Members of the New Works Collective pose after workshopping their new operas.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Breaks New Ground in the Classical Arts World

Friday March 10, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis presents the future of opera.

The New Works Collective, a groundbreaking initiative by the opera company, features three creative teams that were chosen to develop three all-new, 20-minute operas. The teams had approximately eight months to create, workshop and premiere the works, which will be performed at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA from March 16 to 18. Every night, all three operas will be performed.

“Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has been considering new initiatives that would make us more relevant to our community,” Anh Le, director of marketing and public relations, says, “but the original impetus for the New Works Collective came from one of our most generous funders, The Mellon Foundation. They asked us to break with tradition. They said, ‘We love what you do, but we want to see something that’s totally different than anything you’ve previously shown us.’ They provided the inspiration and the motivation that we needed to think outside of the box.”

So, how do you make opera innovative, inclusive, disruptive and fun?

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis began by assembling a panel of artists, advocates and community leaders, who represent Black, Asian, queer, political and religious interests in St. Louis and who illustrate the diversity of the area. Collectively, the 10 individuals chose three teams made up of composer Del’Shawn Taylor and librettist Samiya Bashir; co-composers and -librettists Simon Tam and Joe X. Jiang; and composer-librettist Tre’von Griffith. This approach allows the New Works Collective to tell the stories that the community thinks are important.

By having the panel – rather than the organization itself – choose where to award financial support for the creation of new operas, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has encouraged a radical shift in the classical arts world. “Every composer and librettist of the New Works Collective is compensated for their work, and the community gets to tell us where to put a substantial amount of dollars,” Le says. “We’re giving them ownership of the company, what we do and how we spend our money.”

The New Works Collective, an initiative by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, workshops three new operas.
Photo courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

More than 130 artists applied to the New Works Collective, submitting samples of their compositions and writing after Opera Theatre of Saint Louis put out an open call – which is revolutionary in the opera world.

“It’s very unusual for companies to put out an open call for new works,” Le says. “Typically, a company will contact a well-regarded composer and ask who he or she wants the company to commission to write a new opera. To allow anyone in the country to submit an application that will then be seriously considered is pretty groundbreaking in our industry. The fact that we received more than 130 applications in the first year is an exciting declaration – people are interested in opera, in exploring the genre and trying their hand at it.”

Casting a wide net, the New Works Collective aims to discover the next promising composers and librettists of our time. “None of this year’s participants had ever written an opera,” Le explains. “We searched for nontraditional voices, giving new opportunities to people who might have been previously overlooked.”

The New Works Collective, an initiative by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, workshops three new operas.
Photo courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Del’Shawn Taylor and Samiya Bashir didn’t even know each other before they were accepted into the New Works Collective. Musician, composer, producer and children’s book author, Taylor is incredibly talented – he even has an MBA – and Bashir is the executive director of the Lambda Literary Foundation, which nurtures and supports LGBTQ+ writers.

In their opera, a young Black girl becomes a victim of bullying; she lacks confidence, and people make fun of her for the way she acts, for her hair, etc. When she goes on a field trip to The Griot Museum of Black History, she sees an exhibition about Black female inventors. A diorama of Annie Malone, Dr. Patricia Bath and Marie Van Brittan Brown comes to life, and each of them gives her advice.

“Each woman inspires her,” Le says, “and they also sing in the style of their decade. It’s a fun, beautiful mix of musical genres and strong female stories, and the opera ends with [the girl] walking out of the museum with her head held high because she knows that she can accomplish anything if she sets her mind to it.”

The New Works Collective, an initiative by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, workshops three new operas.
Photo courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Both Simon Tam and Joe X. Jiang are members of a dance-rock band, The Slants, composed entirely of Asian Americans. Their opera tells the true story of their fight at the Supreme Court to be able to trademark the name “The Slants” and subsequently reappropriate the term.

“Obviously, they’ve written a lot of music, but this is their first foray into opera,” Le explains. “During their performance, you’ll hear electric guitars and drums; you’ll be able to rock out to that one.”

The third team includes St. Louis native Tre’von Griffith, who has worked with The St. Louis Black Repertory Company, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival. His first opera brings Black, queer joy to the stage.

“I am honored to be a part of the New Works Collective,” Griffith told Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. “I’m excited to enter the world of opera and hopefully give voice to a community whose stories are often untold and unheard. I hope this project will serve as a potential model for many other young artists of color, as well as the LGBTQIA+ community at large. Seeing yourself represented authentically in unexpected mediums is a powerful thing, and I hope this example will inspire others to embrace their own unique voices and gifts. This goal lies at the heart of my artistic identity.”

The New Works Collective, an initiative by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, workshops three new operas.
Photo courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

The three teams workshopped their operas in December, and as they practiced their material, Le was blown away by the energy of the stories. “They were electrifying,” she says. “The music is so good that audience members are going to leave humming – the songs are that memorable. At the workshop, people were laughing, cheering, crying. The joy of representation was, frankly, overwhelming.

“The New Works Collective celebrates BIPOC stories,” she continues, “and not stories of BIPOC pain, but stories of BIPOC joy and triumph and stories of being seen and heard.”

No matter how you feel about opera, you should give these works a chance – they’ll likely surprise you. “This event is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced,” Le says. “It’s going to be loud, exuberant, modern, hip and funny. I think people are going to be astounded when they realize what opera can be.”

The mission of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is to ensure a vibrant future for opera, and the New Works Collective is another way to make sure that mission is fulfilled.