There is something in the air in Pennsylvania; I keep getting whiffs of visionary leadership floating out. Both major opera companies there have made commitments to support and produce new and contemporary operas. Again this season, Pittsburgh Opera has a substantial offering of new and contemporary operas on their 2017-2018 schedule. Opera Philadelphia began its season this year with Festival O17, full of exciting, innovative works. Clearly the accepted safe path for opera companies today is to offer traditional operas, most often from the top twenty list of most often performed operas; to make them more relevant to our time in order to attract new audiences, companies will frequently offer new or updated productions of these operas that are now hundreds of years old. However, without support for creative composers and gifted librettists of today to work on developing their talents and skills, opera will largely be confined to living off the genius of past masters. One of the contemporary operas on Pittsburgh’s schedule is Moby-Dick, which premiered in 2010, based of course, on Herman Melville’s allegory about Captain Ahab’s pursuit of his nemesis, the whale Moby-Dick. Perhaps there is some meaning here for opera: obsessive pursuit of changes to attract new audiences is to be bedeviled by the whale; better to spend a substantial part of your resources charting a course towards new directions with eyes steadfastly on tracking the evolution of the art by contemporary artists. Personally, I am most excited by the newer offerings, but there are also three, justly renown picks planned for traditional fans to relish.
Tosca by Giacomo Puccini: Oct 7-15
The Marraige of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Nov 4-12
The Long Walk by Jeremy Howard Beck: Jan 20-28
Ashes & Snow by Douglas J. Cuomo: Feb 17-25
Moby-Dick by Jake Heggie: Mar 17-25
The Elixir of Love by Gaetano Donizetti: Apr 21-29
Tosca is up first, an extremely popular opera – this season will see 77 productions of Tosca in 71 cities across the world. Composer Puccini and librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica present a story made for opera; it has rape, murder, suicide, plot twists, and one of the most villainous villains in opera, and did I mention it is a love story? It also has three outstanding roles for opera singers: a soprano for Tosca, a tenor for Cavaradossi, and a baritone for Scarpia (boo, hiss). Pittsburgh Opera has assembled a fine cast, beginning with their Tosca; our heroine is played emerging opera star, Leah Crocetto, who just finished a stint as Aida for Washington National Opera’s production. Tenor Thiago Arancam sings the role of painter and Tosca’s beau, Cavaradossi; Mr. Arancam starred as Prince Calaf in Pittsburgh Opera’s Turandot earlier this year. Bass-baritone Mark Delavan plays corrupt Police Chief Scarpia; Mr. Delavan is a veteran of both the Pittsburgh Opera (Nabucco in 2015 and Tosca in 2012) and the Metropolitan Opera. Top that off with glorious music by Puccini and you have the perfect night at the opera (and your sweetie will love you for it).
Joining this season’s triad of power operas, along with Tosca, is The Marriage of Figaro and The Elixir of Love. If you haven’t seen Figaro, you must; it’s a requirement in opera and probably a law in Italy. Composer Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte have concocted a comic romp involving a battle of wits between Figaro and his lecherous boss, the Count, with their marraiges at stake; who is manipulating whom and who are the real pawns gets to be an interesting question. Mozart’s music is as melodic and delightful as ever. You will probably recognize the overture even if you haven’t seen the opera before. The cast is excellent and has been previewed by Operawire. This is one you take your friends to who would like to see an opera for the first time.
The Elixir of Love is composer Gaetano Donizetti’s and librettist Felice Romani’s gift to Valentine’s Day, although PO’s version will be in April. Ah yes, springtime and a young man’s fancy turns to love potions; why do these things always cause such mix ups? Oh well, where would comedy be without them. There are quite a few popular arias in this one and a chance for the leads who play the love interests to shine. Pittsburgh Opera has put together a star cast for this one. Both soprano Ekaterina Siurina who plays Adina and tenor Dimitri Pittas who plays Nemorino have appeared in the major opera houses in the US and Europe. Ms. Siurina will next appear at the Royal Opera House in London as Mimi in La Boheme, and Mr. Pittas has appeared as Nemorino on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. It will be hard to leave The Elixir of Love without a smile on your face and a glow in your heart.
The new operas begin with The Long Walk by composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischman, based on the book of the same name by Brian Castner. This opera is at the opposite end of the opera spectrum, dark, emotionally difficult, and deeply moving. Walk had its world premiere with Opera Saratoga in July 2015. The opera is based on Mr. Castner’s service in a bomb disposal unit in Iraq and his difficult reintegration into normal life in the US. I’m not aware of any operas in the traditional repertoire that cover PTSD; maybe Lucia di Lammermoor comes closest. I like critic Amy Biancolli’s insightful review of the premiere, which is a strong yes vote for attendance. I found this quote from the libretto in a NY Times article about the opera; it is quite moving. The wife is pondering life with her changed husband and recalls:
“When my husband deployed to Iraq,
I went and asked. “Grandma, I need to know:
How do I live with my husband gone?
Just me and the boys.
How do I help him
When he comes home?”
“He won’t come home,” my grandmother said.
“The war will kill him either way.
He’s as good as dead.
I hope for your sake he dies over there.
Because if the war doesn’t kill him,
It’ll take him here.
The war will kill him at home. With you.”
“But Grandma,” I said. “I won’t live in dread.
He’s coming home. And when he does,
Your story — it’s not coming true.
Not on my watch. Not to this family.
It can’t happen here. I’m going to keep us whole.”
The next offering is the world premiere of Ashes & Snow by composer Douglas J. Cuomo, developed with support from Pittsburgh Opera and American Opera Projects that explores another facet of opera. The setting is a trashed motel room in the desert in the American southwest; therein a distraught young man at the end of his rope must confront his life. The libretto is based on Franz Schubert’s famous “Winterreise (Winter Journey)”, which is based on Wilhem Muller‘s 24 poem cycle. One singer, Eric Flerring as the young man, is joined on stage by musicians playing the electric guitar, trumpet, and piano. This dramatically searing piece is called “a seventy-five minute monodrama” and “21st century art song, infused with acid jazz and punk energy, to create a very raw and emotional experience”. This work appears to be for those willing to be moved by art, even if painful. I’m in; how about you?
Last up in my discussion is the opera I’m most excited about, Moby-Dick, a contemporary opera by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer. Just to see the staging for this one could be worth the price of admission; how they get Captain Ahab’s ship (the Pequod), the whale, and the ocean on the stage is going to be interesting. Reviews of previous productions of Moby-Dick since its premiere in 2010 have been laudatory, and Mr. Heggie has become one of the more celebrated American opera composers; his opera, Dead Man Walking has become part of the traditional repertoire. The cast assembled by PO has very strong credentials. . Rogers Honeywell who plays Ahab will star in three additional operas this season, including Moby-Dick again for Utah Opera. Also, I was very impressed by Sean Panikkar, who plays Greenhorn, in PO’s The Summer King last season, and want to see him perform again. No need to worry that the music in this modern work will be too avant-garde for you; critic Anne Midgette in her review of the 2014 Washington National Opera production states, “If you like traditional opera, you will probably like Moby Dick” and further says, “…features big tunes for full orchestra, impassioned arias and tender ensembles, and choral scenes for sailors yo-ho-hoing as they tug at ropes on the foredeck.” I plan to make a special effort to get up to see Moby-Dick.
The Fan Experience: The season starts this Saturday, but Season tickets are still available, as well as individual tickets, online or at the box office. Ticket prices for most performances range from about the cost of a movie to the price of a dinner for two at a fine restaurant; I’m impressed that Pittsburgh Opera can offer such a range. The venues are different for the different operas; be sure to check the venue when purchasing tickets. Pittsburgh Opera’s website is excellent; after you click on the link for a specific opera, you will be taken to a page that gives you loads of information, i.e., cast, synopsis, previews and reviews, etc, and a link to buy tickets.