Opera Theatre’s New Works Collective Tells Powerful, Modern Stories

The unique showcase features stories from writers of color that were chosen by the community

Mar 8, 2023 at 1:39 pm
click to enlarge Composer Simon Tam (left) and stage director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj.
Composer Simon Tam (left) and stage director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis does a lot to remind folks that opera isn’t stodgy, it isn’t old and it isn’t dead. Instead, opera is an art form that can be used to tell powerful modern stories. That’s what Opera Theatre will showcase with its New Works Collective, three 20-minute operas about three very different stories that run Thursday, March 16, through Saturday, March 18.

“Usually, in the industry it's an institution, and often a white institution, telling BIPOC artists, this is what you can do,” said Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, the stage director for the New Works Collective.

In order to avoid that pitfall, Opera Theater took a different approach: Community members selected the operas from more than 100 pitches. “Insofar as I know, it’s the first time in the opera world that anybody has really partnered with the community and given that authority to the community in this way,” Opera Theater’s general director Andrew Jorgenson said to St. Louis Magazine. The process pushed Jorgenson and others at Opera Theater out of their comfort zones, making it an “incredibly meaningful experience for us to undertake.”

The resulting operas are from people of color and artists who may not have opera in their backgrounds. They cover issues and events that may be unfamiliar to most people: the drag ball community in Harlem in the 1920s, Black female inventors of the 20th century and a Supreme Court battle over a band name.

“By giving the power to the community, it was the first time where the community felt they had a voice, and chose these artists that, let’s be perfectly frank, for far too long have been historically bypassed,” Maharaj said. “It’s a new way of looking at opera.”

Here is a look at the three operas.

Cook Shack by Del’Shawn Taylor and Samiya Bashir

Musical stylings:
Classic opera mixed with ragtime, blues, funk, etc.

Elementary school student Dayo takes the field trip of a lifetime to the Griot Museum to see the Superheroes of Invention exhibit. As she’s learning about the prolific Black female inventors of the 20th century, they come alive and start sharing their stories through the music of their era. Inspired, Dayo leaves ready to lean into and accept her own gifts.

What the creators are saying:
“To be able to create a work that empowers and celebrates Black women was so important to me. And to do it in a way that was not [glorifying] trauma, as we see a lot today with Black stories. Celebrating their contributions is empowering to the next generation of young Black women,” Del’Shawn Taylor told Ladue News.

Slanted: An American Rock Opera by Simon Tam and Joe X. Jiang

Musical influence:

Tam and Jiang, the opera’s creators, are members of an Asian American rock band called The Slants. They were involved in a Supreme Court case in which they fought to trademark their band name, which some considered derogatory. Tam recalled not being able to speak in the courthouse about why his band could be called The Slants. “There wasn’t a single Asian person that was allowed to speak in the room that day,” Tam told KSDK. “When you think about who was serving on the court, who the attorneys were — and they were all arguing what was offensive to Asian people. [There’s] something very deeply tragic and ironic about that.” Ultimately, The Slants won the Supreme Court case in 2017 after an eight-year battle.

The unvarnished truth:
Since Tam and Jiang lived through the experience, you're getting the tale straight from the source.

Madison Lodge by Tre’von Griffith

Musical influence:
1920s jams (think ragtime, big band, etc.)

Like most young people with a dream in their heart and a star in their eye, X wants to get out of their small (and small-minded) town. It’s the 1920s, and X, an African American living in the South, gets caught up in the Great Migration. They make it up to Harlem, a mecca for Black life and culture in Manhattan and soon find the drag ball community. Suddenly X is in a whole new world, one that helps them discover their authentic voice and self as they unapologetically celebrate queer Black joy.

Party on:
Not only will this joyous opera bring the glam, it also has an official afterparty on Saturday, March 18, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. at The Golden Record (2720 Cherokee Street). The Sweet Harlem Ball will feature music from DJ Nico Marie and DJ Deeway, and guests are encouraged to wear their best 1920s lewks. Tickets are $10 to $15.

The New Works Collective will show at 7:30 p.m. from Thursday, March 16, to Saturday, March 18, at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA (6880 Washington Avenue). Call 314-961-0644 or visit opera-stl.org/whats-on/nwc to purchase tickets, which are $35 to $55.

This story was updated.

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