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Opera Theatre of St. Louis Plans To Focus On Diversity In Training And Hiring

Opera Theatre St. Louis is launching two initiatives to boost the presence of underrepresented voices in the predominantly white world of professional opera.

It will commission works by composers who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color with the Voices Fund. The fund is seeded by $725,000 that was reallocated by donors to the company’s now-canceled annual gala.

“We’re talking about commissioning composers of color, commissioning women, commissioning voices that need to be heard,” General Director Andrew Jorgensen said.

The first public event bankrolled by the Voices Fund will be a Nov. 16 concert called “Songs for St. Louis: A Concert in the Commons.” It will be broadcast by the Nine Network and feature three participants in Opera Theatre’s Gerdine Young Artist program: Christopher Humbert Jr., Ganson Salmon and St. Louis native Angel Riley.

A fellowship program also will provide training and behind-the-scenes experience for early-career arts administrators from underrepresented communities.

Opera Theatre’s senior leaders, Jorgensen and Artistic Director James Robinson, are white men.

“Our administrative staff is almost entirely white. I’m tremendously proud of the staff that we have — but there’s work that we have to do,” he said.

The training program, dubbed the Clayco Future Leaders Fellowship, will place participants in one of three areas of Opera Theatre’s operations: artistic administration, development or general administration. The first group of three fellows will work from January through July. The fellowship will expand to 10 months for future cohorts.

“There’s lots of reasons for the way we look,” Jorgensen said of the predominance of white professionals at Opera Theatre and in the industry at large. “The way we craft applications, the way we talk about these opportunities, the different experiences that people would have had to have — and a general sense of inclusion, that people perhaps feel these aren’t always careers and opportunities that are for them.”

Artists of color are historically underrepresented on American opera stages. Metropolitan Opera in New York, which has been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, announced plans last week to reopen in September 2021 with the first opera by a Black composer ever on its stage: “Fire Shut Up In My Bones.” Jazz artist Terence Blanchard composed the work, an adaptation of the memoir by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who is Black.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis gave the show its debut production last year.

Blanchard said then that it was important to create roles designed for Black artists and to tell stories rooted in the African American experience on the lyric stage.

“You start to realize, 'OK, it’s our turn.' It’s our turn to expand this experience for a lot of people,” Blanchard said.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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St. Louis native Angel Riley, a soprano, is among three artists who will be featured in a televised concert on Nov. 16.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis /
St. Louis native Angel Riley, a soprano, is among three artists who will be featured in a televised concert on Nov. 16.

Jeremy D. Goodwin joined St. Louis Public Radio in spring of 2018 as a reporter covering arts & culture and co-host of the Cut & Paste podcast. He came to us from Boston and the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where he covered the same beat as a full-time freelancer, contributing to The Boston Globe, WBUR 90.9 FM, The New York Times, NPR and lots of places that you probably haven’t heard of.