Pittsburgh Opera presents two contemporary works that dare to speak the truth

United StatesUnited States Venables, Denis & Katya, & Roumain, We Shall Not Be Moved: Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh, 12 and 13.5.2023. (RP)

Brandon Bell and Jazmine Olwalia © David Bachman Photography

Denis & Katya – Bitz Opera Factory

Libretto and Director – Ted Huffman (original production)
Revival Stage director – Haley Stamats
Original Lighting – Andrew Lieberman
Lighting – Todd Nonn
Projection – Pierre Martin
Sound – Robert Kaplowitz
Costumes – Millie Hiibel
Cellists – Kathleen Mellucci (principal), Paula Tuttle, Joseph Bishkoff, Jr., Katya Janpoladyan / Glenn Lewis (Head of Music)

Brandon Bell
Jazmine Olwalia

We Shall Not Be MovedAugust Wilson African American Cultural Center

Words – Marc Bamuthi Joseph
Stage Director and Choreographer – Bill T. Jones
Lighting – Robert Wierzel
Projection – Jorge Cousineau
Sound – Rob Kaplowitz
Sets – Matt Saunders
Costumes – Liz Prince
Hair and Make-up – Izear Winfrey
Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra / Viswa Subbaraman (conductor)

Un/Sung – Alexa Patrick
Glenda – Kirstin Chávez
John Blue – John Holiday
John Little – Chance Jonas-O’Toole
John Mack – Adam Richardson
John Henry – Ron Dukes
OG – Indira Cunningham, Simon Phillips, Ethan Gwynn, Ira Cambric III

Late-nineteenth-century Italy saw the emergence of verismo, a new operatic genre that told the stories of the lives of the poor and disenfranchised. Works by Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano and Francesco Cilea in that style are among the most popular operas in the repertoire. Contemporary writers and composers are equally inspired by today’s stories, which are finding a toehold in the repertoire.

This month, Pittsburgh Opera staged two contemporary operas, Philip Venables’s Denis & Katya and Daniel Bernard Roumain’s We Shall Not Be Moved, that are direct heirs to the verismo tradition. Instead of consumptive seamstresses, homicidal clowns, hot-blooded Sicilian peasants and the like, Venables and Roumain recast the stories of troubled teens adrift in contemporary society. The results are as riveting as they are disturbing – all the more so because both works are rooted in actual events.

The operas premiered at Opera Philadelphia – We Shall Not Be Moved in 2016 and Denis & Katya in 2019 – and Pittsburgh has imported the productions. Bill T. Jones is again on board as director and choreographer for We Shall Not Be Moved, while Ted Huffman’s concept for Denis & Katya has been faithfully reproduced by Haley Stamats, a Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist.

Denis & Katya is based on the true story of two Russian teenagers. It is a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which parental disapproval prompts two fifteen-year olds to flee to a cabin in the town of Strugi Krasnye. The livestream of their standoff with Russian Special Forces and their eventual suicides on 14 November 2016 became an internet sensation.

Huffman’s libretto combines eye-witness accounts of the tragedy with fictionalized material based on media reports and interviews with Denis’s best friend. Text messages from online viewers as well as the press chasing a story are projected throughout the 65-minute opera. Venables’s score is as taut and powerful as the story itself.

In its final minutes, video footage of a train departing from the town is projected, and the teens’ friends, family and community are left to deal with the incident’s aftermath. Media interest in the story fades, and the story of Denis and Katya is replaced by one of a man who has killed his wife and kids.

The entire two-act opera is performed in the confines of a white box with low walls. Four cellists sit in the corners of the enclosure. Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artists Brandon Bell and Jazmine Olwalia take on the roles of multiple characters – Journalist, Teacher, Friend, Teenager and Medic – in 112 scenes. Two of the characters, the neighbor whose windows are shot out by Denis and his best friend, are sung in Russian.

Bell and Olwalia are both excellent storytellers. Olwalia’s rapid-fire delivery of the excitable neighbor’s exclamations are matched by the athleticism required as she runs about the stage and jumps on the walls. Bell, on the other hand, has to create the character mostly through voice alone, and his resonant baritone is equal to the task. The four cellists – Kathleen Mellucci, Paula Tuttle, Joseph Bishkoff, Jr. and Katya Janpoladyan – were also characters in the drama.

Alexa Patrick (Un/Sung) with Chance Jonas-O’Toole (John Little), Adam Richardson (John Mack), John Holiday (John Blue) & Ron Dukes (John Henry) © David Bachman Photography

The first Pittsburgh performance of We Shall Not Be Moved was on 13 May, which was also the 38th anniversary of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. In an attempt to resolve a standoff with MOVE, a black liberation organization, the Philadelphia police dropped two explosive devices on a house occupied by the group. The fire burned out of control and destroyed 61 homes, leaving 260 people homeless and resulting in the deaths of six adults and five children. Of the people in the house, only one adult and a single child survived.

Librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph does not retell the story of the MOVE tragedy, but rather uses it as the backdrop for five teenagers who have formed a family to survive. There is enough information on the MOVE bombing to provide context, and the recorded voice of Pat Ciarrocchi, a Philadelphia television anchor and journalist who covered the 1985 incident, adds authenticity.

The youths, who are either people of color or identify as such, are scarred by the senseless violence and a system that has failed them. After one of the group kills a man, they flee to West Philadelphia to begin afresh, taking refuge in the derelict house that was built on the site of the MOVE house in the 1985 incident. Violence begets violence, and they end up holding Glenda, a member of the Philadelphia police force, whose life tragically intersects with the lives of the five teens on many levels.

Bill T. Jones’s staging is as bold as the story he tells. The set is relatively simple: buildings are outlined on white scrims that fold to create a structure with stained glass windows. It is a holy place, a shrine to those who perished in the fire, whose spirits haunt the place and reach out to its new inhabitants. Projections of flames show the MOVE house consumed by fire. Movement and dance are an integral part of Jones’s concept.

Alexa Patrick’s Un/Sung, who is the de facto head of the family, is bold, brash and defiant. Her cry of ‘Who cries for the brown girl?’ resonates throughout the opera. It also fuels her confrontation with Kirstin Chávez’s Glenda, a woman of color who escaped despair and violence to become a figure of authority. Glenda is the most complex character of the opera, and Chávez captured her pride, humanity and vulnerability.

The other members of the family are as diverse as the music created for them. John Holliday’s sweet countertenor lent innocence to the trans teen John Blue. Chance Jonas-O’Toole’s John Little was a pugnacious punk with a clear tenor as penetrating as his character’s defiance. Ron Dukes’s resonant bass was as exuberant as John Henry’s macho man, who viewed his body as a gift to womankind. Adam Richardson’s bible-toting John Mack was the family’s spiritual anchor, his baritone as comforting as it was smooth.

Viswa Subbaraman was a stylistic chameleon, as was the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra, in channeling the dynamism and diversity of musical styles in Daniel Bernard Roumain’s score. The sinuous movements of Indira Cunningham, Simon Phillips, Ethan Gwynn and Ira Cambric III haunted the performance as the ghosts of the MOVE family that died in May 1985.

Jones briefly addressed the audience during the curtain calls for We Shall Not Be Moved and thanked Pittsburgh Opera for having the courage to present the opera. The sad fact is that the needle has not moved a notch on the issues and challenges facing today’s youth since the two operas were conceived and premiered. It’s just harder to speak the truth about them. That is where the bravery comes in.

Rick Perdian

1 thought on “Pittsburgh Opera presents two contemporary works that dare to speak the truth”

  1. I completed the survey that came in my email but forgot to comment on the music and the spoken word. It was all fantastic. I really enjoyed the music and the ‘hip-hop’ theme associated with the dance. The music was haunting. Bill T. Jones is a genius and the orchestra conductor was great! Thank you.


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