United States Maecenas XXXVI – Mask-erade: Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artists, Natalie Bencivenga (host). A special online event from Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh, 14.6.2020. (RP)
Antonia Botti-Lodovico – mezzo soprano
Caitlin Gotimer – soprano
Yazid Gray – baritone
Angel Romero – tenor
Natasha Wilson – soprano
Tyler Zimmerman – bass-baritone
The artwork said it all – a drawing of a masked woman in a slinky red dress with a come-hither pose and holding a spray bottle of disinfectant. Even though Pittsburgh has entered the green phase in the Process to Open Pennsylvania, there are still restrictions on work, congregate settings and social interactions. It’s hardly business as usual, but gatherings of up to 250 people are presently allowed. Social distancing, however, is still the rule.
The plans for Pittsburgh Opera’s annual Maecenas Gala were in play long before measures to save lives and reduce the morbidity of the COVID-19 virus were eased in the city, but even in these more relaxed times the traditional format was not in the cards. Rather than throw in the towel, a digital event was envisioned. The $25.00 admission fee was an ideal price point, and the roughly two-hour duration was just perfect. Another upside was that anyone could attend from anywhere in the world, including New Jersey.
The mix of retrospection, justifiable pride, the annual award ceremony and performances by the company’s Resident Artists likewise struck the right balance between celebration and hope. It gave many the opportunity to reflect upon how important the performing arts, and particularly the Pittsburgh Opera, are to the city, and indeed to all of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Vincent Sarni, former Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of PPG Industries, received the Lifetime Achievement Award in honor of both his professional career and his philanthropic record. Sarni has served on the opera company’s board for more than 10 years, including a term as its president. Dave Michaliszyn chaired the event with his wife, Amy, and provided one of the most heartfelt moments of the evening, recalling how Sarni asked him, a young corporate pilot, to make tapes of operas for in-flight entertainment as they traveled the world.
The Renaissance Award was presented to Pittsburgh Opera General Director Christopher Hahn, honoring his accomplishments during a 20-year tenure with the company. Hahn pushed Pittsburgh Opera into the twenty-first century with an increased emphasis on contemporary and Baroque opera, as well as updated, cutting-edge productions. It’s a delicate balance to strike, but Hahn has gained the support of audiences, donors and critics.
A highlight of the gala was learning the back story of The Summer King, which was the company’s first world premiere in 2017. The opera tells the story of Pittsburgh baseball legend Josh Gibson, who gained fame in the Negro Leagues. Barred from playing in the Major Leagues, Gibson died at the age of 35 in 1947, just a few months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Gibson was posthumously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. If ever an event was in sync with the pulse of the United States at a given moment in history, this gala was it. Pittsburgh Opera was woke before we even had a word for it.
Several alumni of the Resident Artist Program provided insights into the importance of the training program, which Hahn has fostered and expanded during his tenure. Soprano Alexandra Loutsion recalled the thrill of returning to the Pittsburgh Opera to sing the title role in Puccini’s Turandot, the first opera that she had seen with her mother when she was 16 years old. Tenor Sean Panikkar and baritone Craig Vern, who have been colleagues since their days in the training program, spoke glowingly of Hahn for guiding their careers and introducing them and Pittsburgh audiences to modern masterworks of the operatic repertoire.
The alum with one of the starriest careers to date, Marianne Cornetti, was called on to provide commentary throughout. Cornetti has enjoyed a 30-year career as one of the world’s leading dramatic mezzo-sopranos and has performed in the major opera houses of the world. In addition to serving on Pittsburgh Opera’s Advisory Board, she assumed the role of Artistic Director for the Pittsburgh Festival Opera in 2019. Next season, Cornetti will appear in the Pittsburgh Opera’s productions of Rusalka and Aida.
For all of the trips down memory lane, however, the main focus was on the future of the company, which was most vividly captured in the performances of the young artists. Critiquing taped performances is hardly fair, or even necessary. The six singers performed snippets of arias and duets, joining forces to conclude the gala with ‘Make our garden grow’, the finale from Bernstein’s Candide. For exuberance and bravura singing, however, tenor Angel Romero deserves a nod. He popped out dazzling, ringing high C’s in ‘Ah! mes amis’ from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment and gave legato a new meaning with every phrase he sang.
I saw my first opera, Verdi’s La traviata, in Pittsburgh in 1974. It was the end of a musical era for the city as Richard Karp, who had led the Pittsburgh Opera since 1942, and William Steinberg, the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony since 1952, were soon to retire. Those were heady days for me, when I was experiencing everything for the first time. Some Pittsburgh Opera productions, especially those by Barbara Karp, the daughter of the company’s longtime director, remain unequalled in my mind’s eye for their originality and beauty.
I raise my glass to Christopher Hahn, Vincent Sarni and the countless others throughout the years who have kept the magic of opera alive in the Steel City.
The Pittsburgh Opera’s Maecenas XXXVI – Mask-erade is available for viewing until June 22, 2020. For more information, click here.