On Sunday, I caught the final performance of this show, a new adaptation of Willa Cather’s famous 1906 short story set in Pittsburgh.
This chamber opera about a painfully misfit middle-class boy was wonderfully sung, and the score and Pittsburgh Opera staging have moments of considerable beauty.
Composer Gregory Spears, who co-wrote the libretto with Kathryn Walat, has essentially retained the story of a high school dandy, ostracized little less by his teachers than by his classmates, who steals money from his employer and flees to New York for a weekend of luxury.
Some of the changes they made to Cather’s work are apt for a stage adaptation (mounted at Pittsburgh Opera's headquarters, rather than the usual cavernous Benedum Center). One is a fuller realization of the stage show at the Carnegie Music Hall depicted in the story. The Carnegie is where Paul (sung by Daniel Curran) is an usher, and where he escapes from the dreariness of workaday Pittsburgh.
There’s a sublime moment of insight into the character when Paul, before the show, sings how this is his “favorite part,” before any “mistakes have been made.” His keenly romantic sense of anticipation is made concrete. As if in a dream, he’s seen onstage himself, watching two female singers perform a mysteriously beautiful but unsettling song — only to be, as if in a nightmare, abruptly and literally pulled from that world by his father, who only wants that his son settle comfortably into a life of office furniture and stamped invoices.
Other choices by the creators worked less well. The show starts slowly, and repeating lines of lyrics sung by Paul and his teachers mean that we get the point — that he’s hopelessly misfit for a regimented world — well before the songs stop making it. The expansion of a brief early scene in the story, in which usher Paul encounters one of his teachers at the Carnegie, also slows the narrative.
Act Two works much better. Throughout, Spears’ sophisticated style — which he describes as combining post-minimalism with the baroque — is challenging to the ear. And the Opera’s nine-piece orchestra and 13-voice cast did it justice.
Finally, you can find Cather’s original here — or in any number of literary anthologies. If you haven’t read it in a while, it’s well worth the half-hour.