Creativity and compassion from Pittsburgh Festival Opera in Opera Without Walls

United StatesUnited States Opera Without Walls: Various artists, Pittsburgh Festival Opera, streaming from Pittsburgh on YouTube. 14.10.2020 (RP)

Roxy MtJoy (from Opera Without Walls Episode 3)

Producer – Lynne Squilla
Director – Derrick R. Brown
Music Directors – Robert Frankenberry, Mark Trawka
Editing – Iain Crammond, Doug Sicchitano
Sound Editing – Robert Frankenberry, Chris Procopio

2020 Hans and Leslie Fleishner Young Artists:
Soprano – Maureen Brabec, Lindsey Chinn, Anissa Clay, Jessica Crowell, Megan Jones, Emily Roberts, Schyler Sheltrown
Mezzo-soprano – Natalie Butchko, Autumn Capocci, Sadie Cheslak, Taylor-Alexis DuPont
Tenor – Colin Aikins, Brent Doucette, Myles Pinder
Baritone – Matthew Maisano
Bass-baritone – Dorian McCall
Pianist – Sky Lee
Director – George Cole, Lauren Lenz

When we look back at 2020, one thing will be clear: the performing arts have responded to the crisis with creativity and compassion. The Pittsburgh Festival Opera is second to none, with a fleet-footed, innovative approach to going digital and efforts to nurture young talent during this challenging time. PFO went Unstaged with its annual summer festival (for review, click here), and simultaneously took its young artists program online. The results of the latter endeavor are now available for all to enjoy.

Over six Fridays in September and early October, PFO unveiled Opera Without Walls in which opera scenes were transformed into television shows. The singers and the material were chosen well before lockdown, but the format evolved in response to it, and channel surfing was the answer to how to hold an audience’s attention in this time of digital overload. The six OWOW shows ranged from grainy black-and-white films of the silent era to gritty, realistic crime dramas, with a bit of romantic intrigue too. Almost anything could pop up, including footage of a pacing tiger at the Pittsburgh Zoo and a desperate housewife sipping a cocktail while lolling in a pool.

For bargain hunters there was a home shopping channel, where Roxy MtJoy, PFO’s Director of Institutional Advancement, drolly and deftly hawked everything from Brűnnhilde’s helmet to the britches worn by Mildred Miller as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera. Miller founded the company, then known as Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, in 1978 and served as its Artistic Director through 1999. A real steal at $79.80 was the bejeweled mask that Maria Callas wore for Queen Elizabeth II, but there didn’t seem to be any takers.

Derrick R. Brown came up with the concept along with other PFO staff members including Rob Frankenberry, Lindsay Lehman and Lynne Squilla. The singers worked with Frankenberry and Mark Trawka, both on PFO’s music staff, to record the operatic scenes, which were then staged under the direction of Brown, George Cole, and Lauren Lenz. Much of the load of realizing this ambitious project was borne by the young artists who took on extra duties as sound engineers and as set, costume and lighting designers. In the closing credits, the contributions of their families and friends were singled out.

It was a hometown affair with cameo appearances by prominent Pittsburghers, including Mayor Bill Peduto, General Director of the Pittsburgh Opera Christopher Hahn, former television news anchor Sally Wiggin and Marianne Cornetti, PFO’s Artistic Director. Subtitles included Pittsburgh slang. A glossary might be in order next time around to enlighten those who have no idea of what ‘yinz’ means.

Perhaps because of the surprise factor of the format and more intense channel surfing, the first two episodes were the most exciting. Someone with real experience with a remote control got the timing just right. In the later episodes, the channel surfing was less frenetic which permitted the operatic scenes to be more coherent, but the frisson was missing. The home shopping network, however, was always spot on.

Several of the scenes stood out, as much for the singing as the ingenuity of the concept, starting with the Love Duet from Gounod’s Faust with Lindsey Chinn and Miles Pinder, which harkened back to the silent-movie days of Hollywood. Donizetti’s Anna Bolena was updated into The Tudor Wive’s Tale: a regal Maureen Brabec knocked back whiskey while her rival, Taylor-Alexis Dupont as Giovanna Seymour, cowered in the white coif and red dress of a Handmaid from Margaret Atwood’s novel.

One of the most impressive musical and technical accomplishments was Jessica Crowell and Autumn Capocci singing ‘Mira, O Norma’ from Bellini’s Norma; their blend and timing were perfect. Jessica Crowell displayed a full soprano and Verdi style in Leonora’s duet with Matthew Maisano’s Count from Il trovatore. Two other singers who delighted in lighter fare were Megan Jones, possessor of a lovely soprano, and the exciting lyric tenor Brent Doucette.

The loneliness and sense of isolation that so many are experiencing was addressed throughout, but two instances stood out. First, rising young tenor Colin Aikins sang ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ from The Magic Flute as he swiped through profiles on Zaubermatch, a dating app that featured the female characters from the opera. Spoiler alert – he is smitten with Pamina. It was tongue in cheek but poignant.

On a more serious note was the unexpected finale that began with Lindsay Lehman singing ‘No One Is Alone’ from Sondheim’s Into the Woods while staring at her laptop. She was soon joined by the other young artists and PFO staff members in classic Zoom style. That’s when PFO showed its compassion.

Rick Perdian

To view Pittsburgh Opera Festival’s Opera Without Walls, click here.

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