For nearly a decade, the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh has been a roving band, a troupe seeking a different venue for every production.
General director Jonathan Eaton, now in his 13th season leading the company that Mildred Miller Posvar founded in 1978, prefers it this way. He likes to pick a location that connects with the opera he is producing. The setting becomes the set. He moves fluently from well-known venues, such as the Byham Theater, the Charity Randall Theater and CAPA, to offbeat places, such as Allegheny Cemetery, The Andy Warhol Museum and Artifacts, a furniture and rug gallery in the West End.
This summer, he and Opera Theater will finally settle down. It will move to "a fixed venue instead of our nomadic existence," as Mr. Eaton puts it. He says the mobile approach, while inspiring him as a director and impressing patrons, has made it hard to grow audiences. "I just felt we had been playing the same tune for a while," he says, although most of those tunes have drawn accolades from local critics.
Typical of Mr. Eaton's entrepreneurial nature, he has gone further than simply selecting a new theater. He is moving the company's entire season.
The new version will be a summer festival -- a wide-ranging festival of opera, recitals and activities that will take place on the campus of Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel.
"We have been in competition for audiences with all the classical music organizations during the [regular] season, including our sister organization, the Pittsburgh Opera," he says. "There is none in the summer. We are a flexible company, and it is time for a change of the company and business model."
Mr. Eaton and the Opera Theater board realize the move also fills a gap in an otherwise full and comprehensive classical music scene in Pittsburgh.
"Pittsburgh is the only major city in America with a major orchestra yet no summer festival of classical music," he says. "We saw that as a niche we might be able to fill. We are offering first-class entertainment at a time when choices are limited."
"We are making the transition physically and financially," says board president Eugene N. Myers, who says the company will produce the same number of operas that it typically has done each year on an approximately $750,000 budget. "We are projecting we will break even this year."
The lineup will be a mix of traditional and innovative. The season opens with a production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and ends with Bernstein's "Candide." In between will be a new take on Bizet's "Carmen," re-imagined as a "sultry flamenco version" called "Carmen -- The Gypsy." These shows are appropriate for all audiences, but later in the evening the company presents "Night Caps," six new short operas, each taking place on subsequent nights in an imagined hotel. Soprano Anna Singer will appear in each miniature opera as a meddling hotel manager.
Robert Handel, a professor of dramatic writing at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote the libretto for all, but each 15-minute opera has a different composer: Alberto Garcia Demestres, Dwayne Fulton, Daron Hagen, Eric Moe, Gilda Lyons and Roger Zahab. "They are witty, naughty and brand-spanking new," quips Mr. Eaton.
In addition to the operas, there will be a series of concerts of music by Mozart, including a recital by countertenor Andrey Nemzer, winner of the 2012 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. There also will be free concerts and activities on the campus, as well as areas for picnics (bring your own or preorder).
And then there's the Mozart Camp.
Participants won't dress up in powdered wigs, but will be immersed in the 18th-century world and music of the celebrated composer. It includes a week of music, workshops, lectures, dinners and tickets to several of the performances.
"I read an article about Dickens camp -- people who love Dickens come together each year to California to be immersed in his life and works," says Dr. Myers. "I thought, why can't we do it with 'Flute'? Every day, from 9 to 5, there is continuous connection to Mozart. I am giving a lecture on the diseases of the time including what might have killed Mozart."
It adds up to a lot of entertainment and art, but also a great deal of risk for the company.
"I have no doubt this is a viable festival. It is a wonderful opportunity," says Mr. Eaton. "The tricky thing is getting people to go to a venue they haven't been to before." But that is something Opera Theater has proven it can pull off.
"Once they get out there they will love it," he says.