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Opera Based on Willa Cather Story Highlights Struggle of Early 1900s Pittsburgh 'Dandy'

David Bachman
Pittsburgh Opera

The Pittsburgh Opera this weekend will travel back in time starting this weekend to bring you the story of Paul in the English-language opera “Paul’s Case.”

It’s based on the story of the same name by Willa Cather, who wrote it while living in Pittsburgh. The story starts out in Pittsburgh where young Paul, described as a “dandy,” yearns for a more exciting life away from dark and industrial Pittsburgh.  

“It really gets at how difficult it is to be a teenager whether it’s 1905 or today,” said composer Gregory Spears. “It’s a difficult time for all of us whether we’re teachers or teenagers ourselves or parents.”

In "Paul's Case," the young protagonist's story starts with Paul in trouble at his high school. He is forced to give up his usher job at Carnegie Music Hall and get another job, but he flees the grit and grime of Pittsburgh and heads to New York City.

"Pittsburgh is really interesting paradox at this time," Spears said. "It had some of the most beautiful and rare works of art and yet at the same time these were being paid for by an incredibly vigorous work-a-day kind of society and for Paul that's a paradox that he has a really hard time coming to terms with."

The opera “Paul’s Case premiered in April 2013 at Urban Arias in Washington, DC. The work blends minimalist and Baroque stylings to create a unique new chamber opera sound.

“I feel like it’s a perfect medium for stories that are dramatic and also a bit tragic and in this case the story comes to the worst end it could come to, I don’t want to give away the ending,” Spears said. “I think Paul’s interest in beauty and art and music meant that opera was the perfect way to tell his story.”

The 1-hour-and-22-minute opera features a small cast of seven from the Resident Artists of Pittsburgh Opera’s singer training program. The main character is portrayed by Daniel Curran.

“Being that I’ve loved music for so long I can really relate to Paul’s fascination with that kind of culture,” Curran said.

"Paul's Case" opens at 8 p.m. Saturday. There are three other performances through March 2; all are at the George R. White Studio in the Pittsburgh Opera House Headquarters in the Strip District.

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