Review of the 2024 New Works Collective at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

    Last weekend, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis presented the splendid premieres of three one-act operas. The 20-minute works were the second group of commissions by OTSL’s New Works Collective. It was set up to disrupt the established commissioning process and ensure authentic inclusion.

    The New Works Collective is a three-year commissioning cycle guided not by OTSL’s artistic leadership but by members of the St. Louis community. Each year, the Collective puts out an open call for proposals, reviews all the applications, and chooses three projects for development.

    This year’s commissions were chosen from over 100 submissions. Fittingly, the opening night of this St. Louis–based initiative was 314 Day (March 14). In order of presentation, the new operas were:

    • Unbroken: music by Ronald Maurice, libretto by J. Mae Barizo
    • Mechanisms: music by J.E. Hernandez, libretto by Marianna Mott Newirth
    • On My Mind: music by Jasmine Barnes, libretto by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton

    The casts, direction, design, and orchestral playing were excellent in all three operas.

    Unbroken is about change and continuity in the lives of a family of faith in North St. Louis. Grace is the religious, nurturing, matriarch. At Easter services, she gazes wistfully at her three sons, but she has grim news for her eldest son, Ezra: she is dying. Ezra is shocked, but Grace reminds him she has taught him what he needs to know. At Thanksgiving dinner in the family home, Grace puts up a good front. Her fear, she tells her sister, is not of dying but of not being there when her family needs her.

    When Grace on her deathbed, she assures Ezra that their family’s sacred legacy is unbroken. He in turn tells her that he is going to have a son. After Grace’s death, Ezra shares her message with his newborn. Maurice’s music and Barizo’s libretto have the inspirational qualities required to tell this story.

    The cast of Unbroken included Meroe Khalia Adeeb as Grace, John Godhard Mburu as Ezra, Krysty Swann as Aunt Susan, Maria Consamus as Amari, Aaron Crouch as Zion, and Jesus Vicente Murillo as Uncle John.

    The central character in Mechanisms is Roe—short for Aurora—a neurodivergent 11-year-old girl whose mother, Lori, and father, Dean, are worried that their daughter may have a learning disability.

    Lori is upset with Roe for falling behind in her math class, but Dean, a college math professor, begins to understand Roe when he realizes she sees numbers as colors. Roe still has problems at school with classmates who bully her and a teacher who views Roe’s obsession with colors as a distraction. In the end, however, Dean and Lori recognize that Roe has a special acuity and embrace and love her for who she is.

    Newirth’s libretto is a deeply sympathetic treatment of neurodivergence. Hernandez’s musical idiom conveys the unease of encountering the unfamiliar. The cast of Mechanisms included Helen Zhibing Huang as Roe, Maria Consamus as Lori, Aaren Rivard as Dean, Krysty Swann as Mrs. Waldman, and Meroe Khalia Adeeb, Aaron Crouch, and John Godhard Mburu as Roe’s classmates.

    The principal characters in On My Mind are both black women in their 30s. Melodee is a composer from Dallas. Lyric is a librettist from Houston.

    In the opening scene, they are at home on opposite sides of the stage. Both are anxious about an upcoming conference because they always have to fight to be heard at such events.

    The 2023 Music Makers Conference starts out as Melodee and Lyric expected. They are subjected to microaggressions while trying to network at a happy hour. Microaggressions are defined as “indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group,” but they far from subtle in On My Mind. The broad, clever staging left no doubt about how painful these encounters are for the victims and created a powerful disincentive to acting like the victimizers.

    Melodee and Lyric do not meet until they are retreating from the microaggressions. The connection between the two women is immediate. They are as well matched as Barnes’ music and Mouton libretto. The leads were Meroe Khalia Adeeb as Melodee and Krysty Swann as Lyric. The ensemble included Aaren Rivard, Helen Zhibing Huang, Maria Consamus, Jesus Vicente Murillo, Aaron Crouch, and John Godhard Mburu

    Conductor Darwin Aquino led a fine chamber orchestra in highly sympathetic accounts of each score. Director Kimille Howard adroitly staged the action on the stage of the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center and drew deeply involved and convincing performance from the entire cast.

    The main set pieces in Kim Powers’ scenic design were three groups of panels that formed the outline of a cityscape. The panels turned out to be video displays that were fully exploited by video designer David Murakami. He created impressively detailed backgrounds for each scene and used color and animation strikingly in Mechanisms to suggest how Roe processed numbers as colors.

    Mika Eubanks’ costume and John Alexander’s lighting enhanced all three operas. Props managers Meg Brinkley and Katie Orr smartly added to the realism of Unbroken’s Thanksgiving scene by using tables of different heights and surrounding them with chairs that did not match.

    Next year is the last in the New Works Collective’s three-year cycle, but I expect there to be a follow-up to this remarkably successful initiative. Making opera more diverse and inclusive is a core value at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo © Phillip Hamer
    The performers around the Thanksgiving table in
    Unbroken are (from the left) Helen Zhibing Huang, John Godhard Mburu, Maria Consamus, Meroë Khalia Adeeb, Kristy Swann, Aaron Crouch, and Jesús Vicente Murillo.