Pittsburgh Resident Artists Indulge in Hansel and Gretel

Photo by David BachmanPittsburgh, PA – Recently, I had a minor surgical procedure performed on my left eyelid.  It was nothing serious – in fact, somewhat routine – but as you can imagine as the doctor approached my eye with this little scalpel thoughts of “Please don’t sneeze,” and “don’t worry, he’s done this before,” began to course through my mind out of concern for my dear, precious eyeball.  Everything went well and, as one would hope to expect after having been prescribed any level of surgery, I left better than when I had arrived.

So, what’s the point?  Experience, above all else, is the key to success in any endeavor, particularly when one’s well being may be in danger.  You likely wouldn’t feel comfortable being approached by a surgeon with an instruction booklet in one hand and a scalpel in the other; I would argue that an analogous point may be made of a budding opera star.  No matter how wonderful the instrument, how promising the voice, if a young opera singer cannot sing effectively, communicate emotion and dialogue clearly, convince me that he or she understands what is happening around them and move across the stage without drooping in pitch or losing track of the rhythm, they just haven’t got it.  Put simply, opera is theatre and opera singers must be actors so as not to put the audience’s well being aside.  Christopher Hahn agrees.

Mr. Hahn has served as the Pittsburgh Opera’s general director since 2008, following an eight year tenure as the company’s Artistic Director.  A native of South Africa, Mr. Hahn came to Pittsburgh via San Francisco and Los Angeles where he amassed an impressive curriculum vita, including the development of young artist programs in both cities.  Hahn’s highly sought after ability to recognize and develop emerging talent has found an impressive home in the Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist program, which is one of the most desirable and competitive programs of its kind in the country, and rightfully so.

Photo by David BachmanOne of the things that makes Pittsburgh’s program so unique, is Mr. Hahn’s insistence that these young professionals be given the opportunity to refine their craft by taking on full-scale productions, and not simply being kept in practice rooms and coaching sessions; learning to cover roles reserved for their higher profile colleagues.  Surely, a nightingale in a cage will not sing as beautifully as one who sings freely, or to my analogy above, a doctor trained in a classroom might have recently left me with only one eye!

My first full-fledged experience with the program occurred in November of 2011 through a special performance of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, presented to an all-student audience and in which the regular cast was replaced by the full compliment of Resident Artists.  The performance was stunning, and truly gave the “more experienced” cast a run for their money.  What may have been even more impressive was the sold-out house at the Benedum Center, which was filled to the brim with 2,500 students from grade school through high school, all thanks to Dr. Marilyn Egan, the champion of the Pittsburgh Opera’s educational programming.

The energy in the room was unmatched by any adult audience, and I know more than a few adults who could take a lesson in how to properly experience opera from these children, who remained fully engaged and totally invested in the performance throughout.  I recall clearly at one point during the production, the lead male Zurga attacks the priestess Leïla, holding a knife to her throat.  This single action, nearly three-quarters of the way through the entire opera, generated a roar of concerned shrieks and gasps from the audience (average age, about twelve), gripped by the uncertainty of what may happen next.  Indeed, their intense enthusiasm throughout squeezed more than one tear from my eye, as cries of “bravo” echoed through the hall commanding an extended curtain call.  Having attended the regular production, I must say the deepest engagement I was able to perceive from the “adult” audience was the occasional rustle of a program, a sniffle or cough, or that irritating little crinkle of a lozenge being unwrapped.  Of course, the grown-ups like to shout “bravo” as well, but I can’t help thinking that we enjoy the ritual of doing so more than consider ourselves so moved by the performance that we must.

It is an interesting parallel to observe between the enthusiasm of the young student audience raising the bar for their adult counterparts, and the young cast of Resident Artists potentially outperforming their more established seniors.  That said, the most crucial distinction that plagues programs of this kind in every venue, is the point that “young” and “student” are not synonymous, and that these young professionals are just that: professionals.

Photo by David BachmanThis point could not have been made more clear than by Saturday night’s performance of Hansel and Gretel, the much beloved Märchenoper or “fairy-tale opera” by Engelbert Humperdinck.  The production was staged within the CAPA Theatre at Pittsburgh’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts.  The space created an intimacy and excitement that can too often be lost or feel too cold within the larger venues traditionally reserved for opera.  The orchestra, under the very capable baton of Maestro Glenn Lewis, filled the space richly in testament to Humperdinck’s marvelously German orchestrations.  The relatively small cast excelled beautifully against a most interesting and minimal staging, including set pieces constructed of “found objects” like antique high-backed chairs and old cupboards and cabinetry, designed and assembled by Patrick Rizzotti.  A particularly striking moment came at the arrival of the Sandman, sung wonderfully by the only non-Resident Artist cast member, Katy Shackleton Williams, in which her character plants the moon—represented by a giant paper lantern—under a canopy of high-backed chairs suspended from the roof of the stage while she lulls the children to sleep.

The role of the Father was richly voiced by Kyle Oliver, who acted beautifully opposite Mother Alexandra LoutsionStephanie Lauricella transformed into the little boy Hansel most effectively, as did Suzanne Vinnik playing his sister Gretel.  Each embraced the subtle mannerisms and curious wonder that ultimately lead the two astray as though they truly were the small children they portrayed.  In perfect balance, their instruments soared beautifully at every moment, accentuating wonderful points in the story such as when Gretel teaches Hansel to dance, and the two sing about their guardian angels as they fall asleep on the forest floor.

Photo by David BachmanIn another effective transformation, Loutsion reappeared in the third act as the child-eating witch who inhabits the gingerbread house in the forest.  She played up the comedy of her role with wonderful character and without succumbing to the all too common pitfall of overdoing it at the expense of the drama.  The Witch is a complex character, as she must bring a lighthearted resolve to a role that ultimately portrays a vicious predator—one that in many versions of the story also represents the children’s hostile feelings toward their mother’s scolding.  She did so beautifully.

And, while the praise is still high, it would be criminal to neglect mention of the wonderful Children’s Festival Chorus, of which a small detachment provided the band of children ultimately freed from the Witch’s oven during the finale.  Prepared by Christine Jordanoff and Shawn Funk, the group sang beautifully and provided the keystone to the wonderful atmosphere of the production, which, as usual, squeezed a tear from my eye during the final moments when the ensemble rejoices over the defeated Witch, who has been transformed into a tasty chocolate cake!

It is strikingly clear that these fine performers are true professionals at the beginning of their careers, and as the evening’s program notes rightfully boast, Pittsburgh may look forward to claiming ownership to the roots of what will surely be long and successful ones at that.

Photos by David Bachman

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