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Pittsburgh Opera stages adaptation of classic Willa Cather short story

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Willa Cather may be best known for the novels based in her native Nebraska, such as "O Pioneers!" and "My Ántonia," but she spent her formative post-college years, from 1896-1906, as a journalist and teacher in Pittsburgh. The author did some important writing here, including her most famous short story, "Paul's Case."

Starting this weekend, Pittsburgh Opera's resident artists will perform "Paul's Case," an operatic adaptation written by composer Gregory Spears, at the company's Strip District headquarters. Both the chamber opera and the short story examine the industrial and cultural strings pulling at Pittsburgh, tensions that Cather herself experienced while living here.

Pittsburgh Opera: Gregory Spears' 'Paul's Case'
Where: George R. White Studio, Pittsburgh Opera headquarters, 2425 Liberty Ave., Strip District.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. Tuesday; 8 p.m. Feb. 28; 2 p.m. March 2.
Tickets: $40, www.pittsburghopera.org or 412-456-6666.

For the first half of her time in Pittsburgh, Cather edited Home Monthly, the women's magazine that had recruited her here, said James Jaap, senior instructor in English at Penn State Greater Allegheny. She wrote articles and music reviews for local newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Leader and the Pittsburgh Gazette. She then taught at Central High School, Downtown, and Allegheny High School near the Community College of Allegheny County.

Cather lived in boarding houses in the East End and Oakland, said Mr. Jaap, whose research focuses on the author's Pittsburgh years. In 1901, she moved in with the family of Isabelle McClung, believed by some scholars to be Cather's lover, on Murray Hill Avenue in Squirrel Hill. In 1906, she left to become the editor of McClure's Magazine, a muckraking publication in New York.

"She was one of the top editors in the country, at only 32 years old," Mr. Jaap said.

The writer continued to visit Pittsburgh until 1916, when McClung got married, he said, and wrote much of "O Pioneers!" here.

On the one hand, Cather considered Pittsburgh, flexing its industrial muscles, to be a dirty and dingy place, and she even wrote satirical pieces for Nebraska publications that poked fun at its conservative, Presbyterian culture. On the other hand, she loved Pittsburgh's high culture and "hobnobbed with all the bigwigs in the city," Mr. Jaap said. Despite its grimy patina, Pittsburgh had rich artistic and musical offerings that Nebraska lacked.

"When she got here, it was like a whole new world, because she could go [to concerts] every night," Mr. Jaap said. "Her stories are populated by artists, painters, musicians, writers," many of whom he believes she saw firsthand in Pittsburgh.

The tension between art and industry is at the core of "Paul's Case" -- both the short story and the opera. The main character, Paul, has been suspended from the so-called Pittsburgh High School (based on Central High, Mr. Jaap believes), for his generally poor behavior.

"His whole attitude was symbolized by his shrug and his flippantly red carnation flower," Cather writes in the story.

An usher at Carnegie Music Hall, Paul loves music and art, the luxurious Schenley Hotel (now the University of Pittsburgh student union) where a famous singer is staying, but despises the rest of Pittsburgh and dreads the corporate future he is sure to lead. He steals money, takes a train to New York and briefly experiences the high life there. Upon learning in Pittsburgh newspapers that his father is coming to retrieve him, Paul commits suicide.

The first half of the story takes Paul and readers throughout the city of Pittsburgh. Mr. Jaap thinks Paul's house, on "Cordelia Street," is in East Liberty -- his colleague has identified it as the real-life Aurelia Street -- and has even tracked down some of the artworks Paul peruses at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

The sculptures, including casts of Emperor Augustus and Venus de Milo, are still on view at the museum. The paintings are not. One, Martín Rico y Ortega's "San Trovaso, Venice" ("a blue Rico," Cather writes) was sold in 1950 for $500 and is in a private collection in Florida, Mr. Jaap said. Another, Jean-Francois Raffaelli's "Elegante sur le Boulevard des Italiens, Paris" ("some of [Raffaelli's] gay studies of Paris streets"), appeared at the fourth Carnegie International in 1899.

For the opera, Mr. Spears drew on city's juxtaposition of fine art and industry, which "go together in such an interesting way in Pittsburgh." The composer captures that tension with a musical score that is minimalist and mechanical or lyrical and Baroque.

"[Paul] wants the Pittsburgh music hall, but he doesn't want Carnegie's steel factory," said the composer, who co-wrote the libretto with playwright Kathryn Walat. Despite the unhappy ending, art does win out, in a way -- and that could be a consolation for Paul.

"We thought Paul would be rather pleased that he was the center of his own opera," Mr. Spears said.

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