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Blog Post: September 13, 2022

A Harmonious Partnership: Opera Theatre and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

The Elements of Opera 

When you think of opera, you’re likely to imagine soaring sopranos, elaborate costumes, and staging that transports you to different locations and time periods. Opera wouldn’t be the powerful art form it is without those elements. Another crucial element, however, is the group of musicians in the orchestra pit! As our General Director Andrew Jorgensen likes to say, “An opera company is only as good as its orchestra.” Here at Opera Theatre, we’re fortunate to have one of the best orchestras in the United States in our pit each Festival Season: the Grammy Award-winning St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.  

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work 

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) has been the official orchestra of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis since our third season in 1978. This kind of partnership is rare in America, where most opera companies form their own orchestra from local freelance musicians or from members of various orchestras around the country. Having our orchestra in our proverbial backyard is certainly convenient, but it’s more than just the convenience that matters.   

A Finely Tuned, Well Oiled Machine 

The majority of the musicians in the SLSO have been a part of that orchestra for many, many years — for some, even decades — and with that consistency comes a musical familiarity between the musicians. In other words, they know how to play well together…as evidenced by their nine Grammy wins! Along with their mastery of all the great symphonies and concertos, the SLSO is incredibly fluent in and familiar with the operatic repertoire. After the SLSO finishes their season in May, they move immediately into OTSL’s Festival Season, ready and raring to go.  

A Boon for Opera’s Rising Stars 

For our Gerdine Young Artist Program (which is comprised every summer of 30-35 early career singers who form our chorus, sing small roles, and cover all lead parts), it’s not every day that young professionals get to sing with one of America’s most renowned orchestras! It’s a rare and invaluable experience for these rising stars, who are preparing for major international careers.  

Who Decides on What?  

There are some serious logistics when it comes to combining two of St. Louis’ largest arts organizations! Each season, the two organizations agree on a contract that outlines the number of rehearsals and performances details when and where each type of rehearsal takes place, and how long rehearsals should last. There are many, many more items within this contract, all of which are crucial to ensuring a smooth collaborative process. One of the most crucial elements is the division of the orchestra. The SLSO is composed of around 90 musicians but gets divided into two “splits” during our season. One split plays our first and third operas, and the other plays the second and fourth. (They combine for our Center Stage concert.) The exact number of musicians in each split depends on which opera they are doing! For example, an opera by Verdi will usually require a much larger winds and brass section than a Mozart opera. 

Time to Jam 

When it comes to rehearsing, it’s an important process for the singers and orchestra alike! While the singers spend their early weeks rehearsing with pianists, the two splits are rehearsing with each production’s respective conductor (often in the SLSO’s own beautiful hall, Powell Hall, or in one of OTSL’s rehearsal halls). After a set number of orchestra-only rehearsals, the singers from each opera join their respective orchestra for their first rehearsal together, called a sitzprobe (“seated rehearsal”). In this rehearsal, the focus is on integrating the singers and orchestra, and there’s no staging of the drama; the singers typically sit or stand depending on whether they are singing in that moment. After this rehearsal comes the wandelprobe (“wandering rehearsal”). During a wandelprobe, singers may do a light run-through of staging for the opera, meaning that they use rough props, walk around the stage to get a feel for the space, but still focus primarily on blending their voice with orchestra. Finally, there are two orchestra dress rehearsals a few days apart, which are full run-throughs of the opera with complete costumes, props, and sets. Two days after the final orchestra dress rehearsal, it’s time for opening night!  

STL Love 

When you attend our Festival Season, you’re not just supporting OTSL. You’re also supporting the SLSO! What could be more #STLMade than that!  

Critical Acclaim 

Professional opera critics pay attention to more than just the singers and their acting; they also care deeply about how the orchestra sounds. The SLSO has received critical acclaim for their playing during our Festival Season from outlets such as The New York Times, Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, New Criterion, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and more. 

Want to Know More? 

If you’re curious to know more about this collaboration, you’re in luck! The SLSO invited OTSL to talk about our historic partnership in two videos: Lunch & Learn with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra: Bringing Opera to Life from 2021, and SLSO Stories Live: Opera and Orchestra from 2022. Happy viewing!