In 1995, Scott Schoonover had a simple idea. He would organize a summer production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas to give emerging artists an opportunity to perform in St. Louis. Thus, Union Avenue Opera was born. Almost 30 years later, the company and Schoonover, its artistic director, are still dedicated to bringing St. Louis remarkable performances each summer while giving performers the chance to shine.
What motivated you to found Union Avenue Opera?
I had just graduated and moved to St. Louis for a job at Union Avenue Christian Church. I wanted to create an opportunity to give other emerging artists a chance to develop their skills and perform. That is a big part of Union Avenue Opera’s mission. For many of the artists we feature, this is their first time performing these roles. They’re in the early stages of their careers. We started out small with only one show that first summer, but we saw success. Working with Union Avenue Christian Church, we’ve been able to renovate the performance space, even putting in an orchestra pit. It really is a grassroots effort. We’ve been able to grow sustainability thanks to the support of the community.
Why is it important to bring opera experiences to St. Louis?
It’s always powerful when you can tell stories from unique perspectives through art. It inspires people to think differently about things. With opera, you are always telling a story, and we have a platform that allows people to look at their lives differently—from who they are as a person to what St. Louis is as a community. Music really allows you to feel vulnerable and connect with a narrative in a special way that’s different from what a traditional play offers. Union Avenue Opera also pulls from the local talent we have here—whether it’s performers, orchestra members or technical support.
What goes into planning a season?
When planning a season, we want to bring in different perspectives, periods and styles. We also try to feature different languages. All of our performances are in the original language, and we project supertitles on a screen so people can follow along. We want to offer as diverse an experience as possible. Planning for each summer season starts a year in advance. We select the shows and hold auditions in St. Louis and New York. For each production, we have performers arrive three weeks before we open. There is a two-week rehearsal period, and the third is production week.
Your final production of this season is Ragtime.
The show is Aug. 18, 19, 25 and 26. It really offers a snapshot of life in 1900 while its themes of racial injustice remain just as relevant today. It follows three groups in New York: the upper class in New Rochelle, African Americans in Harlem and immigrants. Ragtime music is the pulse that weaves everything together. It’s a big production with a 42-person cast made of mostly people from St. Louis. A cool thing about Ragtime is that it’s got a local connection. The character Coalhouse Walker Jr. is a ragtime pianist from St. Louis who knew Scott Joplin.
How can people support Union Avenue Opera?
One of the main ways is by buying a ticket. As a nonprofit, we also take donations. Through the end of August, one of our board members is matching gifts up to $25,000, so now is a great time to donate. We also have volunteers for every night of our performances. There’s a quick training each evening, and you get to see the show for free. You can sign up to participate on our Facebook.
Pictured at top: Debby Lennon, Marc Schapman and Nyghél J. Byrd in Union Avenue Opera’s production of Ragtime
Photo: Dan Donovan Photography