Before I got here I assumed that the Opera Theatre Saint Louis (let’s just call it OTSL from now on) was a repertory opera company that performed throughout the year, but it’s actually a summer-only set-up. Its closest equivalent in Britain would be Glyndebourne, although that gives entirely the wrong impression. For starters no-one here wears evening dress to the performances, nor is OTSL a company that aims to appeal to an exclusive audience as part of “the season”. It performs in an unusual theatre that seats about 900, which is intimate by American standards, and the audience is arranged in an amphitheatre around a thrust-stage. There is a proscenium too but because the audience is arranged in a 180 degree arc anything played behind it is lost to a large chunk of the house. So they don’t tend to do that.
The theatre is on a university campus, not in the grounds of a country manor, which is handy; as term is over the army of young artists that come for the season can live on site in student digs. The young artists cover principal roles and make up a chorus where necessary; a bit like the Glyndebourne Chorus, but the emphasis is on their solo abilities as opposed to their use as choristers. From what I’ve been able to hear they are a talented bunch. Some of them do principal roles.
The big surprise for me was that all four operas they perform each season are sung in English. This season they kicked off with Don Giovanni and each subsequent week sees the opening of the next opera, until the last two weeks when all four shows are up and running in rep. This week, the last of the season, they will give eight performances, two of them matinées.
Something else unusual: they pay the singers a weekly salary rather than a performance fee. Because of the staggered start dates the singers arrive in waves, one cast a week after the previous. The earlier in the season your show opens, the more performances you will have (and the more time off between shows), but because you are in Saint Louis for longer you will also take home more pay. It’s a pretty equitable system I must say. It also means that if you fall ill for a show you still get paid, though it has to be said that if you’re sick you still have to walk the part while your understudy sings from the side. Understudies are never sent on to act. I assume the thinking is that they are so busy with all their other commitments that there’s no way they can be rehearsed sufficiently to bung them on stage.
The Saint Louis Symphony, which is a very fine orchestra, plays in the pit. Their concert season is over for the summer so it’s an ideal arrangement. The Symphony basically splits into two with each half playing two operas apiece.
Another difference with the usual country house opera set-up we experience in Britain is that there is a large and loyal local following for OTSL. Some punters attend every single show in the season, something that boggles my little mind. After each performance, audience and performers are encouraged to mingle in The Tent, a large open-sided marquee on a lawn by the theatre, and booze the night away. There’s no long interval but punters are encouraged to picnic before and after the show. OTSL even gives the singers vouchers to use at the bar after the show, something I don’t recall Glyndebourne ever having done.
It’s all very collegiate, social and un-starry and I wonder how much of that is to do with the influence of Colin Graham, who used to be here for many years. I only worked with him once, in the early 90s at Covent Garden, and a more considerate and diligent director you would struggle to meet. I was just singing the Glass-seller in “Death in Venice” but was amazed to get a thank-you note from him after the run, as did everyone in the cast.
There are a couple of things at OTSL that I would find alarming if I were working here rather than simply observing from close quarters (for that read: bumming around while the missus brings home the bacon). Colin introduced the concept of The Wingers. These are patrons who, in exchange for extra financial donations, can sit in on practically every single rehearsal. They sit to one side (the wings) and aren’t allowed to make a sound, but I know I would find their presence disconcerting. How could you have a good old swear if you screw up? And isn’t screwing up a good part of the rehearsal process? If you don’t dare to make mistakes it all gets a bit careful and dull doesn’t it? What if a winger pays a compliment to one singer and not another? Wouldn’t that be the seed for a good dose of paranoia?
The other odd thing is that each show has only two stage-and-orchestra rehearsals and both of them count as public dress rehearsals. So the very first time you step on stage with your full kit and make-up on with a band in the pit, there will be a few hundred bods watching you.
I can see this is all part of a plan to engender a sense of connection between stage and auditorium, which I’m sure helps with patronage and support, but they are sailing dangerously close to the line of demarcation between performer and punter, a line that I rather like. While I applaud the idea, there are times – many of them in fact – when you want that line to be a twelve foot wall, for reasons no other than your sanity and sense of self-preservation. It also shields you from all those questions like “How long did it take you to learn your role?” which are of genuine interest to the civilian but which are totally baffling to the foot-soldier.
But this is America where you have to do everything in your power to bring in revenue, and in OTSL it clearly works. I believe I’m right in saying that despite some adventurous programming over the years they have never gone over budget. Compare that to the train wreck that is happening at New York City Opera and it’s a pretty remarkable thing.

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