Gary Liam Scott
Operetta Research Center
26 January, 2022
Online auditions; canceled flights; efforts to keep cast, orchestra and tech crew members healthy and protected; a scant five days of rehearsals prior to production week – all these added up to an amazing and jovial performance by Winter Opera of Saint Louis, Missouri, USA, a young and intrepid opera company based in the Midwest heartland of the United States.
In recent decades opera has burgeoned throughout the US, and almost particularly so in the Midwest region. Once-struggling regional companies are enjoying greater attention around the world and from a public eager to hear and learn more.
Winter Opera was founded by soprano and General Director Gina Galati to meet the needs of opera-goers seeking opportunities to attend productions during the winter months, given that spring and summer have become prime seasons for opera in the American Midwest and South. Winter Opera traces its roots to the large and vibrant Italian community of St. Louis, Missouri. Notably, Winter Opera has committed to staging at least one operetta each season. The offering selected for the current 15th season of the company was Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, which has not been produced in St. Louis since the 1980s.
Ironically, sometimes limitations and challenges have a way of igniting creativity and spontaneity, which is precisely what happened with the Winter Opera production in mid-January. Stage manager John Stephens refused to be daunted by the massive flight cancellations in the US that delayed the arrival of cast members. Once arrived in St. Louis, many cast members had to be moved frequently to different lodgings in order to avoid exposure to covid and other illnesses. Orchestra members faced similar challenges; at the final dress rehearsal five musicians had been newly called in just that day.
Yet somehow Gina Galati, John Stephens and conductor Dario Salvi united to produce a cohesive staging that seemed fresh yet well-rehearsed, well balanced and fully up to date. The three were ably assisted in no small way by scenic designer Scott Loebl, lighting designer Neil Bearden, costume designer Lauren Smith Bearden, chorus master and pianist Jesse Cunningham, and a host of collaborative staff. In some cases the original libretto was tweaked ever so slightly to allow for local references to the St. Louis area, thus creating an added touch of originality, but the original score and libretto were faithfully honored.
One of the joys of producing Gilbert and Sullivan is the realization that the same political and cultural issues that provided wit and insight in 1889 continue to hold relevance today. Political upheaval, class warfare, skepticism of the religious establishment, and arrogance from local and national leaders still pique the cares and concerns of modern audiences – almost particularly so when one reflects on the political ramifications today of dealing with pandemics, unelected officials who nevertheless manage to wield power, and societal ferment.
As an art form, opera holds a unique capacity to help us view ourselves through a polished lens, but a case could be argued that operetta sometimes makes the view all the sharper with its humor and sparkling dialogue. Perhaps these qualities are part of the reason why Winter Opera and Gina Galati enjoy a growing success both at home and increasing attention from many corners of the US and the world.
Galati wisely selected Glasgow-based conductor Dario Salvi for this production. Salvi’s commitment to operetta, combined with a deep awareness of its historical and ethnic roots and performance practices, brings a wealth of insight to this production. Salvi conducts with energy and sensitivity to the musical and verbal “pings” that punctuate Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. Similarly, stage director John Stephens, one of Gina Galati’s former teachers, provided clear movement and a visual feast onstage. Winter Opera tends to rely on traditional scenic design and costuming, which seemed just right for this production and provided an excellent framing for the activity onstage.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that one might pay to all the singers involved in this production is that they were so well-matched that if one’s eyes were closed, it might be difficult to decide which voices were the lead roles. Galati and Stephens assembled a cast comprised of Gary Moss as the Duke, Angela Christine Smith as the Duchess, Andrew Pardini as Giuseppe, Alexander Scheuermann as his Marci, Priscilla Salisbury as Casilda and Lauren Nash Silberstein as Gianetta, to name only a few. All sang with remarkable intonation, florid diction of a tightly wound score, and projection just right for the hall. The deep resonance of bass-baritone Tyler Putnam as the Grand Inquisitor Don Alhambra rang like a thunderclap keeping a warning eye over the more frolicsome passages of the characters involved in less reverent activities.
Nearly everyone involved in this production – soloists, staff, chorus members, orchestra members, directors and conductor – enjoys a full schedule of engagements in St. Louis and elsewhere. Gina Galati will be singing in the Miami Opera’s production of Elisir d’amore this spring, Dario Salvi has a full slate of appearances in Europe and the US and John Stephens continues to direct throughout the US. We will surely be hearing much more from everyone involved in this production.