While I was at Seattle Opera, the entire month’s rehearsal schedule was devoted to one new American work; at Opera Theatre St. Louis, four shows will run rehearse and run simultaneously: American composer Peter Ash’s Golden Ticket (based on Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and the company’s first Sondheim production—A Little Night Music directed and with costumes/set design by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. Daily schedules must be printed in tiny font sizes on paper in landscape orientation, like some kind of bizarre bus timetable that’s much less reliable but even more crucial.
All this shuttling to and from music rehearsals to stagings, coachings, etc. is aided by the multitasking of Opera Theatre St. Louis’s artistic personnel and building with a few larger rehearsal rooms to shuffle among various components of the four productions. All this has served to impress upon me what can be accomplished by quality planning and organization, especially when budgets and rehearsal resources may be comparably modest.
One of the reasons I’m glad I had a chance to visit several opera companies rather than investing in a longer stint at just one is that it’s become apparent how differently opera companies of various sizes are structured. As far as I can tell, it’s a lot more varied than the world of abstract music—despite huge variations in budget, both chamber ensembles and orchestra of all stripes operate under vastly more uniform templates than the spread of most American opera companies—and that’s not even counting other forms of music drama. OTSL is not a musical theatre company, but this year they’re producing Sondheim.
Although can Sondheim be said to be a musical theatre composer by today’s standards? While deeply wedded to many musical theatre traditions, a good portion of Sondheim’s work approaches opera in its dramatic scope and intensity. With folks like Andrew Lloyd Weber afoot, one wonders whether Sondheim might fit happily in some musical definition that placed him closer to the operas of Leonard Bernstein than to some of the comparatively lifeless Broadway fads of recent years. These questions of genre are ubiquitous and unavoidable for opera companies, and each company defines itself in part by how it answers them. Seattle Opera, for example, seems mainly to exist to produce the Ring cycle, with all other projects, however important, operating on the periphery.
Meanwhile, an inkling of OTSL’s answer can be glimpsed from the organizations actions. By simultaneously programming a new American opera that will appeal to children, a sumptuously detailed staging of Eugene Onegin that will most likely be attended by a more “connoisseur” audience, and The Marriage of Figaro in English which should have a broad appeal. Along with the aforementioned Mizrahi staging of A Little Night Music, OTSL has provided a good spread of choices that ought to have broad appeal to audiences. By opting for a decidedly non-snobbish and inclusive definition of opera, OTSL’s programming choices give some indication of what might be gained in embracing a vision of opera that allows for many points of view, rather than just one.