In Conversation With Tim O’Leary, Director Of Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the city’s reigning organization dedicated to the exquisite art form, does far more than showcase a range of opera classics—though each three- to four-hour production is quite a feat all its own.

Tim O’Leary, the institution’s general director, has been at the helm of Opera Theatre since 2008. Under his leadership, the organization’s endowment has grown 75 percent, annual contributions have increased and a number of programs have been successfully piloted, including the Engagement And Inclusion Task Force, a Young Friends program, and the New Works, Bold Voices program, in which Opera Theatre commissions leading contemporary composers to write new operas. He is also chair of Opera America, the nation’s leading organization that supports the proliferation of opera in the U.S. and abroad.

The organization has implemented a highly successful strategy to engage new audiences with an event series called Opera Tastings, in which audiences listen to a variety of selections from popular operas, paired with musically inspired food and cocktails crafted by local chefs. At an hour and a half to two hours tops and $20-$25 per ticket, the event is extremely popular amidst younger generations and audiences new to opera.

I met O’Leary at one of the Opera Tastings, which was held at the National Blues Museum in Downtown St. Louis. “The one problem with that one was there wasn’t enough booze. There’s usually a bar at the start of the program,” he says. Speaking with O’Leary, I gathered a much better understanding of Opera Theatre’s many component parts, its unique style of artistic patronage and his vision for the organization’s future.

Tim O'Leary

Tim O’Leary, Director of Opera Theatre Of St. Louis

How did you originally become involved with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis?
I moved here from New York to take this job. My predecessor, Charles McKay, is a legend in the opera business and now runs the Santa Fe Opera, which is an internationally acclaimed organization. Up until that point, most of my career had been in New York. I was very aware of Opera Theatre’s reputation as a very forward-looking organization producing new and unusual work, as well as discovering the next generation of great singers.

How do you support new artists working with contemporary ideas?
With our “New Works, Bold Voices” series, we’re essentially ramping up our historical commitment to help shape the future of this art form. We commission American composers to create work based on stories from the modern era. One example is a show called “Champion,” an opera in jazz which we produced with Jazz St. Louis. It’s about to make its premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It had an enormously successful run here in 2013, and last year it had a sold-out run in San Francisco. It’s written by Terence Blanchard, who is a six-time Grammy Award-nominated trumpeter and composer. The narrative is based on the true story of welterweight boxer Emile Griffith, who accidentally killed his opponent Benny Paret in the ring after Paret taunted him with a homosexual slur. Griffith was forever tortured with guilt. The opera explores this incredibly complicated story and the ultimate redemption Griffith received from Paret’s son. Another example is “Shalimar the Clown,” written by San Francisco-based composer Jack Perla.

We’re interested in moving the art form forward with this juxtaposition of musical influences, and that’s what happens when we commission this kind of work. This is the world we increasingly inhabit: a culture in which cultures combine to create new things. So while upholding our unshakable commitment to the classics, like “Madame Butterfly” this season, we are producing new work at an increasing rate. And what we have found, especially when we focus on building the audience in the younger generations, is that young people are absolutely interested in attending the classics they’ve heard of before, as well as the new pieces.

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How do you decide which projects to commission?
There are all kinds of different ways to do this. Typically, we find a composer we want to work with and we say, “What would you like to write an opera about?” I have found that if you put that question to the creative, sometimes it takes a while for them to figure out. But they come up with answers we never would have thought of in a million years.

Terence Blanchard (who wrote “Champion”) spent about a year thinking what he wanted to write an opera about. It was an ambitious story to tell through the medium of opera, but sometimes it’s the best way. You find somebody with a great imagination and trust the risk that comes with that. It creates art that is resonant and meaningful, and so beautiful that it pulls in the whole audience. It’s not good enough to just do things that are edgy and that will appeal to the most avant-garde of our ticket buyers. We are producing work that should resonate with everybody. And that’s absolutely what has happened with these ideas our composers have taken on in the “New Works, Bold Voices” series.

We embrace artistic risk, but we really set these things up for success. One key has been having the composer here in our community. We’re doing it with the composer for “The Grapes of Wrath,” written by Ricky Ian Gordon, who will be here for a week before the show premieres here on May 27. We’ve got him booked morning to night. We did the same thing with “Champion.” I joked that it was a hit before it even came out, because the community got to know Terence and hear his music.

How are you reaching and engaging new audiences?
The key is to get people beyond the negative stereotypes they have about opera. The Opera Tastings event series is designed the way it is to help with that. First of all, it’s short. It’s in an intimate venue. It includes the social experience of food and drink. And most importantly, we get a diverse group of great, young singers to perform at the level of quality we offer on our stage. I’ve heard many people after Opera Tastings say, “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard an opera voice live before. It’s so beautiful. I had no idea.” Often people have heard opera when it’s either mocked in pop culture or on the radio, in which you’re missing most of the equation. That live interaction between the audience and performers is a completely different sound.

We also make a conscious effort to market to young people. If we marketed Opera Tastings to our general database of subscribers, they’d buy up all the tickets in a second and we wouldn’t get that new audience we’re looking for. And overwhelmingly, that is who we do get to come: young people. It’s really a multi-pronged approach.

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There’s also incredible diversity in the audiences you attract. How do you appeal to such a broad range?
That’s a very intentional effort. I mentioned to you a group we have called the Engagement And Inclusion Task Force. It’s a diverse set of community leaders, and through various efforts we’ve essentially asked, “Could you spread the word about our company and this incredible experience to an audience that’s as diverse as our community?” What’s amazing is how well it works. And it has to be the work of our whole company, not just something our marketing department is doing. It’s a sustained effort.

What are your goals and vision for Opera Theatre?
In our strategic plan, we have that our goal is to shape the future of opera through the works we produce, the artists we champion and the audience that we’re building. That audience not only comes from every zip code in the metropolitan area, but 47 states and 15 countries, who come specifically because they want to hear the work of Opera Theatre Saint Louis. Building on that platform is the key to our future.

Opera, the original multimedia art form, is increasingly embracing what theatre can be as far as technology and design, the way it can be increasingly immersive through tools like interactive use of video. It’s also an increasingly American art form. It began in Florence about 400 years ago and was overwhelmingly European. But many of the world’s best opera composers are American. Combining diverse mediums, like theatre, words and music is where American culture has always excelled.

What does your relationship with New York look like today?
I frequently go back to New York for business, particularly for Opera America. Whenever I’m back in New York, I’m reminded of how much I love New York, but on a day-to-day basis in St. Louis, I don’t miss it at all. St. Louis is such a rich and brilliant community. My wife and I have three young children, and when we moved here we had none. We have found that we are now spokespeople for this age-old idea of what makes St. Louis great.

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