After 78 years of operation, the Pittsburgh Opera presented its first world premiere in 2017 with The Summer King. Continuing this tradition-in-the-making, on February 17, the Pittsburgh Opera will present its second world premiere with Douglas J. Cuomo’s Ashes & Snow, an intimate, dramatic monologue that Jonathan Moore, the production’s director, claims is like “Breaking Bad meets Samuel Beckett.”
“[Presenting premieres] is a trend that we are embracing and encouraging,” says Pittsburgh Opera General Director Christopher Hahn. World premieres fit nicely alongside the Opera’s history of presenting classic repertoire and “first second premieres,” meaning the second performance–generally with a new director, cast, and approach–after another company premieres the piece.
“The world premieres that I am planning are big productions that are spaced apart and will take all of our resources,” says Hahn. “But every now and then a smaller, intriguing project comes around.”
Ashes & Snow certainly falls into that smaller category. The piece will be performed over four nights in the intimate, 200-seat performance space at the Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters in the Strip District. The cast only includes one actor, Eric Ferring, along with three musicians performing trumpet, keyboards, and Cuomo on guitar and electronic soundscape.
For Ashes & Snow, Cuomo, a jazz guitarist and composer that is equally at home composing for Sex And The City as well as his own experimental operas, adapts the text from Wilhelm Müller’s Winterreise, a set of 24 bleak and pained poems written near the end of Müller’s unfortunately short life. These poems are best known as the text from composer Franz Schubert’s revered song cycle of the same name, which was composed in 1827 (and published the following year) while Schubert was slowly dying of syphilis. Speaking of Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, German soprano Elena Gerhardt said, “You have to be haunted by this cycle to be able to sing it.”
“Every major performer in the opera world has at some stage looked at or performed the Winterreise,” says Hahn. “It’s very embedded in a 19th century German poetic consciousness. It was written in that era of gloomy, romantic introspection, contemplating despair, the loss of love–you know, suicide was a very popular concept in certain artistic circles. The depth and pressure of circumstances weighing on the individual, on the soul. So, artists have leapt at the opportunity to perform it.”
It is from that historical context that Cuomo unearths these texts for his own story of lost love. “Cuomo said he really loved [the text from Winterreise] but wanted to reimagine it in a modern idiom,” says Hahn. “He hadn’t really completed the work [when we first spoke about the project], but it sounded so intriguing and it sounded like the perfect segway after doing a very big world premiere [The Summer King] to do a tiny one.”
Set in the present day, Ashes & Snow takes place in the desert in a run-down motel room. From this place of isolation, the protagonist reflects on his life, “searching for forgiveness, enlightenment and atonement.”
Cuomo’s opera demands a lot of focus and energy from its sole performer, Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist tenor Eric Ferring. “Not often does one get to do a one-man show. There aren’t very many of them,” says Ferring. “I’ve been working on the music for a couple of months in the midst of other operas that we are doing here this Spring. On some of the bigger roles that you have on the main stage, you have time to go offstage, get a glass of water, look at the score quickly before heading back on stage. This piece is definitely not that. I’m on stage the whole time. It’s 24 songs with [different stylistic elements]–there’s some jazz, some folk, some typical classical, all melded into one conglomerate piece.”
The intimacy of the small Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters venue provides an interesting opportunity and challenge. “The cool thing about this piece is that you get to delve into the character in a more intimate way than you would at the main stage at the Benedum, where your choices have to read 2,800 seats back,” says Ferring. “Here, I am about 10 feet away from the audience. So, that means you have to be so much more connected to the character.”
Ferring will be accompanied by three on-stage musicians, led from the piano by Pittsburgh Opera Director of Musical Studies Mark Trawka.
“The music is going to be amplified, which is very unusual in the opera world,” says Hahn. “The composer was interested in creating a contemporary sound that brought together both the voice and the instruments.”
“I believe that this piece could have a really long afterlife, because individual performers are going to jump at it, smaller venues and companies [can perform it],” says Hahn. “It is potentially a really valuable addition to the field.”
After Ashes & Snow premieres in Pittsburgh, the opera will travel to New York’s acclaimed BAM for a performance with a different lead actor. “BAM is really the venue for interesting and experimental work in the United States. They have a very long and illustrious history of promoted new and interesting pieces. So, giving the Pittsburgh Opera a platform in New York at the BAM festival is a big deal for us.”
Ashes & Snow runs February 17, 20, 23 & 25, 2018 at Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters. For tickets and more information, please visit https://www.pittsburghopera.org/show/ashes-snow.