Andrew Jorgensen of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis was part of the New York City arts panel organized by Explore St. Louis.

Gateway to the Arts: A Conversation with Andrew Jorgensen of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Friday April 7, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

We took the show on the road! On March 30, leaders from some of St. Louis’ most important arts organizations gathered at Lightbox in New York City for a media event spotlighting the impressive cultural scene in our region.

Hosted by Explore St. Louis, the event engaged the media in the story of St. Louis as a hub of artistic activity and a leading city on the national arts stage. More than 30 members of the media joined us for the experience, representing platforms such as AFAR, Condé Nast Traveler and Forbes. At the end of the discussion, Explore St. Louis’ Cat Neville extended an invitation to join us in St. Louis in May for an arts-focused media tour, which will connect media directly with the people and places that bring our city to life with creativity and vision.

The conversation, moderated by Vanessa Cooksey, president and CEO of the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis, uncovered details of why St. Louis deserves serious attention as a destination for those interested in experiencing groundbreaking exhibitions and performances.

Here, we present the conversation between Cooksey and Andrew Jorgensen, general director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. To learn more about Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, visit its website.

Vanessa Cooksey moderated the New York City arts panel organized by Explore St. Louis.
Vanessa Cooksey of the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis | Photo by Kelly Williams

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is internationally known for commissioning first-run operas. Tell us about the creative process and your goals as an organization when you commission works?

Creating new work is in our DNA. Our mission is to create a vibrant future for this art form, which so many people perceive negatively before they’ve ever walked through the door of the opera house. Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has commissioned more operas than any other opera company in the country with the idea that opera can tell stories that are relevant to life today and relevant to people today.

That sounds like a grand goal. It is, but it’s borne out by the truth. Just 10 blocks up the street at Lincoln Center, they’re in dress rehearsals for Terence Blanchard’s jazz opera Champion. Terence Blanchard, who’s probably better known as Spike Lee’s preferred film collaborator, has written two jazz operas for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which opened the 2021 season of the Metropolitan Opera after its 18-month shutdown [during the COVID-19 pandemic], and Champion, which we commissioned and premiered in 2013 at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

That’s one example of many operas that have gone from St. Louis to [cities across the country, including] Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Seattle and San Francisco. We are creating a vibrant future for opera by telling stories that matter to people, stories that expand the cannon of what opera can look like and sound like and be about. [We believe opera] can speak to us today as strongly and powerfully as it has ever spoken to anybody.

When you work with artists from across the globe, what do they say about St. Louis when they come?

St. Louis is a city that, to continue the Champion boxing metaphor, punches way above its weight class as an arts town. People love coming to St. Louis because it’s an incredibly supportive environment and an incredibly welcoming audience. [We also have] an incredibly supportive philanthropic community that wants to take artistic risks and make things happen.

So, creators love coming to St. Louis, and we attract audiences not just from St, Louis, but from all over the country and all over the world. Creators love to work with us because we like to make their vision come to pass, and we share it with a community that can’t wait to be part of it.

Tell folks what the season looks like this year.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has a spring festival season, so you can come for a weekend and see four operas at a go. Whatever your passion, whether it’s for the great classics or for new work, we have something for you.

This year, we have two great classics in Puccini’s Tosca and Mozart’s Così fan Tutte. We also have Carlisle Floyd’s Susanna, one of the great 20th-century operas, and a world premiere, Treemonisha, which is perhaps what I’m most excited about – although I’m not supposed to have favorites.

Scott Joplin, the great Ragtime king [who lived in St. Louis], wrote this opera because he wanted to be taken more seriously as a composer during his life. Unfortunately, he passed before he ever saw it completed. Damien Sneed, the great 21st-century composer, has written a new version of Joplin’s opera with a prologue and an epilogue in which Joplin and his wife become characters – Joplin’s wife was the original inspiration for the character of Treemonisha. It’s a beautiful telling of Joplin’s great opera, and it weaves the history of this wonderfully under-celebrated composer with beautiful music. You will leave singing into the night.

As they’re doing Champion up the street right now, it is my great hope that, in a year or two, so too will they be doing Treemonisha, but I want you to see it first at its world premiere in St. Louis in May.

How are you bringing new works and new voices from younger, more diverse composers to opera?

If our mission is to nurture a diverse and inclusive future for this art form in our administrators, in our artisans and in our stagehands and to send those artists on to the field, then it’s incumbent on us to recruit equitably and inclusively so that the artists who come to work for us, as they go on to the field, will fill the pipeline. [It’s] the diversity that this art form needs to see and unfortunately has not seen.

In any given year, more than a hundred singers who perform at the Metropolitan Opera will have had their first professional contract at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. So, we are removing barriers [and] investing in all kinds of access so that we can send those artists on to the rest of the field to ensure that today and in the future opera will be as vibrant as it can be.

Tell us a bit about the New Works Collective.

We just piloted a brand-new commissioning initiative called the New Works Collective. We were challenged by a longtime partner to do something that would rock the equilibrium of how we make decisions in the opera field, and we realized that even when we were commissioning diverse composers or bringing new creators to the table, the power of decision-making fundamentally resided with the artistic leaders of the organization.

So, we asked ourselves, “What’s the next step in community-led decision making?” So, we assembled a collective of a dozen St. Louisans, none of whom were opera professionals, but all of whom were passionate and knowledgeable about the arts. They issued a call for submissions, received 150 applications from aspiring composers and librettists – artists who had never written for the opera stage and stories that would never have come to the opera stage – and selected three works that Opera Theatre then nurtured and brought to the stage. The world premieres of these three 20-minute operas were actually about 10 days ago.

The first of these short operas was about a young Black girl who meets some of the great Black inventors of history and is inspired to study. The second was about Asian American rock band The Slants, who fought successfully all the way to the Supreme Court to be allowed to trademark their band name because it wasn’t a slur; they were taking back that slur. The third was about the Harlem drag ball scene in the 1920s and 1930s before the stories that we now know and have begun to tell.

The three operas sold out with the most diverse audience that I have ever seen in theater. We had the best press that we’ve ever seen and maybe some of the best art that I’ve ever seen. It comes back to the fact that we’re telling stories that matter to our community, and in doing so, we are attracting new people to come to the opera and we are expanding the tent of what opera can be and what opera can sound like [to help] people find a place for opera in their lives.

I was at that show. I’ll tell you, I’ve never cried at an opera, but I was crying at this one. It was so moving. It was absolutely phenomenal, so thank you.

It’s a three-year experiment. We did those three last week, but you can come back next year and the year after that to see more stories that the community has selected. It’s a really exciting paradigm-shifting model for the field.

Around the country, many arts organizations across disciplines are still struggling to attract audiences post pandemic. Can you share your secret sauce for growing your audiences?

The pandemic was unbelievably challenging for all of us, and certainly opera. The truth is that a lot of audiences aren’t coming back. A lot of behaviors have fundamentally changed, and a lot of longtime subscribers may not be coming back, but I’ll tell you that last season at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, we saw the greatest number of new-to-file ticket buyers that we have ever seen. So, the secret sauce isn’t to try to get back those that we lost; it’s to lean into what we’re doing that’s new and that’s attracting new people to get off their couches and come to see live performances.

The number one thing that gets people to come to the opera is what’s on stage. [We strive to tell] stories that matter to people, to present diverse casts so that people can see themselves on stages where they’ve not previously seen themselves and to offer high-quality, exciting opportunities that you cannot experience anywhere else.

We are leaning into works like Champion; works like last year’s world premieres of both Harvey Milk, an opera about the great civil rights leader, and Awakenings, an opera about the great sleeping-sickness pandemic; and works like this year’s Treemonisha. Doing new, exciting work attracts new audiences that will fill the pipeline and keep people coming to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis for the years and generations to come.

Audience question: If you could change something about St. Louis, what would you change?

I wish that St. Louisans had as much enthusiasm for St. Louis as those of us coming from other places. I’m a lifelong East Coaster. I did not imagine that I would be making my home in St. Louis. I moved in the same way as Cara – because of an opportunity to lead a really spectacular institution, without knowing about the community that I was joining.

On every single front and on every single level – our arts, our museums, our parks, our sports, our food, our shopping, our quality of life – St. Louis is a spectacular place to make your home, and St. Louisans are often down on what’s great about St. Louis. You want to tell them, “Wake up!”

My snooty East Coast friends ask, “Why are you living in St. Louis?” I ask, “Why are you still living in a two-by-four apartment on the East Coast when what St. Louis has to offer is so extraordinary?”

That’s a narrative that I want St. Louisans to trumpet from the rooftops – a civic pride that I think so many of us feel and that we don’t always do a good job expressing. It’s why I’m so glad that Explore St. Louis brought us here today to help celebrate that story. It’s something that I want us to be trumpeting because on every single level, St. Louis has more than exceeded my expectations.

They say there’s no zealot like a convert. Well, [you’re looking at a] St. Louisan for life and happily so.