'Aida' marks start of Pittsburgh Opera's 75th season

| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 6:58 p.m.

Before Pittsburgh Opera mounted its first production in 1939, opera was brought to Pittsburgh by touring companies. The next season, the new company was up to full speed, presenting five operas in 1940-41.

Opera is a notoriously expensive proposition, requiring pricey leading singers, a paid chorus and orchestra, sets and costumes. Longevity is a real accomplishment. Cleveland, for example, has a great orchestra but no longer has an opera company, nor for that matter a ballet company. New York City Opera, which was founded 70 years ago, filed for bankruptcy last week.

When general manager Christopher Hahn planned Pittsburgh Opera's 75th anniversary season, he says he “was interested in as big a challenge and as big a splash as we could make. ‘Aida' is one of the grandest of grand operas. It always grabs the attention of the community because it is such a compelling story with so many interesting elements, including the spectacle and such fantastic roles.”

Pittsburgh Opera will open its 75th anniversary season with performances of Giuseppe Verdi's “Aida” on Oct. 12, 15, 18 and 20 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

The cast stars Latonia Moore in the title role, Carl Tanner as Radames and Elisabeth Bishop as Amneris. Music director Antony Walker will conduct.

“We start off our season with Verdi and then follow with (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart and (Giacomo) Puccini, three of the greatest opera composers, but with Verdi leading the pack,” Hahn says. “In addition to celebrating Verdi's 200th birthday, this attests to this man's extraordinary genius to go far beyond what had come before him and basically define for us that we think of opera today. That's because of the combination of superb music with intelligent characterization and conflicts that play out in front of us.”

Verdi wrote “Aida” for the opening of the Cairo Opera in Egypt, where it was first perfomed Dec. 24, 1871. Its European premiere two months later was at La Scala, in Milan, and was a great success.

The opera is set in ancient Egypt when it was at war with Ethiopia. Aida is an Ethiopian princess captured by the Egyptians and made a slave to Princess Amneris, who is in love with Egyptian General Radames, but he loves Aida.

Every moment in the opera is potently characterized, including high points such as Radames' aria “Celeste Aida,” the Triumphal Scene at the end of Act II, and the brilliant final scene, in which the lovers sing from inside a sealed tomb while Amneris suffers above in freedom.

Pittsburgh's Aida

When Latonia Moore was younger, she didn't think the role of Aida was for her, perhaps because of the heft of the role or the maturity required for it. In fact, when she first saw “Aida” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, she wasn't attracted to it.

“As I got to know the character, I saw the gamut of emotions she goes through — from being elated to feeling distraught, feeling betrayed and confused,” Moore says. “There are so many things you can play on. It's not just about singing.”

Moore was a jazz major in college. She made the all-state college chorus in Texas, singing second alto, “as low as you can go,” she says.

Encouraged to join the school's opera chorus, Moore's first opera was “I Pagliacci.”

“I fell in love with the art form,” she says. “Even in chorus, they told me I was acting way too much. I wanted to be the lead girl. I wanted to be Nedda.”

Totally hooked on opera, Moore dropped jazz and switched to studying opera. She knew she needed the best voice teacher she could find, but she wasn't prepared for what Pattye Johnstone told her at their first session together.

“So, I go to her for a lesson in my gravelly voice, and she says, ‘I'm going to break the news to you. You're not a contralto; you're not even a mezzo. You're a full-out lyric soprano who someday will become a sprinto soprano.' I was devastated. I thought I could be a big mama contralto.”

Moore missed her next lesson but then got down to work. Her top register became stronger, and, on a personal level, Johnstone became like a mother to her, even telling her when it was time to leave the nest and find a new teacher.

When Moore was named one of the winners of the 2000 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote, “(W)hat she doesn't know she can easily learn. What she already has is special: a distinctive, poignant sound that makes an audience sit up.”

Verdi and Wagner

2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Verdi and German opera composer Richard Wagner, who wrote very long operas based on old German legends.

Opera music director Antony Walker contrasts the two, saying, “Wagner is not writing for the audience. He's writing for himself, trying to educate and show how brilliant he is. Verdi doesn't try to do that. He's always thinking about how he can make it dramatically tighter and capture the audience's attention in the most visceral way.”

“Aida” is sometimes described as a spectacular opera with intimate moments, and sometimes as an intimate opera with spectacular moments.

For Walker, “the most interesting elements of ‘Aida' come in elements of the love triangle and the intimate and passionate relationships the principals have with each other. That is where Verdi is at his most brilliant.”

Part of Verdi's genius, according to the conductor, is that there is no character with whom you don't feel sympathy. “If Amneris is played properly, you should feel as much for her as for Aida and Radames.”

“Aida” may be the clearest example of Verdi's notion of the “tinta,” or the dramatic color of a scene. Tinta was an important consideration for Verdi when he considered possible subjects for an opera.

“I think the idea of ‘tinta' in this opera is more consistent and/or revelatory than in almost any other of Verdi's pieces — even down to whenever Aida invokes Ethiopia. The solo oboe is always there playing plangently, reminding her and us of her nostalgia for her native land. It's incredible color and not just for color's sake,” Walker says. “It really enhances the drama and really transports you to somewhere else, which is curious, because Verdi never went to Egypt.”

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

Role for champions

Pittsburgh Opera is going all out in its staging of the Triumphal Scene in “Aida,” in which the Egyptian army marches in after defeating the Ethiopians, displaying the spoils of war, including Aida's father, the Ethiopian king.

The production will feature, in addition to solo singers and chorus, more than 100 supernumeraries, extras with no speaking or singing role, dancers, horses, a large hawk, an albino python and greyhounds.

Local celebraties also will appear as “Champion of Champions,” a silent role not in Verdi's conception. Former Steelers Charlie Batch and Franco Harris will appear as champion Oct. 12 and 20, respectively. Former Penguins player and current color commentator Phil Bourque will fill the role Oct. 18.

— Mark Kanny

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