Opera Theater's Summerfest offers more than staged shows

| Saturday, July 5, 2014, 6:10 p.m.

Vocal music reigns supreme at Opera Theater's Summerfest, which is offering four staged works, new operas and many recitals this summer, its third season. It offers more summer choices for music lovers oriented toward the classics than either the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra or Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble.

“The festival atmosphere and summer atmosphere are important to us,” says artistic director Jonathan Eaton. Cabaret performances after the main-stage opera exemplify the extra features of many events.

“When we offer a special Belgian-centered recital, featuring four prizewinners of our European competition, we'll have Belgian beer-tasting and Belgian chocolates,” he says.

Summerfest runs from July 10 to 27 at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland. Air conditioning and other facilities at the club have been upgraded since last season.

The three main-stage productions show Summerfest's range. “The Merry Widow” is a popular Viennese operetta, “The Fantasticks” is one of the most successful American musicals, and the comic, absurd and exquisite opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” is being offering in tribute to the 150th birthday of its composer Richard Strauss.

The company also is presenting “Happy Hour!” by Roger Zahab, a series of vignettes about meetings in bars that will first be performed as guerilla opera popping up at local bars, then performed as a complete set at the festival. A workshop of an in-progress eco-opera inspired by Rachel Carson will be performed once.

“The Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country” by Lukas Foss is an opera for families that is being presented in the late morning on three Saturdays.

The festival begins with a recital by Marianne Cornetti, a star at top opera houses around the world. The Cabot, Butler County, native also will give a master class. Other recitals include countertenor Andrey Nemzer, who won the 2011 Mildred Miller International Voice Competition and was one of the winners of Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions; a tribute to mezzo-soprano Mildred Miller, who in her prime was a mainstay at the Metropolitan Opera and founded Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and Summerfest; and the festival's second tribute to Strauss.

The first staged work will be “The Merry Widow,” Franz Lehar's breakthrough work that is second in popularity among operettas only to “Die Fledermaus.” It's lush and tuneful score tells the story of the attempt to keep Hanna Glawin and her fortune in a small country.

Director Mo Zhou notes that the two most popular operettas opened after events showing “the old European world falling apart” — “Die Fledermaus” closely following a major European stock market crash and “The Merry Widow” in the middle of the Russo-Japanese War.

“I keep thinking ‘The Merry Widow' has a thorn in its heart,” she says. “It's a very bittersweet story. That's why I'm interested in the vulnerable, humanistic side of the story.”

Zhou, who staged two opera vignettes for Summerfest in 2011, won the Opera America biennial director showcase in 2013 for her design concept for Carlisle Floyd's “Susannah.” She also worked on Summerfest's 2012 production of “The Magic Flute” and calls Eaton “a great mentor.”

“I feel ‘The Merry Widow' is a show about peeling down the masks and revealing the most tender feelings,” Zhou says. “Being loved means daring to show the most vulnerable side to each other and accepting the truth of each side. I think that's the trajectory of the show.”

Attack Theatre's co-director Peter Kope is staging “The Fantasticks,” which ran for a record-setting 42 years and 17,162 performances in its original off-Broadway production. The show is about a boy and a girl falling in love, growing apart and finally finding their way back to each other.

Kope's modern dance company, which he runs with his wife, Michele de la Reza, is known for daring and endless creativity. Working on “The Fantasticks” has been a new experience for him because he's mainly worked in dance up to now, but he's enjoyed delving into the play and musical.

“We're having a lot of fun with it, to say the least. We're putting a lot of absurdity into this show, which we feel is very appropriate given the stereotypic nature of the players contrasted with the humanity of the story line,” he says. “We're taking advantage of every opportunity for poignancy and passion we can.”

“Such a wonderful melodic piece benefits from real singing, legitimate singing,” Eaton adds, and the staging has a “special brand of edginess.”

Mark Kanny is the classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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