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'Gathering of Sons' by Pittsburgh Festival Opera an operatic look at race relations

| Tuesday, June 13, 2017, 2:21 p.m.
The cast of 'A Gathering of Sons'
Pittsburgh Festival Opera
The cast of 'A Gathering of Sons'

For the past six years, the Pittsburgh Festival Opera has produced an extended summer festival, blending genres and theatrical forms in intimate venues around the city, all sung in English.

From Baroque to Romantic to Modern operas, with chamber musicals, cabarets and world premieres thrown in, the Pittsburgh Festival Opera specializes in reaching new and diverse audiences. That commitment to diversity and relevance is strengthened by their premiere of "A Gathering of Sons," a new "gospel and jazz opera" by composer Dwayne Fulton and librettist Tameka Cage Conley, which debuts June 15 and 16 at Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Pittsburgh's Larimer neighborhood and will be performed several more times over the next month.

"Another black man is shot by a white police officer, and we ask what comes next?" writes director Mark Clayton Southers, describing his reasons for choosing the piece. "Working on a social justice piece is always a heavy process. Aligning your inner emotions to find that centered space to work from is the most difficult part."

The opera, which blends opera, musical theatre, gospel and jazz with elements of symbolism, ritual and epic theater in the tradition of "Angels in America," tells the story of Victor, a black man shot by a white police officer. As Victor lies between life and death, he and policeman Lockdown find their actions and fates debated by both the living and spirit worlds, as they become stand-ins for a larger social crisis. The opera will be performed at Mount Ararat Baptist Church, Levy Hall and Kaufmann Auditorium throughout June, with a compact orchestra and set designed to tour efficiently.

Robert Frankenberry, musical director of the summer festival, has orchestrated Fulton's score for two keyboards, a drummer, a saxophone/flute player and a string quartet.

"Fulton is a fantastic gospel and jazz composer," Frankenberry says. "We wanted to create something that drew on his background in gospel and jazz but combine it with our background in 19th-century opera. We discovered that what he's writing for the more traditional jazz combo sounds beautiful when you accompany it with a little string quartet."

The season continues its nontraditional programming with a production of dark musical thriller "Sweeney Todd," directed by Broadway and Off-Broadway veteran Tomé Cousin. Following that, the festival presents "If I Loved You…," a Rodgers and Hammerstein revue which Frankenberry describe as "a mix of some favorites and some not-so-favorites" from more obscure works. More traditional opera fans will enjoy Strauss's domestic comedy opera "Intermezzo" and a production of Handel's "Xerxes," which reunites the creative team and performers from last season's "Julius Caesar."

As for the future of "A Gathering of Sons," Frankenberry and the creators are thinking big.

"We're talking it up to other companies, and we believe other people are going to be very interested in it," he says. "The singers sound terrific. However, this is a story that will push some buttons. Some people are going to have very positive reactions, some very negative. It's not what anyone expects or assumes that it is. People will be surprised. Bringing out a show that crosses the boundaries between opera, musical theater and jazz — I can personally hear the sound of contemporary Broadway in its music — means that the options are open. We may even do a recording with the current cast and touring band. But whatever happens, this is not the last you'll hear about this opera."

For a complete schedule, go to: pittsburghfestivalopera.org

Greg Kerstan is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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