Pittsburghers can't be blamed for thinking they know all about Frank Lloyd Wright -- after all, his remarkable much-loved house, Fallingwater, is just an hour out of town, drawing visitors from all over the world. Kentuck Knob, another privately owned home he designed, is also nearby.
But how much do we really know about this visionary architect, who transformed the design of 20th-century American homes and cities? That his life, especially between 1903-14, was far more than about the Prairie School or commissions from wealthy clients? Adultery, betrayal, murder, fire, devastation -- it's all there in "Shining Brow," an opera composed by Daron Hagen with a libretto by Northern Irish poet laureate Paul Muldoon.
On Friday and Saturday, it will be performed on the outdoor terraces at Fallingwater by the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh as part of its SummerFest. It's the first time this opera has been staged at one of the architect's houses and the first time any opera has been performed at this house.
"Shining Brow" is translated from the Welsh word Taliesin, the name of Wright's retreat in Wisconsin, which was built on the brow of a hillside near his childhood home. The opera was first performed by the Madison Opera in 1993.
When Jonathan Eaton, executive director of Opera Theater, pitched the idea to Lynda Waggoner, vice president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and Fallingwater's longtime director, she was thrilled. She'd seen "Shining Brow" at Chicago Opera Theater in 1997 and realized it would be a perfect fit.
"To have this work, which focuses on a tumultuous time in his life, performed here is a great reminder of how Wright overcame all these troubles and went on to create this iconic building, one of the most loved works of all time," she said.
While jazz was performed there in the 1960s and 1970s, this is opera, a far more ambitious undertaking.
Mr. Hagen knew this, and while the original version in Madison was indeed grand opera, with an orchestra of 40 players and a chorus of 40, he has adjusted the production for smaller orchestras to make it more accessible. This is essentially a chamber version: The chorus is gone, there are six cast members, and a small orchestra plays on the top terrace, while the drama takes place on the two terraces below.
The result, Mr. Hagen said in a recent interview, will only increase the intensity and intimacy of the drama.
The audience of about 130 will be seated in an area just before and on the entry bridge to Fallingwater. The home's pale stucco walls provide an ideal surface for images projected from the woods and surrounding shrubbery, Mr. Eaton said.
The plot, in brief: Wright, in 1903, abandoned his wife and six children in Oak Park, Ill., to flee to Europe with a rich client's wife, Mamah Cheney. After much scandal and two years abroad, the lovers returned to Wisconsin and after Taliesin was built in 1911 moved in there with her two children. In 1914, a crazed cook set the house on fire, and as Mamah, her two children and four others attempted to flee, he murdered them all with an ax.
The first scene has Wright's mentor, Louis Sullivan, sorrowfully reflecting on Wright's professional betrayal of him. Sullivan fired Wright after he discovered that his young protege had stolen some of his drawings to build houses on commission, on his own time.
Later, Mamah sings about her disillusionment once the couple are living at Taliesin, where, instead of being Wright's intellectual companion, she is reduced to more domestic pursuits -- "destined forever to mend the torn pocket of Frank Lloyd Wright's top-coat."
What an arrogant devious S.O.B. this man was, and yet, isn't opera populated with these nefarious characters?
"The drama lured me in," said Mr. Eaton, noting that Mr. Hagen's music has lush, sweeping melody. There are references throughout the score to music of that era, from Richard Strauss to Aaron Copland to modern American music, including folk songs and a barbershop quartet.
There are jarring, atonal passages, too -- certainly during the fiery conflagration that reduces Taliesin to ashes, destroying not just a work of art but the woman Wright loved.
In the end, this opera asks the question of how genius can interact with the ordinary, Mr. Eaton said.
"One of the primary themes in the piece is the intersection of his philosophy of art and architecture versus the demands of everyday life," he added. "Opera audiences should see this in a setting which makes sense for the drama. In the original version, the stage set had an image of Taliesin, but we have the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright house in our own backyard."
"It would have been so easy for her to say no," he said of Ms. Waggoner, "but she had the vision and common sense to say yes to something that will be of real benefit to us and to Fallingwater."
Where: Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's SummerFest, Fallingwater, Mill Run, Fayette County.
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (rain date 6:30 p.m. Sunday).
Tickets: $350, $275 SummerFest Passport holders and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy members (all seating general admission). $35 round-trip private motorcoach transportation from Opera Theater offices, Lawrenceville (Saturday only); includes talk about the opera and access to composer Daron Hagen. otsummerfest.org or 412-326-9687.
Additional information: Event starts with private access to the house before the performance and continues with light summer fare and fine wines before the opera. After the performance meet the artists for champagne and dessert and a birthday toast to Frank Lloyd Wright.theater - mobilehome - lifestyle
Mackenzie Carpenter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949. On Twitter at MackenziePG.