By CB Adams

Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ season opener of a reimagined-yet-respectful version of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha by composer Damien Sneed and librettist Karen Chilton is a transformative experience that beautifully balances theatrical spirit with artistic integrity.

It is an example of the power of art in general and opera in particular to serve as a  “moral instrument” (borrowing from Constantin Stanislavski) that ennobles the mind and spirit. My top take-away: It deserves sold-out status audiences for its entire run – no seat left behind.

This production of Treemonisha, occurs at a pitch-perfect moment in the St. Louis zeitgeist. The citywide triennial exhibit, Counterpublic, is weaving contemporary art into the life of St. Louis for three months to “reimagine civic infrastructures towards generational change.” In his introduction to the 285-page Counterpublic catalog, James McAnally (executive and artistic director and founder of St. Louis-based artist space The Luminary) explains that he envisions an exhibit that allies “itself with generational, cultural, economic, and civic change; a post-pandemic, post-uprising exhibition demanding that we, as arts workers and artists, do more to repair our broken world.”

Justin Austin as Scott Joplin in “Treemonisha.” Photo © Eric Woolsey

Counterpublic seeks to help initiate “concrete change” of the sort that Joplin was exploring more than a century ago in his original Treemonisha, a hybridized classical/ragtime opera that reveals a Wagnerian influence while also presaging  George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” But Treemonisha, especially with this new version, proves the old Latin phrase true: “Art is long, life is short.” Joplin died too young at age 48 in 1917.

Treemonisha did not receive a real premiere until a 1972 production by the Afro-American Music Workshop of Morehouse College (though a New York Times piece states that it was performed at a theater in Bayonne, N.J. in 1913. Either way, it was a tragedy that Joplin didn’t get to see his magnum opus, his hoped-for recognition of ragtime as a new, American form of classical music.

Opera Theatre staged a successful production of this opera  23 years ago. I didn’t see that production, but this current iteration of Treemonisha stands as an engaging, exuberant example of what opera can achieve when all of its elements – direction, staging, casting, acting, singing passion – align. Such alignment is a rarity.

It’s the bane of my reviewing existence: why can’t it all be this good?  The obvious answer makes this production all the sweeter. It brings to mind something the novelist Julian Barnes wrote in “Levels of Life,” his memoir: “Opera cuts to the chase—as death does . . . [it is] an art which seeks, more obviously than any other form, to break your heart.”

KS. Tichina Vaughn as Monisha in “Treemonisha” Photo © Eric Woolsey

 My heart was broken, especially during Act V, during which the aging Scott Joplin character, sung with naked, wrenching emotion by baritone Justin Austin (who also plays Remus), reveals his frustration about his artistic legacy. Austin’s inspired performance proves how difficult it is to both sing with perfection while acting with authenticity – and how marvelous when achieved. To best describe Austin’s artistic feat, I rely on a quote by Marina Abramović in “Last Days of the Opera” by the Viennese critic Karl Kraus: “You can go so deep into a performance that you become one with the character and create a charismatic state of unity with the public.”

Austin’s so-deep achievement is matched nearly across the board by the rest of the cast, and especially by soprano Brandie Inez Sutton (making her Opera Theatre debut) as both Freddie Alexander Joplin and Tremonisha (look for the moment when the origin of her name is revealed). As Act II (and the original opera itself) begins, it’s clear that this is really the eponymous Treemonisha’s story about an educated Black woman who guides her fellow small-town citizens, (persecuted by endemic racism and poverty) away from ignorance and superstition and toward an enlightened self-worth and self-reliance. With considerable stage presence, Sutton reveals her heroic character as sweet but strong, simple but literate, and humble but exalted – all while proving she can sing!

Balancing the deep characters of Remus and Treemonisha, are the conjurer Zodzetrick, played imposingly and malevolently by Phillip Bullock (making his OTSL debut), and Parson Alltalk, played by entertainingly by Markel Reed. Zodzetrick and Alltalk are not as three-dimensional (they can’t all be) as Remus and Treemonisha, but as performed with the adroitness of Bullock and Reed, they are nonetheless essential to Joplin’s story and his use of many musical styles.

Deserving equal bill are the performances by Amani Cole-Felder as Lovie Alexander and Lucy, KS. Tichina Vaughn as Monisha and Normal Garrett as Ned – the latter two also making their OTSL debuts.

Maestro George Manahan directs the orchestra, composed of members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and delivers a deft, lively musical underpinning that adheres to the spirit of Joplin’s unique, profoundly expressive score. As serious as Treemonisha may seem in terms of story and subject matter, it beautifully and seamlessly integrates an appealing group of influences ranging from ragtime to spirituals, fiddle tunes and hymns, among others. The appeal of these influences is like what comedian Steve Martin has observed about banjo playing: “The banjo is such a happy instrument–you can’t play a sad song on the banjo – it always comes out so cheerful.” The same can be said for ragtime, and Treemonisha is the better for it.

The set design by Marsha Ginsberg is also noteworthy. It’s common for an opera to begin with a musical overture, but this production improves upon that with a visual overture. Against a gauzy scrim backdrop, there’s a shadow play that’s a visual highlight reel for the upcoming performance – and it’s brilliant. It established the right tone while setting a high bar for the rest of the performance.

Justin Austin as Remus and Brandie Inez Sutton as Treemonisha (center) and Jeremiah Tyson as Andy and Amani Cole-Felder as Lucy (right) in “Treemonisha.” Photo © Eric Woolsey

I also admired the Ginsberg’s use of black-painted barren tree trunks that bookend the performance, suspended above the stage. During intermission, the trees are lowered onto the stage. This “black forest” of trunks serves as a clever, subtle and effective scorched-earth metaphor for the post-Civil War, Reconstruction-era South in which this opera is set (and as written by an African American man who lived through it). 

There’s so much going for Treemonisha, and that includes the choreography (blending traditional and modern dance) by Maleek Washington. The dance elements are woven into the scenes and, though noteworthy, never overtly call attention to themselves, with the exception of a perplexing, show-offy “frolic of the bears” in Act II , which pulled me out of the scene.

An opera, no matter how passionately conceived, is like a discarded memory, an empty platform, merely marks on a manuscript. To bring it to life – or to give it continued life – requires production. With a commission by OTSL, Sneed, Chilton, stage director Rajendra Ramoon-Maharaj, the cast and all the other talents have taken Joplin’s platform (wrapping ragtime’s irresistible catchiness around his rage against time), extended it beyond a fine performance and ascended to theatrical art. 

Can an opera change the world? Let this production of Treemonisha inspire you to walk out of the Loretto Hilton Theater and begin to try, even if only in the “backyard” of St. Louis.

Opera Theatre’s Treemonisha continues at the Loretto-Hilton Center through June 24. For ticket information, visit For more information about Counterpublic 2023 civic exhibition, visit

This review also appears on the KDHX website by mutual agreement.

Photo by Eric Woolsey

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.”

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.