Opera Theater of Pittsburgh is boldly reinventing itself this year by becoming a summer music festival.
“The notion of a festival is important to us. This is not opera re-calendarized to the summer,” says Opera Theater’s artistic director Jonathan Eaton. “We’re trying to create a genuine summer festival at a time in Pittsburgh when very little is going on in the classical music world or festival world here. The main dish may be opera, but there are many, many side dishes.”
Opera Theater Summerfest runs Friday to July 15, mostly at the Hillman Center for the Performing Arts at Shadyside Academy in Fox Chapel.
The schedule of events offers the extravagant range of choices one expects of a festival. There is a new production of “The Magic Flute,” a new version “Carmen” and a revival of “Candide,” plus six world premieres of 10 to 15 minute operas called Night Caps, four concerts and a Mozart Camp. In addition, there are a wide array of Fringe events, which are free.
“Of course, we’re trying to bring our old audience with us, with three major opera productions. The Night Caps are designed as late-night entertainment for adults that we think will bring new audiences. Many other events are family-oriented,” Eaton says. “Also, more people are likely to come out if there’s more going on than opera.”
The festival opens Friday night with Eaton’s new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” It is Mozart’s final operatic masterpiece, a unique mix of the comic and the sublime, which was first performed a few months before the composer died.
The production’s concept is that the opera is a dream.
“At the beginning, even before the music begins, Tamino is getting ready for bed. The music starts and his dream begins,” Eaton says. “It has nightmarish components, strange characters popping out of the wardrobe and a girl next door who emerges as a damsel in distress.”
Mozart Concerts and Camp
With “The Magic Flute” as the lead, Mozart’s genius is a defining theme of the festival. The four concerts feature Mozart’s music. The first is by countertenor Andrey Nemzer, one of five winners of this year’s Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Nemzer also will perform in “The Magic Flute” and “Candide.”
The other concerts are equally appealing, featuring instrumental masterpieces performed by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians, the Freya String Quartet and a wind octet led by Eleanor Weingartner, principal clarinet of Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional of Mexico City.
The Mozart Camp is the most uncommon of the festival’s offerings. It also may be the most valuable, because its goal is to help people explore dimensions of the composer’s genius in ways concerts alone do not. The camp includes special musical performances, lectures, films, demonstrations, staged readings, admission to all concerts and a performance of “The Magic Flute” and two dinners at which Opera Theater founder Mildred Miller Posvar will share her experiences as a performer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and other opera houses.
Eaton takes a radical approach to his new “Carmen,” which, in this version, is called “Carmen — The Gypsy.”
“I’ve done a couple of full scale ‘Carmens,’ but always wanted to do a smaller version,” he says. “The basic idea is a flamenco version of ‘Carmen,’ set in a gypsy bar. It never leaves that place.”
“Jon and I re-imagined this together,” say Robert Frankenberry, who created the new orchestration of Georges Bizet’s music and will conduct the performances. The scoring includes guitar, accordion, trumpet, violin and bass. “It brings more of a folk texture to the piece. This will be a ‘Habanera’ like you’ve heard it before.”
Director Scott Wise says “Candide” is an irresistible, if sprawling piece. He’s an assistant professor of theater at Point Park University, where earlier this year he directed a musical version of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” called “Illyria” by Peter Mills. He’ll be directing the Harold Prince version of “Candide,” which was first seen in 1974.
Leonard Bernstein’s music for “Candide” “is so attractive and stirring and inventive and witty and (Lillian Hellman’s) lyrics are remarkable. There’s so much to love about it, but it’s challenging for directors,” Wise says. “There are so many episodes in one country after another, one city after another, that we have to make the characters make sense and give spine to hang the music on.”
Librettist Rob Handel says that when he first met Eaton to discuss the new operas that would be created for Summerfest, “he was obviously a visionary. It was all very exciting, all these short operas linked by taking place in a hotel room. It took off from there.”
Handel is head of the dramatic writing program at Carnegie Mellon University.
“The subjects range from one poignant romantic story to a lot of lighter ones, since it’s summer,” he says. “Only two characters appear in all of them: Miss Darlington, the hotel manager and owner, and Rudy, the bell boy.”
“Valkyrie Suite” by Eric Moe will be the first of the Night Caps. It uses the same ensemble of women Richard Wagner used at the beginning of the last act of “Die Walkure,” except in “Valkyrie Suite” the women are a traveling sports team.
Handel and Moe were aware of the humor of a 10-minute tribute to Wagner. The final acts of several Wagner operas are longer than many complete operas by other composers.
Finally, and all for free, the festival includes numerous daytime and early-evening events on the lawn in front of the Hillman Center. Some are related to other festival events, but others are not, include story telling, salsa and ballroom dancing, a performance by Texture Contemporary Ballet, folk dancing of several ethnic groups, demonstrations of stage combat and Undercroft Opera performing excerpts from Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah.”
There’s an element of excess to most genuine festivals. Who could attend everything? In this respect, even before the first notes are sounded, Opera Theater’s Summerfest literally fills the bill.
Opera Theater Summerfest
When: June 29-July 15
Where: Hillman Center for the Performing Arts at Shadyside Academy, 423 Fox Chapel Road, Fox Chapel, except as noted.
“The Magic Flute”: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday and July 8, and 7:30 p.m. July 14. Admission: $22.50-$75
“Carmen – The Gypsy”: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and July 6 and 12, and 2 p.m. July 14. Admission: $22.50-$45
“Candide”: 7:30 p.m. July 7 and 13, and 2 p.m. July 15. Admission: $22.50-$75
Andrey Nemzer, countertenor, 8 p.m. July 10, Fox Chapel Golf Club
Pittsburgh Chamber Players, 8 p.m. July 11, Fox Chapel Golf Club
Freya String Quartet, 3 p.m. July 12
Wind Octets, 3 p.m. July 14 at the Frick Art and Historical Center, Point Breeze.
Admission for each is $20.
“Valkyrie Suite” by Eric Moe, 10 p.m. July 6
“Bridal Suite” by Dwayne Fulton, 10 p.m., July 7
“Presidential Suite” by Roger Zahab, 10 p.m, July 8
“… Moonlight Suite …” by Gilda Lyons, 10 p.m. July 12
“George Washington Suite” by Daron Aric Hagen, 10 p.m. July 13
“Honeymoon Suite” by Alberto Garcia Demestres, 11 p.m. July 14
Complete Night Caps, 5 p.m. July 15
Admission is $10, except July 15, $30.
When: July 10-14
Tuition: $650, which includes admission to “The Magic Flute,” all concerts and two dinners at the Fox Chapel Golf Club.
Where: Frick Art and Historical Center
Details: 412-326-9687 or otsummerfest.org