Pittsburgh Opera's 2019-2020 Season: Blockbusters and a New App Starting Saturday

As October cools down, the Pittsburgh Opera heats up.  As I look through their 2019-2020 season, I am truly impressed with this program.  This season might be PO’s best ever – classics by Bellini, Bizet, Handel, and Mozart with a contemporary American drama (practically hot off the press) and a modern opera with a libretto in Spanish that adds balance and currency; each opera will have four performances.  Plus, this season, starting with Don Giovanni on Saturday, PO will go public with their new mobile app, tested in performances last year, meant to give attendees an option of accessing information about the opera on their smartphones, including during the performance.

Poster art, left to right, for Don Giovanni, Florencia en el Amazonas, and Alcina; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Pittsburg Opera 2019-2020 Season

Don Giovanni (1787) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte 

October 12, 15, 18, 20

Florencia en el Amazonas (1996) – Daniel Catán and Marcela Fuentes-Berain

November 9, 12, 15, 17

Alcina (1735) – George Frideric Handel

January 25, 28, 31, February 2

The Last American Hammer (2018) - Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi 

February 22, 25, 28, March 1 

Carmen (1875) – Georges Bizet and Henri Meilhac/Ludovic Halévy

March 28, 31, April 3, 5

Norma (1831) – Vincenzo Bellini and Felice Romani

April 25, 28, May 1, 3

Poster art, left to right, for The Last American Hammer, Carmen, and Norma; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

The mobile app – Pittsburgh Opera has developed visual and audio content for the opera being attended, to be received on your smartphone.  Early testing appeared to validate the desirability and usefulness of the app, especially among younger audience members.  PO is proceeding opera by opera at this point and anticipate providing a report on how well it worked for Don Giovanni and have plans for using it for Florencia.  Here are bullet points PO gave for last season’s test with the performance of La Boheme:

  • Listen to interviews with cast members, the director, and the conductor before the show

  • Learn more about La bohème’s musical themes and motifs

  • Get historical context for specific scenes in the opera

  • Enjoy interesting trivia about Puccini, La bohème, and Pittsburgh Opera’s production

  • Listen to supplemental audio commentary in real time

Clearly there are challenges: timing of some material with the flow of the opera, how well attendees can integrate online information with opera in progress, and how to receive this info without disturbing your neighbors in the audience.  I wonder how this will work, but I think it is an exciting idea and look forward to giving it a try myself.

Don Giovanni is in everyone’s top ten best operas and top ten most popular operas lists; perhaps not surprisingly, it is about power and sex. It is an opera you would go to just for the music if it didn’t offer so much more.  For opera fans, it is required viewing.  In the opinion of musicologists, it is not without some flaws. and you have to buy into all this action taking place in a single day, but in return, you get a fascinating hero, Don Giovanni, who is a villain that leaves you uncomfortable with your fascination; he is coupled to a comic sidekick, Leporello, who both amuses and disgusts you - he sings a delightful aria about Giovanni’s 2,065 sexual conquests he has recorded (maybe not as funny as it once was), and there will be more before the day is out. You are left with ambiguities about sexual motives, class privileges, and what actually happened that keep you wondering long after the performance is over.  It is called a dramma giocoso, a drama with jokes or a serious playful duality.  You also get the sort of arias that you go home humming.  Director Kristine McIntyre has created a film noir version of the opera that will likely have a different flavor than versions you have seen previously; she has Don Giovanni portrayed as a film noir antihero - one wonders how the humor in Giovanni is maintained in this production.  One of the great features of Don Giovanni is that it has so many outstanding roles for singers.  I have heard soprano Rachelle Durkin’s Donna Anna previously and found her to be impressive.  Baritone Musa Ngqungwana returns to PO as Leporello and that should be fun.  The conductor is Maestro Antony Walker, which is a guarantee in itself.  Don’t miss this one.   

Florencia en el Amazonas is based on the works of Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Márquez that combine realism with incidents of magic.  A soprano longing to be reunited with her true love makes a trip down the Amazon river to find him, a butterfly hunter.  For her and the other passengers it becomes a spiritual as well as a travel adventure. I am curious how a boat ride down the Amazon river will be staged.  Composer Catán has two operas that receive regular performances in the US.  Virginia Opera will be staging his opera Il Postino in November as well.  One of my personal goals this year is to attend both.  These will be the first operas in Spanish that I have heard.  Mr. Catán’s music is often described as being Puccini-like and at least one critic has evaluated his work as being “neo-Romantic” with music is that is too melodious.  Hmmm, my worry with modern operas is usually the atonality and lack of melody.  Count me in for neo-romanticism and lots of melody.  Music Director Antony Walker will again conduct, and Director Stephanie Havey will be reviving the original production of Jose Maria Condemi.  Standout soprano Alexandria Loutsion, who I loved in Wolf Trap Opera’s Tosca, will return to PO to play Florencia and the great baritone Nathan Gunn will return to PO to play Alvaro. 

Alcina is one of Handel’s many baroque operas.  I had thought of baroque operas as recitals for great singers with a little story thrown in for amusement until seeing Handel’s Semele in Philadelphia recently .  That made me realize that the staging is critical in importance for modern audiences.  I saw Washington National Opera’s Alcina last season and had reservations about the staging, though the cast was fabulous.  Director Matthew Haney will have his hands full with PO’s production.  I sort of view Alcina as ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ for sopranos; which soprano will prevail?  See if it hits you that way.  Two sopranos and two mezzo-sopranos will square off with one playing a guy and one playing a woman pretending to be a guy, and yes there are a couple of real guys thrown in.  By the way, Alcina is a sorceress who turns her lovers into shrubs or rocks when she tires of them; I don’t know if that is kinder than Turandot or not.  Handel’s music for Alcina is marvelous.  Antony Walker will conduct the orchestra provided by Chatham Baroque, which specializes in baroque music, for this performance.

The Last American Hammer was commissioned and first presented by UrbanArias in DC in 2018. UrbanArias is a champion of contemporary, accessible opera.  Hammer touches on some of the flashpoint issues of modern America: the economic erosion of life in rural America, conspiracy theories, and distrust in the government.  It is a comedy expressing serious concerns.  Reviews of the DC performance were mainly positive but expressed a need for a more focused message and a wish for more ensemble vocal numbers.  Glenn Lewis will conduct a small ensemble orchestra.  The music is reported to be influenced by country and folk music elements.  The singers will come from former and current Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artists.  This chamber opera runs for about an hour and forty minutes.

Carmen, are you kidding?  It’s Carmen, what’s not to like.  I think Carmen comes as close to a Broadway hit show as you are going to see in opera.  Carmen has been controversial since its beginning; many considered it too profane when first performed, and Bizet died before it became a hit.  Composer Georges Bizet has two currently popular operas.  The Pearl Fishers is also one of my favorites.  He died when he was only 36 years old; I can’t help but wonder what wonderful operas he might have composed if he had lived a full lifespan.  With its focus on a powerful, sexually promiscuous, young female, cigarette factory worker, even today Carmen draws concerns about political correctness, but sit back and let the music wash over you until that gut-wrenching ending.  It is an experience that will stay with you, and very likely you will go home and listen to a recording to further enjoy the music. The role of Carmen will be played by mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde in a role that is greatly shaped by the performer singing the role.  Ms. Švēde, though a relative newcomer has several national and international productions of Carmen under her belt already in which she garnered praise.  Timothy Myers will conduct the PO orchestra.  He made his debut conducting for the Sante Fe Opera this past season, conducting The Pearl Fishers.  The setting for Carmen is Spain but Bizet and the libretto are French.

Come to think of it, Da Ponte placed Don Giovanni in Spain, but the libretto is in Italian.  If you want to hear an opera in Spanish, Florencia is your option.  Spain has been a cultural center for the development of music and dance, but somehow opera did not flourish there.

Are you ready for some bel canto! Last, but certainly not least, we get to Norma.    Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti are the big three composers known for bel canto (beautiful singing) operas. Bellini also died early, at age 33.  Despite that he wrote ten operas, five of which have become entrenched in the classic repertoire.  Norma is his masterwork; its aria “casta diva” is considered by many to be the greatest aria of all time.  Bellini and his librettist Romani were like Mozart and Da Ponte, collaborating on several great operas.  One of my favorite statements about Bellini refers to his “art of conjuring poetry, character, and drama into song.”  Norma is a Druid priestess in Gaul who secretly has an affair with an invading Roman proconsul Pollione which then turns into a love triangle with another priestess Adalgisa; these things never end well. Antony Walker conducts and Stephanie Havey directs.  Norma is a challenging and plumb role for sopranos, and PO is bringing in an exciting talent, soprano Leah Crocetto to sing this role.  I will be seeing her as Desdemona in Washington National Opera’s Otello later this month. 

If you have made it this far, I think you will agree that this is an exciting lineup for Pittsburgh Opera’s 2019-2020 season.  If you live away from Pittsburgh, consider an opera vacation trip or two.  If you live in the Pittsburgh area, season tickets seem in order.

The Fan ExperienceIndividual 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. The venue for Alcina is the CAPA Theater and for The Last American Hammer the Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters.  All others will be held in the Benedum Center. 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.  It is also worthwhile perusing the Pittsburgh events calendar for other opera related events that Pittsburgh Opera hosts.