Check Out Our Preview Of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' World Premiere

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

Last Saturday in Cincinnati, the workshopping of “Shalimar the Clown,” Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ latest world-premiere work, was wrapping up. In the newly renovated church-turned-performance and events space in Over-the-Rhine, a newly renovated neighborhood downtown, staff were plinking piano keys, setting up music stands and arranging chairs for an audience that would come later that evening to hear excerpts from the opera-in-development.

The opera (and Salman Rushdie’s novel) tells the story of Shalimar and Boonyi, who grow up together in a village of acrobats and dancers in the disputed region of Kashmir—as librettist Rajiv Joseph would quip during his introduction to the opera that evening, “It’s not just a sweater.”

One is Muslim and one is Hindu—and instead of verging into tired Romeo-and-Juliet territory, the village is OK with their romantic relationship and they marry. Unfortunately, Boonyi wants more than what village life can offer her, and when an American ambassador sees her, a dark path begins to unfold.

The majority of the action takes place around 1989 and 1990 and ties the conflict over the region into the plot, making it a thoroughly modern opera. But it still has all the bits traditionally associated with classical works that make up a great opera: love, lust, jealousy, betrayal, revenge.

Conductor Roberto Kalb leads Brandon Scott Russell (Shalimar) and the ensemble of students from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music at the Opera Fusion workshop of Shalimar the Clown | Photo (c) Philip Groshong, courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Conductor Roberto Kalb leads Brandon Scott Russell (Shalimar) and the ensemble of students from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music at the Opera Fusion workshop of Shalimar the Clown | Photo (c) Philip Groshong, courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Getting back to the workshop: The Cincinnati Opera, which is committed to new works just as Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is, collaborates with the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) opera program in a joint venture called “Opera Fusion: New Works.” It offers composers and composer-librettist teams an opportunity to workshop their in-progress works—”Shalimar” was the piece selected for that this year (“Champion,” the previous OTSL “New Works, Bold Voices” world premiere in 2013, was also workshopped through this program). Students from CCM and Cincinnati Opera sing the parts, giving them a unique opportunity to work on a new opera, and it gives the artistic teams a chance to come together to see how the music and words intertwine and edit or tweak as needed.

At 6:30pm, a cocktail hour put guests who’d come for the evening’s public “reading” of the opera in good spirits, and then we made our way into the performance space. What struck me most was the music—there was no full orchestra that night but instead a piano played a simplified and much-condensed score alongside a sitar and tabla. The stage had no scenery for the reading (that comes later), and the singers were dressed simply in black concert attire. They’d received Act I a month before Saturday’s performance and Act II a scant eight days before, but understood and drew from their characters. The words shine throughout in the music (composed using the Indian technique of ragas), and there’s a give and take that not only conveys the emotion of the plot, but moves it along—as Robinson would later say to me, the music forms the adverbs and adjectives of the plot.

Javad Butah (foreground) plays the tabla as Cincinnati Conservatory of Music student and former Opera Theatre Gerdine Young Artist Ann Toomey (standing) sings the role of Boonyi at the Opera Fusion workshop of Shalimar the Clown | Photo (c) Philip Groshong, courtesy of OTSL

Javad Butah (foreground) plays the tabla as Cincinnati Conservatory of Music student and former Opera Theatre Gerdine Young Artist Ann Toomey (standing) sings the role of Boonyi at the Opera Fusion workshop of Shalimar the Clown | Photo (c) Philip Groshong, courtesy of OTSL

Before I moved to St. Louis (I came here in August of 2014), I didn’t know a lot about opera. As a freshman in high school, I had been once to a Lincoln Center performance where the triangle player kept falling asleep on stage (yes, that is what I remember from it). I thought, incorrectly, that opera—although elegant—was something that wasn’t quite of our time.

But as I attended OTSL’s season last year, I realized how genuinely entertaining even the most timeless works could be—and then through my conversations last Saturday, just how political and contemporaneous the art form’s products are, though we might not always see that as we look back through time from our footholds in the 21st century.

As Joseph would point out during our chat, journalists gather news—but the role of art, and something opera is incredibly good at, is to turn that news into a medium that not only creates a space for discussion around it (think of all the art that came out after Ferguson) but allows the audience to feel it when they might otherwise be removed.

So if you think opera’s dying—and you’re not alone—think again: According to “Shalimar” composer Jack Perla, and his colleagues librettist Rajiv Joseph and director James Robinson, opera in North America is in a golden age. New works are being produced at a rapid rate, and they’re finding homes in these mid-size cities like St. Louis and Cincinnati that, despite their cynical classification of “secondary cities,” nonetheless produce world-class productions. There’s more on that to come from this blog, as I’ll recount my conversations with each member of the artistic team that I spoke with (those mentioned above, as well as Opera Fusion’s co-artistic directors) over the next few months.

Stay tuned.

Disclosure: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis paid for one night’s accommodation and dinner. 

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