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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 sung in English and accompanied by the Grammy Award-winning St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Performances take place in the intimate Loretto-Hilton Center and audiences gather in the surrounding gardens for pre-show picnics and post-show champagne with artists.

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 2022 Festival Season, Opera Theatre will have presented 33 world premieres — which may be the highest percentage of new work in the repertory of any U.S. company.

Julia Bullock as Destiny/Loneliness in Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2019).

Our Mission

Opera Theatre’s mission is to shape a vibrant future for opera by connecting, inspiring, and entertaining our communities through the power and beauty of the art form; to foster the next generation by empowering a diverse group of artists, artisans, and administrators at the highest level; and to make opera accessible and inclusive through innovative and collaborative storytelling that reflects, engages, and strengthens the St. Louis community, and attracts national and international audiences.

How OTSL Got Its Start

A scene from OTSL's very first opening night (1976).

Ron Raines, Peter Strummer, Sheri Greenawald, and Vinson Cole in Don Pasquale, OTSL's very first production (1976). Photo © Bill Smith

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis was founded in the spring of 1976 by a small group of opera lovers determined to bring festival-quality opera to the St. Louis area. With a budget of $135,000, we presented an 11-performance season of familiar and unconventional operas 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, and fewer than 200 people had actually paid for tickets to hear the opening night performance of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Board members handed out free tickets to employees, neighbors, acquaintances…anyone who they thought might attend. 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. Even from that 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 ever to be invited to perform at the Edinburgh Festival. In 2011, Opera Theatre received national recognition for a critically acclaimed and artistically sensitive production of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. In 2021, the Metropolitan Opera opened its season with the opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones — originally commissioned by and premiered at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2019 — and the first work by a Black composer and Black librettist to be seen on the Met’s stage.

Opera Theatre is also highly regarded for its long tradition of discovering and promoting the careers of the finest artists of the next generation. Each year, more than 1,000 aspiring singers apply to join the Gerdine Young Artist and Gaddes Festival Artist programs and fewer than 40 are accepted. Backstage talent is developed 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 came to Opera Theatre early in their careers, artists such as Jamie Barton, Larry Brownlee, Vinson Cole, Christine Goerke, Susan Graham, Denyce Graves, Thomas Hampson, Patricia Racette, Morris Robinson, and others.

In recent seasons, the Chicago Tribune has called OTSL “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.”

Julia Bullock, Jeremy Denis, and Davone Tines hold up a golden button in Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2019).

Julia Bullock, Jeremy Denis, and Davóne Tines in Fire Shut Up in My Bones (2019). Photo © Camille Mahs

Over the years, Opera Theatre has developed both a national and an international following. Audiences in any given season have included visitors from as many as 48 states and 17 countries and international press coverage has been considerable. As a destination for cultural tourism, Opera Theatre generates more than $17 million in annual indirect revenue for the region.

Opera Theatre has always been known for 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). Artistic leadership of the company has also built OTSL’s reputation for world-class productions, thanks to former Artistic Director Colin Graham (1985-2007) and current Artistic Director James Robinson (2009-present).

Our Values

Excellence

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.

Approachability

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.

Civic Impact

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.

Innovation

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.

Fiscal Responsibility

The Opera Theatre way is all about sustaining artistic vitality through responsible financial stewardship.

Fun

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.

Learn More About OTSL