Opera Theater's Summerfest ranges from classics to world premiere
Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's reinvention of itself as a summer festival in 2011 brought new dimensions to the city's musical life. Now, classical music's off-season has been reduced to August.
Summerfest offers a flurry of events over its nearly monthlong run, including many stage productions and concerts designed for wide appeal, including ones for children.
“What's different this year is that we're getting bolder in our repertoire selection and how we do them,” says artistic director Jonathan Eaton. “We believe ‘A New Kind of Fallout' is the world's first eco-opera. It's bold and contemporary, and we're excited.”
Summerfest runs from July 10 to Aug. 2 at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland.
The 2015 repertoire includes two versions of “The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Capriccio” by Richard Strauss, the world premiere of “A New Kind of Fallout” by Gilda Lyons with a libretto by Tammy Ryan, the Broadway hit “Damn Yankees,” and “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs,” with music and libretto by Wallace De Pue.
The season opens with one of Mozart's most popular operas, “The Marriage of Figaro” (July 10, 19 and Aug. 1). It was the first of the composer's three great collaborations with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. The libretto is based on Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais' play “The Marriage of Figaro,” the second play in a trilogy. Mozart knew Giovanni Paisiello's opera based on the first play in the trilogy, “The Barber of Seville,” which was completely surpassed 30 years later by Gioachino Rossini's most famous opera.
Mozart's opera is sublime as well as comic in telling the story of two servants, Figaro and Susanna, outwitting the lecherous plans of their master, Count Almaviva, with the help of his wife and others in an exceptionally lively household.
Eaton considers Mozart's “The Marriage of Figaro” to be one of the pinnacles of Western culture. His previous productions have shown his deep affinity for the work with both boldness and balance.
“What's different this time comes from relatively popular TV culture,” Eaton says. “Many Americans fell in love with ‘Downton Abbey,' and one aspect of ‘The Marriage of Figaro' is the tensions between the classes. This is more of a European issue, thankfully, than American. The world of ‘Downton Abbey' presented American culture a clear picture of class structure, which I think will work better today than 18th-century costumes and behavior patterns.”
Summerfest will present “Figaro Redux” (July 23 and 30), a modern reinterpretation of Mozart's opera, with each of the four acts set in a different space at the Twentieth Century Club.
“The class system is endemic to all societies,” says Eaton. “It is salutary, now and then, to sneak a peek at our own class systems. That's what Beaumarchais, da Ponte and Mozart do — let us smile and brush our differences under the table at the end of ‘The Marriage of Figaro.' ”
Summerfest, which weaves its productions throughout its season, will continue with “Damn Yankees” (July 11, 12, 16, 17, 25 and Aug. 1).
“We're taking a classical American summer musical, ‘Damn Yankees,' perhaps the greatest American baseball musical, and switching all the genders — a new way of looking at some of its ingredients,” Eaton says. “The way we're doing it is bolder and more provocative than we've done in the past.”
The original show opened in New York City on May 5, 1955, and won seven Tony Awards, including best musical. It ran for more than 1,000 performances. The 1958 film featured most of the original Broadway cast.
“Damn Yankees” was based on Douglass Wallop's novel “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,” written in 1954 after the Yankees had won the World Series five years in a row. Wallop and George Abbott created the show's book. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross collaborated on the words and music. “Damn Yankees” was their second hit show, following “Pajama Game.” It was their last collaboration: Ross died in 1955 at age 29.
The Faustian story is centered on Joe Hardy, a middle-aged baseball fan who roots for the hapless Washington, D.C., Senators. He's depressed watching his team on TV when he's visited by the devil in the form of Mr. Applegate. Joe takes the offer to trade his soul for the Senators winning the World Series, leaving his family behind and becoming a young baseball sensation. Applegate brings in Lola, who sings “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” to seduce Joe. After the Senators win the pennant, Joe finds a way to escape his bargain and return to his wife.
The short children's opera is “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” (July 11, 18, 25 and Aug. 1). The words and music of the 40-minute work were written by De Pue, who has been on the faculty of Bowling Green State University, in Bowling Green, Ohio, since 1966 and professor emeritus since 1998.
The story opens with three piglets sent into the world to fend for themselves. When they return to Mother Pig's house, they are tracked by the Big Bad Wolf, who hurts himself when he rams the front door. That's when the fun begins.
Summerfest's opening weekend includes a recital of Russian repertoire (July 12) by countertenor Andrey Nemzer, winner of the 2012 Mildred Miller International Voice Competition, presented by Opera Theater. Nemzer has performed with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
The finishing touches are still being applied to “A New Kind of Fallout” (opening July 18). It is based on the work of Rachel Carson. The last of three public workshops was held at Carrie Furnace in Braddock.
Pittsburgh playwright Tammy Ryan wrote the libretto, her first, and says she was thinking “1962 ‘Mad Men' meets ‘Breakfast at Tiffany's.' ”
Composer Gilda Lyons was immediately interested when Eaton asked her to compose the music for “Fallout” because her father had read Carson's “Silent Spring” to her when she was a child growing up in New York City. Lyons taught and studied composition as a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh.
Other Summerfest offerings include vocal recitals and late-night cabarets.
Mark Kanny is the classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or email@example.com.