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Creating space for new voices at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis

The New Works Collective is a first-of-its-kind cohort that allows for groundbreaking stories to shine in a traditional medium.

SAINT LOUIS, Mo. — Punk rockers Joe X. Jiang and Simon Tam likely never dreamed of writing an opera score, but come mid-March, they will take their powerful and historic experience of fighting a case in the Supreme Court to the stage in St. Louis.

"Slanted" will be one of three groundbreaking commissioned operas that will set the classical art world on fire with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis' New Works Collective.

"It's definitely breaking new ground for us as creators," Tam said. "Hopefully we can help redefine what's possible for the art."

Tam and Jiang are members of The Slants, an Asian American dance rock band based in Portland that became famous for fighting the federal government to keep and trademark its "disparaging" name. They won the case in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017, 8 years after the legal battle began.

Tam recalls having to use an advocate for his time in court and being banned from talking about why his band deserved to reclaim a name such as The Slants. 

"There wasn't a single Asian person that was allowed to speak in the room that day," Tam said. "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."

The Slants now perform less often but are incredibly busy running their foundation, dedicated to changing culture using arts and activism. They work to amplify underrepresented voices, especially those in the Asian American community.

Their world-famous experience is what led them to receive a call from St. Louis-based nonprofit founder Caroline Fan. Fan reached out to Tam asking him to consider applying for this new community-based collective, though he had never scored an opera. She told him it wasn't about his past experience but more about his incredible story.

"I called Joe up, and I was like, 'I don't write opera, but what do you think about this?'" recalled Tam. "We just love to create, and we love to learn and grow." 

Asian Americans typically do not get key roles in operas. In fact, many have to be reliant on works like "Madame Butterfly," which have grown more controversial over the years for perpetuating racist and sexist stereotypes. Often when you see Asian people on stage in opera, they're carrying trays. They are not leads. 

"We should be moving beyond this and telling richer stories," Tam said.

And it's that experience that has inspired this new work in St. Louis. It is pioneering a commissioning model that allows a panel of community leaders, rather than the opera itself, to choose where to award financial compensation for the creation of new operas. 

The opera is supporting the work of three all-new, 20-minute works featuring three multi-genre teams selected by a panel of St. Louis artists, advocates and community leaders. 

The other teams are made up of Del'Shawn Taylor and librettist Samiya Bashir, co-composer and librettist Tre'von Griffith. All three teams began working with the opera months ago to develop and workshop their pieces, based on Asian American, African American women and Black LGBTQIA+ voices. More than 130 artists applied from around the country to work with the opera to prove it can be innovative, inclusive and fun.

The stories will take audiences from 1920s Harlem to the modern-day Supreme Court, and from the exuberance of drag ball culture to the empowerment of a young female inventor. 

"The New Works is opening my eyes up to what the collaboration means," Jiang said. "I didn't realize they wouldn't work together in any other setting." 

Jiang also says it wasn't easy to learn how to write opera music but called working with opera professionals like the works' stage director, Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj "life-changing."

The opera hired Majaraj, of Brooklyn, New York, to work as the stage director for all three works and act as the opera's community consultant. He is an Indo-African-Caribbean artist who was hailed by the New York Times as one of the most talented directors in New York. He also has a personal connection to all of the works included in this inaugural cohort.

"It's very emotional," Maharaj said. "(It's) not just the entertainment industry, but specifically in the world of opera that has for far too long overlooked the Asian, African and the queer experience. Here in Saint Louis, once again, the world is changing." 

And though the works are diverse and different in many ways, they show that the collective human spirit shares many similarities. Tam said he had people tell him that even though his opera was an Asian American story, they could still see themselves in it as well.

"It's really cool to be part of the movement," Tam said. 

"These three communities that feel very different are actually more alike than not," Maharaj said.

The New Works Collective runs March 16-18 at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at St. Louis' Center of Creative Arts. Tickets are $35-$55 at are on sale here.

There will also be a free student dress rehearsal at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 14 at COCA.

Yoou can also go to another free event, called Meet the Makers: An Insider's Look at OTSL's New Works Collective, on March 9 at the Pillsbury Theatre, located on the campus of Washington University.

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