It has been said that musical theatre and opera are the two most collaborative art forms. Actors, singers, dancers, designers, musicians, choreographers, and directors must work together in real time to create the work of art. If your passion is opera, you must find a like-minded group of individuals to collaborate with, unlike the more solitary work of a painter. For those whose passion has not become a professional career, community theatre and opera community provide a vehicle to express their art and passion. Undercroft Opera’s mission is to “create a community for singers and orchestral musicians by offering performance experience to emerging and seasoned local artists and developing audiences through both innovative and traditional operatic productions.” Closing out Undercroft’s 11th season with a wildly varied and unique offering of two one-act operas, The Impresaria and Djamileh, display both their commitment to the mission and the company’s versatility.
The Impresario, or Der Schauspieldirektor was composed in a day as part of a contest by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who is arguably the most renowned figure of late 18th-century opera. Mozart describes it as “comedy with music” and it is viewed as one of the most playful of his works. Undercroft has updated and adapted the story and characters to the 1950s. The traditional male role of the impresario has been switched to be a woman, hence the title shift to Impresaria
Set in post-war Vienna, famed soprano turned director Francesca Zeller is starting a new theatrical company. But funds are tight and her assistant Buff comes up with a tried but true solution. Get an eager actresses’ sugar daddy to finance the tour! The said actress is the not so young anymore Alura Pierce. She auditions with a long Noel Coward piece. As she finishes, an aspiring young singer arrives to wow Francesca and Buff, but she comes with way too many demands for a wannabe. This sets off a seemingly endless parade of aspiring actresses and actors all who desire a larger and larger cut of the non-existent budget pie. Finally, two sopranos arrive, duel it out with different arias that, turn into a catfight for bragging rights as to who really is the diva. Once that is “settled”, the fight over salaries breaks out again. Francesca, who cleverly demonstrates why she is The Impresaria, turns it all around and the company comes together to celebrate their art in the final song.
As operas go, this interpretation of The Impresario is heavy on dialogue and light on singing. That’s too bad as the auditions involving singing are entertaining and well done as opposed to those that are just belabored readings. No schauspieldirektor worth their salt would let those take up so much of their time in auditions.
Anna Singer (formerly WQED host and recently seen in Pittsburgh Festival Operas’ Sweeny Todd) makes an excellent Impresaria and gets to show off her singing chops in the opera’s first scene.
Rob Hockenberry’s and Mary Beth Sederburg’s direction can’t quite find purpose the growing masses of hopefuls on stage with little to do as the auditions wind their way to the dueling soprano’s in this “odd duck” of an opera. The singers all have strong voices, clarity is sometimes difficult to discern in the acoustically live auditorium in Seton Center. Conductor Hyery Hwang (Ball State University) has an excellent command of her musicians and brings out the beauty of Mozart’s score. The orchestra is marvelous and underutilized in this performance.
The second presentation of the evening is Djamileh is an opéra comique in one act by Georges Bizet. The opera begins at the end of the day the caliph Haroun (William Andrews) reclines and smokes a hookah in his Cairo palace, with his servant Splendiano (Zach Luchetti). The conversation turns to Haroun’s lover Djamileh (Mary Beth Sederburg), who is actually his slave girl. As is his standard practice, Haroun trades in his lover at the end of the month for a new model. Djamileh’s month is up and therefore she must go. Splendiano confesses to Haroun that he loves her and would like to keep her for himself. Haroun says not to worry; “he is not in love with her, only with love itself.” Djamileh however loves Haroun.
The slave merchant, Mervin, brings the prospective new girls in to dance for Haroun, and he chooses his new concubine. Splendiano comes up with a scheme to confirm Heroun is not in love with Djamileh. He will dress her as the new girl. If she fails to win Heroun’s heart, she will be available to Splendiano. Heroun eventually recognizes her and therefore Splendiano has lost out.
Undercroft calls this is a “stylish evening of one-act operas galvanized by Diva Dynamism.” Are slave girls taken as lovers on a monthly upgrade cycle truly representative of girl power?
There were some interesting glitches with the auditorium lights during the Impresaria, but the actors, singers, and musicians paid it no heed. It was distracting but not disastrous.
Tonight’s evening featured excellent singers, a great conductor, and an accomplished orchestra, a tribute to the quality of opera and musical talent in the Pittsburgh area.
Undercoft Opera’s performances of The Impresaria and Djamileh are at the Seton Center Auditorium, 1900 Pioneer Ave in Pittsburgh on November 17th and 18th at 7:30 pm and November 19th at 2:00 pm. For tickets visit https://www.undercroftopera.org/community/tickets/
Thanks to Undercroft for the complimentary tickets.