By CB Adams

I shouldn’t admit this, but during the intermission at opening night of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “La Bohème,” I thought of Cher.

I should have been madly scribbling notes about all of the salient aspects of this Puccini classic, as all good reviewers should, but instead I was thinking of Cher’s performance as Loretta Castorini in the movie “Moonstruck.” Specifically, the scene when she’s discussing her experience having just attended “La Bohème.”

“I was surprised…” she says. “You know, I didn’t really think she was gonna die. I knew she was sick.”

The “she” is Mimi, and if Loretta had seen lyric soprano Katarina Burton’s performance, she might have realized that Mimi really was gonna die. That’s because Burton maintains a tightly controlled, authentic simplicity that draws attention to Mimi’s inner life and emotional journey. That journey is imbued with a subtle-but-persistent death-hauntedness – starting with a small, foreshowing cough as she makes her entrance in the first act.

Moisés Salazar as Rodolfo and Katerina Burton as Mimì in Giacomo Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo © Eric Woolsey

The specter of death makes Burton’s performance of Mimi’s deterioration compelling, tragic and all the (tragically) sweeter, especially her love and tribulations with Rodolfo. I hesitate to write that line because I’ve become more than bit disillusioned with the whole dying heroine trope. You know, “Terms of Endearment,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Hope Floats,” “Beaches,” etc., etc.

It’s to Burton’s credit that I suspended my dislike for this narrative device. Her voice conveys the necessary subtle nuances and delivers Puccini’s demanding melodies with a beautiful legato and emotional depth. She is convincing actress who genuinely portrays Mimi’s joy, love and eventual (inevitable) suffering.

That was enough to win me over to Team Mimi – as was her chemistry with Rodolfo. The dynamic of this duo in their duets and emotional scenes provides a satisfying balance in these interactions.

If Burton’s Mimi foreshadows her journey with a small cough, Moisés Salazar’s’ Rodolfo faces his journey’s climax with the catch of his throat when he realizes Mimi has died. Salazar’s performance provides many confident and fine moments, but it is at that catch of the throat that rang the truest, most human and genuine. It’s also the moment that makes clear his journey of loss is just beginning.

Salazar exhibits a powerful and expressive tenor voice that ably conveys lyrical tenderness, dramatic intensity and a palpable emotional connection and chemistry with Mimi, enhancing the romantic and tragic dimensions of their relationship. His acting abilities enlivened his Rodolfo’s youthful ardor and eventual despair​.

Brittney Renee achieves another bit of opera theater magic in the final act. In the first three, Renee delivers a Musetta who displays the requisite range of confident liveliness and flamboyance with a touch of naughtiness (Café Momus, anybody?). But it’s her act of kindness toward Mimi in fourth act that most humanizes the character. Renee’s compassion adds genuine depth to the role.

Thomas Glass as Marcello, Titus Muzi III as Schaunard, Moisés Salazar as Rodolfo, and André Courville as Collins in Giacomo Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo © Eric Woolsey

Great chemistry is a hallmark of this cast, especially among the Bohemians – Thomas Glass as Marcello, André Courville as the philosopher, Collins, and Titus Muzi III as Schaunard. Collectively and individually, their vocal abilities combined with seamless ensemble singing, maintains harmonic unity, but it is in their camaraderie and musical interplay provides the necessary chemistry to drive much of the opera’s emotional and narrative depth​.

Proof that there are no small roles in theater is found in the minor character Parpignol, the toymaker and vendor who makes his one and only appearance in Act II. Levi Adkins inhabits the character who contributes to the effervescence of the abundant, bustling Christmas Eve scene.

Most memorable is his Napoleonic hat, red and white jacquard pantaloons and backpack drum, thanks to the efforts of costume designer Amanda Seymour as well as wig and makeup designers Krystal Balleza and Will Vicari.

Another memorable costume is notable for a very different reason. It’s Mimi’s periwinkle blue coat and purse in Act II. As Mimi opens her heart to Marcello outdoors, they interact in the cold outdoors. The way Burton clings to that handbag while standing in a coat that is too light for such cold, reveals volumes about the uncomfortable state of her character.

It’s moments like this when the collective efforts of the cast, director Michael Shell, set design (Takeshi Kata) and lighting design (Marcus Doshi) align to elevate a small moment.

Moisés Salazar as Rodolfo and Thomas Glass as Marcello in Giacomo Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo © Eric Woolsey

The members of members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra consistently provide terrific performances for OTSL performances – so much so that it’s easy to forget how important the music is. For “La Bohème,” the musicians, under the direction of José Luis Gómez, exquisitely convey the depth of characters’ sentiments and enhance the immersion in the poignant narrative.

As a member of the “chestnuts club,” opera’s “La Bohème” is like ballet’s “The Nutcracker” and can be counted on to put cheeks in seats. The regular appearance of a “La Bohème” of this quality should be celebrated because the opera stands up well to repeated viewings (and listenings) and is a good “gateway” to the artform. It’s like pressing replay, pulling on a favorite sweater or meeting a friend for lunch.

And, to invoke Cher once more, it makes me believe yet again  “…in life after love..”

“La Bohème” is part of Opera Theatre of St. Louis 2024 repertory season continuing through June 30 at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For tickets or more information visit www.opera-stl.org.

Brittany Renee as Musetta and Thomas Glass as Marcello in Giacomo Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo © Eric Woolsey

Cover photo: Brittany Renee as Musetta in Giacomo Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo © Eric Woolsey

By CB Adams

The poppy, exuberant experience of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s production of “The Barber of Seville” begins well before the opening notes of the overture. Fluttering above Andrew Boyce’s beachy-colored set are a pair of scene-stealing neon lips.

There are more lips to come, from a version of Salvatore Dali’s Mae West red sofa, to the overhead toothy red lips made famous during the opening of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” movie, and even to the inflated labia on the Lipps Inc. “Funkytown” album cover.

As Count Almaviva, pretending to be Lindoro, sings to Rosina in the first act, “…your name is on my lips, and you are in my thoughts, from early dawn till late at night.” Those lines perfectly sum up the premise for “The Barber of Seville” while merriment and mayhem ensue until the last moment in this comic opera.

Boyce’s set design and Marcus Doshi’s lighting give us a Seville, Spain by way of Ibiza and Miami. Their less-is-more approach places a premium on the details, such as the canary yellow wall with a simple balcony and hand-operated openings, the Moorish-patterned floor, and a ruby-red barber chair shaped like an upturned hand.

L to R: Nathan Stark as Dr. Bartolo, Patrick Carfizzi as Don Basilio, Hongni Wu as Rosina, Andrew Morstein as Count Almaviva, Justin Austin as Figaro, and Chase Sanders as Berta/Notary in Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” Photo © Eric Woolsey

The minimalist set is the perfect backdrop to the more-is-more approach of Linly Saunders’s costumes and the wigs and makeup provided by Krystal Balleza and Will Vicari. At the risk of a spoiler alert, the entrance of a character wearing outrageously large, billowing pantaloons is one of the performance’s best moments.

Also noteworthy is the way stage director and choreographer Eric Sean Fogel makes great and clever use of Doshi’s lighting on the small cast to create shadowplay that exponentially increases the chaos during certain key scenes. 

All of the singers in this production deliver their characters with technical prowess, theatrical flair, spot-on comedic timing and expressive acting that match the opera’s humor and complexity.

Justin Austin provides a plucky, charismatic Figaro that is equal parts Austin Powers, Artful Dodger, and Placido Domingo. Nathan Stark’s overbearing Dr. Bartolo shares DNA with both Daddy Warbucks and Big Daddy.

During Count Almaviva’s arias, Andrew Morestein confidently sings Rossini’s virtuosic runs with a seamless blend of lyrical beauty and vocal acrobatics. Hongni Wu dazzles as an assertive Rosina, particularly in the demanding coloratura passages that require precision and agility.

Justin Austin as Figaro and Nathan Stark as Dr. Bartolo in Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” Photo © Eric Woolsey

As the conniving Don Basilio, Patrick Carfizzi’s booming bass commands the stage, especially during his aria about the joys of spreading malicious gossip.

Yet another highlight of this performance is, of course, the music. Under the direction of Jonathan Brandani, the St. Louis Symphony captures Rossini’s vibrant, playful melodies filled with dynamic rhythms and memorable, spirited tunes. Adding another layer of enjoyment is the clear translation under the coaching of English diction specialist Erie Mills.  

Performances, in English with projected English text, continue through June 29th at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information, consult the OTSL website: https://opera-stl.org/

Cover photo by Eric Woolsey

Justin Austin, Andrew Morstein and Hongnu Wu. Photo by Eric Woolsey
Nathan Stark as Dr. Bartolo and Andrew Morstein as Count Almaviva in Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” Photo © Eric Woolsey

By CB Adams

During one of the two intermissions in Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s third annual, three-pronged New Works Collective, I pondered aesthetics. Can there be a defining aesthetic – or more accurately, aesthetics with an s – for the St. Louis region?

Is there a commonality of our terroir to be found from a cross section of artists who have hailed from here? Do we have the St. Louis equivalent of the Philly Sound or Motown, the Ashcan School or Hudson River School (or the Venice Biennale), Spoleto or Tanglewood, or even Burning Man or Bonnaroo?

There’s no such thing as a St. Louis Method of acting, that talents of John Goodman, Doris Roberts, Stirling K. Brown, Marsha Mason, Vincent Price and Phyllis Smith notwithstanding.

“The Glass Menagerie” may name check some St. Louis locations, but it does not define life here any more than “White Palace” (the novel or the movie) does. The Gateway Arch is the steel equivalent of a Route 66 roadside attraction, but architecturally the city should still embrace its old moniker as the Red Brick City.

If there is a St. Louis Sound, it would have to somehow include musicians Scott Joplin, Chuck Berry, Pokey LaFarge and Nelly (yes, there are many more) and performers including Josephine Baker, Willie Mae Ford Smith, Donny Hathaway and Tina Turner (I went with personal faves here; the list goes on). The list could also include the St. Louis Symphony, especially the Slatkin years.

If there is a St. Louis “Move,” it would include, but not be limited to, a ballet like the recently premiered “St. Louis Blues,” choreographed by Gen Horiuchi, executive and artistic director at St. Louis Ballet, or practically everything from the Big Muddy Dance Company.

Fun to ponder these cultural accomplishments, but St. Louis arts and artists are far too diverse to be reduced that way. To borrow a song title from Bob Dylan, St. Louis contains multitudes.

Like the Symphony, which has commissioned new works such as last year’s “Visions of Cahokia,” a new orchestral piece by James Lee III, Opera Theatre of St. Louis premiered three new 20-minute operas at this year’s New Works Collective performances, March 14-16 at Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. In its third year, the New Works Collective is committed to extending the range of what opera can – and should – be as a still-relevant artform addressing modern stories and issues faced by diverse characters.

New Works Collective achieves this in numerous ways. For instance, the operas were chosen by a local panel of representative artists and community leaders who brought a Studs Terkel-like approach to their selection. The panel voted to support three operas to be nurtured and matured during a year-long incubation process.

One of the most exciting aspects of the panel’s selection is a sense of wonderment that seems to ask, “You can make an opera about that?” “Mechanisms,” with music by J.E. Hernandez and libretto by Marianna Mott Newirth, is a chamber opera study of neurodiversity, “Unbroken,” music by Ronald Maurice and libretto by J. Mae Barizo, examines the issues of single parenthood, death, resilience and legacy, and “On My Mind,” music by Jasmine Barnes and libretto by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, follows a cautious friendship that begins at a work conference and builds into a fulfilling sisterhood.

 On an application, each of these short operas and their creators show potential, but it’s the performance that ultimately decides their level of success. That’s where OTSL’s singers and production teams elevate them from concept to the reality of experiencing them.

There’s a scene in the television series “This Is Us,” when Mandy Moore’s Rebecca meets with record executives as she tries to launch her singing career. The execs tell her she’s good, but only “Philadelphia good.” There’s always a risk that homegrown achievements and talents might only be “good” at the local level. As with the previous two years, this year’s New Works Collective proves that St. Louis Good sets a standard as high as Made In Detroit … or even Made In America. It’s a badge of honor that can and should be applied to many of the region’s cultural achievements.

A 20-minute opera presents its own challenges that differ from a full-length production. The relationship is similar between short stories and novels. The best short stories are closer to poems than to novels. So, too, these shorter operas. All three felt complete and self-contained within the constraints of the medium. Each benefited from a tightly focused theme and narrative. None felt like a truncated version of a longer work, though “Unbroken” to some degree and “On My Mind” to a higher degree left me wanting to stay with the characters for a longer journey. They left me wondering what Barizo and Mouton could do with an expansion of their stories.

“Mechanisms” provided a more intense (and intensely interior) experience – and one that left me not wanting more because it felt so complete. One of my favorite descriptions of a successful short story ending comes from David Means, who wrote, “A good ending doesn’t answer a question. It opens up the deeper mystery of the story itself. There isn’t room in a short story to do anything but leave the reader alone with the story.”

That’s how “Mechanisms” satisfyingly ended for me – alone with the story and the 11-year old character, Roe, beautifully sung and acted by Helen Zhibing Huang. Hers was the virtuosic standout among all the other standout performances, including Maria Consamus as Roe’s mother, Lori, and Aaren Rivard as Dean, her father. Individually and together, Consamus and Rivard were engaging and believable as parents struggling to navigate their daughter’s journey and the world around them.

With diverse stories and characters, the New Works Collective operas benefited from the talents of diverse casts. As Grace in “On My Mind,” Meroë Kahalia Adeeb inhabited the role as the church-going, dying matriarch of her St. Louis family. The moment when she dies in a wheelchair, followed by the ending with a ghostly sort of resurrection – provided an emotional and deeply affecting one-two punch. John Godhard Mburu as Grace’s oldest son, Ezra, delivered a nuanced portrayal of a child maturing into a new role within the family and himself.

The heart of “On My Mind” were the two strangers destined to become sisters – Lyric, sung by Krysty Swann, and Melodee, sung by Adeeb. The success of these two performances reminded me of two things that other “funny women” have said. Jane Lynch has been quoted, “Making people laugh is a really fabulous thing because it means you’re getting deep inside somebody, into their psyche, and their ability to look at themselves.”

That’s a perfect description of what Swann and Adeeb achieved with the comedic libretto of “On My Mind.” They dug deep into their characters and projected them with pathos. Add to that something that Amy Sedaris has observed, “We’re all used to seeing pretty people. I want to see real people.” Opera is a highly distilled artform, but the best allows the audience to suspend their proverbially disbelief, and that is precisely what Swann and Adeeb accomplished.

Adding additional cohesion among the three operas were the talents of lighting Designer John Alexander, video designer David Murakami, stage director Kimille Howard and scenic designer Kim Powers. Using one basic set, lights and projections transitions seamlessly from a suburban home at Thanksgiving dinner to a hospital, a living room and a hotel ballroom in mid-convention (among others). One of the best uses of projection was in “Unbroken,” as the geometric back panels reveal a detailed interior of a church, then transition to a gauzy, impressionistic version of the same scene, followed by bright and sharp light streaming through a stained glass window. This same technique was used in the other operas, but worked most memorably in “Unbroken.”

At the risk of reducing the music to a footnote, the performance of the small orchestra, led by Darwin Aquino was perfectly balanced and supported the singers admirably. The music received a top-notch performance, but the performances could have benefited from something missing – projected supertitles. I’ve become accustomed to supertitles in the same way I enjoy the on-screen subtitles on my streaming services. It was difficult to understand many parts of the evening’s operas.

OTSL’s New Works Collective is no mere check-the-box community outreach effort. It is integral to the OTSL’s dedication to keeping opera vibrant, viable and accessible to all. As director Howard said in her Director’s Note, “Representation matters; it is the strongest invitation and catalyst for change…through initiatives like the New Works Collective, where incredible up-and-coming composers and librettists are empowered to experiment, collaborate and share their voices with the St. Louis Community.”

The 2024 New Works Collective was a complete success. It’s not too soon to start looking forward to the 2025 performance. It’s sure to be St. Louis Great.

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 opera-stl.org. For more information about Counterpublic 2023 civic exhibition, visit counterpublic.org

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.