How St. Louis' opera company works to move the art form forward

"And my God, they've done it."

"What if we actually took the next step?" Andrew Jorgensen, general director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, remembered discussing.

It's a simple enough question, but it brims with potential. What if you don't just call for more diversity, but cultivate it? What if you don't just say you're open to the community, but ask the community to make decisions?

"What if we actually took the next step?"

OTSL was founded in 1976 with the intention of bringing great opera to St. Louis. It now carries a mission "to shape a vibrant future for opera" by inspiring communities and making opera "accessible and inclusive," as well as building a new generation of diverse artists and administrators.

On Thursday, OTSL will begin the premieres of three new 20-minute operas it commissioned as part of its New Works Collective. They will tell stories of a Black female inventor's influence, an Asian American dance rock band, and drag balls celebrating "Black queer joy."

Jorgensen said these are not stories typically told on operatic stages, and they were selected for the St. Louis community by the community.

"There is this growing BIPOC, growing queer, growing female-centric audience that wants diversity, that wants to see themselves reflected as fully realized human beings," Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, who is directing the works, told ABC News. "And so I think we're just at a place now where it's like the moment and the movement are meeting."

Creating opportunities with commissions and premieres

"The research tells us that more than any other factor, it's what's on stage that will cause our audience to become younger and more diverse. And so, if we really mean what we say about wanting to nurture a vibrant, diverse future for this art form, we need to keep doing this work," Jorgensen told ABC News.

St. Louis may not be the first place people think of when they think about opera, but OTSL is certainly on the minds of the major companies and has stretched its influence wide. The company has become something of an incubator for talent and, thanks to its tendency for bold commissions and what other companies might consider risks, new operas.

"Fire Shut Up in My Bones," by Terence Blanchard, the first opera by a Black composer performed at New York City's Metropolitan Opera, in 2021, was originally commissioned by OTSL and premiered there in 2019. "Champion," another Blanchard opera, is having its Met premiere this spring; it had its original premiere in St. Louis in 2013. A revision of "Harvey Milk," an opera about the first openly gay man to be elected for public office in California, premiered in St. Louis last year. By this year, the company states, it will have had 37 world premieres.

OTSL considers it a risk not to do diverse, modern programming.

"It's not just about nurturing the future of this company, it's about nurturing the future of the art form more broadly. And if that sounds a little bit grand, I think it is," Jorgensen laughed. "We all have to be thinking really, really seriously about what creating the future of this art form looks like to ensure that opera is as vibrant 50 years from now as it is today."

OTSL still performs the classics -- "Tosca" is coming up in May -- but to make them more accessible, everything at OTSL is performed in English.

New Works Collective takes the next step

The three works premiering this week stemmed from applications from over 130 artists, with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Rather than deciding what the community would want to see, OTSL asked the community, bringing together a panel of "St. Louis artists, advocates, and community leaders" to choose what the company would perform.

"We talked about this for years and years as BIPOC leaders and administrators and artists: What if we gave the power of selection to actually BIPOC community and took it off of what many would say 'white gatekeepers?' And my God, they've done it," Maharaj said.

Hearing Maharaj talk about the pieces is infectious. In his telling, they're exciting, original stories full of positive, empowering emotion -- and, somewhat atypical of opera, they don't end with a woman dying. It's intentional, Maharaj said, that storytelling, particularly about traditionally marginalized communities, doesn't cash in on or wallow in pain, but rather shows a path forward.

Opera in general has a troubled history of diversity onstage, from largely programming works by white men to the portrayal of nonwhite characters. Considering that, Maharaj hopes New Works can be "a crowbar and an olive branch at the same time to break down the door, but also feel like you're welcome and your voice matters," and he classifies success as having a diverse audience.

"I hope that in the years to come that Opera Theater St. Louis uses the opportunities that they have from the grants to do it, to make it a staple in their programming," he said, "and also really continue to make conscious, courteous inroads towards the Asian community, towards African American women, towards the Black queer community that these three pieces represent. It shouldn't be a one-off."

Building pathways offstage

During the summer of 2020, as the nation faced a racial reckoning, OTSL looked inwards, too.

"Opera Theater has been celebrated for diverse world premieres, for diverse casts on our stage, but one of the things that we had to grapple with was that our staff was not nearly as diverse as we would've liked for it to be," Jorgensen said. "But because of some of the things that had been onstage, we had maybe not had to really dig as deeply or interrogated ourselves as deeply."

Jorgensen and the company chose to confront that. They created the Clayco Future Leaders Fellowship, where people from the historically underrepresented backgrounds seeking careers on the administrative side of the industry would be selected to spend a year with the company, paid with benefits, to train and make connections.

"I say all the time that BIPOC arts administrators have been here, we're always gonna be here. We continue to be here," Tai Oney, administration and fellowship manager, told ABC News. "But the fellowship is about training and nurturing and providing those opportunities, for the next generation."

This addresses an industry-wide issue of a lack of diversity offstage in opera and classical music. Alumni of the program, just since 2020, have gone on to work at Houston Grand Opera, LA Opera and Austin Opera, among other opportunities.

Meanwhile, OTSL is one of the few opera companies with a female principal conductor. Daniela Candillari, an energetic conductor who puts smart verve into performances, stepped into the role last year and has embraced St. Louis as a home, telling ABC News she was "always inspired by the variety of programming they did" and the "adventurous spirit associated with the company."

Candillari enjoys getting to work with pieces by living composers, where she can ask questions and discuss their compositions to inject further meaning into her interpretations. She appreciates, too, that OTSL has three women conductors this season, which she says helps to normalize women at the podium.

"All of us bring different sensibilities, different experiences from our own lives, whatever the journeys were and are," she said, "and I think the more we can incorporate that into art and reflect it in our world, that makes our world what it is, which is a beautiful, beautiful place of varieties of stories and personalities and people."