Opera is full of unexpected plot twists, and so is the story of how a former business major, Gina Galati, became an opera singer. “I flunked an economics course when I was 19,” recalls Galati, artistic director of Winter Opera Saint Louis (formerly New Opera St. Louis). “I was at loose ends until my mom said, ‘You’ve always loved music. Why not switch majors?’ ” Mom was right: Galati went on to earn a master’s degree in opera, then studied in Italy. Soon, she was performing in operas here and abroad.
But her local ties were strong—Galati’s family owns Dominic’s Ristorante on the Hill and Dominic’s Trattoria in Clayton. So Galati came home in 2007 and started her own nonprofit opera company. “I wanted St. Louisans to be able to enjoy opera all year round, not just during the summer months when Opera Theatre and Union Avenue Opera were in session,” she explains. The first production, Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, sold out every performance three weeks before it opened. “It was encouraging to see so many people support a brand-new company,” she says.
Winter Opera Saint Louis begins its fourth season Nov. 12 through 14 with Opera Extravaganza!, a concert featuring famous opera choruses, duets and arias with piano accompaniment. Like many of this season’s shows, it takes place at different venues each night: Villa Maria Winery in Illinois, the St. Louis Woman’s Club on Lindell Boulevard and St. Ambrose Church on the Hill.
Next comes Holidays on the Hill, a program of Christmas music presented Dec. 8 and 15 at Dominic’s Ristorante. “It’s a special event, not part of the regular season,” Galati explains. The $150 ticket price includes a five-course dinner for two. The season continues Feb. 13, 18 and 20 with Verdi’s La Traviata, presented at Villa Marie Winery with piano accompaniment and the St. Louis Woman’s Club with orchestra. Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, performed with orchestra, closes the season March 12 and 13 at St. Ambrose Church.
New this season is music director Steven Jarvi, currently associate conductor at the Kansas City Symphony. “We’re so happy he’s joining us—he guest-conducted Barber of Seville last year, and impressed us with his energy, enthusiasm and creativity,” Galati says. Jarvi, too, was impressed: “Gina’s commitment to bringing only the best music and performers to St. Louis is absolute, as is her mission to extend the opera season,” he says. Jarvi, hailed by critics as “decisive and eloquent” and “potentially one of the greatest conductors of this century,” has worked with Washington National Opera, Baltimore Lyric Opera, New York City Opera, and New World Symphony in Miami Beach under Michael Tilson Thomas.
“We want opera to be accessible to everyone,” Galati says. “We strive to keep ticket prices low—from $20 to $40, and even less for student tickets, which are available the day of the performance. We’re attracting a lot of young people.” Eventually, she wants to find a permanent venue for the company, which is made up of local and international performers. “But for now, we’re enjoying the opportunity to change the perception that opera is stuffy and hard to understand,” she says. “Like reality TV, opera is full of quirky characters, sex scandals and lovers quarrels. The difference is, opera is set to some of the most beautiful, exciting music ever written.”