What would a Stanley Cup-style PSO parade look like?

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

In June, when I was tweeting about the Penguins' Stanley Cup parade, Pittsburgh composer John Arrigo-Nelson jokingly replied, "This reminded me of the parade the city threw for the PSO when they returned from their European tour last year."

Well, a few Twitter messages later, John, who works with contemporary music group Alia Musica Pittsburgh, sent me a short, Onion-esque news story about a Pittsburgh Symphony welcome-home parade. Turns out he's contemplated the intersection of classical music, sports and comedy before. 

"My friend and I have an idea (more a joke-concept) for a sports-classical music mashup podcast and blog called Pardon the Intermezzo," he told me.

The PSO's 2017 European festivals tour starts Aug. 28, so now is a great time for Pittsburghers to start planning for the orchestra's parade. It's bound to attract the 650,000 people who supposedly showed up for the Penguins' parade. 

Here's how John imagines the PSO parade will go (and feel free to contribute your thoughts in the comments): 

It was a spectacle with which Pittsburghers have become quite familiar: this city's beloved champions proudly rolling down Grant Street in resplendent victory after another successful season. Even as the cheers and chants from last year's parade were still reverberating, the time had come, yet again, to celebrate the triumphant return of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from its riveting European tour.

On this sunny and hot afternoon, an estimated 800,000 people showed up to see their heroes in person, and to catch a glimpse of Lord Haydn's Cup.

"We made the trip up from North Carolina to be here for this," said Dale Kovarsko, a Pittsburgh transplant and die-hard PSO fan. "We loaded up the minivan and put the Strauss Tone Poems CD on repeat and made it in one shot."

While PSO fans were certainly revved up for the celebration, it was clear that the players, too, were thrilled to be back on home turf again. Noted for being laser-focused and locked in all season long, PSO music director Manfred Honek, who conducted the orchestra in five European countries, could finally let loose after reaching the summit yet again. As fans chanted his name in unison, the elated Austrian conductor ripped off his tuxedo jacket and hoisted the Cup high for all to behold, lowering it only to take a big, splashing gulp.

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Ticket sales for "The Summer King"

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

Pittsburgh Opera's world-premiere production of "The Summer King" has concluded.

9f095ea3-0c1c-4c22-8938-76aa983e1f3aJosh Gibson (Alfred Walker) and his wife Helen (Jacqueline Echols) sing of the bright future that awaits them in "The Summer King" (David Bachman Photography).

As I mentioned in my earlier blog post on the opera (as well as in other stories), it's especially tough to sell tickets to a new opera. People like what they know, and they feel comfortable hearing music by familiar composers, like Puccini and Verdi. "The Summer King," composed by Daniel Sonenberg, didn't have that benefit, but it did have the advantage of a larger-than-usual marketing budget and a story about a famous figure in Pittsburgh sports, Josh Gibson. 

6ad1d93b-48bc-4011-8720-27f98ff21772Composer Daniel Sonenberg, aka not Verdi or Puccini (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette).

So, how did it sell? I asked Christian Cox, Pittsburgh Opera's director of marketing and communications, for some insight into ticket sales. Here's what he wrote:

The Summer King had a successful run at the Benedum Center, with ticket sales that surpassed our forecasts. Of our past six seasons’ 23 four-performance Benedum operas, here is how 'The Summer King' ranked in terms of ticket sales:

· Subscription Ticket Sales: 23rd of 23. This is a result of two factors:

o An overall trend of decreasing numbers of subscribers, as people shift towards single-ticket sales. Of the 23 operas, the ones with the 8-lowest subscription sales were all from the past two seasons.

o For Subscribers who did not buy a full season this year, The Summer King was the opera most often left out. That subset of our subscribers tends to favor the traditional, classic grand operas. We expected this to happen.

· Single Ticket Sales: 11th of 23

o The only operas with more single ticket sales than The Summer King all have great name recognition (Carmen, La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, Aida, etc.)

o However, The Summer King beat out many of the ‘old masters’ including works by Mozart (Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte), Verdi (Rigoletto, Otello, Nabucco), Bizet (Pearl Fishers), Donizetti (Daughter of the Regiment), Rossini (La Cenerentola), and more.

· Group Ticket Sales: 6th of 23

o This was the highest-ever in its time slot, i.e. our final opera of the season [Note from Liz: The final opera of the season tends to be a box office "reach," i.e. Philip Glass' "Orphee." Pittsburgh Opera likes to put harder-to-sell operas in that last slot; that way, it gets more time to market them.]

o Of the 5 operas that outsold it, four were in our ‘first spring opera’ slot which are the big shows for college groups like Pitt Arts

Thanks very much to Chris for sharing this candid and interesting insight. It points to the difficulty of producing new works while not alienating a more conservative subscriber base — a difficult balance, and one that pretty much every legacy classical music organization must negotiate. 


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Post-Gazette coverage of Pittsburgh Opera's "The Summer King"

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

In case you missed it: Pittsburgh Opera's world premiere production of Daniel Sonenberg's opera "The Summer King" up at the Benedum Center this week. The opera follows the career of Negro Leagues star catcher Josh Gibson and is largely set in Pittsburgh. The final two performances take place Friday (May 5) and Sunday (May 7). 

Actually, I'd be surprised if many fans of classical music in Pittsburgh hadn't heard of "The Summer King." Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn told me that the company more than doubled its usual marketing budget for this production, given the challenges of selling tickets to a new opera. In any case, the distinctive, Pittsburgh-centric story and novelty of the world premiere caught the attention of all the city's various media outlets, and rightfully so. 

00a86d0a-f45a-4afd-b7bc-459588e0506fJosh Gibson (Alfred Walker) prepares to face Broadway Connie Rector (Gregg Lovelace) at Yankee Stadium in 1930 in"The Summer King" (David Bachman Photography).

I wanted to compile, in one place, all of the Post-Gazette's coverage of this major event in Pittsburgh Opera's history. I first mentioned "The Summer King" in a feature back in September 2014. Just goes to show just how long it takes to pull off an opera. 

But before I list off the articles, a few thoughts on my end...Mr. Sonenberg's music, at times edgy and tuneful, is an amalgamation of popular (e.g., jazz, mariachi) and contemporary classical idioms, with sweeping, quasi-Romantic melodies giving way to tangy interjections. The original production (directed by Sam Helfrich with sets by Andrew Lieberman) gave a flavor of early 20th-century Pittsburgh: Old postcards of the Hill District and Homestead are projected onto large screens behind bleachers.

9d931243-21f9-4da9-86da-5e695ec4a3c2Patrons enjoy listening to the famous mirrored piano at the Crawford Grill in "The Summer King" (David Bachman Photography).

I agreed with my colleague Robert Croan's assessment that areas of the libretto, by Mr. Sonenberg, Daniel Nester and Mark Campbell, could have been tweaked, particularly in the edges of the acts. For example, the opening scene, in my view, could have been cut, and I felt the opera could have ended (spoiler alert) with Josh's tragic and premature death. The cast was, pound-for-pound, among the best I've heard at a Pittsburgh Opera production, especially given the large number of characters. The debuts of Denyce Graves (who delivered her memorable English horn-like timbre) as Grace and Alfred Walker in the lead role were particularly welcome. It was special to see such a diverse group of singers represented among the cast and choir. 

Overall, this was an incredibly impressive spectacle put together by Pittsburgh Opera. 

OK, now for the coverage: 

Sept. 14, 2014: No death knell: Pittsburgh symphony and opera strive to attract newcomers (Feature)

Jan. 19, 2016: Pittsburgh Opera to produce world premiere of 'Bhutto' (News story)

Feb. 14, 2016: In its 78th season, a world premiere for Pittsburgh Opera (Season announcement)

May 16, 2016: Maecenas XXXII Gala (SEEN column)

June 26, 2016: On the arts: Making an opera a source of pride for Charleston -- and Pittsburgh (Analysis)

Oct. 6, 2016: Pittsburgh Opera opens its 78th season with Verdi's popular display piece (Season preview)

Jan. 12, 2017: The Pittsburgh Symphony is back, putting the music scene at full strength (Spring preview)

April 3, 2017: Fete for 'The Summer King' opera premiere (SEEN column)

April 6, 2017: Josh Gibson, slugger and dancer (The Digs history blog)

April 27, 2017: Pittsburgh Opera is ready for the premiere of 'The Summer King: The Josh Gibson Story' (Opera preview)

April 27, 2017: Baseball, the opera of sports (Op-Ed column)

April 30, 2017: Review: Pittsburgh Opera's new 'The Summer King' makes for thought-provoking performance (Opera review)

May 4, 2017: Brian O'Neill: Josh Gibson's epic story takes center stage (Column)

May 9, 2017: Ticket sales for "The Summer King" (Blog post)

 Thanks for reading,


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A profile of Ben Avon native Benjamin Werley

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

Post-Gazette senior editor Robert Croan offers this interesting profile of opera singer and Ben Avon native Benjamin Werley. He sounds like a singer to watch. 

Tenor Benjamin Werley "bitten by the opera bug"

FORT LAUDERDALE — While Ben Avon native Benjamin Werley was in his junior year at Avonworth High School, he attended a Pittsburgh Opera student matinee of Puccini's "Tosca." He was, in his words, "bitten by the opera bug," especially by the riveting performance of Greer Grimsley as the evil chief of police, Scarpia. "He had such a great voice," Mr. Werley says, "and he was so riveting on stage, that I was hooked on having a career in opera right then and there." The tenor has been working towards an opera career ever since, and this season will make his Florida Grand Opera debut, as a member of the Young Artist program, playing two supporting parts in the April/May production of Verdi's "A Masked Ball."

Of course, no matter what your aspirations, you can't sing in opera if you don't have the basic vocal material. Mr. Werley, now 28, had been singing in choirs. His high school choral director, Regis Vrana, sent him for voice lessons to Pittsburgh mezzo-soprano Jeanne Wentworth, but that "Tosca" performance was the turning point. The young tenor applied and was accepted into Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, where he attained his undergraduate degree and continued on for a masters, studying with star soprano Carol Vaness.

It's a long road to the professional opera stage. In 2012, a YouTube posting of an aria from Puccini's "La boheme," taken from Mr. Werley's senior recital, led to his professional debut as Rodolfo with the Arbor Opera Theater in Ann Arbor, Mich. The following year he reached the semi-finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, subsequently joining the young artist program of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. After being advised that his lyric tenor voice was "headed in a bigger direction" — that is, likely to progress with age into a dramatic or even Heldentenor size — Mr. Werley chose to take it slowly, honing his craft in a series of apprentice and young artist programs that have allowed his voice and artistry to develop step by step.

Most regional American opera companies today have apprentice or young artist programs, which are usually a double win. The young singer gets the benefit of onstage experience and training with established artists, while the company benefits by having a cadre of young performers to fill supporting roles and to cover — i.e., understudy — the principal parts.

Mr. Werley has participated in several such programs: with San Franciso's Merola Opera in Summer 2014 and Opera Colorado in 2015-16. This season, as a Florida Grand Opera young artist, he has been covering leading tenor roles in advance of his actual stage debut.

"It's invaluable experience" the tenor says, to be onstage with great artists, to hear their voices up close and learn by being right there next to them. I got a chance to sing [the leading tenor role of] Gustavo in the first week of rehearsals, because the original singer had cancelled early on, and his replacement was already booked for that week."

Philip Pierce, FGO's director of artistic administration, recalls that at Mr. Werley's audition, "I was completely won over by his beautiful timbre, his ringing voice, but above all by his courage in allowing us into his soul while he was singing. He throws so much of himself into the music that he inhabits these characters in technicolor."

Next season Mr. Werley is slated for bigger things with the South Florida company, which performs in both Miami and Fort Lauderdale. He will take on two parts in Strauss's "Salome": the young soldier Narraboth, an important role that is usually given to a singer in the "young Heldentenor" category, and also one of the quintet of Jews, an ensemble assignment of notable intricacy and difficulty. It's possible to do this, because the character of Narraboth kills himself half way through and the Jews don't appear until later. Still, it's quite a feat and rather unusual for the singer of Narraboth to take on a second assignment in one night.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor. 


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Review: Jorge Martin's "Before Night Falls"

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

I always enjoy hearing about what's happening in the classical music and opera scenes in other markets. To that end, Post-Gazette senior editor Robert Croan contributes this terrific review of Florida Grand Opera's production of Jorge Martin's opera "Before Night Falls." Enjoy!

Review: Florida Grand Opera's "Before Night Falls" is a timely production

By Robert Croan 

MIAMI, Fl — It's nothing new for an opera to be a vehicle for contemporary political and social issues. Most of Verdi's early operas, for example, were thinly disguised metaphors for then-controversial ideals of Italian unification. Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" was based on a French play considered so seditious that it passed the censor only after its diatribes against government were altered to complaints against women's infidelity. In this honorable tradition, Jorge Martin's "Before Night Falls," the major event of Florida Grand Opera's 2016-17 season, hits on several hot-button issues of today: Cuba and the suppression of dissidents, freedom of speech, gay rights and torture, just for a start.

Mr. Martin, 58, is a gay Cuban-American whose parents came to the United States when he was five years old. His opera, premiered in Fort Worth in 2010 and now brought to the city with this country's largest Cuban audience, is based on the eponymous memoir by gay Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas. The story is already familiar not just from Mr. Arenas' book but also a superb film that starred Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp. The opera has some flaws, but there is enough in it that's musically and dramatically compelling to make it one of the more important works of this decade. FGO's general director and CEO Susan T. Danis deserves the highest praise for bringing important new repertory into every season since she took over in 2013. In 2018, she will produce Daniel Catan's "Florencia en el Amazones," another opera that has had success in cities with significant Latino populations.

The real-life Mr. Arenas fought in the revolution that put Fidel Castro into power, but Mr. Arenas' comrades turned on him when he came out against the Castro regime's oppression. Betrayed by his lover and by his closest friend, Mr. Arenas was imprisoned, tortured, humiliated and forced to recant publicly his anti-government ideas as well as his sexual orientation. Eventually, with the help of a straight homeless man, Lazaro Gomes Garriles, who admired his writing, Mr. Arenas escaped on the Mariel boatlift. He contracted AIDS in New York, at a time when the disease was an irrevocable death sentence, but lived long enough to write the memoir that has made him immortal.

The libretto, by the composer with Delores M. Koch, covers all the main points, although the first act is too long, and there's an episodic quality that impedes development of any but the central character. And the presence of two otherworldly characters, two female muses (Elizabeth Caballero and Melissa Fajardo), comes off as pretentious and holds up the action at crucial moments.

Mr. Martin's music is absorbing and listenable, changing idioms according to the plot and overtly incorporating the idioms of Strauss and Prokofiev, Latin dance and Copland's Americana. Conductor Christopher Allen brought out all sorts of unexpected details in Mr. Martin's shrewd orchestral palette. His vocal writing is admirable in clarifying the words (mostly English with some Spanish) in a big house, and his lines are inevitably singable. Most of the solo music is declamatory, however, with a sparsity of melody even in extended arias. One problem is that because Lazaro is declared straight, there are no opportunities for a love duet, which might have provided an extended lyrical outpouring.

The Fort Worth production worked well in Miami's elegant Arsht Center, Riccardo Hernandez's simple but attractive sets cogently enhanced by Harry Frehner's imaginative lighting and Peter Nigrini's striking projections. Director David Gately focused on individual emotional responses yet also managed the crowd scenes aptly.

This opera is a star turn for its hero, and Canadian baritone Elliot Madore proved himself an ideal protagonist. Handsome and sensitive, with a colorful, resonant sound that filled the theater and expressed the emotional gamut, Mr. Madore never flagged in a role that has him on stage for almost all the opera's three-hour duration. His stamina was all the more remarkable in view of the fact that the performance I attended (March 18) was the second of the run, a Sunday matinee immediately following the Saturday opening night.

The supporting singers were uniformly excellent: dark-hued tenor Dintar Vania as Reinaldo's teacher Ovidio, whose renunciation scene — shown on video — was harrowing; Calvin Griffin as Victor, a menacing friend-turned-persecutor; and most praiseworthy, bright-toned Michael Kuhn, a very human, ineffably sad Lazaro. The scene in which he administers poison to a willing Reinaldo to end the dying man's suffering was another emotional high point.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.  

Correction appended: Michael Kuhn portrayed Lazaro. A previous version of this article listed an incorrect performer. 

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