Pittsburgh Opera acquires colorful production that was almost discarded
Pittsburgh Opera gets Hockney production
April 28, 2016 12:00 AM
Layla Claire, as Anne Trulove, and Alek Shrader, as Tom Rakewell, pose for a photo on the set of Stravinsky's opera, "The Rake's Progress," at the Pittsburgh Opera headquarters in the Strip District on April 18.
Adam Bonanni, dressed as Tom Rakewell, performs an aria from Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," during a Third Thursday event at the Carnegie Museum of Art on April 21, 2016. The opera singers performed in front of a painting by British artist David Hockney, who designed the sets, costumes, wigs and props for the opera.
Pittsburgh Opera resident artist Claudia Rosenthal, dressed as Anne Trulove, performs an aria from Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" at the Carnegie Museum of Art on April 21.
David Pittsinger (as Nick Shadow), Layla Claire (Anne Trulove) and Alek Shrader (Tom Rakewell) pose for a photo on the set of "The Rake's Progress" at Pittsburgh Opera's headquarters in the Strip District on April 18.
Guests gather in the Carnegie Museum of Art to hear resident artists from Pittsburgh Opera perform arias from Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" during a Third Thursday event on April 21.
Pittsburgh Opera resident artist Matthew Scollin performs an aria from Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" during a Third Thursday event at the Carnegie Museum of Art on April 21.
Ken Friedman/San Francisco Opera
A scene from San Francisco Opera's 2000 production of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" illuminates the cross-hatching technique at the core of the David Hockney-designed sets, costumes, wigs and props.
Toni West, costume supervisor with Pittsburgh Opera, prepares Alek Shrader, dressed as Tom Rakewell, for a photo shoot on the set of Stravinsky's opera "The Rake's Progress" at the Opera in the Strip District.
Layla Claire, as Anne Trulove, Alek Shrader, as Tom Rakewell, and David Pittsinger, as Nick Shadow, pose for a photo on the set of Stravinsky's opera, "The Rake's Progress" at Pittsburgh Opera's headquarters in the Strip District on April 18.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Which is stranger?
The largest David Hockney collection in Western Pennsylvania makes its home in a warehouse in Ambridge.
Were it not for Pittsburgh Opera, that enormous collection by one of Britain’s most significant artists would have been destined for the dumpster.
Seems like a tossup.
Pittsburgh Opera salvaged the Hockney-designed production of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” which will get another chance at life on the Benedum Center stage this weekend.
The story of how Pittsburgh acquired Mr. Hockney’s sets, costumes, wigs and props is nearly operatic in scale.
“The Rake’s Progress,” a neoclassical opera that premiered in 1951, opens Saturday, but Pittsburgh Opera had been interested in producing it for years. Like many budget-conscious opera companies, Pittsburgh Opera planned to rent its sets from elsewhere. And the classic Hockney production, owned by San Francisco Opera and first staged there in 1982, was the obvious choice. Mr. Hockney, 78, a contemporary of Andy Warhol, designed the colorful scenery, eccentric costumes and Raggedy Ann-like wigs.
“It’s the production that needs to be seen, in my view,” said Christopher Hahn, Pittsburgh Opera’s general director.
But for Pittsburgh Opera, the costs of renting it remained prohibitive. Then, two years ago, San Francisco Opera was planning to junk the Hockney production, so Mr. Hahn called up the company and said Pittsburgh would be happy to take it. San Francisco Opera essentially donated the production to Pittsburgh.
It’s a common practice among opera companies: They build sets, use them for a few productions and rent them to other organizations. Eventually, because of the cost or difficulty of maintaining and storing them, along with the need to offer fresh productions to audiences, they send them to the trash heap, give them away or, in rare cases, sell them. San Francisco had staged this Hockney production three times, and the last time it presented “The Rake’s Progress,” in 2007, it opted for different sets, according to the company’s online archives.
The Hockney is an elaborate, eye-catching production that marries music, text and scenery. Stravinsky was influenced by 18th-century engravings by William Hogarth. That artwork, in turn, shaped the English libretto by Chester Kallman and W. H. Auden and, decades later, Mr. Hockney’s reinterpretation of those materials for the stage.
“He felt that Hogarth’s precise cross-hatching technique, in which shading is achieved by the drawing of closely spaced parallel lines set at an angle, perfectly suited the jagged, linear character of the score,” wrote Christopher Simon Sykes in his biography of Mr. Hockney. “Stravinsky’s music, he thought, ‘was a pastiche of Mozart’s, and my design was a pastiche of Hogarth’s.’ ”
The sets take those period elements — cutaway coats, cross-hatching, even allusions to historical political cartoons and printing ink colors — “and then he throws his modern Hockney language on top of all that,” said Tara Kovach, Pittsburgh Opera’s director of production.
“There’s all this irony between the text, the music and the production. I think that’s why it’s such a legendary production,” Mr. Hahn said. “The humanity in the story, though, isn’t ironic.”
Mr. Hockney previously designed a smaller version of “The Rake’s Progress” for England’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1975. He later created productions of “Turandot,” “The Magic Flute” and others.
Labor rules barred Mr. Hockney from working on the set in San Francisco, but he still managed to make his own edits, such as touching up a tombstone with a stagehand looking on.
“The union member had to be paid to watch David Hockney paint the tombstone,” recalled Sarah Billinghurst Solomon, who was the assistant to San Francisco’s artistic administrator at the time.
Mr. Hahn, Ms. Kovach and her late husband, Jerry Sherk, who was Pittsburgh’s director of production, all worked at San Francisco Opera — connections that proved useful in Pittsburgh Opera’s acquisition of the Hockney production.
Additional help came from opera companies in Utah and Oregon, which shared the costs of refurbishing, cleaning and transporting the pieces with Pittsburgh Opera. After those companies staged the opera, the production arrived in Western Pennsylvania this past winter.
When it’s not onstage, the various pieces reside in Pittsburgh Opera’s warehouse in Ambridge and headquarters in the Strip District. Pittsburgh Opera hopes to rent it out, which would generate revenue for the company, bring this production to more audiences and extend its long, colorful life.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.