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A Dream Realized: Q&A with SLSO Staff and OTSL Chorister Rochelle Calhoun

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

By Eric Dundon


For more than 45 years, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis have enjoyed a unique collaboration to bring thrilling opera experiences to the region. This season, the SLSO and OTSL are presenting a new adaptation of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha through June 24. A musical genius with deep ties to St. Louis, Joplin never got to see his opera fully performed. A new edition of Treemonisha celebrates the strength, beauty, and wisdom of Black women and brings back to light a forgotten figure of history—Freddie Alexander Joplin.


Rochelle Calhoun is a chorister in the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha and a member of the SLSO's Philanthropy Team.

Deepening the connection between SLSO and OTSL is Rochelle Calhoun, a chorister in Treemonisha and the SLSO’s Manager of Sponsorships and Corporate Relations. In this interview, she discusses Joplin’s legacy and realizing her own operatic dreams.


This interview with Rochelle Calhoun was condensed and edited for clarity and length.


SLSO: Describe your musical background.

Rochelle Calhoun: I grew up singing. My parents performed in various community choral groups, making it impossible not develop an appreciation for choral works—the bigger the better. I had my first [Handel’s] Messiah score at age 8. I performed through high school and was a member of the Hampton University Concert Choir when I went to college. I took a break from singing for more than a decade, until shortly before I joined the SLSO IN UNISON Chorus in 2011. While I have studied privately throughout my lifetime, I have never had traditional formal training. I am primarily self-taught.

SLSO: Who were some of the singers/artists you listened to and admired growing up?

RC: Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Denyce Graves, and Kathleen Battle to name a few. You could not be a Black soprano with operatic aspirations and not be inspired by these amazing women and their powerful voices. As a coloratura lyric soprano, I vocally identify most with Kathleen Battle and her strong, yet delicate tone. The concert that that changed my life was “Spirituals in Concert” at Carnegie Hall from 1990 featuring Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman. To this day I will drop everything to watch it on PBS with the same awe.

Learn more about OTSL's production of Treemonisha here.

SLSO: What led you to audition for the OTSL production of Treemonisha?

RC: A friend of mine is a member of the OTSL Guild and she emailed me about the audition. I was familiar with the opera, and knew that is was being reimagined by Damien Sneed and Karen Chilton. While I wasn’t fully prepared for the detailed audition process (no official head shot, no performance resume, no video of a recent solo performance), I decided to step out on faith and try. I’m grateful to Michelle Byrd, Manager of IN UNISON Program and Tai Oney, an IN UNISON tenor who works at OTSL for helping me prepare for the audition and navigate the process.

SLSO: What makes this production special? What about for your personally?

RC: This is my first opera, even though it has always been a dream of mine. Growing up in northern Virginia, I would take the metro to the Kennedy Center in high school to see the Washington National Opera’s dress rehearsals for $5. I have spent hours singing along to productions on PBS and more recordings than I can count, but I honestly never imagined that at this stage of my life, I would be making this dream a reality. Performing with this incredible ensemble of talented vocalists and our own SLSO makes it even better—that and having my mom in the audience, orchestra center, for opening night!

SLSO: Treemonisha was written more than 100 years ago. What about the story and the music makes it relevant for today?

RC: Scott Joplin was a musical genius, and decades ahead of his time. His melodies are timeless. He truly hoped this would launch a new opera genre, but that wasn’t the case. Can you imagine, writing an opera in the early 1900s where the lead, and only educated person in the story, is a Black female? That has always interested me, since I first heard it in college. It’s a shame Joplin didn’t live to see Treemonisha get the appreciation it deserves.

SLSO: How has your participation in Treemonisha enriched you?

RC: This has been the experience of a lifetime. Working with an ensemble of this caliber, has stretched me and allowed me to grow as a vocalist. I haven’t worked this hard in years! I am a stronger vocalist and musician, and ready for the next musical challenge.

 

Eric Dundon is the SLSO's Public Relations Director.



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