Pittsburgh-based composer proves opera can be ‘cool and hip’

Pittsburgh-based composer proves opera can be ‘cool and hip’

Douglas Levine (Photo by Drew Yenchak)
Douglas Levine (Photo by Drew Yenchak)

Douglas Levine began Bucknell University as a management major and switched to the music program after his freshman year. “You can imagine how traumatic that parents’ weekend was!”

He never looked back.

Levine, whose new opera, “Mercy Train,” will debut later this month at the New Hazlett Theater, describes the libretto as two mirroring stories — one about two sisters who have been placed on an orphan train by their mother, and the other of two friends on a present-day subway car, playing hooky from school by escaping to Coney Island. “So we follow these two train stories, bouncing back and forth between the two trains, and at the very end of the opera, the stories come together.”

For Levine, composing an opera was a new challenge. He began his career in Pittsburgh by doing “a little bit of everything” after earning a master’s degree in piano performance from Carnegie Mellon University, mainly musical accompaniment for dance classes held around the city. After getting a gig writing music for Playback Theatre and Roni Ostfield, Levine wrote his “first incidental music scores, and from there, I got involved in writing full musical theater scores that were for casts, where I was writing songs and setting words to music and stuff, and it kind of took off from there.”

Once he and librettist Julie Tosh presented a few scenes to local company Microscopic Opera, Microscopic agreed to produce, and, Levine says, “all of a sudden, we had to finish this thing, and Julie had never written a libretto, and I’d never written an operatic score, but we did it, because we had to.” Levine doesn’t sound anxious though: “The exciting thing about writing a new piece like this is that you can change it and fix it as you’re rehearsing, and I’ve been doing that.”

Levine says that the score was influenced not only by musical theater, where he feels most at home as an artist, but also by his Jewish heritage. “If I were to sit down with the score, I could probably show you ways that my Yiddishkeit has crept into the musical style of the piece here and there. There’s a couple of places where I’m trying to be plaintive melodically, and it might sound like a little Klezmery, with the way that note is getting bent.”

The opera took about five years to complete, although Levine describes the last two years as the most intensive of the period, in which they expanded the work from the original two scenes they had presented to Microscopic to the 10 that make up the current show.

As for opera itself, Levine says that its reputation as stuffy and pretentious is misguided: The worlds of musical theater and opera are starting to borrow elements from each other, especially he says, in the case of “Mercy Train.” “It’s the first operatic score that I’ve written and the first libretto Julie’s written. It’s really informed by what we’ve done more of, which is for Julie writing plays, and for me, writing musicals, and I kind of think of the piece as a hybrid between musical theater and opera.” Levine says the main difference between musical theater and opera is that “opera takes what a musical does and gives more of a driver’s seat role to the music side of it,” since the orchestra itself is “like a character in the show.”

Mark Weinstein, former head of the Pittsburgh Opera, and current head of the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina, agrees that opera gets a bum rap. “It’s a combination of many different art forms all plugged in together.” Opera, he says, is not the same as it was 10 or 15 years ago, before supertitles. “I just think that once every five, 10 years, somebody should try something again before they reject it into an old stereotype.” Opera is “cool and hip and very exciting.”

For Levine, Pittsburgh has been the perfect place to build a career: “I’ve had the chance to write stuff and have it produced. There’s terrific foundation support here for the arts, and if you’re a go-getter, you can start to build your portfolio.” In bigger cities, the professional arts scene is more of a slugfest, he said. But being a working artist in Pittsburgh isn’t a compromise, or a resignation to a lesser cultural scene, he stresses. “I think that Pittsburgh is an embarrassment of riches, culturally,” said Levine. The local arts scene is one that “stands up to regional theater happening anywhere.”

Weinstein agrees. “Per capita, Pittsburgh has perhaps the most vital and exciting arts and culture scene in America.”

“Mercy Train” runs from June 19 to June 21 at the New Hazlett Theater. Tickets can be purchased at microscopicopera.org or by visiting the theater’s box office.

Masha Shollar is an intern for The Chronicle. She can be reached at mashas@thejewishchronicle.net.