners and deluxe picnic baskets created by Ces & Judy's Catering. Call the box office by 4pm the day before your scheduled performance and your picnic basket will be waiting for you. Drinks, snacks and desserts may be ordered from the cash bar under the pavilion tent.
“It's a way to make it an occasion,” National Press Representative and Publications Director, Maggie Stearns said. “The spring is so nice. It gives a chance for the audience to come in early. It makes it a whole different experience—very relaxing and very welcoming for people who have never been to the opera before. We plant flowers. If you wanted to bring children, that would be really nice.”
“We look forward to all of the shows,” operagoer Lara Struttman said. “And we always picnic before.”
Her husband, Michael Struttman, concurred. “The entire environment is why we come.”
One hour before curtain, opera previews are held in the Community Music School Auditorium next to the Loretto Hilton. The free talks offer a wealth of information including background on the composers, historical reference and backstage notes on the OTSL performance.
For “Daughter of the Regiment,” the talk was given by Adam Burnette, the show's repetiteur—or rehearsal pianist. He was able to illustrate the points that he made about the show by playing sections of the score, and with his explanation of the plot, audience members have a full understanding of what they are about to see.
“The Daughter of the Regiment” is lighthearted fare and suitable for the whole family. Ashley Emerson portrays Marie—a part for which Beverly Sills was renowned—and Rene Barbera plays Tonia, the role that made Pavarotti famous and requires the singer to hit five high C notes in one song. The orchestra conductor is Kirkwood High graduate John McDaniel, known as the band leader on “The Rosie O'Donnell show.”
The plot revolves around Marie, who as an orphaned child is adopted by a French regiment. She falls in love with Tonia, an Austrian peasant who saves her from a fall down a mountain. Tonia must ask her father for her hand in marriage, but that means the entire regiment. Marie's real mother turns up and arranges a marriage between Marie and an aristocrat. Will true love prevail, or will convention win out
Performing the operas in English—as well as the pre and post show activities—has helped build an extremely loyal audience
“I think we're the only opera that does them all in English,” Stearns said. “We have a small theatre. You can't imagine them singing in a foreign language, and that makes it very involving. It's very immediate. Every seat in the theatre is closer than the front row of the Met. And you hear some of the same singers.”
Combined with the receptions after performances where the artists meet the patrons, the entire experience have helped make the OTSL a favorite of the singers as well. “The artists love to come here,” Stearns said. “The stage comes up to the very front of the audience. They connect with them. The connection that they form with audience members is special. Some of the performers stay with them (local residents) when they're here.”
Of course, all of the special activities would be irrelevant if the productions weren't exceptional. “This is the place people come—directors, press—because this is where the stars of tomorrow perform,” Stearns said. “The national press comes here too—from London, New York, Chicago—this theatre is important. Locally, St. Louisans are seeing very high quality.
All OTSL shows are performed in rotating repertory. For more information about OTSL, including tickets, reservations or to order a picnic, call (314) 961-0644 , or visit the OTSL website. For a calendar of performances, visit the OTSL calendar page.