Union Avenue Opera at 25

Inside the Mind of UAO Founder, Artistic Director and Conductor Scott Schoonover

by Anna M. Roach

Who starts an opera company right out of college?

In 1995, a 22-year-old newly graduated piano major had a desire to create a platform for experience in conducting and performing opera. Scott Schoonover, an Illinois native, was searching for a church music job where he could build an opera company. He found the perfect place in St. Louis’ Union Avenue Christian Church, which had an Arts Foundation that supported creative endeavors. Twenty-five years later, Union Avenue Opera is an established opera company and continues to be the only one based and producing operas in St. Louis City.

Maestro Schoonover is a tall, imposing presence with a brilliant mind, but is soft-spoken and gentle in person. Singers and instrumentalists alike love working with him because of his incredible breadth of musicianship, sensitivity and technical expertise. Stage directors and production managers respect him for his willingness to collaborate and allow for artistic interpretation. “He brings out the best in everyone,” a chorus member observed.

As the opera company he founded approaches its 25th season, Schoonover was asked to reflect on how the company began, where it has been, his plans for the company’s continued growth and his hope for its future.

Genesis

In college, part of my work-study job was to play the piano for rehearsals of the opera class,” Schoonover remembers.  “During that time I fell in love with the drama of opera and the incredible ways that different composers used music to amplify the meaning of the words and to help us ‘see’ what the character was thinking and feeling.

When I first started looking for work out of school, I applied for several church jobs and at each one I mentioned that I was interested in starting an opera company.  It was something that I had been thinking about during the previous summer, when I had my first music directing gig at a summer stock playhouse in Wisconsin. The real reason I wanted to start a company was to be able to get conducting experience for myself, and to offer opportunities to singers I had met in college and here in St. Louis get performing experience on their resumes.  At the time, I never envisioned that it would blossom and grow into what it is now. It happened gradually and naturally with the support we've received over these past 25 years. Of course, I'm very proud of our successes.”

The First Production

In the summer of 1995, Schoonover produced his inaugural season’s opera – Dido and Aeneas.

Our first budget was $5,000 and that included EVERYTHING!,” he laughs. “We had 17 people audition and our orchestra was a string quartet. The cast and I built the sets and made the costumes. We had six performances – each with about 50 people attending.

Minutes before the first performance, the lighting system blew and we had to perform with just the house lights. It wasn’t fun at the time, but we laugh about it now.”

Even with the challenges of the first season, Schoonover was able to secure a small grant from the Regional Arts Commission and the production was favorably reviewed in both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Riverfront Times. The company was off and running.

Upcoming Anniversary Season

When asked about the upcoming season, Schoonover’s excitement shines through. “Each season has been one of growth for UAO, not only for me personally, but for our artists, our staff and our board of directors. We are ready to present Season 25!

Leonard Bernstein’s Candide opens our season and is certainly worthy of such an auspicious year. Candide has one of the biggest orchestras we’ve had in recent years, as well as some of the most entertaining, yet challenging music. We’re thrilled to welcome the internationally acclaimed star and local treasure Christine Brewer back to our stage to play the hilarious role of the Old Lady. St. Louis director, Annamaria Pileggi, will make her UAO debut with this production and I for one, can’t wait to see this show come to life.

In July, we turn to the most beloved operatic masterpiece – Puccini’s La bohème. Director Mark Freiman returns to bring his vision to our new production and we are excited to welcome back conductor Elizabeth Hastings to transport us with this masterful score.

The summer closes with an incredibly special work–Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied. This powerful opera tackles the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the struggles of Jim Thompson, the longest held P.O.W. from that time. It’s an intimate portrayal of one soldier and his wife, with accessible music and a riveting storyline. Director Dean Anthony, who has staged several productions of Glory Denied across the country, will make his UAO debut.”

What’s next for Union Avenue Opera?

Schoonover becomes more serious as he describes his plans for the company’s musical direction.

In terms of repertoire, we've begun a trend over the past few years of producing more contemporary operas as well as experimenting with "Golden Age" Broadway hits.  Those contemporary shows often feel more relevant to today's issues, as they tell the stories of subjects that people are living today and therefore, offer a different type of experience for the opera goer.  These operas also give UAO more outreach opportunities into different audiences and offer collaborative partnerships that aren't as easily found with classic opera.

For example Glory Denied, our third production this season, allowed us to secure funding through PNC Arts Alive, for significant outreach to the St. Louis veteran community, as well as develop partnerships with the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum in downtown St. Louis and other veterans’ organizations.  I see UAO continuing that trend, while at the same time striking a balance with excellent productions of classic, beloved operas that this company was built upon. “ 

Hope for the future and lasting legacy

The final question requires more introspection. Schoonover sits back and furrows his brow.

My desire is to be able to continue increasing the quality of our operatic offerings, as we have over the past 25 years. In terms of artists, production and the administration of the company, we simply need more resources. We need to be able to hire more staff, and to increase the compensation of those who are already employed.

When the company first began, I personally knew every donor to UAO and most of the ticket purchasers as well.  Today, support is wide-based, from individuals, foundations and even a few corporations. What we really need to further this growth is the funding of an endowment, which would provide guaranteed revenue for the future.

From season one to season 25, our budget (and support) has grown literally 1000 times.  Who can say what the next 25 years will bring? Somewhere down the road, I'd love to leave to St. Louis a flourishing, solvent, stable, well-run company that continues enriching the fabric of St. Louis long after I’m gone. 

We are the ONLY opera company producing operas in the actual city of St. Louis and we have been doing it and doing it well for 25 years! To me that is already legacy enough, but to have it continue on would be incredible.”