'The Illustrated History of Opera in Pittsburgh: The Pittsburgh Opera Story' by Hax McCullough

History of Pittsburgh Opera an aria of love

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This is a beautiful book, handsomely designed by Pittsburgh artist Robert L. Bowden and printed on quality paper with abundant photographs.


By Hax McCullough
Privately published, available from Pittsburgh Opera


It is a labor of love and a crowning life achievement for Hax McCullough, founder of McCullough Communications and publisher of the opera's programs from 1971-91.

McCullough lived through much of the opera's history, and it's obvious on every page that he relishes the local company, the city and opera itself.

When it comes to creating an objective account, however, these very virtues turn into a double-edged sword, since McCullough's loving approach plays down negative events and opinions. The line between objective history and a promotional vehicle is precariously thin.

In the interest of full disclosure, it must be stated that this writer -- along with other Pittsburgh music critics -- is cited in the book. McCullough quotes prolifically from reviews in Pittsburgh newspapers, although hardly at all from the national magazine Opera News, which has reviewed nearly every opera production since 1962.

What the author does extremely well, after disposing of opera in Pittsburgh before the founding of the opera in 1940, is to tell its story from the birth of the company as a semiprofessional local troupe put together by five local women of means and vision to its transformation into a professional organization by conductor Richard Karp, who led the organization from 1942 until his death in 1977.

If the physical productions were not what we would now consider stageworthy -- regional American companies in those days gave rise to the term "instant opera" -- Karp's casts boasted such names as Licia Albanese, Birgit Nilsson, Roberta Peters, Jan Peerce, Richard Tucker and Sherrill Milnes.

Star performers were seldom surrounded by artists of their own stature, rehearsal time was short, and generic sets and costumes were interchangeable from one opera to the next, but there was progress from decade to decade.

By the time Karp's enormously talented daughter, Barbara, took over as artistic director during her father's final illness, the opera had moved into Heinz Hall, and dramatic values were in the hands of experienced directors (among them Karp herself) who did more than merely direct traffic on stage.

Cincinnati Opera director James DeBlasis, who took an interim position after Barbara Karp resigned over differences with the administration, gets less credit than he deserves for maintaining artistic standards.

Tito Capobianco's tenure, however, which began in 1983, draws excellent coverage, a vivid portrait of this ambitious, charismatic, sometimes controversial leader. "It is difficult to imagine how he could have accomplished more," McCullough writes, "even in the knowledge that his aggressive solicitations may have been counterproductive in some situations."

McCullough passes over a notorious 1979 "Salome" in which soprano Roberta Knie canceled five hours before the second performance, taking her costumes with her.

A substitute (Louise Pearl) was flown in and driven to the theater with a police escort, and the curtain went up miraculously with only an hour's delay. Pearl wore a body stocking and danced with a single veil. Two days later, tenor Alan Crofoot, the Herod of that production, killed himself by jumping from his Ohio hotel room.

That "Salome" happened also to be the debut of Theo Alcantara, who was to become the opera's principal conductor and developer of its permanent orchestra.

Another harrowing event not mentioned occurred, also in 1979, in the final scene of "Don Giovanni," when Samuel Ramey threw a candelabra to the floor, igniting scattered fires, while Marianna Christos in the role of Donna Elvira desperately attempted to stamp them out one by one with her delicate period costume shoes.

Christos, who is not mentioned in the text, performed several times in Heinz Hall, notably an exquisite "Traviata" in 1984-85. There are well-earned tributes to Pittsburghers Claudia Pinza, not only for her performing career but for founding the highly successful Ezio Pinza Council for American Singers of Opera; and Mildred Miller Posvar, who sang leading roles in Pittsburgh and at the Met, then founded the company now called Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.

There are also careless errors (misspellings of names, misattributions of singers' voice types) that should have been caught by better editing. It's impossible that "Carmen" and "The Magic Flute" could have been given, as stated, as a double bill, although they may have been performed on the afternoon and evening of a single day; and unlikely that the erudite elder Karp referred, as he is quoted, to any extract from "Der Freischutz" as a "barcarole." None of this should detract from the fact that "Opera in Pittsburgh" is thoroughly enjoyable, equally appropriate for one's library or coffee table. It must surely evoke cherished memories of Pittsburghers who shared the author's experiences and whet the appetites of those too young to remember.

Robert Croan is a senior editor and former classical music critic for the Post-Gazette.


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