Mission & History
Welcome to Opera Theatre!
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) is known for its local impact, national presence, and global resonance.
Every year, we produce a spring festival season of inventive new productions. Every production is sung in English and accompanied by the Grammy Award-winning St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Performances take place in the intimate Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University. Before and after the shows, audiences gather in lush gardens for picnics and cocktails.
Opera Theatre has a long tradition of discovering the finest young singers and promoting the work of living American librettists and composers. As of the 2023 Festival Season, Opera Theatre will have presented 37 world premieres — which may be the highest percentage of new work in the repertory of any U.S. company.
How OTSL Got Its Start
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis was born in the spring of 1976. The company’s founders were music lovers who were determined to bring high-quality opera to St. Louis. The first season began small with a budget of $135,000. OTSL presented an 11-performance season sung in English by outstanding artists.
The first season opened on May 22, 1976. No one knew what to expect of this new opera company. Fewer than 200 people purchased tickets to the very first performance (Donizetti’s Don Pasquale). Board members handed out free tickets to employees, neighbors, and acquaintances. But that night’s audience agreed in no uncertain terms: the production was a smash success. By the end of the three-week season, OTSL was playing to sold-out houses. Right from the very first season, Opera Theatre was doing things differently, presenting rare works such as Mozart’s The Impresario and Britten’s Albert Herring.
The momentum continued to build as word got around that something interesting was happening in St. Louis. The New Yorker sent esteemed music critic Andrew Porter to review the 1977 season, and he liked what he saw. He said of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, “I have never seen a better performance of that opera anywhere,” and described Opera Theatre as “fresh, welcoming, artistically serious, and quite unpompous.” In 1978, music critic Alan Rich called Opera Theatre “one of the true jewels of the operatic firmament.”
And it went on from there. By 1978, members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra were playing in the pit for all productions. In 1983, Opera Theatre became the first American company to perform at the Edinburgh Festival. In 2011, Opera Theatre received critical acclaim for its production of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. In 2019, Opera Theatre premiered the opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard. In 2021, this opera would open the Metropolitan Opera’s 2021 season — the first work by a Black composer to be seen on the Met’s stage.
Opera Theatre has a long tradition of discovering and nurturing the finest artists of the next generation. More than 1,000 aspiring singers apply every year to join OTSL’s Young Artist Programs. Fewer than 40 are accepted. OTSL also cultivates backstage talent through the Emerson Behind the Curtain Program and the Larry & Jinny Browning Technical Fellowships. The annual roster of the Metropolitan Opera regularly includes as many as 60 artists whose have previously appeared at OTSL. Notable alumni include Jamie Barton, Larry Brownlee, Vinson Cole, Christine Goerke, Susan Graham, Denyce Graves, Thomas Hampson, Patricia Racette, Morris Robinson, and many more.
Recently, the Chicago Tribune praised OTSL as “the go-to summer festival for audience members seeking interesting, varied repertory.” Opera Today also praised OTSL’s legacy of innovation, saying, “If opera is to remain a viable, accessible 21st century art form, it will be largely owing to the commitment of visionary companies like Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.”
Over the years, Opera Theatre has developed an international following. Audiences have traveled to OTSL from all 50 states and more than 17 countries. As a destination for cultural tourism, Opera Theatre generates more than $17 million in annual indirect revenue for the region.
One critical factor in Opera Theatre’s success is its history of distinguished leadership. Since our founding, OTSL has been led by just four general directors: Richard Gaddes (1976-1985), Charles MacKay (1985-2008), Timothy O’Leary (2008-2018), and Andrew Jorgensen (2018-present). OTSL’s reputation also relies on world-class productions and artistic leadership. Colin Graham (1985-2007) was the company’s first Artistic Director; his successor is current Artistic Director James Robinson (2009-present). Opera Theatre’s current artistic leadership team also includes Artistic Director of Young Artist Programs Patricia Racette, and Principal Conductor Daniela Candillari.
We believe in creating, interpreting, and performing world-class opera productions combining great music and great theater.
One of our most important goals is to identify and nurture outstanding artistic, technical, and managerial talent.
At Opera Theatre, you know meticulous preparation has gone into each production.
Our history was built on casting emerging and established singers who are vocally and dramatically appropriate to their roles.
We wholeheartedly believe in continuous improvement, so we’re constantly assessing ways to improve our work.
OTSL offers a diverse repertory that encompasses standard operas, contemporary operas, and new works in a variety of production styles ranging from traditional to avant-garde.
We champion opera in the language of the audience, since opera is for the masses.
We strive to create a festival setting that is engaging, accessible, and exciting.
Audience, artists, staff, volunteers, and board members are all welcomed as colleagues in the creative adventure.
In addition to our annual festival season, we present high quality year-round education and community engagement programs whose effectiveness enhances the vitality and connectedness of our community.
OTSL helps to strengthen the economy of the region with employment opportunities, support for local businesses, and appeal as a destination for national and international tourists.
We develop partnerships with local businesses, educational institutions, arts companies, and other organizations to extend the quality and reach of our offerings and leverage our unique resources within and beyond the company.
It’s not just about the art form…our work introduces people to new opportunities through education and exposure to unique career possibilities.
Diversity and Inclusion
We intentionally program a varied range of work for a broad spectrum of humanity.
We are committed to better reflecting the diversity of our community in our audience, staff, board, volunteers, and supporters.
OTSL fosters respect, appreciation, and common purpose across differences in age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, religion, ability, and creed.
It’s at the core of what we do to support new approaches and new works.
For decades, we have been dedicated to developing the next generation of artists and audiences through exceptional professional development and community engagement.
The Opera Theatre way is all about sustaining artistic vitality through responsible financial stewardship.
Last but never least, we at Opera Theatre believe in creating a joyful and stimulating environment in which artists, staff, volunteers, and audiences alike will thrive, laugh, and flourish.