All aboard the trolley to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe!
Perfect as a way to introduce kids to the art form, Pittsburgh Festival Opera is producing two original, one-act operas composed by the late Fred Rogers. “Windstorm in Bubbleland” and “Spoon Mountain” will run July 13-25 at Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside.
The musical stories originally appeared on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in the early 1980s. This is the first time they will be re-staged together in front of a live audience. Pittsburgh Festival Opera is drawing from its cadre of young professional artists and celebrity operatic voices while remaining true to the spirit and sensibility of the original PBS creations.
“Spoon Mountain” is about a character called Wicked Knife and Fork, who tracks and captures the silver-spoon spinning Purple Twirling Kitty. The would-be villain’s efforts are thwarted by Prince Extraordinary and Park Ranger Betty Green, aided by the gallant Commodore. In the end, everyone discovers Wicked Knife and Fork is not wicked at all, just misunderstood.
“Windstorm in Bubbleland” is a cautionary tale about a newscaster who’s sure there’s “never, never, never any trouble here in Bubbleland.” In fact, there’s a huge storm a-brewing, due to a new product called Spray Sweater. The brand’s creator, W.I. Norton Donovan, is really the wind in disguise. He threatens to blow Bubbleland to oblivion, but, thanks to the intrepid Hildegard Hummingbird, the truth about the blowhard is exposed and the town is saved.
The whimsical works are a perfect fit for Festival Opera’s brand of up-close and intimate brand of performances, says Lynne Squilla, producer for the organization.
“With the upcoming movie starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, it seemed the right time to bring these operas to life,” says Squilla, a veteran TV producer and writer, who worked with Rogers on his “Fred Rogers’ Heroes” documentary and other video projects. “As many folks have observed: ‘We sure could use some Mister Rogers nowadays.’ ”
A character from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe will serve as director.
Tomé Cousin, a professional dancer who played Tomé the Ragdoll in four episodes of the iconic show, will helm the production. He directed Festival Opera’s “Sweeney Todd” in 2017.
Cousin and the PFO crew, including Artistic Director Jonathan Eaton and Music Director Rob Frankenberry, spent two months combining the two operas into one performance. In addition to the on-stage antics, there are other Rogers-penned songs and quotes, soundbites from performers and patrons, as well as projection scenics by Joe Seamans.
The cast consists of 10 operatic singers, plus Frankenberry, who will conduct and sing. The roles of two reporters are played by KDKA news anchor Ken Rice and investigative reporter Andy Sheehan.
Throughout his life, Rogers wrote 13 operas, beginning in 1968 with “The Babysitter Opera.” The music lover enjoyed the artform for its ability to carry a story.
Squilla is excited to share some of his work with fans, as well as Rogers’ family and friends. Festival Opera has invited his widow, Joanne Rogers, and former cast members, including Chuck Aber (Neighbor Aber), David Newell (Mr. McFeely), Mary Rawson (Cousin Mary to X the Owl) and members of Johnny Costa’s trio.
“Audiences can expect to see the full depth and breadth of Fred Rogers’ sometimes wild but always engaging imagination, and be moved by the opera’s lyrics, music and messages,” Squilla says. “These are not purely stories for children. They resonate deep within us all.”
Additional materials – photos, quotes and soundbites about Fred – provide heightened “emotional moments in the overall show,” she says. “PFO hopes these will be memorable performances that all our neighbors will delight in – which would make Mister Rogers happy!”