Monday 24 January 2022

Winter Opera St Louis educates as it entertains

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Gondoliers - Winter Opera St Louis
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Gondoliers - Winter Opera St Louis

In the UK, if we know the American city of St Louis for opera it is via Opera Theater of St Louis (OTSL) which does a Summer season each year and is routinely reviewed in national and international press. But there are other companies in the area too. Recently, British-Italian conductor Dario Salvi [most recently mentioned in these pages for conducting Meyerbeer's first opera Jephtas Gelübde, see my review] conducted Winter Opera St Louis in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers in Kirkwood, Missouri. In a guest posting Gary Liam Scott, a reviewer based in St Louis, introduces the company and its devotion to operetta.

During a seminar discussion of pedagogical methods years ago at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA, Professor Lewis Hilton--a Canadian by birth and a specialist in ethnomusicology as well as education, thus bringing a wider perspective to the issues--asked the question, "Who is the real music educator in our society today?"  Without actually pausing for responses, Dr. Hilton quickly opined that, overall, people of all ages probably gather the bulk of their musical knowledge not from formalized instruction, but from radio disc jockeys.  

Hilton's statement, perhaps intended more for drama and shock thinking rather than an outright assertion, did serve the purpose of making his listeners ponder more deeply.  Contrary to what is generally assumed, the United States spends an enormous amount on education, which includes instruction in music and visual arts at all levels, as do many other countries.  And yet, one might question just how much the average citizen knows about music history, development of styles and performance practices, the development of instruments, and so forth.

To take Hilton's question to a different level, the next question might ask just who the proper music educator in society should be.  Increasingly, many educators find themselves trained as communicators rather than actual practitioners of the subject they teach.  Possessing solid communication skills, of course, is crucial for educators, but strong communication without thorough mastery of the subject is meaningless.  Therefore, it seems that performers themselves might make the best delivery system for musical knowledge.  

As an example, today many symphony orchestras around the world have dedicated themselves to championing contemporary repertoire.  That is a noble goal, but ticket sales have suffered--greatly, in some cases--as a result.  Many conductors have resorted to giving brief explanations of the works they are presenting, but often those sparse introductions fail to explain what the composer found of value in the work and why he/she felt it worthy of performance.  Leonard Bernstein and Leonard Slatkin are excellent examples of conductors who have striven to give more detailed and cogent explanations of their works, and they should be applauded, but we need more like them.  If we expect audiences to support music of any style or time period, we need to demonstrate to them why it is worthwhile and important to do so.

As most of us already realize, opera, in particular, offers a magnificent means of providing both entertainment and learning; not only is the audience exposed to various styles of composition, but history, visual arts, drama, cultural norms and variances, and even a bit of geography are included in the mix.  One might make the argument that operetta offers an even deeper and more accessible contribution to expanding the awareness of audiences, since the directness of plot punctuated with spoken dialogue, relatively quick pacing, coupled with cultural and regional influences, renders the performance all the easier to grasp.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Gondoliers - Winter Opera St Louis
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Gondoliers - Winter Opera St Louis

Italian-British conductor Dario Salvi has firmly established his credentials not only as a performer, but as a performer strongly committed to bringing understanding of operetta to the people.  Aside from his dedication to performing both standard and neglected works from the operetta repertoire, but he also strives to demonstrate to performers and audiences alike the correct performance practices of operetta.  In a recent interview, Maestro Salvi stated his philosophy succinctly:  "If I have tickled someone's interest, then I have succeeded."

Mr. Salvi recently travelled to Saint Louis, Missouri, USA, for an engagement to direct Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers with the Winter Opera of Saint Louis in mid-January.  Founded by soprano Gina Galati, Winter Opera currently marks its 15th season of bringing a wide diversity of operatic works to the ever-growing demand in the American Midwest.  The Gondoliers follows on the heels of The Pirates of Penzance presented in 2020.  Thanks to clear and skilful production and staging, the audiences for the performances were not only entertained, but were intrigued to learn  that the political vagaries of 19th century Europe were not so far removed as one might think from those of the US in the 21st century.  

Winter Opera traces much of its roots to the strong ethnic Italian community of Saint Louis.  Although the company's selections draw from the entire repertoire, such works as Donizetti's La fille du regiment, Puccini's La fanciulla del West, Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri and Bellini's Norma have demonstrated the cross-cultural blendings that have emanated historically to and from the Italian peninsula, which makes an important lesson for residents of any country.  Since Maestro Salvi is a firm supporter of ethnic and regional operetta, these connections make for a strong partnership with Gina Galati and Winter Opera.  

Winter Opera maintains a strong commitment to operetta.  In addition to the Gilbert and Sullivan works, Sigmund Rombert's The Student Prince, Strauss' Die Fledermaus and Lehar's The Merry Widow, to cite only three, have been produced.  The company enjoys growing support from the entire community of Saint Louis and has begun to attract attention from other parts of North America and the globe.  Winter Opera is a strong regional company--based in a region with several strong companies--with global contacts.  The forging together of a strong company with a strong conductor sharing similar commitments makes a robust partnership.  We can look forward to hearing, seeing and experiencing much more.

Gary Liam Scott

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