Christopher Hahn, General Director of Pittsburgh Opera, was quite enthusiastic earlier this week when we discussed the company’s upcoming production of The Rake’s Progress, and I must say up front that I shared his enthusiasm. The work has long been a personal favorite, and the chance to see the famous David Hockney production, which the company owns, will be a rare and exciting treat.
The Rake’s Progress, first performed in Venice in 1951, is an opera in three acts and an epilogue by Igor Stravinsky. The libretto, written by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, is not based on a play, as is frequently the case, but rather on a series of eight paintings and engravings done by William Hogarth in the 1730s, which caught Stravinsky’s attention at a 1947 Chicago exhibition.
The fast-paced story, loosely resembling Faust’s pact with the devil, tells the tale of a young slacker, Tom Rakewell, who deserts Anne Trulove for the lure of London’s earthly delights, with Nick Shadow as his guide. After several somewhat bizarre and unfortunate adventures, all arranged by the “devilish” Shadow, Tom ends up in Bedlam, the nickname of a London asylum for the “insane.” The moral of the story: “For idle hearts and hands and minds the Devil finds work to do.”
The beautiful music Stravinsky composed for the opera stands quite apart from most that he wrote in his long career, which is divided by music scholars into three periods – his “Russian Period” (c. 1907-1919), his “Neoclassical Period” (c. 1920-1954), and his “Serial Period” (1954-1968). For many his music is an acquired taste that never develops, despite the fact that he is considered one of the more important composers of the last century. Indeed, even in his native Russia, performances of his music were banned from about 1933 until 1962, the year Nikita Khrushchev invited him to the USSR for an official state visit.
Written in his “Neoclassical Period,” the score Stravinsky penned for The Rake’s Progress is very much in keeping with the accepted style of the era in which the action takes place, and has an almost “Mozartian” ebb and flow, cleverly orchestrated, and comes as a pleasant surprise to those (including myself), who do not particularly care for much of his work.
The enchanting music aside, Mr. Hahn explained, David Hockney’s production is a remarkable piece of art in itself, with the sets, costumes, wigs, and props styled in a manner that is in keeping with the engravings that inspired the work. They are brought to life using black cross hatching on white, and shades of the three colors most prominently used in Hogarth’s era – red, blue and green.
Mr. Hahn expressed himself as excited to show Pittsburgh this extraordinary collaboration, and hopes audiences will take advantage of the opportunity to see and hear it. He has shown himself on many occasions willing to take great risks in providing Pittsburgh with the best in opera, and has brought many innovations to the Benedum stage since he came here.
Mr. Hahn was appointed General Director of Pittsburgh Opera in 2008, having served as Artistic Director since 2000. He has greatly expanded the company’s repertoire, introducing “Baroque” and contemporary operas, and through his efforts, Pittsburgh Opera can boast of being the only opera company in the country with a Resident Artist Program to which two productions are devoted each season.
Mr. Hahn began his career in opera in 1983 at San Francisco Opera as Rehearsal Administrator. He then managed the San Francisco Opera Center, including the Merola Opera Program, the country’s leading training program for American singers. Following his 13-year tenure in San Francisco, he served as Artistic Administrator at Los Angeles Opera with Plácido Domingo and Peter Hemmings. His expertise in recognizing young vocal talent has made him a sought-after juror at American and international vocal competitions, including the Bernstein Competition (Jerusalem), Plácido Domingo’s Operalia Competition, the Francisco Viñas Competition (Barcelona), the McAllister Awards and the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
His impressive resume made one question I had for him inevitable – why Pittsburgh?
Cheerful and friendly throughout our conversation, he said with a chuckle that the opportunity of accomplishing all of the above in a smaller city was a challenge he didn’t want to let pass by. I had told him my experiences with the Pittsburgh Opera dated back to the 1970s, and expressed gratitude that he rose to the challenge.
I forgot to tell him that, in my opinion, the production values of the company have improved immensely under his directorship, and that I hope he will remain on our scene for many years to come.
The Rake’s Progress opens Saturday, April 30, at the Benedum, and will conclude the company’s 77th season. For complete production, cast, schedule and ticket information, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.