Pittsburgh Festival Opera: A Summer Six-Week Opera Festival Happening Now

Pittsburgh has options for live summer opera and not everywhere does.  Just recently I read a Facebook post from someone asking if cinema broadcasts of operas were any good because there was no opera in his city until September.  How can we satisfy our taste for opera in the summer while the productions of the major opera companies are gestating for birth in the 2017-2018 season that begins in the Fall?  Most often by looking around the country for summer opera festivals, combining vacations with opera.  Yes, there is the occasional cinema or television broadcast and there are options for streaming opera on your electronic devices. Television, with streaming possible, has certain advantages; for ease and convenience it is hard to beat. But it has its disadvantages – you are watching pictures and videos of action, not action; your attention is focused on shots picked by the director, not allowing you to see the complete stage, and most importantly, you are hearing electronically manipulated sound, not direct voice or instrument to ear sound.  The excitement often missing from broadcasts is typically present at live performances.  I enjoy opera recordings, on the radio, the TV, and in the cinemas, but opera is meant to be enjoyed live so you can experience, without filters, the profound effect that the trained, human voice can have, touching your heart and elevating your soul.  Just think of the difference in having your sweetie say 'I love you' in person and saying it on a recording.  Both are good, but there is a difference.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera wants you to experience opera live and first hand. They call their version “Intimate Opera Theater”.  Mainstage productions are in the 360-seat Falk Auditorium, and children’s performances are in the 125-seat Hilda Willis Room, though other venues around town are also utilized.  I truly believe they would come to your living room to perform if they could, but the best they can do is to bring you live, innovative, quality opera in settings much more intimate than the large 2-3,000 seat opera houses.  (Of course, if you have very deep pockets I suspect they might be willing to visit you in your living room).  They can however match your air conditioning, and this summer PFO is offering mainstage operas, recitals, and family events in cool comfort.  They also make it about as easy for you as possible – neighborhood settings, free parking, refreshment availability, modest prices, and operas sung in English with projected English subtitles.  It is a great way to introduce yourself to new opera and lesser known operas than you are likely to hear in the major opera houses; and it is a low-cost option for trying opera for the first time or introducing your kids to this wonderful art form. 

Pittsburgh Festival Opera is not new, but rather, with name change, is building on success and is teeming with ambition.  This is the 40th season for this innovative opera company, known in previous years as Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and Summerfest.  See OperaGene’s coverage of the 2016 season at this link.  PFO maintains the same commitment to engaging Pittsburgh audiences broadly in intimate settings presenting American works, reinterpretations of older works, and new works involving themes of contemporary interest; it plans to continue its signature series of rarely performed Richard Strauss operas and its presentations of Handel operas. The company has also committed itself to new or expanded efforts on these fronts: 1) revive the Pittsburgh Ring Cycle starting in 2018; 2) launch an effort to spread the word of this festival nationally and internationally, drawing opera fans to Pittsburgh in the summer; and 3) establish a new friends organization to support an Endowment campaign, with $3 million in pledges already.  PFO is setting its sights high and providing the content to justify it. 

So, what exactly does Pittsburgh Festival Opera have planned for you this summer?  I list just the operas and one musical below, but also check out the recitals and family events at this link:    

A Gathering Of Sons by Dwayne Fulton and Dr. Tameka Cage Conley – June 15, 16, 24, 28, 29, July 1, and 8

Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck – July 1, 8, and 15

Sweeny Todd by Stephen Sondheim – July 7, 9, 15, 20, and 22

Xerxes by George Frideric Handel – July 14, 16, and 22

Intermezzo by Richard Strauss – July 21 and 23

A Gathering of Sons - Victor protects his magic from the rogue cop, Lockdown. (l-r) Terriq White (Victor), Robert Gerold (Lockdown). Photos by Patti Brahim; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

A Gathering of Sons - Victor protects his magic from the rogue cop, Lockdown. (l-r) Terriq White (Victor), Robert Gerold (Lockdown). Photos by Patti Brahim; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

A Gathering Of Sons is a new opera commissioned by PFO’s Music That Matters series.  It is described as a gospel and jazz opera, and the story deals with the shooting of a black man by a white police officer, hoping to promote understanding.  The composer, Dwayne Fulton, and the librettist, Tameka Cage Conley, are locals.  See an early review here.  This is the second Pittsburgh premier of a new opera dealing with race relations; Pittsburgh Opera presented the well-received “The Summer King” in May.  Sons is an opera you will take home with you to ponder for some time to come.  Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is a perennial opera favorite, usually presented around the Christmas season.  You know the fairy tale and the music is well worth the adventure for both adults and children, though this will be an abbreviated version suitable for children.  Sweeney Todd is the well-known, highly successful Sondheim Broadway musical, most recently embodied by Johnny Depp in the movie version by the same name.  Although technically a musical and not an opera, it is often performed by opera companies around the U.S..

A Gathering of Suns - The Spirits of the Sky, the Earth, and the Waters mourn the loss of Victor. (l-r) Charlene Canty (The Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing), Demareus Cooper (The Speaking Earth), and Michele Renee Williams (The Waters). Photo by Patti Brahim; courtesy of the Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

A Gathering of Suns - The Spirits of the Sky, the Earth, and the Waters mourn the loss of Victor. (l-r) Charlene Canty (The Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing), Demareus Cooper (The Speaking Earth), and Michele Renee Williams (The Waters). Photo by Patti Brahim; courtesy of the Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Closest to my operatic heart in terms of appeal are Handel’s Xerxes and Strauss’s Intermezzo.  Last year’s Summerfest production of Handel’s Julius Caesar was a sell-out, and PIttsburgh Festival Opera offers another chance to hear baroque opera by the great maestro.  In baroque opera, the counter tenor is the thing since the castrati seemed to have disappeared, and PFO is bringing in the highly regarded Andrey Nemzer of the Metropolitan Opera to play Xerxes, King of Persia; he will also appear in the PFO recital, The Three (Counter) Tenors on June 30.  Again in opera, we have a straying king who has designs on the love interest of another.  Therein lies the drama and the comedy; who will marry whom in the end?  Richard Strauss wrote his own libretto for Intermezzo about an event in his married life.  The opera, a comedic drama revolves around a letter and a case of mistaken identity.  The composition by Strauss was considered innovative for its time in incorporating everyday events into an opera.  All told, Strauss composed 15 operas, so FPO has a ways to go to present them all.  Interestingly, Strauss was also a great conductor and conducted the 1893 world premiere of Hansel and Gretel.

The Fan Experience:  Ticket sales are not limited to citizens of Pittsburgh and the city is great place to visit.  Check out The Fan Experience section of my report on The Summer King, which my wife and I drove up from DC to attend.  PFO offers childcare options for children 2-5 for their Sunday matinees; check with the box office for more info.  I will reiterate here that if you plan to drive in the downtown area, have a good map and plan your routes ahead of time.  The inner city is situated across from a high bluff and has narrow streets with tall buildings – our GPS was unable to consistently maintain its signal.  While there, check out if the Pirates are in town for major league baseball.

TICKETS ONLINE: pittsburghfestivalopera.org

Box Office: 412-326-9687