Pittsburgh Opera’s 2018-2019 Season: Two Seasons Actually

It took driving through a snow storm last winter, but my wife and I managed to attend Pittsburgh Opera’s Moby Dick where, in opening remarks, the 2018-2019 season was revealed.  My reaction to the announcement was…well, a slight letdown…four grand operas were to be performed, great operas to be sure and two that I haven’t seen before, but it seemed a season apparently lacking the contemporary opera or premiere that previous seasons had provided.  Then, when next season’s lineup was formally announced and placed on PO’s website, I realized only two-thirds of next year’s offerings had been given earlier.  Also planned are performances by the Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artists of a contemporary opera and a re-imagined version of a traditional one, exactly the spice I needed.  De facto, there will be two seasons this coming year, one end-capping the opera season with grand operas at the Benedum Center, which will offer a great big helping of Italian opera, one a bit of a surprise, and a taste of fanciful German.  And another season wedged into winter break, which will provide two chamber operas in more intimate settings featuring a young cast exploring new opera and opera made new.  Now I’m on board the excitement train; I only wish it was a high speed rail line that ran between DC and Pittsburgh, especially during winter.  Let’s take a look at the 2018-2019 season in total:

Pittsburgh Opera’s 2018-2019 Season:

October 6, 9, 12, 14

Madama Butterfly (1903)

Composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica

November 3, 6, 9, 11

Hansel and Gretel (1893, sung in English)

Composer Engelbert Humperdinck and librettist Adelheid Wette

January 26, 29, February 1, 3

afterWARds – Mozart’s Idomeneo Reimagined (2017; Idomeneo, 1781)

Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Giambattista Varesco

Reimagineer/Director David Paul

February 23, 26, March 1, 3

Glory Denied (2007)

Composer and librettist Tom Cipullo

March 30, April 2, 5, 7

La Boheme (1896)

Composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica

April 27, 30, May 3, 5

Don Pasquale (1843)

Composer Gaetano Donizetti and librettists Giovanni Ruffini and Gaetano Donizetti

Benedum Center Grand Operas: First, let’s deal with the Italian grand dames of opera.  Puccini’s Madama Butterfly leads off the season and is perfect opera, some of the most gorgeous music ever written wed to a story with great emotional depth.  It affects me every time I see it; I well up with tears for the tender, vulnerable Cio Cio San and bristle and hiss (not too loud) at the faithless Lieutenant Pinkerton.  It is simply my favorite opera.  The soprano playing Cio Cio San must bear her soul as well as her voice; she enters as a 15-year old Japanese girl and is fated to become a disillusioned and despairing young mother.  PO is bringing in a highly accomplished Russian soprano, Dina Kuznetsova, to play Cio Cio San; she heads an impressive cast and creative team that includes director Linda Brovsky, tenor Cody Austin as Pinkerton, baritone Michael Mayes as Sharpless, and mezzo-soprano Laurel Semerdjian as Suzuki (a role to covet for young mezzo-sopranos, providing a great opportunity to get noticed). 

Photos from previous performances of Madama Butterfly (left, photo by David Bachman) and La Boheme (right, photo by David Bachman). Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

The first production of Spring will be the classic La Boheme, another Puccini crowd pleaser for both music and story.  Among opera fans this might come in as the all time favorite opera.  Young artists of 1830’s Paris, living in poverty and devoted to their art, are joyful in their spirit and camaraderie and buoyed by the occasional good fortune of one of their members.  A chance meeting of seamstress Mimi and aspiring author Rodolfo sets a bittersweet romance into motion with a bumpy ride to its sad conclusion.  You will be given the opportunity to hear soprano Nicole Cabell as Mimi, which I would very much like to do (Ms. Cabell, much in demand as an opera singer and soloist, won the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition), and tenor Sean Panikkar as Roldolfo.  I have been a fan of Mr. Panikkar’s since hearing him in PO’s premier of The Summer King in 2017.

Now for the surprise - The final grand Italien will be the highly regarded comedy, Don Pasquale, which I have wanted to see for some time.  But while Puccini takes Italian opera to Japan and France; Director Chuck Hudson takes Donizetti's Don Pasquale to 1950’s Hollywood.  Dr. Malatesta and his sister Norina conspire to trick Don Pasquale into allowing his nephew Ernesto to marry Norina.  Only in this inventive production, Pasquale is an aging silent film star trying to make a comeback.  Originated by Mr. Hudson in 2014 with Arizona Opera, his production has since played at Cincinnati Opera, Atlanta Opera, Minnesota Opera, and Fort Worth Opera to a consensus that it is fresh, fun, and lively.  Donizetti’s music, a comedic plot, a trip to Hollywood - if you need another reason to attend, one word…Lisette Oropesa.  Ok, that’s two words, but one soprano and a delightful one in singing and acting.  Ms. Oropesa playing a Hollywood starlet makes Don Pasquale an irresistible proposition.

Photos from previous performances of Don Pasquale by Cincinnati Opera (left, photo by Philip Groshong) and Hansel and Gretel by Washington National Opera (right, photo by Scott Suchman). Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Hansel and Gretel as we all know is the Brothers Grimm tale about baking, or in composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s hands and his sister’s libretto, singing about baking.  Nah, don’t worry, the kids escape the oven and it is the witch’s goose that gets cooked.  This fairy tale opera's first performance was conducted by composer Richard Strauss; an instant success, it has stayed in the popular repertoire since 1893.  This opera is noted for its music, which often uses theme songs from German children’s songs of its day, and is often performed during the holiday season to entice parents to bring the kids and Pittsburgh Opera's version is sung in English.  Hey, I want to see it.

Chamber Operas: Now let’s discus the Jan/Feb mini-season to be performed by Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artists: let it be noted that Resident Artists had to compete against over 500 applicants to get into the program and are already accomplished young singers who, while with PO, are honing their skills for professional careers.  Their performances have their own special excitement as previews of young opera stars to be.  The common theme of the two productions they will perform is the ravages of war; one production leaves us with a ray of hope and the other leaves us with no apparent way out. 

Poster art courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Closing out January and heading up February is afterWARds: Mozart’s Idomeneo Reimagined.  I recently saw Wolf Trap Opera’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo and found the production wanting.  My main difficulty was moving the drama to an earlier time period and yet keeping Greek god Neptune’s wrath as an important driver of the tension.  In Mozart’s version, the boat carrying King Idomeneo of Crete home from the Trojan War sinks in a storm, and to save himself, he promises Neptune he will sacrifice the first person he sees if he arrives home safely.  He does and naturally the first person he encounters is his son, Idamante.  In Director David Paul’s shortened version, the person that King Idomeneo is pressured to put to death is whoever has performed the traitorous act of saving the life of Ilia, a Trojan princess.  The traitor of course turns out to be Idamante who further compounds his sin by falling in love with Ilia.  Interesting…this sounds to me like it might play better to a modern audience, but either way, in the end, true love conquers all, and you get Mozart’s music and some beautiful arias.

True love does not come to the rescue in Glory Denied, but succumbs to harsh reality.  Based on a true story, a Vietnam War veteran returns home after nine years as a P.O.W. to find that his wife, who believed him dead, has remarried.  While she has moved on, Colonel Jim Thompson is left to deal with questions about his involvement in the war and the loss of his wife.  Each time Glory Denied has been produced it has drawn highly laudatory reviews.  Resident Artist Ben Taylor will portray the older Thompson and Terrence Chin-Loy will portray the younger Thompson.  The Vietnam War ended in 1975, but young men are still coming home to America from military conflicts to find out that they and the their country have changed, questions at the heart of Glory Denied.

So, there you have it, a little tragedy, a little comedy, plot twists, opera re-imaginings, stellar singers, great music, grand operas in the historic Benedum Center, and something newer in chamber operas in more intimate settings.  Grab your seats; the Maestro enters…

The Fan Experience: Individual tickets as well as season subscriptions are now on sale.  Also peruse the Pittsburgh website for special discounts, such as student tickets and group purchases.  One of the things I really like about Pittsburgh Opera performances is the range of prices for the tickets, which should accommodate most people's budgets.  I also like their website which is easy to maneuver around.  If you click on the "Seasons" header on the home page, a list of the operas will pop up; then clicking on any of these will take you to the homepage for that opera, and there you will find information on all aspects of the opera and performances, especially helpful for buying tickets and finding info on the casts and creative teams.