Pittsburgh Opera Ready for the “In A Grove” World Premiere

Baritone Yazid Gray Shares Some Thoughts on What to Expect

By George B. Parous

Pittsburgh Opera will present the world premiere of In A Grove this Saturday evening, February 19, with five repetitions running through March 3. The one act work, with music by Christopher Cerrone and a libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, is based on the short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. The plot is advertised as “A violent encounter between a man, a woman, and a notorious brigand,” which “offers a searing investigation into the impossibility and elusiveness of truth.”

The compact opera features four singers – each appearing in two roles. Joining the cast for his Pittsburgh Opera debut is counter-tenor Chuanyuan Liu, as the Priest/Medium. Resident Artists Madeline Ehlinger and Andrew Turner, both fine singers, will appear as Leona Raines/Leona’s Mother, and the Policeman/Man (Ambrose Raines). Baritone Yazid Gray will be the Woodcutter / The Outlaw (Luther Harlow).

Yazid Gray, baritone

Mr. Gray’s previous appearances with the company include Guiglielmo in Così fan tutte, the Soldier in Soldier Songs(a one-man show), Athamus in Semele, and Dizzy Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, during the much altered and masked 2020-21 season, and this season he was in the cast of The Magic Flute. Mr. Gray recently took some time to tell us more about In A Grove, and what we can look forward to Saturday night.

“The first character I play is The Woodcutter,” he said on the subject of his dual roles. “He is the person who discovers the murder. He finds the body. He goes back in his memory and paints the image of what he saw, how traumatic it was for him, and how it affected him. He’s a very nice guy who keeps to himself. The second character I play is The Outlaw, Luther Harlow – the bad guy. You see a lot more of him in the show. He is one of the three seen as having a part in this crime. It’s up to the audience to figure out what exactly happened.”

He doesn’t find singing two roles any more difficult than one. “In this show I don’t think it’s hard to keep track of who I am at different times because there’s such a distinct change and such a shift that happens in the piece. I think the hardest part is that the characters are so different from each other, so it requires a bit more focus and concentration.

“I love both the roles. I would say I like Luther better because I have a lot more time to play him. I love the honesty and openness of The Woodcutter – there’s a sense of purity there, an innocence that Luther doesn’t have. I love Luther because he’s the bad guy, and I rarely get to play the bad guy. It’s nice to be able to play the bad guys for once, and be able to experiment with that.”

Best of all, he told us what he thinks audiences can expect from In A Grove.

“Our audiences will hear some sounds not typically heard in opera. There is amplification, and there’s the use of electronics, which is very cool and gives an atmospheric feel to the piece. You feel like you are in the woods, ‘in a grove’ with the characters, experiencing it all at the same time in their memory. It’s going to be very exciting. If it’s your first time coming to see an opera, it will ignite a little flame to come see more.

“I’m very much looking forward to being a part of this opera. It’s been a long process for all of us, and we’re very excited to have the public see it. I have friends and family who are coming to see this show, so I’m excited to perform for them – it’s my very first world premiere.”

Chris Cox, Pittsburgh Opera’s Director of Marketing and Communications, had explained the unique staging provided for the work: “One of the really cool things about this show is the staging. It’s not your standard proscenium set-up, where the audience all sits facing the same direction with the action happening on stage in front of them.”    

“The stage is set as a runway,” Mr. Gray elaborated.  “We have audience on both sides of the runway, like a fashion show. That’s our playing space, and that’s not normal for any theater. It’s challenging in that you have to get used to playing to both sides of the audience. Also, it’s a very long stage. So it’s a matter of shifting your energy to different spots. The exciting part of that is no one person in the audience is going to see the same thing and have the same interpretation. And that’s the fun of the piece. When you think about crimes, there are always multiple sides to the story, and this allows the audience to be able to see that.

“It’s really exciting to see what opera can be. It’s an art form that keeps evolving, and that’s why I love it so much. The singing is beautiful. My colleagues are doing an amazing job on stage. It’s a great group of performers, and there’s a connection that the audience will see with all of us on stage.”

(Left to right) – Leona Raines (Madeline Ehlinger), Ambrose Raines (Andrew Turner), and The Outlaw Luther Harlow (Yazid Gray)

There are a limited number of seats available for the opening night at the Bitz Opera Factory in the Strip District, but tickets are available for the remaining shows. You can check best availability at Pittsburgh Opera.     

Special thanks to Chris Cox, Pittsburgh Opera’s Director of Marketing and Communications.

David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera

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