Pittsburgh Opera’s “Second Stage Production,” always a sure sign that spring is around the corner, and this year Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi’s The Last American Hammer, will have its first performance Saturday evening, February 22, at the company’s Strip District Headquarters. Due to the limited seating capacity of the George R. White Opera Studio, these intimate pieces are rarely heard by more than a thousand people – and even this is possible only if every chair at each of the four performances is occupied by someone new – yet the works chosen are always worthy of production, and the Resident Artists who are heard in them are consistently top-flight talent.
Glenn Lewis will conduct the string quartet augmented by banjo and mandolin that provide the instrumental accompaniment for The Last American Hammer, and recently took the time to share a few thoughts on the composition, described as “A satirical but heartfelt examination of the fallout that occurs when the American Dream fails to materialize.”
“I think The Last American Hammer will be of interest to a lot of people in this region,” he says. “The piece takes place in an unnamed town near Youngstown and Cleveland, a ‘Rust Belt,’ industrial northeastern part of Ohio. This region has seen, for many years, deindustrialization. The Lordstown, Ohio, GM plant and things like that that have closed, were lynchpins in this region. The first character, Milcom Negley, an unemployed factory worker, and self-styled militia man, is subjected to the loss of suddenly being ‘redundant.’ This piece presents a perspective on what his life situation is right now, which will be of interest in this particular region of western Pennsylvania, or West Virginia with the coal miners, and what happens to people when these things happen to them. It’s appropriate that this score has the Bluegrass elements because I think many folk music, Appalachian music, and country music songs are about these kinds of things – the laments and losses that people experience. The music in this work is a big nod to the popularity of these genres.
“It’s an accessible score, but one of the big challenges with it is that the piece is very conversational. A lot of the rehearsal work has been finding the right pacing, making sure the words are clear enough so the audience won’t be staring at the supertitles. Another challenge is that I’ll be conducting into a camera with two monitors behind the audience where the singers can see me. I can throw a few cues from the side, but we’re on the set rather than in the pit. I don’t have a lot of direct contact with the singers, but because we’ve rehearsed so much we can feel the piece come together. Of course, this is not a large orchestra, this is a chamber ensemble. We have three singers and seven instrumentalists, and they’re talking to each other a lot of the time. It’s very different in that I’m not throwing cues directly to the singers. I’m doing it over a monitor, so I have to stay on a very, very clear stick because they’re seeing something further away than they usually see. I have to be very ‘straight ahead’ in that way.
“I enjoy doing these contemporary works a lot. I like conducting operas where the ink is barely dry. There’s only been one full production of this one before, just like several of the other pieces we’ve done in recent years. We are able to talk with the composer, and that’s an exciting thing – we don’t have to have a séance to connect with the composer. The composers we’ve worked with have been very collaborative and excited to have their work performed. It’s a great challenge for our Resident Artists to wrestle with contemporary music and the different acting and singing challenges that this kind of music demands of them. It’s a really important component of what we do here at Pittsburgh Opera – we prepare our Resident Artists to go out into the world, so we train them in as many areas as possible, whether it’s the grand tradition, baroque opera, contemporary opera, or a Broadway salute evening with the pops series of a Symphony.”
As in Alcina last month, a former Resident Artist returns for these performances – Timothy Mix will be heard as Milcolm Negley, a role he created when UrbanArias first performed The Last American Hammer in 2018. Caitlin Gotimer and Antonia Botti-Lodovico are cast as Tink Enraught and Agent Dee Dee Reyes, and these young artists have more than proven themselves to be exceptionally gifted singers. Matthew Haney directs.
For tickets, a complete synopsis, additional production details and more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.
Cast – David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera
Special thanks to Christian D. Cox, Director of Marketing and Communications for Pittsburgh Opera
A Pittsburgh native, George B. Parous began his studies of music and the ‘cello in grade school before his interests turned to opera, its performers and history while in his teens. He has been acknowledged as a contributor or editor of several published works (the first being “Rosa Raisa, A Biography of a Diva,” Northeastern University Press, 2001), and is currently working on his own biography of the German-American dramatic soprano, Johanna Gadski, who sang at the Metropolitan during the “Golden Age of Opera.” A retired IT Analyst, he is an avid genealogist, and has traced his maternal line to 8th century Wessex, England. He’s been a contributor to Pittsburgh in the Round since 2014.