Last night was an auspicious collection of “firsts” – Pittsburgh Festival Opera presented its first performance of the summer under their re-branded company name, and the opera chosen for the occasion was the world premiere of the much anticipated A Gathering of Sons. It wasn’t the company’s first world premiere; it was the 28th in its forty years’ worth of history, but it was the second of its especially commissioned works in its “Music That Matters” series – operas taking on pertinent issues facing our society as their subject material. Much has been written here over the last months regarding the opera, so that only a brief outline of the plot is necessary, and the difficult task of creating a coherent impression of such a highly complex, intricately crafted musical creation – after a single hearing – will be the intent of this review.
With a libretto by Dr. Tameka Cage Conley and music by composer Dwayne Fulton (who was on hand last night for the premiere), the opera tells as much as possible of the story of “Lockdown” (a white police officer with obvious, deeply disturbing issues), Victor (one of the young black men who is victimized), “City” (Victor’s brother, also a police officer and a new father), the anguish of parents, and, to use the program notes’ description, a “collection of spirits that watch over the world.” Much poetic license must be allowed in employing the last named, for it is difficult and tricky business in opera to rely on abstract ideas voiced by characters such as “The Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing,” “The Speaking Earth,” and a large assortment of others, but the alternative is supplying the “flesh-and-blood” singing actors with sufficient material to convey such concepts, which would require a colossal amount of work, and would result in an opera of an unendurable length. In the main, the “spirits” work, even if their numbers and contributions require intense concentration, but the opera, quite understandably, is by no means light and breezy, and several hearings or a close study of the libretto might be necessary to take it all in.
The very gifted Mr. Robert Frankenberry orchestrated Mr. Fulton’s music, and conducted last night, as he will at the remaining performances, instead of the original plan of the composer doing the conducting. Through clever use of a string quartet, alto saxophone, flute, two keyboards, and drums, he quite appropriately makes the music pulsate unobtrusively, and at the same time creates the proper balance of instrumental color to support and accentuate the action of the singers. The playing of the instrumentalists was a prominent feature of the evening, and Mr. Frankenberry is to be commended on so successfully grasping the type of “sound” the opera needs, committing it to paper, and conveying his ideas and intentions to the players.
There was a great deal of vocal talent in the Mt. Ararat Baptist Church last night – the first venue of the opera’s “tour.” The remaining performances will remove the slight sense of nervousness that was apparent in a couple of them. I expected much of Miles Wilson-Toliver (City), the gifted young baritone, and he delivered the riveting performance that was anticipated. He has a strong voice of a distinctly individual timbre, and throughout the evening provided much of the finest singing that was heard. In appearance and stage presence, he is a handsome man and a talented, sympathetic actor. Much the same may be said of Robert Gerold (Lockdown), a fine looking, powerfully voiced young singer whose performance in the second act was a display of incredibly intense acting that was almost agonizing to watch, so thoroughly did he portray the tortured character. The storm raging outside last night added even more drama to this scene, as lightning flashes splashed through the stained glass arches above the performing area.
Denise Sheffey-Powell, as Victoria, the widowed mother of Victor and City, gave a performance that was captivating – vocally and dramatically – and she brought out the anguish, strength and dignity of the character in a way as to make her contribution a decided “stand-out.” Adrianna Cleveland, as Violet, City’s pregnant wife, was another “human” character who acted and sang her part with dramatic intensity, her strong soprano all the more astonishing as she did the bulk of her singing flat on her back – by no means an easy thing to do! Terriq White (Victor) acted his role very effectively, and his voice shows great promise for his future. The large cast also includes small, non-singing roles, such as the Medics (Lesley Baird and Sam Lothard), and Jenne Carey had a little singing to do as the Doctor.
The “spirit” roles were many and for the most part handled quite effectively. Prominent among them were Demareus Cooper (The Speaking Earth), whose cavernously low tones and appearance fit the role well; Charlene Canty (The Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing), whose brilliant soprano poured through appropriately blue-painted lips; Michele Renee Williams (The Waters); counter-tenor Rudy Giron (The Blood), and the sonorous bass, Kevin Maynor (Glock). There were many “Sons” to represent those who were fallen before Victor, and a few others in the large, well managed ensemble.
The audience was a gratifying feature of the performance. Racially, sexually – even religiously – it was very diverse. A word to future audiences who might shy away because they don’t particularly care for opera: the influences of jazz, R & B and gospel make this work stand apart from the stereotyped conception of that genre of music. No spinto soprano tosses off trills to vapid text, and no lyric tenor sings the same lines this way and that to display his vocal accomplishments. It’s a unique “musical experience” that provides a much broader appeal to varying tastes. The music is sung in English, and by singers quite capable of enunciating the text so that it can be understood. Since the main points behind A Gathering of Sons are diversity and enlightened acceptance, it can be stated that the mission of all concerned was accomplished, and patronage of the remaining, quite reasonably priced performances is highly encouraged.
For tickets, performance dates, times, venues – the entire libretto – and more, visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera (click on “Performances” if you wish to purchase tickets online).
The “Production Team” for last night’s A Gathering of Sons –
Robert Frankenberry, Conductor and Orchestrator; Mark Clayton Southers, Director; Randy Kovitz, Fight Choreographer; Charles Rowe, Pianist; Hank Bullington, Scenic and Projection Design; Tony Sirk, Costume Design; Bob Steineck, Lighting Design; Jina Pounds, Hair and Makeup Design; Julia Black, Sound Design; Michelle Lee Betts, Stage Manager; Ericka Royster, Assistant Stage Manager.
Pittsburgh Festival Opera photos by Patti Brahim