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Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's SummerFest moves into 20th Century

| Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Anna Singer who portrays Desiree Armfeldt and Daniel Teadt who portrays Fredrik Egerman in 'A Little Night Music.'
Amy Crawford
Anna Singer who portrays Desiree Armfeldt and Daniel Teadt who portrays Fredrik Egerman in 'A Little Night Music.'
Toni Esker, who plays Giulietta, and Robert Chafin, who plays the title character E.T.A. Hoffmann in 'The Tales of Hoffmann - Retold.'
Amy Crawford
Toni Esker, who plays Giulietta, and Robert Chafin, who plays the title character E.T.A. Hoffmann in 'The Tales of Hoffmann - Retold.'
Jonathan Eaton, artistic and general director of Opera Theater SummerFest, at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland.
Mark Abramowitz
Jonathan Eaton, artistic and general director of Opera Theater SummerFest, at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland.

Last season, the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh reinvented itself as a summer music festival. SummerFest was a bold venture in its first year, offering three staged productions, an extravagant array of concerts, short operas called Night Caps International, cabaret performances, chamber music concerts and a Mozart camp.

SummerFest is poised to be even bigger in its second season, with four staged productions and a budget that's grown from $695,000 to $750,000.

It's also moved to the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland from Shadyside Academy in Fox Chapel. Opera Theater found that, even performing in Fox Chapel, 68 percent of its audience came from Oakland, Squirrel Hill and Shadyside.

Opera Theater's SummerFest starts July 6 and continues through July 21, almost entirely at the Twentieth Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd., Oakland.

“Confusions, deceptions, self-deceptions and discoveries in romantic relations” is the common thread to the three operas and one musical-theater piece that SummerFest will present in July, says Jonathan Eaton, the company's artistic director.

The most radical production will be seen opening night and repeated twice, a re-imagining of Jacques Offenbach's popular opera “The Tales of Hoffmann.”

“This is a work for which there is no definitive version, because Offenbach died before he finished it,” he says. “People are always reinventing it by adding recitatives, completing music he never finished or inserting new music for sections.”

Eaton and music director Robert Frankenberry created their version by replacing most of the introduction and all of the epilogue with music by Hoffmann. Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, whose pen name was E.T.A. Hoffman, is best known as a writer of fantastic stories at the dawn of the Romantic age. He also was a friend of Ludwig van Beethoven and a composer himself. SummerFest's version of Offenbach's opera uses music from Hoffmann's opera “Undine.”

Eaton is staging the story as a psychological drama about confusion and disintegration of identity.

Including “A Little Night Music” in the repertoire mix was an easy choice for Eaton. It is one of Stephen Sondheim's most highly regarded shows, and includes the iconic song “Send in the Clowns.”

“It is a great American music drama with great music and is highly sophisticated,” he says. “It's a bit too singy for musical theater and not singy enough for opera,” although he acknowledged that New York City Opera and other companies have done it.

The show was inspired by Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” and juxtaposes several love triangles.

“Like Shakespeare, Sondheim writes specific characters but what they're going through is universal. It's about what it's like to be human,” stage director Scott Wise says.

The Art Deco Ballroom where the show will be performed posed its own challenge for the production. Wise decided that the hard geometric lines of art deco fashion didn't serve the story. Instead, the costumes will be more art nouveau, with floor-length, curlicue dresses.

The focus on the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a successful model for many summer festivals around the world. SummerFest expands the scope this year with music by Mozart's father, Leopold, and son Franz Xavier at chamber music concerts featuring the Freya String Quartet supplemented with other musicians. Mozart Camp, which is five days of performances, films and lectures, will also examine Mozart's family.

The Mozart opera being presented this season, “The Secret Gardener,” was written when the composer was 18 and is filled with delightful music only Mozart could have written.

“This piece is done in a lot of different ways,” conductor Maria Sensi Sellner says. She will be interim directors of choirs, a one year appointment, at Carnegie Mellon University for the 2013-14 academic year, succeeding her teacher Robert Page.

“Ours, in English translations, cuts the opera down to two hours,” she says. “There are seven characters, and everyone is after someone else. They hardly have a moment to catch their breath. It's a bit like ‘Figaro' in that regard.”

The cuts to the opera, which uncut lasts three hours, created a problem for stage director Michelle Sutherland.

Among the sections removed “were the really violent moments, especially the stabbing scene,” she says. “At first, it was alarming, because music and characters are silly and goofy, and the moment of violence was a good contrast.”

Sutherland, whose staging of “Four Saints in Three Acts” at Carnegie Mellon was very well-received, found an inspiration in Mozart's music. She noticed that repetitions in the music contributed to the humor and more crucially that, when at the end of the opera the lovers are successfully paired, the music is not repetitive.

Working from that realization, Sutherland decided to begin the opera “with everyone really plastic, fake and presentational.” As the action advances, the characters will shed commedia dell-arte stock gestures and become more real and individual.

The fourth staged production is a specially commission chamber version of “Shining Brow” about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, written in 1993 by Daron Hagen to words by Paul Muldoon.

“From the evidence of ‘Shining Brow,' ” Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein wrote, “Daron Hagen is a composer born to write operas. It is an opera any major opera company could present with pride.”

“Many people don't know how intensely dramatic Frank Lloyd Wright's life was,” Eaton says. “He was a great artist with a great ego, like Hoffmann in that way. Wright fell in love with his first client's wife and left his own wife and family. It's a marvelous story for an opera.”

Opera Theater gave two performances of it in June at Fallingwater, which was designed by Wright.

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

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