Nixon himself hinted last Friday that legislators may have plenty to do when they come back to Jefferson City later this year.
"My sense is the constitutional necessity of coming back in September will be one that will have some things on the docket for the legislature other than the social activities that occur around the veto session," Nixon said.
While the governor has commonly vetoed bills from the GOP-controlled legislature since he took office in 2009, this year may provide a test of how much weight his objections hold. That’s because for the first time since he became governor, Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers.
When lawmakers return in September for their veto session, they may have some big decisions on what to override. GOP lawmakers will have to weigh a bill’s importance with the likelihood of overriding a bill. (At least 23 senators and 109 representatives are necessary to overturn Nixon’s veto.) Last year, for instance, Republicans skipped a veto override on vehicle tax legislation.
Below are five bills that Nixon may veto – along with the likelihood of that legislation being overriden.
The bill by state Rep. T.J. Berry, R-Kearney, and state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, would cut the state's personal income, business and corporate taxes over a period of time. It also has "triggers" to delay cuts in tax rates if general revenue doesn't go up by a certain amount.
But nine state representatives – including seven Republicans – didn’t vote on the bill. One lawmaker who didn't vote was state Rep. Jason Smith, a Salem Republican who might be in Congress by the time of the veto session.
It also remains to be seen if three Democrats – state Reps. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, and Ed Schieffer, D-Troy – vote to override. Hodges is running against Smith for the 8th District congressional seat, while Roorda and Schieffer are seeking state Senate seats next year.
The bill – called “paycheck protection” by proponents and “paycheck deception” by adversaries – is strongly opposed by the state’s labor unions. But business groups, such as the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, say Brown’s bill “doesn’t keep an employee from making a contribution, but it gives that employee the choice.”
Chances that Nixon vetoes the bill – very high: Nixon is politically close to labor unions and is unlikely to sign legislation they adamantly oppose. Even Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said that "I would guess that the paycheck protection bill will be something he's not going to sign."
But the bill’s passage in the House by an 85-69 margin is well below the two-thirds threshold. Many Republicans who voted against Brown’s bill received labor support last year. And those lawmakers may not be inclined to arouse the ire of a group that supported them.
Supporters say the city and county ordinances add another layer of regulation and cost for banks and could hurt the real estate market. But advocates say the process could keep distressed homeowners from losing their homes – or catch mistakes in Missouri's traditionally quick foreclosure process.
Chances that the veto would be overridden – high: The bill passed 130-24 in the House and 26-7 in the Missouri Senate – way above the threshold needed to override a veto. The tally in the House included roughly two dozen Democrats, including House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis.
But there are two wrinkles. The first is whether Republicans will choose to override a bill seen as favorable to banks and Realtors. The second is whether Democratic senators will filibuster this time around, as was promised by Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, earlier this month.
While Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, said last Friday it was too early to talk about the Senate Democrats' veto session strategy, she did say "we're 10 individuals -- and no one ever knows from day-to-day what each of us is going to do on any topic."
Chance that a veto would be overridden – high: Riddle’s bill passed with 23 votes in the Missouri Senate and 115 votes in the Missouri House. The Senate tally would have likely been higher had state Sens. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, and Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, cast a vote.
House Rep. Douglas Funderburk's bill declares that "all past, present, or future federal acts, laws, orders, rules, or regulations that infringe on the people's right to keep and bear arms" are "invalid, will not be recognized, are specifically rejected, and will be considered null and void and of no effect in this state."
Chance that the governor will veto the bill – moderately high: Nixon signed bills aimed at bolstering gun rights in the past – including one dropping the conceal and carry age to 21. But it's possible that Funderburk’s bill may go too far for him. After saying “I haven’t even gotten to try to read that yet” at a recent news conference, Nixon said, “It seemed like during the discussion that people were saying extreme things on each side.”
He then said last Friday that "we'll obviously give the bill a very careful review -- and of course that would include the very real legal issues of attempting to nullify federal laws."
Chance that the veto would be overridden – moderately high: While it's possible that Republican leaders may decide not to pursue an override, the bill passed each chamber with veto-proof majorities. And the Missouri legislature has a history of overriding vetoes on gun-related legislation, such as the 2003 vote to legalize conceal and carry in the state.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.
WASHINGTON – With congressional probes of the Internal Revenue Service and Benghazi likely to remain in the spotlight, both allies and critics of President Barack Obama are predicting that fallout from the revelations could endanger key parts of his second-term agenda.
While U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt said last week that “it’s not a good start of the second term,” his colleague U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said she is worried that the controversies will distract from the big issues that Congress should be tackling before the 2014 political season starts in earnest.
“They have balloons and confetti dropping on the Republican side of the aisle,” McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters. But she added, “I really hope that these incidents – while they deserve attention and they deserve oversight, accountability and changes – don’t become the entrée, with the rest of the work we have to do being just the appetizer or dessert.”
For Blunt, R-Mo., and many other GOP lawmakers, the word “incidents” is not strong enough to describe the IRS targeting of tea party and other conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, as well as the inadequate defense of the U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, last September, and what some regard as a partial coverup of its details.
“The problem the president has at this moment is: wherever the old Harry Truman’s ‘The Buck Stops Here’ sign is, it’s certainly not on the president’s desk,” Blunt told reporters last week.
He cited a recent editorial saying that “the only part of the federal government that seems to be working for Barack Obama is Seal Team 6” – a reference to the Navy Seal team that killed Osama bin Laden two years ago.
“He’s going to have to take more responsibility here and get this straightened out,” Blunt said of the IRS and Benghazi problems.
Late last week, Obama and his administration seemed to be doing just that. He demanded, and accepted, the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner and nominated a replacement. His administration released emails that appear to show minimal White House involvement in the misleading Benghazi “talking points” last September.
On Sunday, White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer argued on NBC's Meet the Press that “there is no question that Republicans are trying to make political hay” out of the IRS and Benghazi controversies.
He contended that, even if Obama had been aware of the IRS inquiry earlier, it would have been inappropriate for him to interfere at that point. And he asserted that congressional Republicans had circulated edited versions of administration emails on Benghazi to distort their overall thrust.
Trying to defuse two other issues that made headlines last week, Obama also said he had instructed the Pentagon to deal more effectively with the growing problem of sexual violence in the military – a topic that McCaskill has pushed to become a top priority in the armed services.
And, in response to reports that the Justice Department as part of a leak probe had collected two months of telephone records from 20 phone lines used by Associated Press reporters, White House officials said they are trying to rejuvenate a watered-down Shield Law to protect journalists' privileges.
GOP leaders take aim at Obama's administration
On Sunday's political talk shows, Republican leaders ramped up their criticism of Obama and his administration on the IRS, Benghazi and other issues.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on NBC’s Meet the Press that the IRS focus on conservative groups was an indication of a wider “culture of intimidation” in the Obama administration.
However, U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee that is looking into the IRS reports, conceded that – at this point – “we don't have anything to say that the president knew about it.”
On Friday, two developments in the GOP-led House indicated that the IRS and Benghazi issues, at least, are gaining traction:
At the initial House hearing on the IRS targeting, the inspector general who probed the IRS screening revealed that he had told senior Treasury Department officials in June 2012 about the investigation – the first indication that Obama administration officials were aware of the probe during the presidential campaign year.
On the Benghazi inquiry, the lawmaker leading that investigation – U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House oversight committee – subpoenaed the co-author of a report that slammed the State Department but didn't interview then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Issa wants his panel to depose that official, retired ambassador Thomas Pickering, on Thursday.
“We might see a number of hearings occur, and that’s the legitimate responsibility of the legislative branch,” said Blunt, predicting congressional investigations in both the House and the Senate on the IRS issues.
“These are serious things that need to be dealt with in a serious way,” Blunt said. Asked whether he though the IRS and Benghazi problems are likely to affect Obama’s agenda, Blunt said, “It will have an impact. Before too many months, we’ll be into a moment where the 2014 elections have a lot of impact on what happens” in Congress.
Blunt added, in an editorial comment: “So far, most of what the president has done this year has been already focused on the 2014 elections, rather than getting anything done this year that could actually happen.”
But McCaskill – who has criticized the administration’s handling of military sexual assault issues and allegations that it may have interfered with the top auditor of U.S. spending in Afghanistan – urged lawmakers to focus on the big issues.
“It is going to be a convenient distraction, as to why they [congressional Republicans] are refusing to allow us to go to conference on the budget, and moving forward with immigration reform, and other issues that I think are pretty important,” said McCaskill.
She said that the IRS revelations and some other matters reflect “serious wrongdoing, and people need to be held accountable in several different incidents, and there’s problems that need to be fixed.” But she said jobs, the economy and infrastructure are more pressing for the nation as a whole.
One of those issues is the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. In Missouri, McCaskill said, “we are really facing a crisis in infrastructure. The Missouri legislature doesn’t appear to be interested in funding infrastructure in Missouri, and certainly what we are able to provide at the federal level is grossly inadequate to keep our bridge safe, our roads, our trains, our water projects” in operation.
More executive orders on jobs, infrastructure?
Given his problems getting any significant bills through Congress, one approach Obama is likely to take is to issue more executive orders that have an impact on the economy and other issues. At an appearance Friday at a dredging company in Baltimore, Obama announced that he had ordered a speedup in the permitting process for big infrastructure projects.
“We’ve had a little difficulty getting our Republican friends to work with us to find a steady funding source for these projects that everybody knows need to happen,” Obama said.
“But in fairness, one of the problems we’ve had in the past is, is that sometimes it takes too long to get projects off the ground. There are all these permits and red tape and planning, and this and that, and some of it’s important to do, but we could do it faster.”
The president said he was “directing agencies across the government to do what it takes to cut timelines for breaking ground on major infrastructure projects in half. And what that will mean is that construction workers get back on the jobs faster. It means more money going back into local economies.”
On at least one of Obama's major priorities – overhauling the nation’s immigration laws – there still appears to be good prospects for congressional action this year, although the final bill may be far weaker than what Obama wants. But gun control seems to be a dormant issue for the moment, and there are danger signs in the budget and health-care disputes.
Will health care get tangled in IRS disputes?
Some lawmakers fear that one of Obama’s top priorities during his second term – implementing the Affordable Care Act, known by some as Obamacare – may get tangled in the IRS disputes.
On Thursday, the House voted for the 37th time to repeal Obamacare, 229-195, with all Republicans from Missouri and downstate Illinois voting with the majority. The Democratic-led Senate won't advance that bill, but - if the GOP uses the issue in political campaigns and takes over the Senate in 2014 - the next Congress might well succeed in altering the health care law.
Among the many GOP lawmakers trumpeting the vote, U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, claimed that Obamacare “is already devastating our small businesses, their employees and hard-working American families.”
Noting that he has voted to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act every time, Luetkemeyer promised to continue those efforts, “especially in light of new revelations about the gathering of personal information by the Internal Revenue Service, which is supposed to serve as the main enforcer for Obamacare.”
Indeed, during much of Thursday’s debate, House Republicans hammered at the fact that the IRS will be tasked next year with enforcing the “individual mandate” requiring everyone to have health insurance. The White House emphasizes that the IRS role in the health care has absolutely nothing to do with the current dispute over tax-exempt groups, but that has not stopped GOP critics from using the issue.
On Friday, for example, Blunt – a harsh critic of the ACA -- went to Springfield, Lebanon, Columbia and Boonville to discuss what he described as the negative impacts of Obamacare on Missouri business owners and other groups.
Even though the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate will not take up the repeal, Republicans are hoping that their opposition will resonate with voters in 2014. On Sunday, Senate GOP leader McConnell predicted that ObamaCare would prove to be a pivotal issue in many races next year, including his own.
House may try to move up debt ceiling debate
Perhaps the biggest congressional budget battle will be keyed to the next increase in the government’s debt ceiling.
Last week, the Congressional Budget Office said the nation would reach its borrowing limit in October or November. With some budget tricks, the Treasury Department might be able to delay the deadline until December.
While Obama has said he would only accept a “clean” debt ceiling bill – with no budget or deficit riders attached – House leaders will push hard for a major debate keyed to the bill.
In fact, some GOP leaders want to push up the debt ceiling debate to this summer, giving Republican House members time to “sell” their plan to constituents during legislative breaks in August.
Meanwhile, House Republicans late last week started discussing new spending targets for appropriations bills for the coming year. The departments of Education, Labor, and Health & Human Services could see their budgets slashed by a fifth, but the Pentagon would see some of its spending power restored under early GOP plans.
In the back of nearly everyone’s mind – from Capitol Hill to the White House – is the fact that, as the 2014 elections draw closer, all major debates and votes become more political. And the IRS, Benghazi and other probes may delay progress on some White House priorities until it is too late.
“It is likely to have some ongoing political consequences,” said Blunt. “The opportunities in the Senate for the 2014 elections are there,” especially in the Senate, where many senior Democrats are retiring.
“We’ll see what happens. I think both parties should be careful here that you don’t overextend yourself one way or another.”
When DeTony Thomas was in fourth grade, four long years ago, he went to a school that sounds like the model for a badly clichéd movie about the problems with modern urban education.
He saw a new fight every day, he says, and there wasn’t a whole lot of homework.
Video by Samara Jatala | Beacon intern
“It was too easy and boring,” he says.
Phallen Briggs has similar memories of her old school.
“We really did nothing,” she says. “Basically, what we did all day was have recess. There was no respect for the teachers. We didn’t learn anything.”
And her cousin Cameron Briggs says when a teacher left his old school, classes were combined so he was one of 60 students with the remaining teacher. Not that anyone needed special attention to do advanced work, he says.
“We were still doing adding and subtracting,” Cameron says, noting that he could easily get straight A’s without doing any homework.
Then the three became part of the inaugural class at KIPP Inspire Academy in south St. Louis, in the fall of 2009, and all of that changed in a big way.
Now, as part of the first class being promoted out of KIPP to high schools across the area, they look back at four years marked by long hours – including school on Saturdays and for three weeks in the summer – filled with hard work assigned by teachers dedicated to their success.
“When you come from a background where no one is pushing you, except the people you live with, it’s hard,” says fellow eighth-grader Kaylan House. “But when you come to KIPP everyone inspires you to do the best you can.”
That contrasts to her earlier classes in another charter school where, she said, “I wasn’t being challenged. I had a lot of advanced teachers, but the curriculum was boring.”
Their earlier lax education showed up in the scores that most KIPP students brought to the school when it opened. Jeremy Esposito, leader of the school, notes that most students who come to KIPP Inspire are years behind in their basic skills.
Now, he can point to numbers in the latest KIPP report card that shows steady progress, to a level where students at the charter school are performing better than their counterparts in the St. Louis Public Schools, if not always at the average level for Missouri students statewide.
The increase is sharpest in math. In 5th grade, KIPP students in St. Louis had 29 percent placing in the top two categories on standardized tests, compared with 26 percent for SLPS students and 55 percent statewide. By 7th grade, the numbers were 67 percent for KIPP, compared with 29 percent in SLPS and 60 percent statewide.
Esposito says improvements in math are easier to achieve because it’s a more objective subject. “With highly talented math teachers,” he told the Beacon, “you can make more gains fast.”
But, he added, the progress shown in language arts and science as well should be enough to overcome the myth of the achievement gap: the belief that minority students – KIPP Inspire’s student body is 98 percent African-American – aren’t capable of learning as much as white kids.
“The commitment kids and parents make to do more is a huge part of it,” Esposito said. “The other part is our teachers, who do whatever it takes for our kids to be successful. It doesn’t matter what you may struggle with. If you work hard and if you try and if you ask for help ... anything is possible. You just need to put in the time and effort.
“Our kids know they are capable of doing that. We try to instill that into our kids. They get a lot more support. They can take the lessons they learn from here and leave an impact on the city in a positive way.”
Knowledge is power
Since its founding in 1994 as the Knowledge Is Power Program, KIPP has been held up nationally as a model of what a charter school can be and how it can help underserved students achieve.
It defined its mission this way: “to create a classroom that helped children develop the knowledge, skills, character, and habits necessary to succeed in college and build a better tomorrow for their communities.”
The first classrooms were in middle schools in Houston and in New York City, starting in 1995. Four years later, they ranked among the highest-performing schools in their communities.
In 2000, founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin formed a partnership with Doris and Don Fisher, founders of the Gap, to train school leaders to spread their vision nationwide. Today, KIPP schools enroll more than 41,000 students in 125 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
KIPP Inspire, at 2647 Ohio Ave., in the former Catholic school at St. Francis DeSales Church, began with 80 fifth-graders and has added a grade each year. It will stop at eighth grade. In partnership with its sponsor, Washington University, its vision is to grow eventually to five schools – elementary and middle schools in north and south St. Louis and a centrally located high school.
The next school to open will be an elementary school in north St. Louis. A school leader, Tiara Abu, has been hired and will serve as a Fisher Fellow for the next year to survey best practices and get the school ready to open in the fall of 2014.
Asked why it was taking so long, Esposito replied:
“We’re not in the business of operating low-quality schools. We will open schools as soon as we are ready.”
No site for the north St. Louis elementary school has been chosen yet, but Kelly Garrett, who runs KIPP’s operations in St. Louis, says they are “deep in search mode” and looking at lots of good options.
The formula for success at KIPP Inspire is similar to what has worked at its other schools: rigorous academics, character development, hard work, long hours and dedicated teachers. As a charter school, it is supported by tax dollars and charges no tuition.
Its partnership with Washington U. also provides tutoring for students through a program called Each One Teach One, which pairs KIPP students with college tutors for one hour four days a week, in the late afternoon.
That hour-long session comes after KIPP Inspire’s regular school day, which begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. There are also four-hour Saturday sessions and three weeks of classes in the summer. Teachers are expected to be available via cell phone in the evenings for help with homework.
That kind of dedication makes up for what at first glance doesn’t seem to be the best physical environment for learning. The building has window-unit air conditioners and not the most welcoming façade. On a recent morning, praise for KIPP that had been chalked onto the sidewalk in front of the school was punctuated with a smashed Bud beer can.
Inside, the school staff has made the atmosphere more inviting by posting college pennants on the walls, to remind students of their ultimate goal. As high-school acceptance letters came in for this fall, from places like Nerinx Hall, MICDS and Metro, they were taped to a wall for everyone to see.
So students have to learn and teachers have to teach despite a lack of amenities that other schools may boast about and use to recruit. With the kinds of hours KIPP demands, students and teachers must be passionate about what they are doing.
The job description for would-be staff members at KIPP Inspire says they need to be results-oriented, demonstrate excellence, exude enthusiasm and commitment, persevere, have strong team and interpersonal skills and be driven by the schools mission. The final qualification: KIPP teachers “Are joyful. We love what we do.”
'It made me have more grit'
Asked about that joyfulness, eighth-grade students who will be moving on after a promotion ceremony on May 24 at Washington U. agreed that the quality is a big part of what they like about KIPP Inspire. Sporting shirts that proclaimed them the high school graduating class of 2017, they were eager to share their enthusiasm for the KIPP experience.
“They put their joy into what they’re teaching,” said DeTony Thomas. “Some teachers are so joyful when you give an answer wrong so they can teach you.”
And, added Phallen Briggs, who looks forward to a career in law or medicine, the staff’s enthusiasm can be contagious.
“They inspire me to do something big. My dreams are inspired by what I want to do here.”
Her cousin Cameron Briggs put it this way when asked about the rigor of the KIPP curriculum:
“It made me have more grit. It made me want to push more.
“Before, I wasn’t thinking about my future. I was just thinking about right now. They made me see I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Even going to school on Saturdays, when the emphasis was more on activities than pure academics, didn’t faze students like Da’Nyjia Partee.
“People would say to me, ‘You go to school on Saturdays?’ But I don’t think about it like that.”
And the word family came up a lot when the students were talking about how hard the teachers work to help them succeed.
“I think they are mostly happy when we meet our goals,” said Kaylan House. “I think they appreciate all our hard work and our work ethic.”
Said David Scott:
“The teachers care. The students care. It’s like a family. There’s a connection between everyone.”
And Partee – who appreciates it when teachers say “thank you” -- said she wants that family feel to extend to her own family, wanting her young brothers to go to KIPP as well.
“I feel like KIPP made me a better person,” she said. “I was humbled, and it kept me balanced. Even though I can get frustrated with school, I love it.”
And as their time at KIPP comes to a close, they have made clear that they would miss the long hours and the hard work.
Andrea Turner, the assistant school leader for grades 7 and 8, who like the students has been at the school since the start, put it this way:
“It’s so funny. They used to be, I can’t wait to leave this school. Now they ask, can’t we just stop time?”
A rollicking band of singing pirates will open Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ 38th festival season of five operas (two a doubleheader) on May 25. Gilbert and Sullivan’s infinitely hummable, romantic comedy “Pirates of Penzance” launches the season and continues with eight performances in rotation through June 29.
“Pirates” stage director and choreographer Seán Curran has been overwhelmed by the number of acquaintances who boast of having sung the opera in their youth -- friends in his hometown of Boston; in New York where his dance company is based and where he chairs the dance department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts; and, in St. Louis where he’s spent springs since 2004 as dancer, choreographer and director.
“They tell me they sang ‘Pirates’ in sixth grade, in high school or college or saw it years ago. And they all love it,” he said after a “Pirates” rehearsal.
'Pirates of Penzance'
When: 8 p.m. (except where noted), May 25, May 29, May 31, June 6, June 9 (7 p.m.,) June 12, June 14, June 22 (1 p.m.), June 26 (1 p.m.) and June 29
Where: Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Rd. (at Big Bend) 63119
“Pirates” will rotate with three other productions: a world premiere opera in the jazz style, Terrance Blanchard’s “Champion” with lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winning Michal Christofer; the rarely preformed, feminist romance Smetana’s “The Kiss” and a double bill of two one-act Italian verismo operas Puccini’s “Il Tabrarro” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci”
St. Louisans, too, know the opera. OTSL did a chamber-style "Pirates" in 1983 as part of founding general director Richard Gaddes’ G&S series over four winters at the Edison Theatre. Next Saturday, however, is the first time the company will do a full-blown staging.
Last summer the Muny performed the G&S songs laced into an updated book called “Pirates.” In 2010 Union Avenue Opera produced the G&S original version – singing selections in Forest Park as part of the Beacon Festival that year.
“We are doing ‘Pirates’ for selfish reasons, we love it,” O’Leary said.
“Pirates” which premiered first in New York and then London in 1879 is the fifth and the most popular of collaborations of British composer Arthur Sullivan and lyricist William S. Gilbert. Many of Sullivan’s 24 “Pirates” songs have been borrowed so widely that first-time audience members likely will recognize much of music. Could anyone raised in an English-speaking country not know “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here”? Its melody (not its words) is in “Pirates.”
Two American lyrics masters, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim considered Gilbert, a role model. “Pirates” includes G&S’s most famous song “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” In the production opening here Saturday, Canadian baritone Hugh Russell returns to OTSL to sing the tongue-twisting, patter song which satirizes inadequate military education. Gilbert takes his listeners on a wild ride of satirical, forced rhymes including the delight of rhyming “hypotenuse” with “a lot o' news.”
Much of Gilbert’s satire focuses on still-relevant human foibles, government officials’ ineptitude and opera excesses. Gilbert does not spare even himself. He dishes up a line for the Major General that mocks the universal popularity of G&S’s earlier collaboration “HMS Pinafore.” The general sings: “And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense ‘Pinafore’.” Gilbert rhymes it with “din afore.”
Often overlooked, especially in student and backyard productions, are Sullivan’s shimmering, moving, tender arias like “Ah, Leave Me Not to Pine Away.” Too often in amateur productions the slower paced arias are rushed through to get to the next jolly pirate swagger or Keystone Cops-style antics.
Those who can recite every word of several “Pirates” songs – and Curran keeps finding many - may appreciate Sullivan’s music more when they hear it sung by classically trained opera singers. The opera has musical references to Verdi, Mozart and Donizetti. Sullivan was depressed that his music was so popular that it was not taken seriously. Even more universally popular is Sullivan’s hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
Amy Kaiser, Symphony Chorus director who also has conducted opera, considers Sullivan the most important British composer between Henry Purcell, who died in 1695, and Benjamin Britten who began composing about 1930. That’s a long “between,” she told her OTSL Illuminations Class in April.
Conductor Ryan McAdams is determined that the OTSL singers and orchestra give Sullivan’s music its due. At orchestra rehearsals Thursday on stage at Powell Hall, McAdams, a Clayton High graduate, told Symphony members and staff that he grew up attending many concerts there. Now music director of the New York Youth Symphony, McAdams said he never played in the SLSO Youth orchestra because his instrument is piano. He twittered that he was “thrilled” to be conducting in St. Louis.
A fresh look at tradition
With so many people loving “Pirates” Curran said he is challenged to make it fresh. He has never seen it on stage, which he hopes gives him a fresh eye. He knows he has a fresh cast that won’t be stuck in previous directors’ ideas because only one has played his role before, Curran said.
“We speak in old language in a new witty way with contemporary feel,” Curran said about the new production, which is set in the 1870s.
Over the past year, Curran read much about Gilbert and Sullivan and the Victorian era of the 1870s and 80s. Gilbert’s idea that life’s patterns so often seem to go topsy turvey, delights the director. These pirates for example eschew rum and sip sherry
Much of the fresh charm will come from the imaginative pirate ship, set and costumes designed by James Schuette and lighting by Christopher Akerlind, Curran said. Schuette and Curran teamed up two years ago to present OTSL’s “The Daughter of Regiment.” That production had the charm of primary-colored children’s story book illustrations with no hint of dusty antique shops.
Curran said this production will have something of the same spirit. “Jim has framed it all for us,” he said about a presidium-style stage frame that may remind Anglophiles of Christmas pantomime shows.
Adding to the comedy will be zany movement, Curran said.
“A lot of what I do is more movement than dance,” said Bradley Smoak, who sings the Pirate King. Curran is seeing success in coaching his chorus, all trained primarily as singing actors, to respond to Jerome Robbins adage “don’t dance to the music, dance in the music.” Many like to dance, Curran said.
Timing is critical in comedy and the cast has found Curran eager to get its timing right. Sometimes the timing is written into the score but it takes a diligent singer actor to observe that.
While Curran and Schuette are pushing aside staid ideas about the show, they and McAdams are not changing the lyrics, not even in the Major General’s aria encore. It regularly is updated to satirize current and local situations.
“It’s the traditional lyrics just one word, one word, has been changed,” Curran said.
In the famous Major General aria, Gilbert wrote “You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.”
Picnics and lunches
Picnics on the lawn are available before all performances.
Free half-hour preview lectures also are given in the Webster University Conservatory building one hour before most production.
The many supporting events include Master Classes and a Beacon-sponsored "A Little Lunch Music," which features company lead singers on June 10, 17 and 24, each at 12:30 p.m. The first is at the Jewel Box, the next Monday it’s at Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, and it concludes at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church in Chesterfield.
“Nobody today knows what gee means,” Curran said. Victorian era theater-goers knew gee meant a horse. So, Curran replaced gee with horse. That a 19th century Major General could ride a horse deserves a laugh. At a recent rehearsal the rehabbed horse line got instant laughs, Curran said.
“They got it, never would have with gee,” he said.
All OTSL productions are in English with super titles projected on both sides of the thrust stage so Gilbert words won’t be lost. Vocal coach Erie Mills, the retired opera soprano from Granite City, is working with the singers to enunciate every last consonant. Curran added another sound dimensions for authenticity. He brought in Stephen Gabis, a British dialect coach. Gabis helped the cast make its London Bobbies – policeman – acquire Cockney accents, Pirates have Oxbridge accents – as it turns out, you see, these sherry-sipping pirates were orphans from the upper class – and the Major General’s many daughters sound like they live by the sea in the Cornish resort town of Penzance.
Curran calls the story zany, which may be the biggest hint about his direction. Mabel and Frederic are young sweethearts in a seaside Cornwall town. They must overcome what seems, to them, terrible obstacles to their marriage. He’s “a slave to duty” bound to fill out his apprentice contract with the Pirate King. Mabel is a Major General daughter.
“Every young couple in love think that they have terrible obstacles,” Curran said.
In his OTSL debut, Tenor Matthew Plenk sings the apprentice pirate. Deanna Breiwick, who last season at OTSL sang the innocent Johanna in “Sweeney Todd,” sings the spunkier Mabel.
To have a married life Frederic must be free from his pirate apprenticeship. It’s complicated because he was born on Feb. 29th, 21 years before, setting up a glitch in Frederic’s labor contract expiration date.
After two of the four weeks of rehearsal Curran said he’s impressed with the diligence and talents of the seven principal singing actors and the 24 singers in the Gerdine Young Artists programs, an apprenticeship program to groom them to become soloists.
Too often directors and actors make Frederick seem stupid, Curran said. He won’t be in this production.
“He’s not stupid, he’s just not been exposed to the world,” Curran said. Curren will point up the moment when Frederic is crest-fallen and disillusioned when it hits him that a respected authority figure is fallible, and in this case, is deceptive.
“It happens to many young people. At that moment Frederic becomes a man,” Curran said.
During scene run-through, the director likes to go to the back of the rehearsal hall and stand on a chair, pretending to be a member of the audience.
“I got all emotional,” Curran said about that scene.
The king of pirates and hearts
Bass Bradley Smoak will sing the choice role of the “glorious Pirate King.” He is the only principal not singing his role for the first time but since he’s mostly done the work when he was a student, he’s not tied to previous directors’ staging concepts.
“I love the role of the Pirate King, it changed my life,” he said after rehearsal as his wife Jennifer Berkebile sat nearby. The two are expecting their first child this summer.
Production Staff and Cast
Conductor | Ryan McAdams
Stage director, choreographer | Seán Curran
Set and costume designer | James Schuette
Lighting designer | Christopher Akerlind
Wig and makeup designer | Tom Watson
Chorus master | Robert Ainsley
Major General Stanley | Hugh Russell Pirate King | Bradley Smoak Frederic | Matthew Plenk Mabel | Deanna Breiwick Ruth | Maria Zifchak Sergeant | Jason Eck Samuel | Tobias Greenhalgh Edith | Jamie Korkos Kate | Corrie Stallings Isabel | Katrina Galka
“It’s my dream role. Without the Pirate King role (when he was in high school), there would be singing career, no Jennifer, no baby,” he laughed.
In 2002, when Bradley Smoak was 17 and a senior at a magnet school of the arts in Raleigh, N.C., he heard the school musical would be “Pirates.” He had never gone on stage as a singer, though he had sung in choirs.
“I had fallen in love with the ‘Pirates’ film with Kevin Kline,” Smoak said. (He’s not just saying that to please locals. Until the interview he didn’t know Kline was a St. Louis native.)
Smoak auditioned, won the role and discovered he loved performing. He enrolled as planned at Vanderbilt University, studied trombone and majored in communications but his heart was no longer in the trombone.
“I figured out I’d rather be on stage than playing in the pit,” he said.
He transferred twice to study voice graduating in 2007 from Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington, Ill.
Within two years of college graduation he made his debut at OTSL as a Gerdine Young Artists at OTSL. Lyric mezzo-soprano Jennifer Berkebile was another Gerdine Young Artist that spring. They sang together in minor roles and choruses in “Eugene Onegin,” “Ghosts of Versailles,” “Il re pastore” and“La Boheme.” Romance and marriage followed.
“Of course, we love St. Louis,” Berkebile said.
Curran and O’Leary both say that -- of the five operas in the festival -- this is the one to invite children or friends who are new to opera. The OTSL welcome mat is out for those who never attended an opera. O’Leary is pleased that last season 29 percent of ticketholders were first timers. That was a 6 percent jump over the previous season.
After seeing the production in rehearsal, O’Leary told the Spotlight on Opera panel discussion at the St. Louis Ethical Society last week that “It’s going to be, it is, a hit, dynamic and so funny.”
Two competing visions of sustainability will be on display early next week in a program designed to let the general public explore the future of food production.
“Sustainability in terms of our food means different things to different people and there are different perspectives on what it means to grow food sustainably,” said Rose Jansen, director of Earth science programs and speakers for science at the Academy of Science-St. Louis, a local nonprofit.
The academy is sponsoring the two-day event which will feature a Tuesday morning tour of EarthDance Farms followed by a Wednesday morning exploration of the Monsanto Agronomics and Breeding Facility. The event is co-sponsored by OASIS and UMSL, which is where participants will gather beforehand on Tuesday to hear a presentation on the topic.
Entitled “The Sustainable Table: Food for the Global and Local Economy,” the program is part of the academy’s “On Science” and “On the Menu: The Science of Food” series.
The tours juxtapose very different philosophies of food production that, in some respects, have similar goals. Monsanto is an agribusiness that is working to improve crop yields through a variety of means with the goal of large-scale production while EarthDance is an example of locally sourced, organic produce associated with community supported agriculture and a movement that shies away from chemicals or genetically modified produce.
Jansen said that sometimes the debate between different food constructs become heated, but in fact they do share commonalities. Each aims to find ways to feed populations in a sustainable way.
“This is an attempt to look at both of those perspectives and find some common ground and understanding of where both of those ways of thinking of sustainable agriculture originate and why they exist,” she said.
She said it is important for people to get the facts and make their own decisions.
“We’re not trying to sway anyone one way or the other,” she said. “It’s our mission to promote public understanding of science and in order to understand science, values often play into science in terms of what someone pursues and what direction they head within their particular discipline.”
Jansen said that people who attend should expect the opportunity to speak with professionals in the field and see it as a chance to have queries answered about the intricacies of the topic.
“One of the neat things about the programming that we do is that it allows people who have questions and concerns to talk directly with the scientists and people involved to get their feedback and their take on why it is they do what they do,” she said. “That’s a really good thing.”
The cost for the program is $35 which covers both days but does not include lunch. Call 314-533-8586 for more information or register here. The Tuesday session meets at 9 a.m. at UMSL.
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