Rehearsal hasn't begun yet inside Union Avenue Christian Church, but the pianist is practicing a few familiar phrases from Georges Bizet's Carmen. Some of the chorus members begin to sing along, just warming up, just having fun, and yet they're already making glorious noise.
A few minutes after 7 p.m., music director and Union Avenue Opera Theatre founder Scott Schoonover has the chorus assembled for some quick tutelage on the proper inflections of the French libretto. Unlike the other opera company in town, the one with the international reputation, UAOT does not sing every opera in English, instead projecting user-friendly translations on a wall at the side of the stage during performances.
Schoonover is a tall, broad-backed, strapping fellow with closely cropped blond hair that emphasizes his round, open and youthful face. He's 30 years old, with the exuberance and ambition of an artist in his early 20s who hasn't experienced enough to know any better.
Yet as Schoonover gives directions in his affable, easygoing manner, he commands authority. He knows what he wants, and he gets it. The chorus sings a few measures of Bizet's lush composition. It's early in the rehearsal process, but already the sound is like a luxurious bath. Schoonover instructs them to try it again with the volume raised a notch. In the second run-through, the same phrase is sublime.
Carmen is a big opera, one that Schoonover and UAOT, now in its seventh year, take on with more anticipation than anxiety. To compensate for the teeny-tiny church stage, wooden levels have been constructed to expand the performance space, as well as a ramp that thrusts out into the auditorium stage left. A lot of bodies need to find their way across that stage, however, including a children's chorus. Schoonover turns the rehearsal over to stage director Jolly Stewart, who needs to get those children from the ticket seller to the bullfight ring in time with the music. They also need to be singing their parts and acting like a group of Spanish kids eager to see a bullfight.
"You know how you stand in line at the ballpark?" Stewart asks, attempting an American analogy.
"I don't go to ball games," retorts one blond-haired grade-school-age sophisticate.
Throughout the complicated staging process, chorus members are being called offstage for costume fittings. Schoonover, for the first time this evening, exhibits a degree of exasperation: Isn't there a better time for the costumes to be fitted?
Stewart teases her colleague, reminding him, "It's your company."
"Seven years ago, it was just an idea I had," says Schoonover. Taking a break for a bite of lunch at Dressel's, where most of the staff greets him warmly by name, he appears unfazed by the schedule his company is involved in to produce the grandiose Carmen -- three weeks' intense rehearsal time to stage Bizet's classic from start to finish. Rather, Schoonover looks as though he's having the time of his life.
Schoonover has taken his idea and transformed it into a solid professional company that is unique in the world of opera. "Young singers have limited choices," he explains. "[They can be in] a choral program, go to music schools, pay lots of money to play small roles, or come here. We pay you. You get to perform. You get housing. You get reviews."
Each year, UAOT has attracted more, and better, performers. In 1995, the year of the company's inaugural production, Dido and Aeneas, 17 singers responded to an audition call in the Riverfront Times. Last year, after a casting call was placed in a national magazine, 120 singers applied, including -- in the role of Carmen -- Jo Rodenburg, whose impressive résumé includes stints with every opera company in Chicago, as well as solo recitals with conductors James Levine and Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Schoonover's ambitions for his company are simple, "I'd like to bring this into a higher profile, attract better everything." He's managing to do this by filling a void within the profession -- fully staged operas with full orchestra in which young singers can flourish (or fail without major repercussions) -- and within the local operagoing community. UAOT's budget has nearly doubled every year, from $6,000 in 1995 to $250,000 today, and its audience base has grown to draw consistently full houses. At $15 per ticket, UAOT draws crowds that enjoy productions that are endearingly unprofessional at times -- as in this summer's The Barber of Seville, in which a troop of singers moved across the stage like a tightly packed raft of ducklings -- but are always entertaining, even gorgeous, at a price far below the high-priced spread offered at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Compared with the other great opera success story in St. Louis, UAOT is the little opera company that could. Schoonover is ready to expand, tentatively, planning to add a show in October 2002 "and see how that goes, and if that goes well, we'll add a show in December. St. Louis hasn't had an opera during the year for a long time." He acknowledges that casting for those dates could be more problematic; the talent he's been attracting in the dog days of August will be deep into the school season or working for bigger-name companies. He'll probably have to rely on more local talent than he does now, but this prospect doesn't trouble him: "We've always cast the best person who walks in the door."
Some of those people have worked with OTSL, including Robert McNicols Jr., who sang the role of Dr. Bartolo in Seville, and Dallas Bono, who will be playing Carmen's Don José for the first time. Schoonover talks guardedly about OTSL. He schedules according to OTSL's season -- once they're gone, he's up. If you're a small opera company in a midsize city, living with OTSL up the road must be akin to what the late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said about running a country that bordered the United States: It's like lying in bed next to a sleeping elephant. "They notice us," Schoonover says noncommittally. "We have people who work for both groups. They let us borrow all kinds of stuff."
As well they should. Schoonover isn't going near the kind of daring programming OTSL achieves. Schoonover's not commissioning any Lindbergh opera and has no aspirations in that direction. He's unashamedly producing the hit operas to attract the big audiences. Carmen is the most performed opera in the world, with lots of music people recognize, even if it's from a Chef Boy-Ar-Dee advertisement or the adolescent version of the toreador song: "Toreador-a/ Don't spit on the floor-a/Use the cuspidor-a/That's what it's for-a."
But Schoonover is also unashamedly ambitious, both for his company and himself. He's doing the popular shows because he wants the conducting experience under his belt. There's lots more he wants to do with his career, other companies he wants to attract. To beef up his résumé, as well as his technical knowledge, he recently took part in a post-conservatory opera-conducting program at the revered Accademia Internationale delle Arte in Bologna, Italy. Mozart went there.
"Twenty-four other conductors, all men, all Italian except me -- and all in Italian," says Schoonover. The six-hours-a-day, two-days-a-week sessions included a curriculum of the great Italian operas -- Madama Butterfly, Rigoleto, La Traviata -- and "lots of yelling and screaming."
Schoonover says it was rewarding to find in Bologna that he "was on the right track," although he had no previous formal conductor training. To explain what he learned, he raises his arms in the classic conductor pose and discusses the correct way to conduct a restitif, when the orchestra stops playing for a length of time that is unmeasured, "then starts again, but you need to get 26 people to come in together on an eighth note."
He knows the best way to do that now, but he hasn't added yelling and screaming to his conducting style. "My first musical-directing job was at a theater in northern Wisconsin," Schoonover says. "The artistic director called me into the office one day and complained, 'You're not yelling and screaming at people.'
"I suppose there's a certain type of person who responds to yelling, but ..." Schoonover's voice trails off as he returns to the narrative. "At the end of the season, I was called into his office again, and this time he told me the music was the best he'd ever heard in any season. It was also the first time nobody complained about the music director."