Neighborhood Opera, working to connect African-Americans with the traditional art form, puts its stamp on Mozart
May 22, 2014 12:00 AM
Director Seamus Ricci, right, and conductor Thomas W. Douglas work through a scene during a rehearsal for the Neighborhood Opera Company's "The Don's Fire: Mozart's Giovanni" at Carnegie Mellon University.
The former home of the National Negro Opera Company in Homewood has fallen into disrepair.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The history of the building at 7101 Apple St. could fuel a year’s worth of cocktail parties and trivia nights.
Built in 1894, the mansion was purchased by William “Woogie” Harris, a numbers man and Charles “Teenie” Harris’ uncle, in 1930, at the height of the Depression. Situated on the border of North Homewood and Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar, it served as a guesthouse for famous black athletes and performers who were barred from Pittsburgh’s segregated hotels and was a gathering place for black Pittsburghers. Remarkable people passed through its doors: Lena Horne, Roberto Clemente, Ahmad Jamal, Robert McFerrin Sr., Sarah Vaughn, Satchell Paige, Josh Gibson, Billy Eckstein, Count Basie.
The Neighborhood Opera Company presents ‘The Don’s Fire: Mozart’s Giovanni’
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Alumni Concert Hall, College of Fine Arts, Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland.
“Local people called it Mystery Manor because you never knew what was going on,” said John Brewer, founder of the Trolley Station Oral History Center, who is writing a book about Harris and his business partner, Gus Greenlee.
In 1941, Mystery Manor was host to a new tenant: The National Negro Opera Company, the country’s first black opera house, founded by Mary Cardwell Dawson. The group put on productions of such operas as “Carmen,” “Aida,” “La Traviata.” Dawson trained hundreds of young black musicians.
Now, the house is in disrepair, much of its unique features looted. In 2000, Jonnet Solomon and Miriam White purchased the building with plans to renovate it and turn it into a museum and music academy. It cost $18,000 — far below Harris’ $30,000 price tag from 70 years earlier. But its history will always remain rich, and Dawson’s legacy is living on in a new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with an all-black cast.
“The Don’s Fire: Mozart’s Giovanni” is a contemporary staging of Mozart’s classic opera, presented by the Neighborhood Opera Company. It takes place Saturday and Sunday at Carnegie Mellon University, where producing artistic director Thomas W. Douglas serves on the faculty.
The Neighborhood Opera Company was started in 2001 when Mr. Douglas realized that many Pittsburghers were unaware of the local roster of talented, trained African-American opera singers. It had a few performances at the time but lacked an administrative structure and disbanded. This time around, the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh, which Mr. Douglas directs, is the fiscal sponsor. He hopes the Neighborhood Opera Company will produce operas annually.
Mr. Douglas hopes “to demonstrate within Pittsburgh a rich culture of diversity,” he said. Five out of the eight singers in “The Don’s Fire” are Pittsburgh residents. He also would like to cultivate a more diverse audience for opera in Pittsburgh and offer an opportunity for young singers to perform.
Eugene Perry, a Highland Park resident who is playing Don Giovanni, believes that the economy has curbed opportunities for black singers, since companies are afraid to take risks on performers lacking name recognition, he said.
“I think the economy has hurt a lot of us,” said Mr. Perry, who has premiered several roles in contemporary operas by Philip Glass, John Adams and others. “When I was going through my career, there were a lot of black singers.”
The decision to stage “Don Giovanni,” as opposed to, say, Anthony Davis’ “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” was made precisely because the Mozart opera isn’t necessarily associated with African-Americans.
“This story is timeless, and the story is universal. With every culture, this story exists,” Mr. Douglas said.
Directed by Seamus Ricci, “The Don’s Fire” has English recitatives and Italian arias.
Future productions could include “The Magic Flute,” and could take liberties to connect the opera with the African-American community.
“If you have Papageno be Papa G with a boombox on his shoulder, people might say, ‘I know that guy. He lives in my neighborhood,’ ” said Mr. Douglas.
The goal of bringing more African-Americans into the opera-going community harkens back to Dawson’s mission. She had started an instructional school on Frankstown Avenue before moving shop into the space at 7101 Apple St.
“Mary Cardwell Dawson started it because she felt a need to teach children in the community the art of performing opera and was giving them classical music lessons,” said Ms. Solomon, an entrepreneur. Being situated in a hotel gave her a great audience, especially since Harris “was a millionaire, and they had elaborate parties there.”
“For all of that, I thought it was important to preserve the house and preserve the history in there,” Ms. Solomon said.
Dawson died in 1962, and the company shuttered. When Harris passed away, her daughter subdivided 7101 Apple St. into apartments, Mr. Brewer said. “That really destroyed the whole set-up of the place.”
The 7,000-square-foot Queen Anne Victorian-style house sitting on a 39,000-square-foot lot was lavishly decorated, with wood-carved bookcases built into the wall, windows offering a panoramic view of North Homewood, a wide staircase welcoming visitors and four large columns supporting the building.
When Ms. Solomon acquired it, she had difficulty raising funds for its renovation, especially since that was the time that planning for the August Wilson Center was also getting going. While work with the Young Preservationists Association started in 2005, the $3 million budget was prohibitive. Some of the house’s most precious items, including curved, hand-made stained-glass windows, hand-carved mantels and the original plaque signifying its historic designation, from 1991, have been stolen.
“I still have hope that we can restore the house and the history in some capacity. I’m definitely still on that track to make that happen,” Ms. Solomon said.
The building had survived previous obstacles. A hillslide had destroyed other houses on the street years before Harris bought it, Mr. Brewer said, but the building at 7101 survived. It’s another chapter in the lore of Mystery Manor.
“I just think that it’s really important to find a way to preserve this building, because it’s meant so much to the African-American community but also to the Pittsburgh community,” Mr. Brewer said.
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.
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