On the Beat

Pittsburgh Opera's Hahn calls chasing down stars "a fool's errand"; Moore's Dear Theo is a lyrical gem.
by BRIAN KELLOW

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Artist builder: Pittsburgh Opera's Hahn
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Composer Moore

AS THE 2014–15 SEASON BEGINS, you can detect the trail of smoke rising in the air from the crises besetting various American opera companies. (See Fred Cohn's article on the near-closure of San Diego Opera, p. 30.) By comparison, Pittsburgh Opera seems in pretty solid shape. There are no rumors of financial catastrophe. The company's season includes four mainstage operas at the Benedum Center and the CAPA Theater downtown (or "donton," as they say in the Burgh), plus a Second Stage project — the Pittsburgh premiere of MOHAMMED FAIROUZ's Sumeida's Song. While the season boasts some A-list casting, namely LAWRENCE BROWNLEE and LISETTE OROPESA in Daughter of the Regiment, I did notice that two separate productions feature one of the company's young Resident Artists, soprano JASMINE MUHAMMAD, in a demanding principal role. In January, Muhammad sings the title role in Rodelinda, and in March, she is cast as Micaela to RINAT SHAHAM's Carmen. This practice of casting younger and cheaper is becoming more and more common at U.S. regional companies, which are forever searching for cost-cutting measures. So I called CHRISTOPHER HAHN, Pittsburgh Opera's energetic general director, and asked him about it. 

"I am not one of those people who feel that the Resident Artists should be locked up in a studio," says Hahn. "Having the full responsibility of a main role in a smaller environment can lead young singers to extraordinary advancements." But does the audience resist the casting of apprentice artists? Do they demand more seasoned talents in leading roles? "No," says Hahn. "There's a lot of work that's been done preparatory to this. I've spent a lot of time building up the Resident Artist program and slowly introducing the singers. The quality of the singers was such that nobody even noticed. I couldn't have done it without a careful trajectory to assure people that the quality was there. I think we will continue to see a greater integration of young artists into the U.S. companies. I doubt there will be this slightly snobbish attitude of 'Well, they're only students — what are they doing on the mainstage?' Audiences are more interested in experiencing a fully integrated, satisfying cast that talks to each other, reacts to each other, rather than going for the circus element of a big name. I think it's a fool's errand for small regional companies to be running after stars just because they think they are going to sell tickets." 

BEN MOORE is a composer who most often writes from a lyric impulse, and Dear Theo: Three Song Cycles by Ben Moore, a recently released Delos CD, is one of his most satisfying accomplishments to date. The recording includes the title work, based on excerpts from Vincent Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo, which Moore has crafted beautifully. He never applies a heavy hand to his lyrical outpourings; Van Gogh's doubts about his own abilities and his feeling of wholeness only when he's at work are beautifully judged in Moore's potent yet restrained melodic lines. Perhaps the most affecting song is "Souvenir," in which Van Gogh writes of his desire to leave "a souvenir that might remain to say to those who care to see that this man felt deeply...." Moore captures the artist's quest and his agonizing worry that his efforts may turn out to be in vain. 

The other high point of the CD is Moore's setting of Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," which the composer has not treated as a whole; instead, he has broken it up into eight separate songs. "That's the way I read the poem," he says. "The stanzas are strung together in a logical way, but they all have a self-contained quality as well. He enters into certain themes and abandons them and jumps to another, even though the thread continues. It doesn't tell a linear story — it has a stream-of-consciousness feel about it." 

I couldn't help wondering whether, in choosing to set the Van Gogh letters, Moore might be commenting indirectly on the state of modern American culture, in which market forces have a huge influence over whether art is held in esteem or contempt. "That feeds into it," says Moore. "I don't think I would have been attracted to these texts if everything had been going swimmingly in terms of all I'd hoped for in my musical career." While he is grateful for the opportunities he's had, Moore admits that the life of a serious composer is "an uphill battle. The concentration in the press on listing best-sellers all the time is disheartening, and yet you want to be recognized. You can't be an artist without an audience, unless you're J. D. SALINGER or something. You want people to experience what you have. It's a tug of war, and I guess it always will be that way." spacer

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3