Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"The Merry Widow" opens Friday night at UAO

Who needs a glass slipper and a prince when you have The Merry Widow with a castle full of extravagant wealth? This whimsical Franz Lehár operetta features memorable music, delightful comedy and romance as it follows the tale of a temperamental widow in search of a new husband. Lovers’ crazy trysts, lavish parties, spirited hijinks and political intrigue make this joyful operetta one not to be missed.

(Pictured above & below: Ian Greenlaw & Sylvia Stoner; Photos: Wayne Crosslin)

St. Louis audiences have been treated to The Merry Widow since its 1905 premiere at diverse venues—The MUNY and Opera Theatre St. Louis to name a couple—but Union Avenue Opera, in keeping with its mission statement, presents the first ever original language (German) production in St. Louis.

For a full synopsis of the operetta, please click here.

Familiar faces abound in this Union Avenue Opera production. Soprano Sylvia Stoner—Marguerite in 2004’s Faust—sings Hanna Glawari (the title role). Baritone Ian Greenlaw—Marcello in 2006’s La Bohème—sings Danilo, Hanna’s on-again-off-again suitor. Baritone Scott Levin, seen last year as Dancaïro in Carmen, sings the comic role of Baron Zeta. Also from last year’s Carmen is Soprano Ann Hoyt who sings the role of Valencienne, Zeta’s wife. Tenor Thomas Wazelle makes his UAO debut as Camille de Rosillon, Valencienne’s secret lover. (Hoyt and Wazelle are engaged to be married within a few days of closing night!) Tenor James Harr and Baritone David Dillard round out the cast as Raoul de Saint-Brioche and Vicompte Cascada—diplomats determined to marry Hanna.

Jolly Stewart directs; Scott Schoonover conducts; Designers: Patrick Huber (set/lighting) and Teresa Doggett (costumes).

A free lecture on the operetta will be given opening night (July 31) at 7pm in the Chapel of Union Avenue Christian Church.

Die lustige Witwe ("The Merry Widow") runs July 31, August 1, 7, 8, & 9(m). Performances begin at 8pm, except for a 3pm Matinee on August 9th. Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church located at 733 Union Blvd in St. Louis. Sung in German with projected English supertitles. To purchase tickets or learn more about this production, please visit the Union Avenue Opera Website or call 314.361.2881

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Interview with 'Widow' Director Jolly Stewart

Operatic Saint Louis recently interviewed Jolly Stewart, stage director of Union Avenue Opera’s Die lustige Witwe ("The Merry Widow") about the production and her directorial approach. In addition to her position as Principal Stage Director with UAO, Stewart is on the performance faculty at Washington University, where she directs the opera program, coaches acting and diction, and maintains a voice studio. She has been involved with UAO since its earliest years of existence. The Merry Widow marks her twelfth production with the company.

Operatic Saint Louis: You have a bit of a career history with The Merry Widow, both as a singer (having sung the title role, Hanna Glawari) and stage director. What qualities or elements of this operetta resonate with you?

Jolly Stewart: I love Lehár’s music and very romantic story. There is something about a romance between two more mature lovers that I find irresistible and absolutely delicious to play around with.

OSL: How does your past experience with Widow inform your approach to this current production?

JS: I feel that everything about ones past informs a reaction to and outlook on any artistic project. As you grow older and have more life experiences, you see romance as something that should be cherished and cultivated. When I sang Hanna Glawari, I was in real life a widow in my thirties. At the time combining that state with my years spent in Germany and Austria, I thought I could bring more to the role than some. Who knows whether I did, or not. But now that I have spent time with the piece over many years and helped several Hannas find their way into this marvelous role, I see many more qualities in the character’s personalities than I probably did all those years ago. The humor that maturity brings and the patience with which to wait out Danilo’s coming around is obviously part of the tension in the opera and the delight in seeing it.

OSL: Union Avenue Opera has a long-standing mission of presenting opera in its original language. Thus, this production of The Merry Widow will be sung in German, a unique occurrence among American opera companies which normally present an English translation of the piece. What sorts of challenges arise in presenting this operetta in its original language?

JS: Scott Schoonover and I had several chats/talks/go-arounds on the subject of spoken text in English or German. His commitment to operas being performed in the original language prevailed. A few nights ago, in front of many witnesses, I confessed that it was the right choice. The singers have been super diligent about coaching the German very thoroughly. In fact Sylvia Stoner-Hawkins, the widow, made a special trip here to spend the afternoon over our kitchen table working the text. She was already very very well prepared.

Trying for German inflection and line readings has been important to me and everyone has been extremely cooperative, sometimes going over and over certain tricky places. I have been tremendously impressed and gratified by the hard work everyone has done.

OSL: What are the advantages of an original language production?

JS: No matter how good a translation is, it almost never fits with the music as well as the original language does. There are some exceptions where the composer has written for two languages, but that is rare. One of the more difficult projects we have done at UAO was a few years back, Eugene Onegin in Russian. We had wonderful Alla Voskoboynikova coaching the language and playing the rehearsals. Sylvia, who has a very good ear for language, was also in this one, singing beautifully the role of Tatyana. Russian literature has always been fascinating to me, so there were many qualities I wanted to see and hear incorporated into this piece. Certainly hearing it in Russian supplied lots of the flavor I was looking for.

OSL: In working with designers Patrick Huber (sets/lighting) and Teresa Doggett (costumes), what style and era have you set this production?

JS: We chose approximately the same time period that Lehár did [ca. 1905]. The costumes at this point in history are so gorgeous and add so much to the feel of the characters. A man in a uniform is almost irresistible (especially when it is worn by Ian Greenlaw) and beautiful women in flowing graceful gowns ....yummy!

Patrick Huber called up one day and excitedly told me the reference he was working with. We always work from art and architecture ideas and find a look we think will work for whatever opera we are producing. This time it was the Horta House in Brussels. During a visit to Brussels when my husband John Stewart was singing Pelleas at the Monnaie, we had spent several hours in this very house admiring the architecture and the beautiful art nouveau decoration.

OSL: How has it been to work with your cast over the past weeks?

JS: A total delight! The energy and enthusiasm has been phenomenal.

OSL: Viennese operetta often brings to mind images and conventions of musical comedy or early Broadway—in particular, a lot of dancing. The Merry Widow contains a famous, beloved waltz ("Lippen schweigen"), but what other kinds of dancing can audiences expect to see?

JS: Lots of dancing, absolutely. It’s a fun challenge for the singers. We have some terrific can-can dancers in this cast. The guys at one point do an early Hollywood movie-like dance. A little Fred and Ginger, some polkas, peasant dances, but most of all waltzes.

OSL: If appealing to the "man on the street" about why they should come to see The Merry Widow, what would your sales pitch be?

JS: Come see one of the most romantic stories in all of opera combined with ravishingly beautiful tune-filled music. You’ll go away singing the music for days.

Die lustige Witwe runs July 31, August 1, 7, 8, 9(m). Performances begin at 8pm, except for a 3pm Matinee on August 9th. Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church located at 733 Union Blvd in St. Louis. Sung in German with projected English supertitles. To purchase tickets or learn more about this production, please visit the Union Avenue Opera Website or call 314.361.2881

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

UAO "Merry Widow" In Rehearsal

For over a week now, the cast of Union Avenue Opera's Die lustige Witwe ("The Merry Widow") has been in rehearsal. Take a look at slideshow of the artists.

Die lustige Witwe runs July 31, August 1, 7, 8, 9(m). Performances begin at 8pm, except for a 3pm Matinee on August 9th. Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church located at 733 Union Blvd in St. Louis. Sung in German with projected English supertitles. To purchase tickets or learn more about this production, please visit the Union Avenue Opera Website or call 314.361.2881

Sunday, July 19, 2009

UAO hosts 'Kaffee Und Kuchen' this Saturday

This Saturday, Union Avenue Opera will be hosting Kaffee und Kuchen, a yummy educational opportunity in conjunction with UAO's upcoming production of The Merry Widow. Operagoers both veteran and novice are all welcome!

Guests will meet UAO principal artists, take a tour of the new sets for The Merry Widow, hear a presentation on the opera, listen to musical excerpts, and view costumes up close.

Iced tea, coffee and desserts will be served.

WHEN: Saturday, July 25, 11:00AM

WHERE: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd, St. Louis 63108

HOW MUCH?: $15 per person and children under 10 FREE!

Please RSVP @ 314.361.2881

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

UAO Profile: Alexandra LoBianco

Soprano Alexandra LoBianco has made two debuts in Union Avenue Opera's Il Trovatore. Not only did she make a role debut as the noblewoman Leonora, but this has also been her debut as a soprano.

Her portrayal has earned high praise from Sarah Bryan Miller of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

"There’s no reason to do [Il Trovatore] without the right singers, and the Leonora of soprano Alexandra LoBianco definitely qualified. . . . LoBianco exhibited a true Verdian voice of velvet-covered steel, effortlessly tossing off trills and roulades. She really developed as a character, too, blazing through the second half."

Steve Callahan of KDHX commented:

"[I]t is soprano Alexandra LoBianco who runs triumphantly away with the evening’s laurels in the role of Leonora. Hers is a remarkably strong, clear, pure and open voice that rises easily to all of Verdi’s challenges. Hers is the voice that soars out over and above all the other fine voices in the cast. And as the story proceeds Ms. LoBianco shows all the flashing-eyed passion appropriate to the role."
In a recent interview with West End Word, LoBianco shares her insights on portraying such a classic role:

"There is tradition and convention to opera, so I listen to a lot of old recordings," LoBianco said. "You listen to those things and you hear what they are doing, you pick and choose what you want to do with the character. You can't imitate, you must make them your own. That is the true artistry in opera, being able to create and build beyond what is on the page.

For the full West End Word story, click here.

Il Trovatore runs for two more performances this weekend: July 17 & 18. All performances begin at 8pm; Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 N. Union Blvd, St. Louis. Tickets can be purchased by calling 314.361.2881 or by visiting

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"Il Trovatore" opens Friday night at UAO

Union Avenue Opera opens its fifteenth season with the Italian masterpiece Il Trovatore ("The Troubadour"), in which fast-paced action is propelled by an irresistible stream of haunting melody. Verdi's favorite themes of destiny and desire are threaded through this suspenseful story of a corrupt count, a dashing troubadour and a gypsy who plots to avenge her mother's wrongful death. St. Louis audiences have not seen a production of Il Trovatore since 1935 when the Metropolitan Opera brought a touring production to the Kiel Opera House. For a full synopsis of the opera please click here.

(Photo: Alexandra LoBianco & Eric Ashcraft)

Tenor Eric Ashcraft, who UAO audiences will remember as Calaf in 2004's Turandot, returns to sing Manrico (the troubadour). Two singers making their UAO debut include Baritone Thomas Beard as Conte di Luna (the count) and Soprano Alexandra LoBianco as the noblewoman Leonora. Mezzo-soprano Veronica McHale, last seen as La Zia Principessa in 2007's Suor Angelica, sings the crazed gypsy Azucena. Rounding out the cast, Bass Patrick Blackwell--Ludovico in last season's Otello--sings the role of Ferrando, the count's right hand man.

In a recent article from Sarah Bryan Miller of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, UAO Artistic Director/Conductor Scott Schoonover discusses the challenges and strategy of bringing a large-scale opera into the theatrical space of Union Avenue Christian Church:

[Il Trovatore is] one of the grandest of grand operas, and might seem a surprising choice for a company whose theater is comfortable but on the small side, with a stage and pit that won't accommodate large forces.

"It's probably not what Verdi had in mind, in terms of huge chorus numbers," said artistic director Scott Schoonover, who's doing it with just 16 choristers. "On a big stage, it wouldn't work."

Schoonover, who will conduct, said he's made up for it by selecting singers with big voices and by commissioning a new chamber version of the score. The orchestration is by Californian Bryan Higgins, who successfully shrank Puccini's "Suor Angelica" and "Gianni Schicchi." Higgins has reduced the orchestra to just 26 players.
Last week, UAO Artistic Director/Conductor Scott Schoonover, stage director Mark Meier and Soprano Alexandra LoBianco sat down with Steve Potter of Cityscape on 90.7 KWMU to discuss the production of Il Trovatore as well as the coming season. Click here to listen (interview located on July 3 archive, Segment A).

Il Trovatore opens Friday, July 10 and will run for three more performances on July 11, 17 & 18. All performances begin at 8pm and take place at Union Avenue Christian Church located at 733 N. Union Blvd in St. Louis. Sung in Italian with projected English supertitles.

To purchase tickets or find more information about Union Avenue Opera, please call 314.361.2881 or visit the UAO Website.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Union Avenue Opera: 15th Season Overview

Union Avenue Opera's 15th season commences this Friday evening with Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore.


Audiences this season at UAO embark on a journey to Spain, France, India, and eventually Bethlehem. Opening the season is Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore. Franz Lehár's Die lustige Witwe ("The Merry Widow") and Léo Delibes' Lakmé will follow. The season concludes in December with a holiday-inspired production of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors.


Chicago-based director Mark Meier stages the upcoming Il Trovatore. UAO Principal Stage Director Jolly Stewart returns this month to stage The Merry Widow. Kostis Protopapas, of Tulsa Opera, will be guest conductor of Lakmé, which will be staged by Scott Schoonover.


UAO is pleased to welcome back several singers of seasons past. Among them are Patricia Johnson (title role, Lakmé), Scott Levin (Baron Zeta, Merry Widow), Clark Sturdevant (Ruiz, Il Trovatore), David Dillard (Cascada, Merry Widow & Nilakantha, Lakmé), Patrick Blackwell (Ferrando, Il Trovatore), James Harr (Saint Brioche, Merry Widow), Roderick George (Gerald, Lakmé), Ian Greenlaw (Danilo, Merry Widow), Veronica McHale (Azucena, Il Trovatore), Eric Ashcraft (Manrico, Il Trovatore), Ann Hoyt (Valencienne, Merry Widow), Joy Boland (Ines, Il Trovatore) and Sylvia Stoner (Hanna Glawari, Merry Widow).

Singers making their debut with Union Avenue Opera this summer:
  • Mezzo-soprano Crystal Philippi (Mallika, Lakmé)
  • Baritone Thomas Beard (Conte di Luna, Il Trovatore)
  • Baritone Nathan Wentworth (Frédéric, Lakmé)
  • Soprano Alexandra LoBianco (Leonora, Il Trovatore)
  • Tenor Thomas Wazelle (Camille de Rosillon, Merry Widow)


This season, UAO offers two new exciting events in conjunction with its productions of The Merry Widow and Lakmé: Kaffee und Kuchen and High Tea. These events are informal educational opportunities for patrons to meet UAO principal artists, take tours of sets, see costumes up close, hear musical excerpts, listen to presentations on the operas and enjoy refreshments. For more information, visit the UAO Website (linked below) and visit this blog in the coming weeks.


Il Trovatore runs July 10, 11, 17 & 18. All performances begin at 8pm and take place at Union Avenue Christian Church located at 733 N. Union Blvd in St. Louis. Sung in Italian with projected English supertitles.

To purchase tickets or find more information about UAO, please call 314.361.2881 or visit