By CB Adams

Opera Theatre of St. Louis has concluded a successful and altogether satisfying 48th festival season. But it would be a shame to look forward to the next season without first taking note of a cast change for five of the six performances of this year’s premiere of the performing edition of “Harvey Milk” (music by Stewart Wallace and libretto by Michael Korie).

When the original tenor in the role of Dan White had to withdraw after the premiere, Cesar Andres Parreño provided a two-of-one performance. Not only did he nail the role of White, the real-life nemesis/assassin of civil rights hero Harvey Milk, Parreño also made his principal role debut at Opera Theatre.

This was a busy season for Parreño. His principal role debut occurred on the heels of his performance of the supporting role of Remendado in the company’s production of Bizet’s Carmen his debut role for Opera Theatre. And that after being accepted into Opera Theatre’s Gerdine Young Artist Program, which is committed to discovering, nurturing and launching emerging young artists such as Parreño. Like other young artists in the program, he was offered opportunities to be featured in featured in supporting roles, cover all roles in mainstage productions and perform as featured soloists in the annual Center Stage concert.

Parreño hails Manabí, Ecuador and started his voice studies with Beatriz Parra at Colegio de Artes Maria Callas. He was named a Kovner Fellow in Darrell Babidge’s studio at The Juilliard School, where he was the first Ecuadorian ever to attend. In 2016, Parreño performed as a soloist with the University of Cuenca’s Orchestra and with Guayaquil’s Symphonic Orchestra. Since then, his performances have included his debut role as Lysander in Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in Chautauqua, New York, his soloist debut with the Juilliard Orchestra in Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella and his Peter Jay Sharp Theater opera debut as Momo in Luigi Rossi’s “L’Orfeo.”

Parreño definitely had credible potential to step into the role of Dan White in “Harvey Milk.” Kudos to Opera Theatre for nurturing young talent of his caliber. Anything can happen in live theater – and regularly does – and it is gratifying to know that the show will go on. There’s no way to compare Parreño’s performance with his predecessor’s, but after experiencing his performance, there’s no reason to. Parreño was that good, not only with his beautiful, classic Irish tenor moments, but for his ability to humanize what could otherwise have been a one-dimensional “bad guy.” He may not physically resemble the real-life Smith (a sandy-haired WASP), but that doesn’t – and shouldn’t – matter.

Parreño’s performance can, however, be compared to those of his fellow singers: baritone Thomas Glass (making his own Opera Theatre debut) as Harvey Milk and tenor Jonathan Johnson as Scott Smith, Milk’s lover. During a performance filled with memorable and moving arias by all three men, the best was certainly the deeply affecting love duet between Glass and Smith. It set a high standard for love duets in the future.  

This talented triumvirate were the epitome of the best ensembles – excellent voices, engaging characterizations and spot-on dramatic timing. In other words, Parreño, with his bright tenor, was in very good company.

With its 48th festival season now completed, all the reviews having been published and hoping COVID cancellations are a thing of the past, it’s good to know that young talent is being nurtured, fostered and encouraged through programs like Opera Theatre’s Gerdine Young Artist Program. And that, live theater being live theater, that young talent may unexpectedly get the chance to step into a principal or supporting role. As W. H. Auden once observed, “Drama began as the act of a whole community. Ideally, there would be no speculators. In practice, every member of the audience should feel like an understudy.”

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