“I’ve never seen an opera before in my life,” said the person to his friend as they sit down next to me. As someone who used to hold season tickets to the Opera downtown, I was heartened to hear that. You see, I was not at the Opera downtown. I stopped going when they decided to award then-Governor Tom Corbett an education award the same year he cut almost $1 billion out of the state’s education budget. I was attending something much, much different.
It surprises many that someone my age loves opera. I grew up with it – my mother sang it in college (she even performed in an opera chorus on stage downtown, once), and my father loved it, so opera was a pretty constant presence in our home. Even in Louisiana we could get the Sunday afternoon Met performance on the radio. When I moved up here for college, I was elated – finally, I could attend my first live opera! Student prices were awesome, and I enjoyed it for several years even when paying the full adult price. Then, the Corbett award came. I participated in the operatic protest that was quickly organized when he received the award (see photo), and thought my days of enjoying opera in Pittsburgh were over.
That ended last Saturday.
When I first saw that the Pittsburgh Festival Opera was applying for a grant from us here at Three Rivers Community Foundation, my first reaction was to scoff. “They’re barking up the wrong tree,” I thought to myself. How could an opera company think they’d qualify for a social justice grant?
Then I read it. They were asking for funds to do talk-back sessions after their newly-commissioned opera A Gathering of Sons, the second in their “Music that Matters” series. A Gathering of Sons is different from any opera I’ve ever seen or heard. The librettist, Tameka Cage Conley, describes it:
“Another Black man is shot by a white police officer, and we ask what comes next? How do we protect our children? How do we survive this state, this country, this world? How do we heal? It happens in our cities, on our streets, all around the places we call home. It is 2017 and still, it is hard to find light and healing amid a history of racial injustice.”
An opera – about the epidemic of police killing Black men and boys? With the libretto by Conley, Mark Clayton Southers as director, and Dwayne Fulton for the composer? That had community meetings for months to gather input and feedback from local communities that have experienced police brutality and overstepping of bounds to rework the opera? That wants to tape the performance for a website to bring it to a worldwide audience, in addition to having audience talk backs? I have seen a lot of great grant proposals, but this one grabbed me like never before. Their proposal had me legitimately excited, eager to see it come to fruition, and fortunately, our Grantmaking Committee agreed.
Last Saturday night, I showed up for the performance at Rodef Shalom in Oakland. I saw people in shorts and sandals, and others dressed up. It was open seating, in a small, intimate theater. The audience was far more diverse than any I saw at the Benedum. It was refreshingly different from my days of sitting up in the last row of the highest tier, practically needing binoculars to see the stage, and having to suffer through a night of high heels. When The Speaking Earth walked in and sat down in position before it began, I knew I was about to experience magic. You never realize how much you miss something until you’ve gone without. I missed opera, and understood the privilege I had in being able to afford tickets for so many years. This was opera that was the most accessible I’ve seen – though you do still have to pay for tickets, they are much more reasonable than the “big” one downtown. And you are supporting Black artists with your money.
I’ve watched Tosca throw herself off of the parapet. I’ve watched Mimi linger and die. I’ve witnessed Carmen’s heartbreak, and the Flying Dutchman’s torment. I’ve seen dozens of tragic operas. None have ever moved me to tears. I openly cried more than once during A Gathering of Sons. Not only were the performers terrific, but the story was so captivating that time flew. While I would’ve appreciated a longer talk back session, and one that focused more on action people can take, this is not to be missed.
If this is your first ever opera experience, go. If this is your 100th opera experience, go. If you never thought opera was for you, you especially need to go. Find tickets at http://www.pittsburghfestivalopera.org
Wednesday and Thursday, June 28 and 29 at 7:30 PM at the Elsie H. Hillman Auditorium at the Kauffman Center
Saturday July 1 and Saturday July 8 at 7:30 PM at Winchester Thurston School
The performances are about 2 hours long, with a 15-minute intermission. Stay for the talk back afterwards. Then, take the anger and despair you’re feeling, and get involved in efforts for police accountability.
The performance has scenes with flashing lights.
There is simulated gun violence and shots.
There is strong language, including use of the n-word.
There is medical trauma, including death by violence.
If this is your first opera, yes, the drawn-out words and voices pitched in song can occasionally be hard to understand. Do not let that stop you from going – you will be able to follow the story perfectly, regardless.
Anne E. Lynch, Three Rivers Community Foundation’s Manager of Operations