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Opera Theater of Pittsburgh

This year, it's summer in the city for Opera Theater of Pittsburgh

In 2012, the 35-year old ensemble managed to transpose its traditional goal of presenting small-scale, mostly English-language opera to a different key, staging a summer season on the Fox Chapel campus of Shady Side Academy. While the decision helped double the small company’s audience, artistic director Jonathan Eaton has decided to take the group in a different direction this year: back to town.

“We found that 71 percent of our audience comes from East End neighborhoods. So we’re staging this year’s Summerfest at the Twentieth Century Club,” he explains.

Founded in 1894, the private women’s club on Bigelow Boulevard was the place where generations of Pittsburgh tweens learned ballroom dancing. But Eaton says he’s intrigued by its possibilities for young singers.

“It’s quite the prettiest theater in the city—a gorgeous art deco building with big spaces, dining and bars. It can contain the whole festival.”

Opera Theater will continue to stage some works farther afield. Some performances of “Shining Brow,” a 1993 opera about Frank Lloyd Wright, will take place at Fallingwater June 7–8. But most take place at the Oakland venue. The season lineup includes Eaton’s own edition of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann,” Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” and a reprise of Mozart’s “The Secret Gardener.”

“This is chamber opera,” Eaton says. “Mozart wrote his works for smaller spaces, but many modern venues seat 3,000 people.” The composer also serves as the focus of Mozart Camp, a five-day exploration of the composer’s works through lectures, discussion, films and performance.

Divas need not apply for Summerfest roles. Opera Theater casts students and young professionals just beginning their careers who are looking for their first break.

“Across America, hundreds of marvelous young singers are looking for roles,” Eaton says. Auditions in seven U.S. cities produced this year’s cast of 35 artists, including five from Pittsburgh. “We give them great prominence—that’s the way you create a healthy artistic culture.” He cites Lara Lynn Cottrill, a soprano with leading roles in “Hoffmann” and “Shining Brow,” as a rising talent. Recent roles with both Quantum Theater and Pittsburgh Opera have built her local reputation.

Newly commissioned short works debut in Summerfest’s “Nightcaps.” The 15-minute comic mini-operas are a kind of speed date for opera lovers. This year’s six episodes will follow marquee presentations. The late-night, adults-only shows are themed around a series of hotel encounters, with international characters and multilingual misunderstandings. The project is the work of six contemporary composers, combined with a single libretto by Rob Handel, head of Carnegie Mellon University’s dramatic writing program.