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Union Avenue Opera Theatre's new production isn't the same old song

Living in the shadow of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Union Avenue Opera Theatre has been working awfully hard to put on a good show, and their past five seasons have met with some acclaim and success. Last year, in what many thought would be a huge mistake, UAOT put on a production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro the same year OTSL was putting it on the stage. As it turned out, both performances were fantastic — and the Union Avenue production was even better in a few respects.

For the next two weekends UAOT is putting on a production of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, the St. Louis premiere of the American opera. Just over 40 years old, Susannah is one of the few American works that achieves timeless greatness. The music is lyrical and beautiful, and as complex and, in some roles, as difficult as Tosca. Floyd, often called "the American Mozart," makes his stories accessible to American audiences with American symbolism, and characters require explanation not to us but to European audiences instead. Though Susannah takes place in rural Tennessee, in the recent past, the framework of the tale is the Apocrypha's Book of Susanna, in which a young woman is taken advantage of by two religious elders but later saved by Daniel. In this modern retelling, Susannah is defiled by traveling minister Olin Blitch and condemned by his faithful flock in town. The story mixes lessons from the Bible with Floyd's feelings about the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was fomenting fear and distrust through unsubstantiated innuendo at the time the opera was being written.

The production marks the return of a couple of former UAOT members: veteran soprano Ann Hoyt in the title role and Jolly Stewart, who did tremendous things with last year's Figaro, as director. David Mannell plays the part of Susannah's older brother, Sam; Blitch is played by Kirk Eichelberger.

Susannah is performed Friday-Sunday through Aug. 21 at Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union. For tickets or information, call 361-2881.

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