Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has an enviable record of developing new works that make opera more diverse and inclusive. Two of OTSL’s commissions, Champion and Fire Shut Up in My Bones, have been taken up by the Metropolitan Opera and other companies.
Even so, OTSL is not resting on its laurels. To disrupt the established commissioning process and ensure authentic inclusion, OTSL established the New Works Collective, a three-year commissioning cycle guided by members of St. Louis community. Each year, the collective puts out an open call for 20-minute operas, reviews proposals, and selects three projects for development.
The first open call prompted 130 responses. Three creative teams were selected. They came to St. Louis four times to develop and stage their works. Last weekend’s premieres were great successes. All the artists and the New Works Collective should be very proud of their work.
In order of presentation, the new operas were:
- Cook Shack, with music by Del’Shawn Taylor and libretto by Samiya Bashir
- Slanted: An American Rock Opera, with music and libretto by Simon Tam and Joe X. Jiang
- Madison Lodge, with music and libretto by Tre’von Griffith, who is also known as Tre G
The central character in Cook Shack is 11-year-old Dayo, who is bullied by classmates at the start of the opera. When her class visits the Griot Museum in St. Louis, Dayo enters an exhibit called “Superheroes of Invention.” There she learns about three eminent Black women:
- Annie Turnbo Malone, an entrepreneur, humanitarian, and civic leader in St. Louis who was the first Black woman to become a millionaire
- Marie Van Brittan Brown, a nurse who invented the first home security system
- Dr. Patricia E. Bath, an ophthalmologist who invented laser cataract surgery and was the first Black woman to receive a patent
The figures in the exhibit speak to Dayo, literally. They come to life and inspire Dayo to believe in herself. The story unfolds perceptively and delightfully in Bashir’s libretto and in the staging by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, who directed all three operas. Taylor’s beautiful music incorporates a variety of styles from the periods of Dayo’s mentors.
Slanted is the true story of Simon Tam, who wrote the opera along with Joe X. Jiang. Tam founded an Asian American rock band called The Slants. He filed a lawsuit when the group was denied a trademark for their name because of a federal law prohibiting trademark protection for names considered disparaging. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional.
The opera begins as the case is being tried before the Supreme Court. The Solicitor General contends the name Slants is hate speech. Tam’s lawyer asserts an Asian man has the right to re-appropriate a term used disparagingly by others.
As the arguments proceed, the opera shifts its focus to Tam himself and does what opera does best: it expresses emotions for which words alone are not enough. Tam sings a heartbreaking aria about not being able to speak for himself.
The mood and the music change dramatically when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg speaks out. Thrilled at finally being seen and heard, Tam joins his kindred spirit on the bench in a glorious duet. Can there be any doubt that Justice Ginsberg, who famously loved opera, would have been delighted to be a character in an opera?
Tam and Jiang’s score is compelling. As in many operas, some of lyrics are repeated several times. The words gain power with repetition. The courtroom setting limits the staging possibilities, but Maharaj produced striking theatrical moments when Justice Ginsberg revealed her presence and when Tam was given a guitar symbolizing the restoration of his right to express himself.
Madison Lodge is set in the summer of 1928, during the Harlem Renaissance. A character named X journeys from their home in Alabama to Harlem to find the freedom to live their truth. X’s sister is certain that X can realize their dream in Harlem and gives them the address of Madison Lodge, a drag ball hall. X is amazed when Sister emerges from the dressing room as a drag king.
A brutal police raid is a grim reminder of intolerance. Sister is arrested but is freed after the people of Madison Lodge raise the funds needed to secure her release. This gesture moves X and empowers them to embrace their truth in performance. Maharaj’s bold staging was a stunning realization of Griffith’s marvelous score.
An excellent group of singing actors was assembled for the premieres. Its member and their named roles are listed below. (The parenthetical numbers refer to the order in which the operas were presented, as shown above.)
- Kimwana Doner-Chandler—Marie Van Brittan Brown (1)
- Dorothy Gal—Ruth Bader Ginsberg (2)
- Flora Hawk—Dayo (1)
- Olivia Johnson—Dr. Patricia E. Bath (1), Sister (3)
- Melissa Joseph—Mona (1)
- Keith Klein—Solicitor General (2)
- Kyle Oliver—Chuckie (1), Club Owner (3)
- Matthew Pearce—Simon (2)
- Ardeen Pierre—Annie Turnbo Malone (1), Lawyer (2)
- Namarea Randolph-Yosea—X (3)
The scores received the most sympathetic advocacy from the orchestra under conductor Darwin Aquino. Kirven Douthit-Boyd’s outstanding choreography was expertly performed by dancers Ka Thomas and Kelly Marsh and drag artists Teonia M Steele and Vontez Williams. The splendid designs were by Devario Simmons (costumes), Jiyoun Chang (lighting), Tom Ontiveros (video), and Kelley Jordan (wigs and makeup).
Together, the three operas form a cohesive whole that deserves the attention of operagoers at all levels of experience. I see an additional possibility for Madison Lodge. Cook Shack and Slanted are the right length for the stories they tell. Madison Lodge is part of a larger story that could be told in a full-length opera. I look forward to seeing it someday.
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
From the left, Dancer 1 (Ka Thomas), Dayo (Flora Hawk), and Marie Van Brittan Brown (Kimwana Doner-Chandler) in Cook Shack.