If you’re paying really close attention, you may have realized that Pittsburgh Opera takes a methodical approach to its entire calendar. There is a formula, to be sure, but the goal is to be anything but formulaic.
The Verdi trend continues at the Benedum Center on Saturday, when the company opens its 78th season with “La traviata.”
“Your opening gambit, your opening production, your opening show is a shout-out moment because it’s the beginning of the season,” Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn said. “You’re reminding everybody, ‘Here we are again.’”
With its champagne-and-bubbles sensibility and parties galore, “La traviata” is a no-brainer, thematically speaking, as a season opener, Mr. Hahn said. The opera follows the doomed relationship between the courtesan Violetta Valéry and her lover, Alfredo Germont, whose love is thwarted by Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont.
Of course, box-office considerations play a significant role in how Pittsburgh Opera builds its roster of operas. While Mr. Hahn considers all operas in a given season to be artistic heavyweights, not all of them receive his “triple-A” grades from a ticket sales standpoint.
The opening opera tends to be a popular display piece, and “La traviata” is a “triple-A” at the box office. Still, Mr. Hahn pledges, “it’s not always going to be Verdi,” and not all Verdi works are familiar favorites, such as last year’s opener, “Nabucco,” a comparative rarity.
The first production dictates how the company fills out the rest of the season, and Mr. Hahn said he aims for a blend of operatic fragrances. Strauss’ “Salome” takes the second slot this year, and the German-language work provides a stylistic contrast with “La traviata.” (The company might take a stronger box-office approach to the second production — say, a popular Mozart opera — if the first production was a “B”-grade piece.)
The third mainstage production occurs during subscription renewal time, and not surprisingly, that opera will be another hit: Puccini’s “Turandot.”
“It’s industry standard that whenever your renewal period starts, that’s when you have to have as many people in the theater as possible,” Mr. Hahn said.
Pittsburgh Opera tends to save the final mainstage slot for the hardest sell. This spring, the fourth slot goes to the world premiere of Daniel Sonenberg’s “The Summer King,” about Negro Leagues baseball star Josh Gibson. By producing those “stretch” works last, the company has more time to drum up interest and market them to the community. Even that can prove to be a double-edged sword, however, since student groups who might be curious about such operas are out of school by then, Mr. Hahn said.
Because of the triple-A operas in the first and third positions, Pittsburgh Opera can present more challenging works in the even-numbered slots. But the company consistently stages its most intriguing pieces in the winter, with its young resident artists.
The company does not offer operas at the Benedum Center in January and February, when many of its snowbird subscribers are hibernating in warmer climates. Instead, the company showcases the resident artists in two chamber operas at CAPA Theater and the company’s Strip District headquarters.
The CAPA production alternates each year between a contemporary American work and a baroque piece. In January, the company will present the second U.S. performance of Handel’s “Richard the Lionheart.” And for February’s production at company headquarters, Pittsburgh Opera will give one of the first productions of Laura Kaminsky’s 2014 piece, “As One.” Those chamber operas cost much less than their Benedum Center counterparts, but the high artistic value they provide for audiences and resident artists alike can’t be understated.
Between the four mainstage productions and two chamber operas, Mr. Hahn hopes to demonstrate “that opera is extraordinarily diverse, and that we have four centuries to play with.” Even with those two triple-A hits by Verdi and Puccini, the 2016-17 season may go down as one of Pittsburgh Opera’s most adventurous.
Another challenge is to provide added interest for beloved operas that appear on the calendar with some regularity. For example, Pittsburgh Opera last staged “La traviata” in the 2011-12 season. Yet Mr. Hahn said this production explores the psychological and sociological dimensions of the work — in particular the world of the courtesan — with special insight, and he hopes the production will send audiences to their history books.
“It’s not all pretty dresses and fancy parties,” he said. “It’s clearly focused on the immense difficulties that some women faced in this particular society.”
This production also features two Pittsburgh-based singers in leading roles. Soprano Danielle Pastin, one of the strongest singers to have come through Pittsburgh Opera’s resident artists program, portrays Violetta Valéry. Romanian-born baritone Sebastian Catana, who lives in Bethel Park, makes his company debut as Giorgio Germont. Also appearing with Pittsburgh Opera for the first time is Cody Austin as Alfredo Germont. Christian Capocaccia will conduct the Pittsburgh Opera orchestra because music director Antony Walker has an engagement in Florence, Italy.
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