Review of Our Songs at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

    It has become a tradition for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to kick off its season with a free concert reaffirming the company’s commitment to widening opera’s opportunities and audience.

    Inclusiveness was at the forefront of this year’s concert, Our Songs, which was curated by baritone Justin Austin. He starred in OTSL’s Tremonisha a year ago and is about to play the title role in The Barber of Seville.

    In his program note, Austin called Our Songs “a poignant ode to our collective identity and the profound essence that renders our nation truly remarkable.” While recognizing the disunity in America, Austin sees “an undeniable trajectory towards a more harmonious realization of our aspirations.” The melodic journey in Our Songs was designed to “nurture an ethos of compassionate kinship” and “confront, with steadfast resolve, the inequities plaguing women, individuals of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrants alike.”

    The opening number was “America the Beautiful,” performed with affecting dignity by baritone Robert Mellon from the balcony of the sanctuary in the Third Baptist Church. He sang a cappella. Pianist Eric Sedgwick sensitively accompanied all the other singers.

    Next was Aaron Copland’s setting of “The Little Horses,” from Old American Songs, Set 2. Austin filled the lyrics with the singer’s love for the child listening to the traditional lullaby.

    Soprano Georgia Belmont adopted a style the was just right for the prayerful expression of faith in “Come Sunday” from Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige. In “Take Me Back” from Ned Rorem’s operatic adaptation of Our Town, soprano Emily Pogorelc depicted the full emotional arc of the aria in which Emily Webb revisits a moment from her life and realizes how little the living appreciate what they have.

    Tenor Andrew Morstein plumbed the depths of the speaker’s love for his companion in “Harlem Night Song” from Ricky Ian Gordon’s Only Heaven, a setting of 17 poems by Langston Hughes.

    The enduring power of spirituals was imparted by Austin in Hall Johnson’s “Oh Glory” and soprano Brittany Renee in Robert Morris’s “Every Time I Feel The Spirit.” Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi tapped into the powerful feelings of “To What You Said,” a poem of Walt Whitman’s that was set by Leonard Bernstein in Songfest.

    The one instrumental piece was the Dawn Weber Trio’s delightful take on “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” This classic from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess was preceded and followed by profound expressions of hope for a better world. The inspiring singers of these works were:

    • Austin and soprano Merde Khalia Adeeb in “Wheels of a Dream” from Steven Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ Ragtime
    • Justin Austin in Damien Sneed’s “I Dream a World”
    • The entire company in “Make Our Garden Grow” from Bernstein’s Candide, with Morstein as Candide and Pogorelc as Cunegonde performing with involvement befitting a full production

    One scheduled number was left out because the performer woke up without a voice. This item would have been a welcome addition to the evening’s inclusiveness— the song was the only one by an Asian composer, whose name was not transliterated in the program. Always the charming host, Austin assuaged disappointment with heartfelt reflections on the fragility of the human voice.

    The response in the sanctuary left no doubt that Our Songs had united its audience in joy.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo of Justin Austin by Joan Lipkin