Skip to main content

Blog Post: February 13, 2023

Living, Breathing Opera: The New Works Collective

New Works Collective December Workshop - Performance Ensemble, Dec 19, 2022.

“When you think about Opera, it is a very traditional art…and we’re these troublemakers coming to reshape that a little bit.” Simon Tam, New Works Collective composer and librettist, said reflecting on his commission with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. 

Opera Theatre loves troublemakers like Simon and the rest of the New Works Collective cohort.  They’re the best kind — they’re visionaries, helping us to push this glorious art form forward. Opera has a long tradition of who writes the stories and who commissions them. New Works Collective seeks to flip that on its head. “There is a way to reframe stories that we’ve heard our whole lives or art forms we’ve heard our whole lives and present it through a different lens,“ Tam continues to say. This March 16th  will be the world premiere of the inaugural New Works Collective operas. Selected by a group of St. Louis community leaders, these stories are winning hearts and weaving opera with new voices. 

Cook Shack creators Samiya Bashir (librettist) and Del’Shawn Taylor (composer) have created a story celebrating the joy and power in the precious relationship between youth and their role models. A young girl named Dayo is struggling to break through the noise of “not being good enough”. She finds strength through a magical encounter with three groundbreaking historical Black women whose inventions changed the world. By sharing their stories, all four “superwomen” offer each other healing. “I think it is good for people to know that there is a show that is alive, that’s about the struggles of being a Black woman in this world,“ said soprano Flora Hawk, who sings the role of Dayo. “There is a lot of heartache that comes generationally…and even though Dayo is 11, there is a lot of emotion in the room.” Composer Del’Shawn Taylor understands that. “I hope it is a gift for Black women,” he said. “I hope that they feel loved, honored, and respected.“ 

New Works Collective December Workshop - Librettist Samiya Bashir in rehearsal, Dec 19, 2022.

New Works Collective December Workshop - Tre'von Griffith in joyful conversation with singers in second row and creators in first row L to R Samiya Bashir, Del'Shawn Taylor, Simon Tam, and Joe X. Jiang, Dec 19, 2022. Photo © Philip Deitch

In Slanted: An American Rock Opera, Simon Tam and his bandmate Joe X. Jiang recount Tam’s real-life journey to the Supreme Court to fight for the right to name his Portland-based band “The Slants.” The name is in reclamation of a racial slur targeting Asian Americans and is intended to “drain it of its venom”. It took seven years, but Tam won that battle in 2017. Though the opera is about his story, Tam believes that “[it is] an open letter to anyone who has felt less than, who felt like they went into spaces and had to justify their presence or their experience there.” 

Madison Lodge by St. Louis native Tre’von Griffith celebrates Black queer joy and drag ball culture of 1920’s Harlem. The story’s hero, X, travels from the South to their sister in Harlem. They discover their sister to be a drag king at Madison Lodge, a club where X also finds a supportive community and learns to celebrate their authentic self. Madison Lodge is vibrant, swinging, and transformative. For Griffith, this opera is deeply heartfelt: “This is going to mean so much to not only me but to the Black queer community as a whole, and in general to the St. Louis community. This is really my love letter.” 

The New Works Collective offers a stage to the conversations of today. “With contemporary composers, you get such fresh ideas about who we are as people,” said Keith Klein, bass-baritone for Slanted: An American Rock Opera and Madison Lodge. The traditional art form of opera is rooted in the power and beauty of the human voice. The stories told are up to us now. This spring, these operas will carry their unique stories into our hearts and create, perhaps, a little more understanding of each other, and of ourselves. Samiya Bashir reflects on why she is beyond thrilled to be here for the New Works Collectives. “I love opera. I love performance, and I love collaboration. It is the best of all these worlds.”  

We couldn’t agree more.