When Virginia Byerly Kerr passed away last month at the age of 80, the Pittsburgh Opera lost one of its last connections to the founders of the company that is celebrating its 75th anniversary this season.
Kerr was the daughter of Virginia Byerly, one of five enterprising women who, in 1939, decided it was time for Pittsburgh to have a proper opera company, then known as the Pittsburgh Opera Society.
Byerly had grown up surrounded by opera. At a summer home in Chautauqua, N.Y., her family attended operas sung in English, said Arthur J. Kerr Jr., Virginia Byerly Kerr's husband and a Pittsburgh Opera board member. A talented pianist, Byerly accompanied the singers in rehearsals and moved near the Syria Mosque, the opera's second home. Byerly would go "to every rehearsal, every performance and every cast party, because she could just walk there," said Mr. Kerr.
The country's eighth oldest opera company is launching its 2013-14 season on Saturday with Verdi's "Aida."
The opera tells the story of lovers on opposite sides of a war involving Egypt and Ethiopia. Soprano Latonia Moore will sing the title role, tenor Carl Tanner will play Radames, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop is Amneris and baritone Lester Lynch is Amonasro.
The company has staged "Aida" many times, most recently in 2008, but it was not the company's first production. That was Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann," in spring 1940, at Carnegie Music Hall.
The opera society's founders -- Priscilla Collins, Carolyn Hunt Mahaffey, Marie Pease, Ruby Wickersham and Byerly -- raised money, hired singers, held auditions (in Byerly's home), designed and sewed costumes and handled public relations and finances, according to Hax McCullough's book, "Opera in Pittsburgh." They used their own furniture as stage props and recruited a volunteer orchestra of 30 people, many from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It cost $1,300 to put on that first production.
Of that initial performance, Post-Gazette music critic Donald Steinfirst wrote:
"It is customary, when reviewing a new musical venture, to pat the project politely on the back and remark vaguely that it has a definite future -- without making any commitment to the present. But the Pittsburgh Opera Society ... escapes so obscure a representation. The opera was adequately, if far from perfectly, done."
The company decided to kick off its 75th season with "Aida" because it's "the biggest and baddest, grandest. You can pull out all the stops with it," said general director Christopher Hahn.
For example, former Steelers players Charlie Batch (Saturday) and Franco Harris (Oct. 18), former Pirate Bob Friend (Tuesday) and Penguins radio analyst Phil Bourque (Oct. 20) will take on the nonspeaking role of the Champion of Champions. The company is collaborating with Allegheny County mounted police and the organization Going Home Greyhounds, which are providing horses and dogs for the production. Several dozen Pittsburghers will be extras. Involving members of the community allows Pittsburgh Opera to "break down the stereotype [that] opera is for other people," Mr. Hahn said.
In addition to exciting events marking this season -- including one special 75th anniversary event Mr. Hahn will announce Saturday -- the company will nod to the past. At the first performance, the company will welcome back former directors Tito Capobianco and Mark Weinstein.
Looking back, Mr. Hahn believes that Pittsburgh Opera's history matches that of Pittsburgh. In 1939, a city of Pittsburgh's stature needed an opera company. The city's renaissance marked a turning point for the company, too, largely thanks to the development of the Cultural District and the leadership of Mr. Capobianco, who led the company from 1983 to 2000.
"In a funny kind of way, the history of Pittsburgh Opera shadows the progression of what Pittsburgh has gone through," said Mr. Hahn.
Elizabeth Bloom: email@example.com, 412-263-1750 or Twitter @BloomPG. Blog: Measured Words at http://blogs.post-gazette.com/arts-entertainment/measured-words. First Published October 8, 2013 8:00 PM