By C.B. Adams

As Stage Director Omer Ben Seadia writes of “The Magic Flute” in this season’s gorgeously designed program for Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL), “We come back to ‘The Magic Flute’ in every generation, so that we too can look around and decide for ourselves what the world should look like and who we want to be in the world.”

And like its balletic counterpart cum cultural chestnut, “The Nutcracker,” Mozart’s opera is indeed wide, magical and appealing enough to invite interest, interpretation and relevance from generation to generation since it premiered in 1791. As Paul Simon more recently put it, “…every generation throws a hero up the pop charts /  Medicine is magical and magical is art…”

Jeni Houser as The Queen of the Night

It’s tempting to play the wonk and dwell on how and why this singspiel in two acts has enjoyed such a long run. But the more pressing question is whether OTSL’s 2022 production is up to the demanding challenge and delivers a Flute that is as relevant as it is magical and. The short answer is yes.

If you were at the May 28th performance and seek outside validation of why you and almost everyone else – across several generations – laughed, clapped and all-but sang along to the Queen of the Night’s famous aria (if only we were all coloratura sopranos), then consider yourself validated. 

A closer look, however, reveals a subtle, cerebral interpretation of this classic – one that takes some interesting risks and rewards the careful observer. As film director/writer/producer Alan Parker once said, “It’s just as hard to make a bad film as a good one…” The same holds true for opera productions.

The pros at OTSL faced a million decisions that coalesced into this take on a canonical opera. One would have loved to have listened to the discussions between Seadia, Set Designer Ryan Howell and Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind as they explored how to create the set, which is deceptively simple.

It was anchored by the twisted trunk of a tree – shades of Keebler Elves – that served as the synecdoche for the entire enchanted forest. The tree was flanked by an elevated, wood-toned walkway and staircase that was so ordinary as to become essentially ubiquitous, if not invisible.

The set’s standout element is the busy-patterned, bi-color, batik-like back wall. At first glance, the wall seems more fitting for “The Lion King” than an enchanted forest. But cue the lights. Throughout the opera, the use of light brings some of the no-so-random shapes to life as owls, heads or all-seeing eyes.

Clever in the best sense of the world, and never so obvious as to detract from the overall performance. The use of suspended light bars in Act II was spectacularly effective, especially since this half of the opera relates to light relative to Act I’s focus on darkness.

Jessica Jahn, costume designer, and Tom Watson, wig and make-up designer, created costumes that hinted at a disparate variety of influences. The costume for Sarastro, the High Priest of the Sun, for instance, enveloped Adam Lau in a spectral cape that was part David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell To Earth” and part Balok from the “The Corbomite Maneuver” episode of “Star Trek.”

Johnathan McCullough and Angel Riley

It would have been easy to rely on a more traditional, Egyptian-theme for Sarastro. At Sarastro’s first entrance, his costume was slightly off-putting, but as Lau stiffly moves about, his costume’s next-generation pharaonic vibe makes sense. Again, this is a cerebral production of  the Flute.

The three Workers also sported spacey costumes that are a mash-up of brown Carhartt overalls and bowel-shaped hoods reminiscent of the Jawas in “Star Wars.” Not quite as effective was The Queen of the Night’s second act costume that included a lighted iconographic halo. Using lights to depict a character associated with darkness seems a bit gimmicky, but not overly detracting thanks to the powerful performance of Jeni Houser.

 The Flute’s story is simply silly by today’s standards. Its magic lies in the music by Mozart. And the magic in this production is the cast. With a smooth assist from the orchestra led by Rory Macdonald, they almost make the set, costumes and lighting superfluous.

It’s easy to emphasize Johnathan McCollough’s Papageno because the character has all the best, funniest lines and he gets to romp through his scenes – so much Falstaffian id mucking about with all the other Flutian egos. The world of opera could use more laughter like this. McCollough plays his Papageno as a well-rounded, hedonistic nature boy. Angel Riley was the perfect counterpoint and foil with her Papagena as his devilish, spunky love-interest.

Balancing Papageno’s comic antics is the more serious, eyes-on-the-prize prince, Tamino, sung by tenor Joshua Blue. As the central character, Blue’s performance was silky, entrancing and believable.

Equally strong was Houser as The Queen of the Night – part Borg Queen and part Wicked Stepmother (lighted headdress notwithstanding.) Houser’s coloratura “Vengeance Aria” is a show-stopper, as it is intended to be.  

Erica Petrocelli sings Pamina, the Queen’s daughter. Pamina is both vulnerable in a girl-tied-on-the-tracks sort of way and fiercely strong-willed like Elsa in “Frozen.” Petrocelli pulls off that balance with a performance equal to, if not surpassing, her queen mum.

The basso Lau convincingly and captivatingly sings Sarastro. Lau’s coldly controlled presence paired with his deep, resonate, voice imbues Sarastro with gravitas and other-worldliness.

The art of opera is a gestalt, composed of all of the theatrical arts, and especially music and voice. Magical is art. OTSL’s 2022 production of “The Magic Flute” joins the ongoing lineage of productions that precede it. And if anyone of this generation questions the need for another, borrow the title from the second volume of Elvis’s gold hits and say, “50,000,000 Flute Fans Can’t Be Wrong.”

Erica Petrocelli and Joshua Blue

“The Magic Flute” is presented in repertory by Opera Theatre of St. Louis June 8-26 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis. It is performed in English with projected English subtitles and runs 2 hours, 30 minutes. Members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra accompany the performance. For dates, tickets and more information, visit:

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