Blogging Pittsburgh Opera

I pretty much always assumed that I would hate opera. I did not like many musicals – very much disliked Cats for example. I preferred dialogue to singing and I’m not a fan of the higher octaves as I was exposed to them at local Catholic churches in painful ways for most of my young life.

But in the early 2000’s, my friend Keith invited me to see La Cenerentola, an operatic retelling of the classic fairytale Cinderella. It was written by Rossini, sung in Italian with English captioning above the stage (The Benedum.)  I was prepared to be bored, but I was shocked by how much I enjoyed the performance. The costumes were an interesting fusion of 19th century and 1950’s fashions. The captioning meant I understood what was going on. And since I knew the story, I was able to appreciate the twists Rossini took (no magic, more music.) It was interesting, lush and thoroughly engaging.

That same year, I won tickets to see Lucia di Lammermoor so I took my father with me. He had never been to the opera either. Lucia is a very sad, tragic story that had us both in tears. I was again shocked by how much it resonated with me. That was  back when radio stations gave out passes via phone contests.

I’ve also seen Turandot which was rather perplexing – a story set in ancient China sung in Italian by a very ethnically diverse cast.

More recently, I escorted Ledcat to see her first opera, Madama Butterfly, here in Pittsburgh. I was very taken with how much her story resonated with current topics.

I wanted more opera, but it was not in my budget. I was always busy with work and became much more involved in the LGBT community where it wasn’t heavily marketed. I very much assumed (wrongly) that the opera, theater, ballet were out of my price range and not something I should prioritize. They seemed like luxuries that rich people consumed as casually as champagne or fancy hor d’oeuvres. Beyond paying for tickets and fees, there was parking to consider as well as speeding into town from the Mon Valley during rush hour. Plus, dinner, etc. Sometimes it just seemed too overwhelming to bother to try even if I could win a pair of tickets.

Blogging about the arts changed my perspective. When I prepared to see Madama Butterfly, I carefully read the story in advance so I could follow the storyline. I stopped trying to stifle the inner voice resisting the oppressive patriarchal themes in favor of listening to what the women were saying – listening to the women. When the songs began to feel a bit long for me, I inspected the sets carefully as well as the costumes and the actions of the other characters during those moments.

I also started to embrace the conflicting emotions I felt, the questions about cultural appropriation, the definition of “timeless” themes, the sexism, and the classism. I don’t have to overlook or support those elements if I attend an opera – I can use them as tools to frame my response to the performance. Infusing Anonymous into my analysis of Madama Butterfly is certainly not what you’ll find in your local newspaper review, right?

The Pittsburgh Opera Building
The Pgh Opera Building on a crisp, sunny morning in the Strip District.

Blogging also lends itself as a vehicle to make “high art” more accessible. Many people share my preference to know the story, to know what to expect and to be prepared to enter into the performance. This can also include understanding the venue, the rules, the unofficial things like dress codes and parking and accessibility. And I use the medium to reflect and explore how the performance resonated with me both thematically and in terms of the cultural context. The Post-Gazette ran a piece on arts etiquette that sparked a lively discussion on my Facebook page.

Pittsburgh is home to multiple opera companies. Most well-known is The Pittsburgh Opera which lives in the Strip District and performs at The Benedum in the Cultural District. You can find a list of free and low-cost opportunities to engage this company here.

The blogger is me is tempted to segueway into my “suggestions” for opera companies to create more accessibility across the board, but I’ll hold back. My goal is simply to show how blogging about a few opera performances changed the way I experienced opera as an art form. I don’t think everyone has to actually blog to build that connection, but social media in general does create an opportunity to explore your engagement with the high arts.

Do you remember your first opera?

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