Front + Center: 7.24.19
scott schoonover » union avenue opera
One of St. Louis’ most innovative cultural experiences, Union Avenue Opera, can be found in an unconventional place. The company offers traditional and contemporary productions each summer at Union Avenue Christian Church, a century-old Central West End landmark. In 2019, the opera is celebrating 25 years of entertaining audiences, mentoring new artists and attracting renowned talent (including soprano Christine Brewer, who recently appeared in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide). Founding artistic director Scott Schoonover says the unusual space and stirring voices blend perfectly for an intimate but powerful theatrical experience.
How has the company evolved?
I started it after graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University and moving to St. Louis at age 22. I was looking for an opera conducting experience and began working with the Arts Group of Union Avenue Christian Church to form a company. The first show we put on was Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Our initial budget was $5,000, and the first auditions drew 17 people. The cast and I helped create the set and costumes, and we staged six performances with about 50 attendees each. In 2007, we held a capital campaign with the church and raised $500,000 for building and stage improvements. Today, the opera is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and has its own board of directors. We audition about 400 singers annually and had a wait list of 120 people this year.
How is it supported?
It’s a very grassroots company. There are many sponsors and individual donors who give mainly in smaller amounts. We also get grants from organizations like the Regional Arts Commission and Missouri Arts Council. We have to be subtle about private fundraising; basically, we quietly encourage people to give what they can, when they can. UAO doesn’t have a multimillion-dollar budget like other companies, but we have enough to do wonderful productions and pay performers well.
What opportunities does it provide?
We work with well-known artists, and we also hire talented young vocalists who need experience; that’s part of our mission. For example, we may get emerging singers who are doing well but only landing small parts. This company gives them opportunities for lead roles working with an orchestra and full chorus. They get to see how the process works, and because it’s a smaller company, they’re not taking as much of a risk as they might be somewhere else. We also work with students, offering undergraduate outreach programs, coaching, classes and recitals.
How are you celebrating the anniversary?
We will have a gala Oct. 10 at The Barnett on Washington Avenue with a cocktail hour, hors d’oeuvres, dinner and auction. UAO alumni Kenneth Overton, Elise Quagliata and Marsha Thompson will perform. We don’t put on this kind of event often, so it will be a big deal for the company!
What is it like staging opera in a church?
We transform the space and make it very intimate and special. Subtitles are projected in English so guests can follow along, and there are opportunities to meet the artists afterward. The space offers great acoustics, and no audience member is far from the stage, so everyone gets to experience the show fully. The capital campaign allowed us to install an orchestra pit and enlarge the stage. Before, the orchestra had to sit in front of the stage, which wasn’t ideal; the music sometimes came across as too loud. Now, the singers and musicians can balance their sound more effectively. We still don’t have some traditional theater features like wings, but we are creative with what we have. The changes have allowed us to do much more on stage, and we continue to move forward artistically.
Photo: Bill Barrett