Memories of OTP’s “SummerFest” 2016

Header(1)It’s all over now, and truth be told, I miss it already. The season was extended this year, but somehow seemed shorter than previous ones. This is easily explained by the fact that each summer’s offerings have managed to top those of the previous one’s, without taking anything away from the worth of the prior productions. This ambitious company is to be commended for the work they have accomplished, because much of it was quite good, and the city is lucky to have a group with such pluck and artistic direction.

Jonathan Eaton, who has served as the Artistic and General Director of the company since 1999, made some very valid points which might explain in part why this year’s “SummerFest” seemed to fly by in the blink of an eye (although the large production team that has been working pretty much 24/7 for many weeks is probably heaving a huge and collective sigh of relief). The venue change made a tremendous difference. “After five successful seasons, we have outgrown our boots,” Mr. Eaton remarked earlier this month. “We are thrilled to be moving to larger facilities and Winchester Thurston’s Falk Auditorium, beautifully renovated by Pittsburgh’s premiere theater architect, Al Filoni. This is now perhaps the most attractive medium-sized theater in the city.”

He might very well be right. “We think our audiences will love the theater’s great acoustics, comfortable seating, easy private parking and proximity to one of Pittsburgh’s liveliest neighborhoods,” he said, and while the new quarters were a decided bonus, the worth of the work done there, and the exceptional talent that accomplished the work, combined to make this “SummerFest” the most enjoyable one of my experience. It seemed that the audiences were more enthusiastic this year, and they had every reason to be so.

Christina Overton and Isaiah Feken in Kiss Me Kate
Christina Overton and Isaiah Feken in Kiss Me Kate

Each summer I plan on attending features of the festival other than the staged works, for my own personal enjoyment, but time never seems to allow me to do so. This year I missed such treats as the concerts featuring well-known singers Marianne Cornetti, Daphne Alderson and others, as well as the company’s Young Artist Program. Next year, perhaps. I’m also going to make an effort to catch the short “kiddie” opera, if there is one, because this year’s Little Red Riding Hood featured Valerie Hosler, always such a comic treat, and I’m indeed sorry I missed it, just for the opportunity of enjoying another chance of seeing this gifted young artist do something in addition to the impression she made in Kiss Me, Kate.

The latter was the first fully staged production, as Carmen the Gypsy had preceded it “on tour” in some curious venues. I was glad I saw it at the Sphinx Café in Oakland, because the energy level was high there, the performance was excellent, and I learned what a “hookah bar” was. Yes, I had to “Google” the term, and I was relieved that no “vaping” was allowed during the performance. The atmosphere was perfect, and I felt like one of the “gypsies” in Carmen’s claque, so close did the quarters bring me into the action. Indeed, at one point, had Don José taken one more backwards step, he would possibly have landed on my lap. But the singers were quite impressive, and the reworking of Bizet’s classic by Mr. Eaton and Robert Frankenberry managed to more than entertain the opera “purist” I freely admit to being.

Carmen the Gypsy Cast
Carmen the Gypsy Cast

The season was largely advertised as a “Diva Riot” of “powerful women,” and rightly so when not only Carmen but Cleopatra herself and others were impersonated, with casts including Christina Overton, Kara Cornell, Lara Lynn McGill, Sara Beth Shelton, Katherine Beck, Kelly Lynch and so many others; but while there was certainly a great deal of exceptionally fine singing done by the female contingent of the company, the male element included Christopher Scott, Andrey Nemzer, Isaiah Feken and Matthew Maisano, to name but a few, and was very much in evidence and frequently matched the women; once or twice to the point of nearly eclipsing them. But whichever vocal range audience members preferred, they had many chances of hearing the best of all – whether soprano, tenor, countertenor, mezzo-soprano, baritone or bass, all voice classifications received for the most part many opportunities.

Lara Lynn McGill and Andrey Nemzer in Julius Caesar
Lara Lynn McGill and Andrey Nemzer in Julius Caesar

Händel’s Julius Caesar provided some of the most astonishing singing, and Chatham Baroque played a large part in making the production as impressive as it was, and hopefully this wonderful group of instrumentalists will participate in any future productions of works that date to the eighteenth century. I am by no means an expert on “musical theater” (and probably not one on opera, for that matter), but Kiss Me, Kate, while featuring some great singing and comical acting, lost a little in its transformation from the very large stage that such Broadway extravaganzas require – or so I was told by members of the audience.

Night Caps provided a great opportunity for the Young Artist Program. But the highlight of the evening on which I saw this curious conglomeration was the chance to be re-introduced to the company’s founder, Mrs. Posvar, who as Mildred Miller enjoyed a distinguished career as a mezzo-soprano herself. At the Metropolitan Opera alone she sang nearly 400 performances of twenty-one roles in twenty operas over the course of twenty-four seasons – important roles, too, such as Carmen, Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Octavian in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, and others by a wide variety of composers that included not only Bizet and the German masters mentioned, but Puccini, Verdi, Massenet, and even Richard Wagner, alongside a vast array of truly legendary compatriots. I had not seen her since the early 1980s, when I occasionally met her through a few of her students and other voice coaches in the area, such as the late Lorenzo Malfatti, a personal friend for many years and still sorely missed. I didn’t for a moment expect her to remember me, and she politely suggested that possibly the reason was that we had each aged a couple of years since we last met. But what a wealth of memories seeing this dignified and lovely nonagenarian brought back! She is quite elegant looking, and time has treated her very gently, indeed.

Dimitrie Lazich, Julia Fox, and Jeremy Galyon in The Silent Woman
Dimitrie Lazich, Julia Fox, and Jeremy Galyon in The Silent Woman

True to the tradition of great feasts, the finest wine was saved for last, with the revival of Richard Strauss’ rarely heard The Silent Woman. The production featured a true “power-house” cast of exceptionally gifted singers, among them Jeremy Galyon, Julia Fox and Dimitrie Lazich, and included brilliant conducting on the part of Brent McMunn. A number of men did excellent conducting throughout the season, and I hope that I documented their work to the degree they all deserved.

To everyone involved in Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s “SummerFest” 2016, thanks for the memories, and congratulations in advance on all you will achieve in 2017!