Preview: SummerFest 2014 offers exciting mix

Adam Hill as Matt (The Boy), Rachel Eve Holmes as Luisa (The Girl) and Sean Cooper as El Gallo in SummerFest's "The Fantasticks" Photo Credit: New Place Collaborations

Adam Hill as Matt (The Boy), Rachel Eve Holmes as Luisa (The Girl) and Sean Cooper as El Gallo in SummerFest’s “The Fantasticks” Photo Credit: New Place Collaborations

In the short span of 17 days, Pittsburgh audiences can immerse themselves in a wide range of musical entertainment set in the gorgeous Art Deco ambiance of the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland.

The third annual installment of SummerFest, which runs from July 10 to 27, features three main stage productions, an opera especially written for children, a commissioned opera inspired by the work and life of ecologist pioneer, Rachel Carson, numerous recitals, post-performance cabarets and more.

“Pittsburgh is the home of the world-renowned Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and SummerFest fills the city’s musical niche in their summer off-season,” said Jonathan Eaton, artistic director of the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, reinvented over the past three years as SummerFest. “Other than the Three Rivers Arts Festival, SummerFest is one of Pittsburgh’s largest festivals of the year.”

And large it is with a company of 60 singers, three conductors, three stage directors, an orchestra of 25 professionals and seven pianists. Patrons can immerse themselves in a single weekend and catch almost all of the mainstage productions. Or they can pick and choose their way through nearly three weeks of SummerFest offerings. Either way, big discounts over single ticket purchases are available with the acquisition of a festival passport.

The musical offerings begin with a recital by Butler-born, mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 10. Ms. Cornetti has sung in many of the opera capitals of Europe as well as the Metropolitan Opera of New York. Her accompanist, Brent McMunn, is in his third SummerFest and also conducts this year’s “Ariadne auf Naxos,” a rarely performed work by composer Richard Strauss’ that’s a mix of both slapstick comedy and beautiful music.

Anna Singer in "The Merry Widow". Photo Credit: New Place Collaborations

Anna Singer in “The Merry Widow”. Photo Credit: New Place Collaborations

Other mainstage productions include Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” and a dance-operatic version of “The Fantasticks,” done in collaboration with the Attack Theatre, Pittsburgh’s exciting modern dance company in an inventive integration of movement and dance into the tale.

A cabaret, free to ticket holders, takes place following the mainstage performances and gives patrons a chance to listen to the singers entertain in a less formal setting.

A free (with advance reservation) workshop staging of “A New Kind of Fallout” (working title), inspired by the work and life of Rachel Carson will enable patrons to see an opera in the making. Mr. Eaton expects other workshops to follow before its premier in the 2015 SummerFest at settings like the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Rachel Carson Homestead and the Carrie Furnace in Homestead.

“Carson, as well as the Sierra Club, spearheaded the Green Movement in the U.S. with her book ‘Silent Spring,’ Mr. Eaton said. “She was a Pittsburgh native, and we commissioned two other Pittsburghers – librettist Tammy Ryan, and composer, Gilda Lyons, to write the opera. If opera is to remain a vibrant and relevant art form, it’s necessary for it to address issues that matter to a contemporary audience, such as the environment.”

According to Mr. Eaton, two or three opera companies have already expressed an interest in the commissioned work for possible future productions.

For families, “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County is based on a short story by Mark Twain and written especially for children. Jumping Frog is SummerFest’s first experiment with a production for the youngster set in mind, and Mr. Eaton says, if all goes well, there will be similar ventures down the road.

A unique musical adventure “Happy Hour,” takes the audience into the mid set of younger Pittsburghers as they meet up in local bars and interact. In June and July, SummerFest singers sprung “spontaneous” “Happy Hour” arias at various bars in Downtown, Shadyside and Oakland before the work by University of Pittsburgh lecturer Roger Zahab gets its world premier staging at the Twentieth Century Club’s small and intimate 400-seat theater.

Raymond Blackwell, Gail Nowak Mosites and Dmitri Lazich in "The Merry Widow" Photo Credit: New Place Collaborations

Raymond Blackwell, Gail Nowak Mosites and Dmitri Lazich in “The Merry Widow” Photo Credit: New Place Collaborations

At SummerFest, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh (OTP) presents innovative opera in English, producing American works, reinterpretations of older works and new works for the widest possible audience. Management is committed to developing new audiences through innovative and imaginative programming, accessible ticket pricing and singing in English.

OTP’s adventurous programming has included world premieres such as the multi-media dance opera Red Dust at the Andy Warhol Museum, rare Philip Glass operas such as “Sound of a Voice” (invited to tour to the Royal Opera Covent Garden in London) and a great string of Pittsburgh premieres of American operas over the years, including a series of American works based on great plays, such as Hoiby’s “Summer and Smoke” and William Bolcom’s “A View from the Bridge.”

Not only does SummerFest enliven Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, it serves as an economic catalyst for the city.

“Visit Pittsburgh [the city’s tourism promotion agency] is closely involved in the festival and promotes it in cities in a 200 mile radius,” Mr. Eaton said. “I feel that SummerFest contributes much to the local economy.”

A year ago, OTP launched SummerFest Europe in Belgium, a competition to identify and reward talent from all over the continent. Prize winners from January’s competition are joining SummerFest in Pittsburgh and will sing in both recital and in the mainstage productions.

“SummerFest is an all-encompassing entertainment experience,” Mr. Eaton said. “In a single evening, after patrons park their car, they can then have dinner at the Twentieth Century Club, catch the performance, then stay for the cabaret – all in the same venue,” Mr. Eaton said. “SummerFest has a lot going for it.”

For the complete SummerFest schedule or to buy tickets go to www.otsummerfest.org or phone 412-326-9687.

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Story by Dave Zuchowski for Pennsylvania Bridges

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