Opera isn’t an easy art form for the average Pittsburgh resident. Incredibly formal, catering to tastes that are typically 100 years old or more, sung in a foreign language, and filled with elaborate dances and vocal acrobatics, opera seems like it would be over the head of a city with a reputation for pedestrian tastes. Pittsburgh, to the outsider, seems too small, too run down, and too simple to host such high culture. I am glad to report that this is not the case, and that the Pittsburgh Opera is excellent and affordable, and is a wonderful introduction to opera for anyone with such interests.
The opera company began in 1939 as the Pittsburgh Opera Society. Pittsburgh was in its prime back then, and industrialists desiring all of the higher arts were keen to have a world class opera. They created just that, and the Pittsburgh Opera has hosted many of the world’s most famous opera stars. Since then, the opera has continued to create a fantastic array of works each season, with stellar production values and talent to back them up.
Today, the Pittsburgh Opera is housed in the Benedum Center, a restored theater in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District. Built in 1927, the theater looks quite spectacular inside, with more gold paint than my eyes could take in. It had been a rock and roll hall in the 1970s, but H.J. Heinz’s cultural work turned it into the cultural landmark that it is today in the mid-80s. Just the chandelier when you enter into the main hall is worth the price of admission. The theater is well set up for viewing, although if you get tickets at the extreme ends of the theater you may have trouble seeing the translations projected above the stage. If you are concerned when seeing an unfamiliar opera, call a ticket agent, as they all know which seats cannot view the super-titles.
While the space is nice, the productions are incredible. For instance, we went to see Turandot there very recently. My fiancee has seen Turandot in much larger, more famous opera houses, and has seen productions in the Kennedy Center and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The first thing she said was that the set and costume design here rivaled or bested all of them. She thought the set was the best she had ever seen for Turandot. The talent was also incredible. Both soprano parts were excellent, and the tenor soared in the second act. In fact, many of the vocalists had performed in the same role in The Metropolitan Opera. That said, a special mention is deserved for NaGuanda Nobles, who positively shone as the faithful Liu. While she may not have the same name recognition as the other soloists, we both left the theater convinced that she would someday have the same recognition for her powerful voice.
Also important to the opera is being able to go. Pittsburgh is an affordable city, and this is an affordable opera. While the tickets aren’t cheap, they are reasonable, running at less than $200 for excellent seats. It is an incredible deal, considering you get a live performance on such an epic scale at this opera. Similar tickets in Washington or New York might cost $400 for a similar production. Compared to those other theaters, Pittsburgh’s season is smaller, a consequence of the smaller city, but it is no less impressive.
Of course, I love the feeling of stepping back 100 years that Opera provides. Within the theater, you step back in time to a time when people dressed up to go out to these places, when people didn’t carry cell phones, when society considered the arts an important piece of a well rounded education, and when the rich social classes would flock to cultural events such as these. There is a definite feeling of opulence to the whole spectacle that is worth the price of admission as well.
If you haven’t already been to the opera, you should. It is a great experience that has received an unfair reputation as boring stuff for old people. In a society where arts are diminishing in our focus, I would say that the Pittsburgh Opera is entertaining in a way that is even more important today than it was in 1939. Take yourself out for a night at the Opera this season!
The Pittsburgh Opera: Homepage