“An opera is a story that people sing,” said Fred Rogers, in introducing the 1980 episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” featuring his one-act opera “Windstorm in Bubbleland.”
The whimsical but pointed “Windstorm” was one of more than a dozen short operas by Rogers that aired starting in the late 1960s. None have ever been performed live. Pittsburgh Festival Opera rectifies that oversight starting this weekend when it stages “Windstorm” back to back with 1982’s “Spoon Mountain” as part of its 2019 season, alongside classics composed by the likes of Puccini, Strauss, and Wagner.
Rogers, a Latrobe native who studied music composition in college, was famed for his use of songs like his long-running PBS show’s iconic theme number, "It's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." The idea to stage his operas came largely from Lynn Squilla, an independent, Pittsburgh-based producer who has worked with the late Rogers’ Family Communications, Inc.
The operas typically first aired as part of a week’s set of shows illustrating chosen themes, and were not rebroadcast as often as other episodes, said Squilla. “People sort of forget about them,” she said.
But in the wake of Morgan Neville's Oscar-nominated documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and in advance of a new film starring Tom Hanks as Rogers, the time seemed right, said Pittsburgh Festival Opera music director Robert Frankenberry.
The two opera’s themes will be familiar to Rogers fans. “Windstorm” in particular feels almost edgy, along the lines of his show’s Vietnam-era episode about war; it also feels disconcertingly timely.
The setting is Bubbleland, a happy place full of floating soap bubbles whose denizens believe nothing bad will ever happen there, and who are supported (or perhaps inculcated) in their belief by a grinning TV newscaster who sings, “There’s never any trouble here in Bubbleland.” So when a puppet character named Hildegard Hummingbird warns everyone a windstorm is coming, everyone refuses to believe her. What follows is a fast-paced environmental cautionary tale that also takes on consumerism and advertising, before celebrating the power of people working together.
As Hilda Hummingbird sings, “A hummingbird cares about people and about creatures with fur and with wings. A hummingbird cares about people but doesn’t care about things.”
“Spoon Mountain” has more of a fairy-tale feel. It’s about a mission to save the kidnapped Twirling Purple Kitty, who’s being held inside a mountain by Wicked Knife and Fork. It’s “very much about community, connection, reaching out, not judging by appearances,” says Frankenberry.
The original TV versions were performed by Rogers’ in-house company, including Betty Aberlin, Audrey Roth, Don Brockett, Joe Negri, Francois Clemmons, and, of course, Rogers himself as the voice of various puppets. As on the program, accompaniment was supplied by Rogers and music director Johnny Costa as part of a small ensemble on piano, vibraphone, percussion and bass.
While Clemmons was classically trained, most of the singers were not. Frankenberry notes that Rogers “seriously considered a career as a Tin Pan Alley songwriter,” and that his songs are “very tuneful in that old Broadway way, and so they sound a lot like jazz standards.” (In fact, jazz and pop artists have covered them.)
Frankenberry adapted the scores for performance by trained singers. The new versions will be performed back to back in an 80-minute program, with live music, on four dates starting Saturday at the festival’s main venue, Winchester Thurston School, in Shadyside. The shows are both directed by Tome Cousin, the Broadway veteran who now teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and played recurring character Rag Doll Tome on the series. The cast includes singers and puppeteers. (“Spoon Mountain” features pre-recorded guest appearances by local TV reporter Andy Sheehan and anchor Ken Rice.) The ensemble of eight musicians includes a five-piece string section.