"This is a democracy! We are subject to the rule of law!" - The Trial
ST. LOUIS, MO - There's a shift happening in the way opera is presented in this country, where cities have begun to eschew the notion of a full fall-to-spring season in favor of a more compressed festival that lasts anywhere from two to eight weeks. What started out as a summer thing - Glimmerglass, Santa Fe - has now become the year-round standard everywhere from Philadelphia to Omaha. Which, contrary to what you might think, has encouraged bold programming and the commissioning of new works, alongside the usual dose of Puccini and Verdi.
Among this new breed of festivals, none has done more to promote more new - and particularly American opera - than the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Since its founding 41 years ago on a college campus ten miles southwest of the Gateway Arch, OTSL has presented 25 world premieres and 26 American premieres, including new works by Jack Perla, Terence Blanchard, and Ricky Ian Gordon, among others. Outside, it's a lovely, Glyndebourne-style setup (less the dinner jackets), with flower-filled gardens and wine and cheese served under candelabra-lit tents. Inside, there's an intimate, 900-seat theater with no less than the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in the pit.
The standout offering of this summer's six week season is the U.S. premiere of Philip Glass' new opera The Trial, based on the Franz Kafka novel (with a libretto by Christopher Hampton.) I had the opportunity to attend a luncheon with Philip in New York a few months ago, where he spoke about why he chose The Trial for his 20th (!) opera, which premiered at Covent Garden in 2014.
"It's about the corruption of democracy - need I say more? Aren't we living in the middle of that right now?"
Indeed, as I was sitting in the Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre last night, it was hard not to feel the weight of recent history, with citizens being arrested (or worse) based on little more than their ethnicity, and others being fired for speaking truth to those who disregard the rule of law. The central character in The Trial is a young man, K., who is arrested on his 30th birthday on charges which are never revealed. He spends the remainder of the opera wading through an absurd collection of pompous lawyers, loose women, and Keystone cops, none of whom are ultimately able to exonerate him. (Maybe I'm a bit too close to it, but at one point, a pair of women taunting him from a window bore an uncanny resemblance to the Rhinemaidens poking fun at Alberich in Das Rheingold.) Even K's grisly demise at the end of a knife felt ripped from today's headlines.
For this production, OTSL imported the creative team from Covent Garden, including director Michael McCarthy and set/costume designer Simon Banham, whose opted for a minimalist staging, save for a closet at the rear jam packed with files and papers (inspired by Orson Welles' 1961 film adaptation.) The young cast occasionally went a bit overboard in their attempt to ham things up for burlesque laughs, but there were some real standout performances, including soprano Susannah Biller (Fraulein Bürstner/Leni) and especially baritone Theo Hoffman (K.), who, having just turned 24, clearly has a bright future ahead of him.
Underneath it all was Philip's music, with its familiar repetition and forward momentum, played flawlessly by the St. Louis Symphony under Carolyn Kuan, making her OTSL debut. As I sat there, it occurred to me that Philip's music has become so familiar, so prevalent over the past 50 years, we run the risk of taking it for granted, as if it's always been there. Until you realize that this music didn't exist before him: he created it, and once he's gone, it will be, too. Fortunately, even though he turned 80 earlier this year, Philip isn't showing any signs of slowing down, with a hefty slate of film and theatre projects (including a production of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are", to premiere in 2019) that will keep him busy for years to come. Can't wait to see what's next.
More pics on the photo page.