In my efforts to encourage potential opera lovers to give it a try, I’ve learned that part of the resistance to opera–even among sophisticated symphony and theater fans–is fear of the unknown. Pittsburgh Opera’s website has a great section of FAQ’s, and their answers can be helpful whether your planning a trip to the beautiful Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, the beautiful Maltz Performing Arts Center in Cleveland, or a live in HD broadcast from the Met in New York. Check it out.
Dr. Dulcamara (Paolo Pecchioli) with his Elixir of Love
I was lucky enough to see Elixir with my sweetheart at the Met, January 2018.
Pittsburgh has the “Elixir” You’ve Been Looking For
Get the Elixir of Love on your calendar.
Pittsburgh Opera’s production includes performances on Saturday evening, April 21
and Tuesday evening, April 24, each of which pairs nicely with a sporting event (see #2 below), so decide whether you prefer a weekend getaway or the extra boost that comes from playing hooky from work for a couple days. Pick the perfect night(s) for a getaway with your sweetheart (one someone you’re hoping to make your sweetheart) and order tickets today.
Note: Use the promo code POEVANGELIST and get 20% off when you order tickets!
Make it a double header: add a Pirates or a Pens game.
The Penguins, a perennial contender for the Stanley Cup, are scheduled to host the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 of their seven game series on Friday, April 20. The Pirates, who are off to their best start in years, host the Detroit Tigers for an interleague game on Wednesday the 25th. Whether it’s hockey Friday/opera Saturday or opera Tuesday/baseball Wednesday, this Pittsburgh double header is sure to be a winner.
Book a room in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.
Whether you choose the Hampton (where I recently stayed—nice rooms, full breakfast included), the Marriott, or Airbandb, plan to stay in the Strip District, where you can park your car at the hotel and walk everywhere you need to go.
Where to Eat
On my last visit to Pittsburgh I had excellent meals at S&D Polish Deli, a super casual cafeteria with amazing food, and Gaucho Parilla Argentina, a crash-the-counter style (order then sit) chill place for wood-fire grilled meats, both on Penn Avenue in the heart of the Strip.
Snuggle up and listen to a little bit of the music in advance.
As I explained in a recent post, a little advance preparation can greatly enhance your experience at the opera. Start with a quick read of Pittsburgh Opera’s PDF study guide, which includes a synopsis of the opera, some background on Donizetti and the bel canto style, and some guidelines on what to listen for.
Next, of course, take time to get familiar with some of the musical highlights. Offer to rub your date’s feet or back while playing a few of these lovely songs in the background. Add some flowers, candles, a little Amoretto…. Encourage your amour not to fret about understanding the lyrics at this point. Just allowing the gorgeous melodies to penetrate your soul will give you some familiarity with the opera, making it easier to feel more a part of what’s going on on stage. By all means start by going to YouTube and listening to several great tenors singing “Una Furtiva Lagrima” (“A Furtive Tear”), one of the most famous opera songs ever written. This aria, which appears very near the end of the opera, celebrates the moment when the peasant Nemorino realizes at long last that the woman of his dreams loves him back. If you find yourself yourself drawn to this music and the emotion it conveys, dig around and find a few more of the opera’s famous songs: “Quanto amore” or “Voglio dire” or “Prendi, prendi.”
Sit back, relax, and give yourself over to the experience.
To get maximum enjoyment out of the opera night portion of your romantic getaway, make sure to check into your hotel in time for an afternoon nap (or at least some down time). Also, you might want to keep dinner on the light side and save alcohol for a night cap (or the ball game) so you don’t get sleepy during the performance.
Plan to get to the Benedum Center early and enjoy soaking in the beauty of this gorgeous 1928 gem of a performance space. (Scroll up and check out my blog’s cover photo, which I took inside the Benedum Center). Finally, don’t be thrown off by the subtitles. It’s just like watching a foreign language film. Within minutes you’ll be drawn in by the music and the story, and you’ll forget you’re reading.
Here’s a fact. Keeping up a blog, even with the low threshold of three-four posts per month, is hard. I had a nice steady flow going in December and January, but it’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted, and the guilt it awful. Perhaps I’ve been overthinking it. My intention–in general–is to do advance leg work and to post well enough in advance of an upcoming production driving distance from CLE (or Met in HD) to have a chance of influencing someone to give the opera a try. Well, I missed the boat with Pittsburgh Opera’s marvelous production of Moby Dick. That ship has sailed. (OK, enough seafaring puns.) The production wrapped up on Sunday, March 25, so it’s too late to encourage you to go see it this time around, but I’m telling you, this is an opera that’s going to have some staying power. This is a rare contemporary opera that I feel confident is going to become a fixture in the standard repertoire.
Eight things I loved about Pittsburgh’s Moby Dick:
The libretto is great. Gene Scheer has managed to turn this behemoth of a novel into a crisp script that covers a lot of ground in just about two-and-a-half hours. He does this by choosing just four days from the many months out at sea, four days that get to the heart of the Pequod‘s doomed voyage, selected to set the scene, show the passage of time, the restlessness of the crew, and the mania of their captain. And to get us to the fateful day when the crew finally meets the whote whale—and its fate.
The music is great, and–pleasant surprise–a lot more melodious than a lot of contemporary writing. Jake Heggie, who also composed the opera version of Dead Man Walking, is the real deal. With just two lulls, one in each act, Heggie’s score drives this intense sea journey inexorably to its tragic conclusion.
The set was amazing. Check out the picture above. The main mast dominates the stage, letting us know we’re on a ship and creating a whole new plane for action. The mast is surrounded by a turntable that was able to be moved qucikly not only to suggest a variety of spaces but also to create a sense of fast action during whale chase scenes. The surrounding map of the world and dynamically lit sky made for a truly captivating backdrop for the action.
Key performers were excellent. Lead tenor Roger Honeywell, whose brooding Ahab lumbers slowly along in Act I, picked this piece up and carried in on his back in Act II. In a chilling depiction of how easily a charismatic leader can lead a mob toward his goals, Ahab (below left) whips his crew into a frenzied chant of “Kill Moby Dick.” Baritone Michael Mayes (below right, top) was amazing as Starbuck. For me, the heart of the show was Starbucks’s aria at the end of Act I–the moral heart of the piece, and the moment of greatest heartbreak–when he comes upon a sleeping Ahab and passes on the opportunity to save the crew by murdering the captain. If only he had been able to stop Ahab’s manic quest here. Finally, the relationship between Greenhorn (whom readers know as Ishmael) and Queequeg was tenderly rendered by Sean Panikkar and Musa Ngqungwana.
Use of dancers was very cool, especially when dancers took “thrown” harpoons in hand and leapt across the stage with them to suggest the trajectory of the harpoons and the subsequent “sleigh ride.”
A few more personal notes. A personal highlight was taking my friend Mark to his first live opera and having him enjoy it.
Sitting next to the lovely Ashley Fabian, a soprano and resident artist who will sing Gretel in the main stage production of Hansel & Gretel in the fall. We just by chance ended up seated next to her, and she was gracious enough to chat with us before the curtain rose and during intermission, offering us an insider’s insight. I’m hopeful The Opera Evangelist’s readers will get to know Ashley (left) via a guest post this fall!
Having attended the workshop for educators with the amazing Marilyn Egan (below right), I really knew what to expect going in. Advance preparation really does enhance the experience, and Marilyn does a great job.
Having attended four operas in Pittsburgh over the past few years, Pittsburgh Opera is starting to feel like a home away from home. It’s an easy drive from Cleveland, and if you can get past all the Steelers garb, Pittsburgh’s a really fun city. I recommend putting an upcoming production at Pittsburgh Opera on your calendar!
–All production photos David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera.
If one barrier to getting into opera is the sense that opera doesn’t connect to real life, attending Pittsburgh Opera’s upcoming production of The Long Walk will certainly change that. Based on Brian Castner’s memoir The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows, the opera covers challenging physical and emotional terrain that will be familiar to viewers of American Sniper and even more directly of Hurt Locker. The “long walk” of the title refers to the experience of the soldier who, when remote efforts failed, must put on an 80-pound blast suit and manually dismantle an explosive device. In the course of this work, soldiers are exposed to repeated blasts at close range. Castner, who lead an Explosive Ordnance Device (EOD) team is Iraq, returned from war with blast–induced neurotrauma (BINT), a debilitating brain condition caused by repeated exposure to blast waves from explosions. The symptoms, familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the NFL’s issues with CTE, include otherwise unexplained anger, confusion, attention and cognitive challenges, impaired decision-making, and sleep deprivation.
The opera, which takes place in and around Brian’s home in Buffalo, New York—and in Brian’s mind—depicts compellingly the challenges of coping with life back home, with the ghosts of war, and with the changes to his brain caused by BINT. Coping proves enormously difficult for Brian (beautifully sung by baritone Benjamin Taylor) and his family, as Brian’s brain trauma makes it difficult to remember details of his children’s earlier childhood and leads him at one point to arming the family car to protect his children en route to school. As his wife Jessie (compellingly performed by mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl) tries to hold the family together, Brian turns to running in and around Buffalo to try to outrun “the Crazy.” His marriage, his family life, and his sense of sanity all fraying dangerously, Brian at last finds self-understanding and a path to healing with the guidance of “the Shrink.”
Composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann had worked together at the American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program, but had not planned to write a full-length opera together until they were called “out of the blue” with a commission from ALT. Receiving news of the commission filled them with “equal parts excitement and terror,” Beck told Pittsburgh-area teachers gathered for an all-day workshop dedicated to The Long Walk and the upcoming Ashes & Snow. “It was an arranged marriage. We read a lot and talked to each other, and we soon realized that there was very little overlap in our interests.” One day, Beck walked through a bookstore texting Fleischmann pics of book covers of recent releases. The Long Walk caught her eye, and a few days later she told Beck he needed to read it. According to Pittsburgh Opera’s education department, in Castner’s memoir the two had found “a story that demanded to be sung and that would hit the ‘sweet spot’ between the introspective, poetic librettist and the emphatic, thrill-seeking composer.” Brian Castner, who was surprised to be approached about turning his memoir into an opera, co-operated generously with the project.
Attendees will find themselves moved by the heart-wrenching difficulties of Brian’s story as well as by the beautiful singing of Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artists’ cast, and I believe, compelled to reconsider some old notions about opera being disconnected from our lives and times.
When I started this blog two years ago, I was nervous even about the idea of writing about opera. I’ve never had any formal musical training, and I wondered if I could speak with any legitimacy about this complex art form. My progress in developing the blog has been halting at best, but as we head into 2018, I have renewed energy for the project and—at long last—a clear sense of the blog’s mission and purpose: to help those people who might really come to love opera if they gave it a chance to get past some of the barriers that make opera seem off-putting or intimidating to them.
How I Got Here
Most of what I’ve done to date has been just me sort of journaling online. “Oh, I saw this opera, and here’s what I really liked (or didn’t like) about it.” That’s fine as a way of sharing my experience, but it’s not what blog set out to accomplish. Looking back over first dozen or so posts, I realize that my very first post actually hit the mark, so in some ways, after wandering in the weeds for a while, I find myself with renewed energy and focus right back to where I started.
My first ever post was a preview of a live opera in Cleveland. In the post, I introduced some real readers, my wife and two friends, to the opera that we were about to see together by giving a little summary of what to expect, providing some historical context, and offering a list of “a few of the things I’m going to be looking out for on Saturday.” I think that was a pretty helpful post, and it’s the kind of post I’d like to write more often.
What You Can Count on in 2018
If you choose to come with me on this journey into 2018, look for a lot fewer “I went to see X and here’s why I loved it” and a lot more “I’ve researched X, which is coming to a stage (or screen) near you, and here’s why I think you will love it.” In the first months of 2018, you can expect:
Previews and invitations to help you get ready to enjoy every Met in HD screening, because those available all over the US. And when I say invitation, I mean that literally—I attend the Wednesday evening encore of almost every Met in HD screening, and I’d love to have you join me. In fact, for first timers it’s my treat.
Occasion reporting from further afield, including the Prototype Festival in NYC in January and Festival O in Philadelphia in September.
Thoughts from this passionate amateur about what what to expect, what to look for, and what to listen for to get the most out of your time at the opera.
Interviews, profiles and guest posts with composers, librettists, performers, conductors, and students to learn from them about their entrée into and journeys in the world of opera.
The Opera Evangelist’s previews, interviews, and reflections are all designed to make opera more accessible and more inviting, not just in the abstract, but right in your back yard. This blog is a non-snooty, welcoming place to learn more about and experience opera for potential opera lovers of any age. Follow The Opera Evangelist this year, and discover the opera lover inside of you.