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Opera Theatre announces New Works, Bold Voices

Composers Terence Blanchard, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Jack Perla will each premiere new works beginning in the 2013 season

October 29, 2012 – Timothy O’Leary, General Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, today announced a three-year cycle of world premiere operas by American composers, beginning with the company’s 2013 festival season in May.  The new operas are Champion by Terence Blanchard with libretto by Michael Cristofer (2013), Twenty-Seven by Ricky Ian Gordon with libretto by Michael Korie (2014), and Shalimar the Clown by Jack Perla, based on the novel by Salman Rushdie (2015).  The cycle is underwritten in part by a $1 million challenge grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Casting for the cycle includes two of the world’s most acclaimed mezzo-sopranos, Denyce Graves in Champion and Stephanie Blythe in Twenty-SevenChampion is a co-commission with Jazz St. Louis.  Casting and collaborators for Shalimar the Clown will be announced at a later date.

“Opera has lately entered an exuberant era of new works,” said Mr. O’Leary, “and Opera Theatre is excited to build on a 37-year tradition of adventurous programming. We call this cycle New Works, Bold Voices recognizing these tremendous composers, librettists, and singers, as well as the courageous characters they will depict.”

Mr. O’Leary continued, “Music Director Stephen Lord, Artistic Director James Robinson, and I consider it central to Opera Theatre’s mission to present American works, telling compelling stories of the modern era, exploring our common humanity through the special power of music and theatre.  I am deeply grateful to Opera Theatre’s audience and generous supporters who make this work possible.”

Champion is the first opera for Mr. Blanchard and Mr. Cristofer.  Mr. Blanchard is a five-time Grammy Award-winning jazz, film, and theatrical composer.  Mr. Cristofer is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, as well as an award-winning filmmaker and actor.  Mr. Gordon and Mr. Korie have collaborated on operas before, including their acclaimed The Grapes of Wrath which was premiered at the Minnesota Opera and has been performed in concert at Carnegie Hall.  Mr. Perla is known for his wide-ranging compositional style including symphonic, choral, and chamber music, as well as work in multiple jazz idioms.  His one-act opera Courtside was presented by the Houston Grand Opera as part of its Song of Houston project for HGOco, and his chamber opera Love/Hate has been performed in a co-production by the Opera Center of San Francisco Opera and ODC Theater.

At the completion of this cycle in 2015, Opera Theatre will mark its 40th anniversary season having produced 25 world premieres and 24 American premieres.  England’s Opera magazine recently described Opera Theatre as “one of the country’s most enterprising, off-centre festivals.  Indeed, it is hard to think of any other major opera festival on either side of the Atlantic that has so devoted itself to new work.”  Recent successes with works by composers John Adams, John Corigliano, Peter Ash, and Unsuk Chin have helped expand Opera Theatre’s audience, which is drawn from nearly 50 states and about a dozen foreign countries in addition to every zip code in the St. Louis metropolitan area. 



An opera in jazz

Music by Terence Blanchard

Libretto by Michael Cristofer

June 15, 19, 21, 25, 27, 30, 2013

 The Story

Emile Griffith was a three-time world welterweight champion and twice a world middleweight champion, fighting from the late 1950s into the 1970s.  However, one of his greatest professional triumphs – winning back the title from Benny “The Kid” Paret in 1962 – was also his greatest personal tragedy.  The seventeen punches he landed on Paret in seven seconds resulted in not only a knockout, but also a coma from which Paret would never recover.  Paret would die ten days later.  For Griffith, who had never wanted to be a boxer, the impact of the fight was devastating, and his career soon went downhill.

Before that life-changing televised fight, in a room full of press and officials, Paret had mocked Griffith with a derogatory term for homosexual.  Years later, Griffith’s sexuality was revealed after he was nearly killed by a gang outside a gay bar in New York. “I kill a man,” Griffith was quoted to have said, “and most people understand and forgive me. I love a man, and to so many people this is an unforgiveable sin.”  Much later in his life, beginning to suffer from dementia, Griffith met the son of his opponent, Benny Jr., who was two years old at the time of the match, and who forgave the aging champion.  In an inspiring, moving, and painful journey of self-discovery, Champion presents audiences with a contemporary tragic hero – a story of strength, courage, rage, regret, and compassion.

About Terence Blanchard

Renowned for his work as a composer of hauntingly beautiful jazz pieces for small ensembles, symphonic settings, film, and stage, Terence Blanchard has received five Grammy Awards, including the 2007 Large Ensemble Grammy for “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina).”  Most recently for film, he wrote the score to Lucasfilm’s Red Tails, which chronicled the story of the Tuskegee pilots and starred Cuba Gooding, Jr.  His music was also recently represented on Broadway with the score to Emily Mann’s new production of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Blair Underwood.  Champion is Mr. Blanchard’s first opera.

About Michael Cristofer

For playwright, filmmaker, and actor Michael Cristofer, the Champion libretto is also a first.  In 1977, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play for The Shadow Box.  Mr. Cristofer’s other plays include Breaking Up, Black Angel, The Lady and the Clarinet which starred Stockard Channing, and Amazing Grace starring Marsha Mason, which received the American Theater Critics Award for Best Play in 1997.  His work on such films as The Witches of Eastwick, Falling in Love, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and HBO’s Gia has earned him a Golden Globe, a Writer’s Guild Award, two Emmy nominations, and a best director award from the Director’s Guild of America.  Currently, he appears on the NBC drama Smash.

More information on Champion, including the cast and artistic team, is available at

The commissioning and development of Champion were made possible with a leadership gift from the Whitaker Foundation and with major support from the National Endowment for the Arts and OPERA America’s Opera Fund.

The production of Champion is made possible with a leadership gift from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and generous support from the Whitaker Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Phoebe Dent Weil.  New Voices for Opera, the audience development programming surrounding the project, is made possible by OPERA America’s Opera Fund and PNC Arts Alive.


Music by Ricky Ian Gordon

Libretto by Michael Korie

June, 2014

The Story

Twenty-Seven explores the story of Gertrude Stein’s life in Paris between World War I and World War II at her famous home at 27 Rue de Fleurus.  Destined to become a legendary author, poet, raconteuse, and patroness of the arts, Stein established in Paris one of the great salons of all time, hosting the most influential artists and personalities of her day.  She was particularly fond of those she dubbed “the lost generation” – a group of artists who came of age during World War I.  While they suffered its ravages, they also rose to the challenges of the interwar period to create many of the great works that defined the advent of Modernism.

The role of Gertrude Stein will be the centerpiece of the opera, sung by renowned mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe.  Ms. Blythe will be joined by a cast of four virtuosic singing actors who will change identities fluidly to portray those who surround Stein – from her brother Leo and her companion Alice B. Toklas to Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Juan Gris, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

About Ricky Ian Gordon

American composer Ricky Ian Gordon has quickly emerged as a leading writer of vocal music that spans art song, opera, and musical theater.  Mr. Gordon’s songs have been performed and/or recorded by such internationally renowned singers as Renee Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Nathan Gunn, Deborah Voigt, Elizabeth Futral, Judy Collins, Kelli O’Hara, Audra MacDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Nicole Cabell, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Frederica Von Stade, Andrea Marcovicci, Harolyn Blackwell, and Betty Buckley, among many others.  Recent productions of his work include Rappahannock County with libretto by Mark Campbell, Sycamore Trees for which he is the composer and lyricist, The Grapes of Wrath with libretto by Michael Korie and Orpheus and Euridice (OBIE Award) for which he is the librettist.  Renee Fleming premiered the orchestral version of his Night Flight To San Francisco, a setting of Harper’s final monologue from Tony Kushner’s Angels In America in March, and his Green Sneakers for Baritone, String Quartet, Empty Chair, and Piano, for which he is also the librettist, will have its New York premiere at Lincoln Center on April 6th, 2013.

About Michael Korie

Michael Korie writes librettos to operas and lyrics to musicals.  His libretto to composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath premiered to acclaim at Minnesota Opera followed by productions at Los Angeles Disney Concert Hall, Utah Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, and Carnegie Hall.  Librettos with composer Stewart Wallace include Harvey Milk (San Francisco Opera), Kabbalah (BAM Next Wave Festival) and Where’s Dick? (Houston Grand Opera). Lyrics include award-winning Broadway musical Grey Gardens, and this season’s Far From Heaven (Playwrights Horizons) and the UK production of Finding Neverland, all with composer Scott Frankel.  He teaches lyric-writing at Yale Drama School, and serves as an artistic advisor to emerging opera and theater composers and librettists at the American Lyric Theater and The Dramatists Guild.



Music by Jack Perla

Based on the novel by Salman Rushdie

June, 2015

The Story

Shalimar the Clown is based on Salman Rushdie’s acclaimed novel of the same title.  Its themes of personal and political power and betrayal are played against the story of three generations of women, beginning in the “paradise lost” of rural Kashmir and culminating in late 20th century Los Angeles.  Shalimar is a young Muslim Kashmiri known for his gregarious personality and his skill as a tightrope walker.  His Romeo-and-Juliet romance with a Hindu girl named Boonyi manages to meet with approval from their families and their village, but the romance is shattered when an American ambassador begins an affair with Boonyi.  Shalimar goes on to train as an assassin and seeks revenge not only on the ambassador but also the child of the affair, a daughter named India, who lives in California. 

Mr. Rushdie’s novel was a finalist for the 2005 Whitbread Book Awards, and has been described as “Rushdie’s greatest novel since The Satanic Verses” by The Los Angeles Times.  The novel’s magic-realist world incorporates Mr. Rushdie’s signature humor, balanced by a thrilling, sinister ending, which offers a glint of hope in the form of an unanswered question.  Mr. Perla has recorded and performed with many well-known artists in the Indian tradition, and plans to create a score that blends the contemporary Western opera tradition with that of traditional Indian sounds, employing the tabla and sitar in the orchestra and the exuberance of Bollywood films for large choral scenes.

About Jack Perla

San Francisco-based composer Jack Perla has forged a reputation for writing engaging, sophisticated, and accessible works using a palette that includes symphonic, operatic, choral, and chamber music, as well as multiple jazz idioms.  In 2010, Mr. Perla was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera for a one-act opera with playwright Eugenie Chan, for Song of Houston. Courtside was the first in that series and led to a second commission for the final opera of the series, with author Chitra Banerjee Divarakuni.  Love/Hate, commissioned by American Opera Projects, premiered in 2012 in a co-production with the Opera Center of San Francisco Opera and ODC Theater.  Other commissions include Belongings, a new one act opera for the Seattle Opera with Atlantic writer Jessica Murphy Moo, and Pretty Boy, commissioned by the Paul Dresher Ensemble.  Mr. Perla has received awards from the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition, American Composers Forum, Zellerbach Fund, Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund, James Irvine Foundation, American Music Center, Meet the Composer and Civic Orchestra of Chicago.  He is the 1997 recipient of the Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Composers Award, and earned his DMA at the Yale School of Music.


About Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is one of the leading American opera companies, known for a spring festival of inventive new productions, sung in English, featuring the finest American singers and accompanied by members of the St. Louis Symphony.  As of 2012 Opera Theatre has presented 22 world premieres and 23 American premieres – which may be the highest percentage of new work in the repertory of any U.S. company.  Described by The Sunday Times of London as “one of the few American companies worth the transatlantic fare,” Opera Theatre of Saint Louis annually welcomes visitors from nearly every state and close to a dozen foreign countries. Although the size of the theater typically limits box office income to less than a quarter of the budget, the company has consistently produced work of the highest quality while never accumulating a deficit.

Opera Theatre also has a long tradition of discovering and promoting the careers of the finest operatic artists of the current generation.  Among the artists who had important early opportunities at Opera Theatre are Christine Brewer, Susan Graham, Nathan Gunn, Patricia Racette, Thomas Hampson, Jerry Hadley, Dawn Upshaw, Sylvia McNair, Erie Mills, Dwayne Croft, Kelly Kaduce, and Lawrence Brownlee.  Opera Theatre has always been known for distinguished leadership: founding general director Richard Gaddes was succeeded in 1985 by general director Charles MacKay, with famed British stage director Colin Graham as artistic director and Stephen Lord (1992 – present) as music director.  Timothy O’Leary was named general director in October 2008 with acclaimed stage director James Robinson succeeding Colin Graham.  For more information, visit

 Opera Theatre gratefully acknowledges season presenting sponsor Wells Fargo Advisors.

Opera Theatre is a sustaining member of the Arts and Education Council of Greater Saint Louis, and receives major support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Missouri Arts Council.