By C.B. Adams

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

– “In Memoriam:27”, Alfred Lord Tennyson

To key off Tennyson’s philosophical proposition, Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s “Awakenings,” at the Loretto-Hilton Center’s Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre through June 25, explores a similar notion. If you were a patient trapped for decades by encephalitis lethargica , spending your waking moments in constant stupor and inertia, would you agree to allow a doctor like the neurologist Oliver Sacks to experimentally administer a drug called levodopa, or L Dopa, that could alleviate the disease’s debilitating effects? And, would you consent if you knew the risks – that the effects might not last long and that you would still suffer, like a sort of Rip Van Winkle, from spending decades isolated from the world’s events and your own maturity and development?

Is it better, then, to have been awakened than not at all?

 That’s a powerful philosophical question dreamed up in Sack’s book “Awakenings” that presented a series of fascinating case reports of patients trapped by encephalitis lethargica. It was also dreamed up into the eponymous Hollywood film (starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams), a documentary, a ballet and a play by Harold Pinter. Sacks himself dreamed it could even be this opera, a pandemic delayed premiere by OTSL this season. 

Andres Acosta and Jarrett Porter. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

This production draws the audience into the clinical but dreamlike world even before the score begins. The opening set evokes an impersonal, sterile hospital setting as nurses slowly wheel in slumped patients behind a series of moveable glass walls. Though not “pretty,” the harsh, set design by Allen Moyer is visually affecting and well-matched to the opera’s melancholic intensity (including a fantastic use of video projections by Greg Emetaz), especially as illuminated by Christoper Akerlind’s lighting designs.

The “Awakenings” score, performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Robert Kalb, is excellent if not exactly memorable. The music weaves around the characters and action without calling attention to itself.

Baritone Jarrett Porter sings Dr. Sacks, and his rich voice is well-matched to the demands of the role as a deeply empathetic caregiver. Porter’s voice is well-matched to  the bass-baritone of  David Pittsinger, who voices Sacks’s naysaying boss, Dr. Podsnap. Pittsinger’s presence and deep voice provide believable authority.

One of the key reasons “Awakenings” shines is the opera’s balancing of multiple “awakenings” by Sacks, who grapples with his sexuality in a subplot, as well as three patients that representing the 20 in real life. They provide more than yeoman’s work as they must sit in wheelchairs – all trembles and contortions – and then transform into walking/talking human beings then return to their un-awakened states.

Susannah Phillips and Jarrett Porter. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

Marc Molomot, tenor, plays a middle-aged Leonard, whose aging mother (sung beautifully and dutifully by Katherine Goeldner) has been reading to him every day since he succumbed to his condition. Molomot confidently provides a Leonard who hasn’t emotionally matured since adolescence. He’s a boy in a man’s body, which makes life exciting, challenging and ultimately disturbing. Molomot plays Leonard with aplomb.

One of the highlights of “Awakenings” is Leonard’s duet with Rodriguez, his male nurse, sung by the tenor Andres Acosta. Acosta proves there are no parts too small to stand out.

Another of the trio of patients is Rose, engagingly sung by Susannah Phillips. Rose is an optimistic yet dreamy character, still living in an interrupted past that includes a long-gone love. Phillips’s performance and engaging voice make it easy to start identifying with her fairytale outlook and then mourn as she returns to her former state.

Completing the trio is Miriam H, sung by soprano Adrienne Danrich. Miriam’s story is as unique and ultimately tragic as her cohorts. Like Rose, Miriam’s story moves from silence to astonishment as she discovers that her family considered her dead and that she has a daughter and even granddaughter. Danrich’s performance and beautiful voice elevate the tragedy of her return to silence.

As directed by James Robinson, “Awakenings” is a compelling experience – one that calls to mind Bob Dylan’s Series of Dreams:  “…Thinking of a series of dreams / Where the time and the tempo drag, / And there’s no exit in any direction…”

Long after the performances fade, the philosophical and ethical questions posed by “Awakenings” linger. Would have the lives of Mirian, Rose and Leonard (and perhaps even Sacks himself) have been better if they hadn’t been intervened by L Dopa? And who should be allowed to make that choice? One person’s dream may be another’s nightmare.

Jarrett Porter as Dr Oliver Sacks. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

Following the conclusion of the 2019 fiscal year on Sept. 30 — the first under the leadership of General Director Andrew Jorgensen — Opera Theatre of Saint Louis announced preliminary results that demonstrate a growing audience, positive national attention, and vibrant philanthropic support for the company.

A comprehensive audit will be completed and published in February 2020. Opera Theatre’s contributed operating support exceeded $6.49 million, or 109% of the company’s fundraising goal, and the endowment totaled more than $33 million at fiscal yearend. New donor households grew by 53%, bringing total donor households to 1,156 in 2019.

Philanthropic investment from the St. Louis community represented 75% of contributed revenue; Opera Theatre also continued to attract strong national support from funding partners including the National Endowment for the Arts and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This year, OTSL completed its five-year partnership with The Wallace Foundation, collaborating with 25 other leading performing arts organizations across the country to design, implement, and evaluate programming as participants in the Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative.

A key component of OTSL’s 2019 fundraising success was its annual spring gala in May, chaired by Kim and Tim Eberlein with Host Presenting Sponsor Centene Charitable Foundation. The event grossed more than $1 million to support the artists who bring Opera Theatre’s season to life on stage. Response to the 2019 Festival Season from audiences and press was overwhelmingly positive, driven in part by OTSL’s 28th world premiere, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, commissioned by Opera Theatre and co-commissioned by Jazz St. Louis.

Composed by six-time Grammy Award winner and Oscar nominee Terence Blanchard with libretto by acclaimed film director Kasi Lemmons, the opera was based on the memoir of renowned author Charles Blow. Directed by OTSL Artistic Director James Robinson, this world premiere was hailed by The New York Times as “a bold and affecting adaptation” that sold out four of its six performances at OTSL.

In September 2019, the Metropolitan Opera announced it would produce Fire Shut Up in My Bones in a future season — the first production by an African American composer in the Met’s 136- year history, and the first OTSL commission to be re-mounted there. Total audience households attending Opera Theatre’s festival season increased by 6% over 2018, with ticket buyers from 46 states and 17 countries. Younger and more diverse audiences were an important component of that progress; audiences of color grew by 13% and Millennial households were up 50% over the prior year.

Ticket sales for Opera Theatre’s successful Young Friends program for audiences 45 years and younger increased by 25% and philanthropic dollars from Young Friends members grew by 19%. The national media roundly praised Opera Theatre’s 2019 Festival Season, with 5 separate features in The New York Times and more than 45 reviews in publications including The Wall Street Journal, Opera News, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Chicago Classical Review.

“It’s one of the loveliest opera-going experiences anywhere, and quite unlike any other,” wrote Scott Cantrell of The Dallas Morning News. “It has been enormously gratifying to collaborate with Andrew Jorgensen during his first year as Opera Theatre’s General Director, and to see how warmly the St. Louis community has embraced him,” said Opera Theatre’s Chairman, Noémi Neidorff. “Andrew’s vision, his creativity, and his thoughtful approach are both refreshing and essential, as he leads Opera Theatre towards greater successes.”

“As I reflect on my first year at Opera Theatre, I am deeply grateful to the board, staff, volunteers, and artists who made the 2019 Festival Season possible,” said General Director Andrew Jorgensen. “Our company’s long record of artistic success and fiscal responsibility is rooted in the generosity of our St. Louis community, which has provided steadfast support for all of our work including world premieres, classic repertoire, and the development of future artists and audiences alike. I am so excited to build upon this year’s achievements and look forward to what lies ahead.”

As Opera Theatre celebrates its 45th season in 2020, the company will continue to build on its strengths, shaping the future of opera through innovative new productions and the training of talented young artists. The company’s artistic team, including newly appointed Artistic Director of Young Artist Programs Patricia Racette and Director of Artistic Administration Damon Bristo, recently completed OTSL’s seven-city young artist audition tour.

A total of 1,091 singers across the country applied for the prestigious Gerdine Young Artist and Richard Gaddes Festival Artist programs; only 35 will be selected to appear in the 2020 Festival Season.

Opera Theatre’s 2020 Festival Season runs May 23 – June 28 and features Bizet’s Carmen, Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, the world premiere of Awakenings by Tobias Picker and Aryeh Lev Stollman, Floyd’s Susannah, and the annual Center Stage concert showcasing OTSL’s young artists.

Tickets for the 2020 Festival Season start at just $25 and can be purchased online, via phone, or in person at the OTSL Box Office at the Loretto-Hilton Center. For more information about the season, visit or call (314) 961-0644. ### About Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is a spring festival featuring casts of the opera world’s most exciting singers accompanied by members of the Grammy Award-winning St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Each season, OTSL presents four inventive new productions in English during the months of May and June. In addition to presenting innovative interpretations of classics, OTSL is also committed to premiering new and relevant operas by prominent composers; since its inaugural season in 1976, 28 operas have received their world premieres at Opera Theatre. T

he company’s competitive young artist programs foster the next generation of emerging American singers; these programs have been a springboard for countless artists to launch international careers.

OTSL is led by General Director Andrew Jorgensen and Artistic Director James Robinson. Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is funded in part by the Regional Arts Commission, Arts and Education Council, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Missouri Arts Council. Opera Theatre gratefully acknowledges Webster University for its sustaining partnership

By CB AdamsContributing WriterTo mix musical genres – and to begin with the finale of Fire Shut Up in My Bones – this new “opera in jazz” answers the same rhetorical question raised in “Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds: “What’s it gonna take to make a dream survive? / Who’s got the touch to calm the storm inside?” The rhetorical answer in general is each of us and in particular, it is the opera’s hero-protagonist, Charles.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis premiered Fire Shut Up in My Bones, an opera that bends – if not downright breaks – the style, presentation and story arc of what we think of as traditional opera. If your idea of opera is a stage full of European white people voicing the story and words of some dead white dude, then Fire will surprise you in multiple ways – not the least of which is the all-African-American cast.

First is the source material. Fire is adapted
from the memoir of the same name by New York Times columnist Charles
Blow, rather than fables, fairy tales or fiction. Fire was created by
librettist Kasi Lemmons (director/writer/actress) and composer Terence
Blanchard (film score composer/noted jazz trumpeter). This is Blanchard’s
second commission from OTSL; the first was Champion presented in 2013.

The narrative is presented in a book-ended fashion, with the opening and concluding scenes set in Charles’ home. Correspondingly, the reason the Charles has returned to his hometown (physically and metaphorically) is explained at the beginning and reaches its resolution at the end. Within those bookends, Fire follows a linear timeline that satisfyingly links the beginning with the ending.

Jeremy Denis, Davone Tines and Karen SlackOf course, Fire is an opera and peddles the usual Big Themes (Love, Infidelity, Violence, Murder), but like the good gumbo that it is, it adds sexual molestation, sexual identity, abject poverty and fraternity hazing – not to mention the challenges and monotony of working in a chicken processing plant! Instead of Nordic mountains or an Italian villa, Fire is set in the rural idyll of Gibsland, Louisiana, with a set design that practically exudes the heat and humidity of the American South.

The music of Fire leans away from traditional Western European orchestration and into a unique patois of American jazz, folk, blues and big band performed by an orchestra/jazz combo hybrid, conducted by William Long.

 Fire efficiently packs Blow’s entire memoir into a couple of captivating hours’ worth of opera. It cinematically – and efficiently – quick-cuts from scene to scene (home shack, porch, farm fields, chicken factory, farmland, molestation bed, college fraternity party) leading to the denouement and resolution of Charles’ conflicts. The success of OTSL’s Fire is attributable in no small part to the production – weighty and evocative without being heavy – helmed by director James Robinson, making his OTSL debut.

At the premiere, the talents of Allen Moyer (set
design), Christopher Akerlind (lighting design) and Greg Emetaz (video
projection engineer), cohered as the stage morphs from scene to scene using
movable set pieces in tempo with the music, singing and action (kudos, too, to
choreographer Seán
Curran and Tom Watson, wig and makeup design). The attention to telling details
extended to the palpable bloodiness of the chicken processors (more kudos to
James Schuette for costume design here and throughout). Even the table cloths
in a nightclub scene looked like old-fashioned bottle caps, evoking the
pleasure to be found there.

Equally impressive were the principal performers of Fire. Blanchard and Lemmons solved the
challenge of presenting the lead character from age six to adult (in sung
roles) by using both a child, the delightful Jeremy Denis as Char’es-Baby, and the
adult Charles, the bass-baritone Davóne Tines. They were often in scene together, with
Charles providing context and counsel like a sort of Jiminy Cricket to his own
younger self. Along with several other young actors, it was engaging to watch
children on stage do something more meaningful than add background.

One of the opera’s pivotal scenes is the molestation of
the Char’es-Baby by a cousin, and it was one of the highlights of this
production – harrowing and nauseating without being prurient, pervey or porny.

Some of the opera’s ensemble played multiple roles, the
most obvious of which was soprano Julia Bullock who played the Chorus-like Destiny
and Loneliness as well as Greta Charles’ love-interest for a time. Bullock
transitioned among these characters easily, without calling attention to her
ability to fully inhabit and portray them. No good Southern story is complete
without a sassy and strong mama, and soprano Karen Slack as Billie, Charles’s
mother, is no exception. Her performance commanded the audience to fully
experience her character rather than sit back passively and watch and listen.

Davone Tines, Karen Slack in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”In a way, it is Billie who has the last word in Fire as Charles seems to accept her recurring advice that “sometimes you gotta leave it in the road.” To mix musical genres again, there’s a similar sentiment in “The Wiz.” It’s the notion that “Don’t you carry nothing / That might be a load.” Fire leaves on the hopeful if unsung note that moving on in life Charles will indeed “Ease On Down the Road.”

Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented the world premiere of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” June 15-29 at the Loretto-Hilton Center. Fore more information visit

Shut Up My Bones”
Opera Theatre of St. Louis
June 15 – June 29

Opera Theatre’s Artists-in-Training Program continues with the partnership of Bayer Fund

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ Monsanto Artists-in-Training Program, recognized as a flagship arts education program in the U.S. for more than 29 years, will be renamed the Bayer Fund Artists-in-Training Program in recognition of the company’s generous investment.

Since its inception in 1990, Monsanto Fund has provided support for the Artists-in-Training Program, with more than $500,000 in scholarships awarded to over 240 students. It has helped launch the careers of celebrated singers, including Julia Bullock, Jermaine Smith, and Derrell Acon.

Opera Theatre gratefully acknowledges Monsanto Fund for its visionary and steadfast investment in the Artists-in-Training Program and is honored to now partner with Bayer Fund, which has provided leadership support to continue this important work.

“Bayer Fund is honored to continue the many years of ongoing support for the Artists-inTraining Program,” said Al Mitchell, Bayer’s Vice President of Community Engagement. “This program has positively impacted the lives of a large number of St. Louis students, and we look forward to seeing this success continue.”

“We are so grateful for the support Monsanto Fund has provided over the past 29 years,” said Opera Theatre of Saint Louis General Director Andrew Jorgensen. “I look forward to continuing the work of identifying and nurturing rising artists in the St. Louis community in partnership with Bayer Fund.”

The Annual Spring Recital for Bayer Fund Artists-in-Training will be held on Sunday, April 14 at 3 p.m. at the Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Boulevard. This event is the culmination program of a year’s study for these talented young singers, and approximately $12,000 in scholarships will be awarded based on their performances.

The 2019 Bayer Fund Artists-in-Training Program provides year-long college-level vocal training to 24 high school students from across the St. Louis region, as well as week-long master classes with major artists from across the country.

In the week leading up to the recital, these students will train with internationally renowned bass Morris Robinson. Morris Robinson is considered one of the most interesting and sought-after basses performing today. Mr. Robinson regularly appears at the Metropolitan Opera, where he is a graduate of the Lindemann Young Artist Program. He made his debut there in a production of Fidelio and has since appeared as Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte, Ferrando in Il Trovatore, the King in Aida, and in roles in Nabucco, Tannhäuser, Les Troyens, and Salome. He has also appeared at such prestigious venues as the San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Teatro alla Scala, among others.

Established in 1990, Opera Theatre’s Bayer Fund Artists-in-Training Program sets out to identify, coach, and encourage talented students from high schools across the St. Louis area with weekly voice lessons by opera professionals at one of the four area universities.

The year-long program also offers master classes with visiting artists, awards more than $25,000 annually in scholarships, provides college tours of vocal programs from select universities and conservatories, and offers college guidance to high school graduates.

The Bayer Fund Artists-inTraining Program has been recognized by the President’s Committee for the Arts and the Humanities as one of ten model U.S. programs for at-risk youth. About Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is a spring festival featuring casts of the opera world’s most exciting singers accompanied by the acclaimed St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Each season, OTSL presents four inventive new productions in English during the months of May and June. In addition to presenting innovative interpretation of classics, OTSL is also committed to premiering new and relevant operas by prominent composers; since its inaugural season in 1976, 27 operas have premiered at Opera Theatre. Andrew Jorgensen began his tenure as general director in 2018, and James Robinson serves as artistic director.

Opera Theatre’s competitive young artist programs foster the next generation of emerging American singers; these programs have been a springboard for an exceptional number of extraordinary artists in launching international careers.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is funded in part by the Regional Arts Commission, Arts and Education Council, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Missouri Arts Council, with audience-building programs supported by The Wallace Foundation. Opera Theatre gratefully acknowledges Webster University for its sustaining partnership.

About Bayer Fund Bayer Fund is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the communities where Bayer customers and employees live and work by providing funding for food and nutrition, education and community development projects.