Musings from an Opera Singer
Union Avenue Opera Hits all the Right Notes
by Anna M. Roach
Union Avenue Opera, the vision of Scott Schoonover, a young musician who wanted more opportunities for singers his age to perform substantive roles in major opera productions, debuted its first season in 1995. Twenty three seasons later, the company is thriving. More than 30 artists will make their Union Avenue Opera [UAO] debut during its 23rd Festival Season this summer.
The seven-week summer season will open Friday, July 7 as world-renowned soprano Christine Brewer makes her return to the UAO stage as Lady Billows in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring. The season continues through Saturday, August 26 with performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved Carousel and Engelbert Humperdinck’s cautionary fairy tale, Hänsel und Gretel.
Holly Wrensch Janz, one of the cast members of Albert Herring, has been involved in several UAO productions over the years and sat down with us recently to reflect on her experience with the company.
Question: How did you get started in opera?
When I was starting college I thought that pursuing a career in music was an impossibility – like trying to be a movie star! At age 20 I saw Madama Butterfly at the Florentine Opera Company in Milwaukee and I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen – I felt nailed to my seat and floating above it at the same time and I wondered “How could I be a part of something like that?”
I didn’t know what that path should/could look like, which is typical for most singers today – you have to figure things out as you go along, despite all preparations. Like a lot of hopeful opera singers in the United States, I competed for a place in a good college music program and the many prestigious opera apprenticeship programs, and as it turned out my experiences led me predominantly to the mid-west where I received excellent training at state schools in Wisconsin, Colorado and Kansas. There are fabulous opera teachers, coaches and mentors throughout the Midwest.
My first role was in a college production of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and my first professional gig was with College Light Opera Company on Cape Cod. This was quite a first job – we presented nine shows (musicals and operetta) in 11 weeks. It was a so much fun and so much work!
How have you benefitted from your UAO experience?
What I can say is that both the education on stage and at university were necessary for me – I loved being a student in the classroom and I love being a performer on the stage. I am now a full time music professor at Concordia College and my UAO experience gave me the opportunity to understand all the commitment and effort involved in being a professional performer. It has helped me to be a better teacher for my students.
As a teacher, what are your thoughts about UAO’s Crescendo program?
I can say without hesitation that students of opera can never have enough training and feedback if they are serious about being competitive as singers. UAO’s Crescendo program is offering a tremendous value to the St. Louis community. With an impressive and highly qualified staff of master teachers, they take young singers further into the most important components of the craft – diction, music mastery, character building and stage work. I am impressed with the deliberate structuring of the program and know that if I were a teacher in the area I would heartily encourage my students to apply.
What has a company like UAO meant to you at various points in your career?
I love Union Avenue Opera and am thrilled to be returning! I debuted with the company in 2003 as Filippyevna in Tchaikovsky‘s Eugene Onegin and I’m grateful that Scott Schoonover cast me while I was still in school and did not have an extensive repertoire. He gave me a chance to stretch and grow. I knew right away that UAO was a special place.
It takes so much work to keep an opera company moving forward and succeeding, truly a village, and UAO has such a village - from the administrative team to the production staff and the incredible group of volunteers. I am happy to be working again with Scott, who demands not only the best from you but also from himself for the highest level of quality in every production. Plus, he’s one of the kindest men you will ever meet.
Now, as a professor of voice, singing with respected companies like UAO allows me to remain active as a performer. My students appreciate it when I connect with professional companies and bring that experience back to the studio. They can imagine what their own careers might look like someday.
What is it like to travel and sing in different locations?
It is incredible! You are able to meet lots of new people, many of whom will become good friends. And sometimes you are able to reconnect and work with old friends – this is always a special treat. So often you connect with your cast and crew in an intense way and then have to part ways hoping to see each other again.
Also, it is a lot of fun to explore new cities. There is always at least a little time off from rehearsals, which allows a person to discover what their host city has to offer. Here in St. Louis I have really enjoyed visiting the Botanical Gardens, the Cathedral Basilica and Forest Park, as well as learning about the unique architecture of the city and its different neighborhoods.
What is really exciting about working in different locations and with new people is the ability to bring all that information and experience to my students. It rejuvenates my teaching and allows me to bring an additional relevance to them. All parties benefit!
Thank you Holly. Good luck with your role as Nancy in Albert Herring!
UAO Offers Affordable Opera in its Original Language
This season’s single tickets are on sale for as low as $35 and subscription packages start at $80. Tickets may be purchased online at www.unionavenueopera.org, by phone at (314) 361-2881, and at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd, St. Louis, MO, 63108. Student rush tickets are available at the door for $15 (cash only) with a valid student ID. There is ample free parking available.