Pittsburgh Festival Opera 2019: Wagner, Strauss, Puccini, and Mister Rogers

Logo courtesy of PIttsburgh Festival Opera.

Logo courtesy of PIttsburgh Festival Opera.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s annual summer season begins on July 12 and runs through July 28.  With an array of seven operas and three concerts over 17 days, PFO is focused on attracting as wide an audience as possible to the world of opera.  PFO is not associated with Pittsburgh Opera whose new season begins in the Fall.  Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s mission is to bring “the power of world-class performances to humanize, energize and re-define opera as an experience that is up-close and personal, approachable, and relevant to today’s audiences.”  How do they do it?  Check the variety of listings, but first, check the title of this report. It sounds like a Sesame Street game of ‘which one of these doesn’t belong’ – Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Giacomo Puccini, or Fred Rogers.  Yet, all four names are associated with operas that are being performed, and who doesn’t like Mister Rogers?

Artwork for  The Valkyrie ; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Artwork for The Valkyrie; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera places their productions under the banner of “Intimate Opera Theater”, meant to convey their intent to more fully immerse the audience in the opera experience.  They make it as easy as possible for you to attend performances in several ways – neighborhood settings, free parking, refreshment availability, and modest prices.  To further increase accessibility, almost all operas are sung in English with projected English subtitles.  The festival 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 (I can almost hear PFO whispering Mister Rogers’ refrain saying “We like you just the way you are”).  For those whose love of opera is a pre-existing condition, it offers the chance to get a new perspective on works you are familiar with already; I am not sure where else you might hear Wagner’s The Valkyrie sung in English.  And for the average Joe or Josephine, it is also a really fun way to enjoy the last two weeks of July and help make it to October when Pittsburgh Opera starts up again.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s program of operas:

The Love of Danae (Richard Strauss) - July 12, 7:30pm at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

The Enchanted Forest (Children’s opera by Anna Young) - July 13, 27; sensory friendly, July 20; all performances at 11 am at Winchester Thurston School, Hilda Willis Room

“Mister Rogers' Operas” - July 13, 20, 25, 7:30pm; July 14, 2:00pm; all performances at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

The Valkyrie (Richard Wagner)- July 19, 27 at 7:30pm; July 21, 2:00pm; all performances at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

Gianni Schicchi at Snuggery (Giacomo Puccini)- July 20 at 6:00 pm, picnic and performance at Snuggery Farm 

Night Flight of Minerva’s Owl (Music That Matters Series) - July 24 at 7:30 pm at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

 “Scandals and Schicchi” - July 26, 7:30pm, July 28, 2:00pm; all performances at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

Concerts and events:

“Master Class Series”, July 13- Jane Eaglen; July 20- Danielle Pastin; July 27- Mark Trawka;all performances at 2:00pm at the Cabaret Lounge at Winchester Thurston School. 

“Wagner and the Mastersingers”, Act I - July 14; Act II - July 18; all performances at 7:30pm at First Unitarian Church. 

“Lenya in the Light: Daphne Sings Weill”: July 17, 7:30 at First Unitarian Church. 

“Degenerate Art Concert” - July 23, 7:30pm. First Unitarian Church

Artwork for  Love of Danae ; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Artwork for Love of Danae; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

I can’t resist commenting on just a few of the offerings.  PFO has a long-standing commitment to producing works of the great composer Richard Strauss and Love of Danae (1944) sounds like a pleasing one for the human spirit.  The librettist is Hugo von Hofsmannsthal who worked with Strauss on his more famous operas as well, such as Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos.  The plot is a little complicated with the god Jupiter on the make again, this time for Danae, and he creates a Midas touch for his accomplice in wooing her.  It backfires of course, and the god is taught a lesson by the humans.  Strauss is said to have intended this to be a light, operetta-like creation, but grew more sympathetic to the Jupiter character in its development.  Danae was composed during WWII and the war prevented its full performance during Strauss’ lifetime. It was finally presented at the Salzburg Festival in 1952.  Though the opera is little performed, the music draws great praise.  This one is sung in German with English suoertitles.

The Valkyrie, known in German as Die Walküre is the second opera in Richard Wagner’s series, The Ring of the Nibelung (Ring des Nibelungen), among the most famous and highly regarded operas in the repertoire.  The first opera in the series, Rhinegold, was presented by PFO last year to very positive reviews.  The story focuses on the Valkyrie Brünnhilde’s struggle with her father Wotan, the head of the gods. The Valkyries are maidens who speed through the sky to take fallen heroes to Valhalla, the home of the gods. The “Ride of the Valkyries” which opens Act III is one of the more famous and dramatic musical themes you are likely to hear; it was the theme used in the movie Apocalypse Now in the helicopter scene.  PFO’s production will be sung in English with English supertitles and shortened from the four-hour original to two hours and 45 minutes.  Though The Valkyrie is the most popular opera of the group, If it whets your appetite for Wagner, the entire 18 hours of the four Ring operas is well worth your time.

Artwork for  Gianni Schicchi;  courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Artwork for Gianni Schicchi; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Gianni Schicchi by composer Giacomo Puccini is one of the better opera comedies in the repertoire if well played.  Family members are shocked when a relative leaves his entire fortune to the church. To acquire the inheritance instead of the church, they employ the low-bred lawyer Gianni Schicchi to come up with a plan.  The plan works, but for whom? The opera includes one of the most popular arias of all time, “O mio babbino caro”; if you don’t know what the aria is about, you will likely be surprised to find out.  PFO serves up Schicchi in a couple of different ways.  One includes a play called “Scandal and Schicchi” performed prior to the opera itself. The play sets up a judgment of Puccini based on Dante’s response to the opera.  Once you see Gianni Schicchi it all makes sense. If you prefer your Schicchi straight up, you can attend a performance at the Snuggery Farm instead and couple it with a gourmet picnic prior to the performance.

Night Flight of Minerva’s Owl by composer Guang Yang and librettist Paula Ciznet is the third in a series begun in 2015 called “Music That Matters”, new opera commissions that focus on contemporary issues. Owl presents views of three young girls longing for the educations out of reach for them. Last year’s A Gathering of Sons in this series won an international award for excellence in productions dealing with society and societal issues.

I want to make special mention of Anna Young’s children’s opera, “The Enchanted Forest” which adapts music from Bizet, Mozart, and Sullivan.  I am impressed and pleased by the inclusion of a special sensory friendly performance for children who might be especially sensitive to light and sound.  When my son was young, sounds my wife and I considered normal would cause him to put his fingers in his ears.  PFO says this performance will “feature less stage lighting and lower sound levels. We invite families to bring familiar, comforting objects to the performance and to feel free to move around the theater as necessary.”

There are many other delightful offerings in the festival, including more operas, concerts, and even master classes with distinguished artists.  The PFO website provides interesting and helpful information on each activity, easily accessed through the “What’s On” button at the top.  There is little specific information on the website about performers, singers or orchestra; however, the roles will mainly be played by PFO Resident Artist Singers who are here for summer training.  Based on reviews of last year’s performances, which can be found on this blog’s Seasonal Lists page in the 2017-2018 Season listing, one can feel comfortable that casting and orchestration will be well handled.

Artwork for “Mister Rogers’ Operas”; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Artwork for “Mister Rogers’ Operas”; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Ahhh, you didn’t think I was going to end the report without saying anything about Mister Rogers’ operas, did you?  PFO will present two, Windstorm in Bubbleland and Spoon Mountain.  For a discussion of the truly extraordinary life and contributions of Fred McFeely Rogers, I refer you to PFO’s web page about this program.  While most famous for his gentle and engaging children’s program on public broadcasting, “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” which ran nationally from 1968 until 2001, it is little known, I suspect, that he was the composer and lyricist of over 200 songs during his lifetime; he died in 2003 at the age of 74.  PFO will present two short operas developed and written by Mister Rogers and composed with his show’s musical director, Johnny Costa.  Fred Rogers had a friend in college, John Reardon, a baritone who later became a frequent performer at the Metropolitan Opera.  The process Mister Rogers used for developing his operas was to have Mr. Reardon show up on Monday and be directed by King Friday on the show to create an opera by Friday, and over the week, the characters would do so.  Mister Rogers told the kids that “An opera is just a story for which you sing the words instead of saying them.”  Adults make it a little more complicated, and these performances will be sung by young opera artists, but Mister Rogers’ operas are certainly accessible and fun, and those are principal themes of this entire festival.  Check ‘em out.

 The Fan Experience: Tickets range in price from $15 to $65 and are available online, by phone, or at the box office. My experience is that buying tickets at the box office can save you a few dollars in fees. A student discount of 20% is available. For questions, call the box office at 412-326-9687.