Quantum’s current production, of Osvaldo Golijov’s opera, Ainadamar, at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church

Quantum Theatre never seems to run out of off-the-wall venues. With any number of excellent playhouses in the area, where do they choose to ply their craft? I personally have seen productions of this and that at the former Iron City Brewery in Lawrenceville, The West Penn Hospital Foundation Research Facility, and Highland Park’s Lake Carnegie. (I missed Maria de Buenos Aires at the East Liberty YMCA, but I still feel obligated to mention it.) And yet, all of the productions I have seen have done excellent jobs, not only of incorporating the setting into the production, making me, the guy in the audience occasionally remembering to scribble down notes in the dark, forget that he is looking at, for example, the ass end of a hospital. Every production I have seen has accomplished the daunting task of melding the play and the setting together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Quantum’s current production, of Osvaldo Golijov’s opera, Ainadamar, at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, maintains this track record admirably.

Getting there, you’ll feel like you’re going to church. You walk up the steps, through the front door, past the ticket table (“Welcome! Sign here if you’re not part of the congregation!”). Then you wander down a narrow hall, passing posters about discussion groups and overseas projects, past arcane conference rooms and mysterious offices and down some stairs, following the signs that reassure you you’re going in the right direction. Eventually, you’ll make it into the room, and then you’ll pick your jaw up off the floor. Suffice to say that the East Liberty Presbyterian Church is just as big below ground as it is above ground.

To expand upon my title, Ainadamar is an opera, written in 2003, whose lead character, actress Margarita Xirgu, who died in 1969, is performing the lead role in Mariana Pineda, a play by Federico García Lorca, which deals with a revolutionary period even earlier in Spanish history than the 1930’s Spanish Civil War, but which takes place largely in 1936, revolving around the relationship between Xirgu and Lorca, up until his death 1936 and hers in 1969. Got all that? One might dismiss it as contrived and convoluted, but I’d rather call it… diffuse… It’s not really so twisted by operatic standards, as anyone who has seen Don Giovanni, or even Tommy, can readily attest. If you can get past a bunch of people spending all of their time singing instead of speaking, any additional surrealism on top of it isn’t that much of a stretch.

Churches always have great acoustics; it stands to reason that they’re built that way. And all of the Quantum productions I have seen have had excellent sound, whether they’ve been indoors or outdoors; I knew I was in for another acoustically optimal evening as soon as I walked in and heard the orchestra warming up. I talked to a couple of the musicians after the show—they were both wanting to know very badly how they sounded, as things weren’t really set up for them to hear themselves. I reassured them then and I say it now—everything was just right. It wasn’t painfully loud, and the voices and instruments were nicely balanced, so that I could hear the individual components of each clearly and cleanly.

So I’ll give a special shout-out to Quantum’s Ryan McMasters, credited here with the show’s Sound Design. Even though this is the only Quantum show I have seen in which he has been involved, he maintained the high standards to which I have become accustomed.

In this production, one may consider the orchestra as much of a character in the play as one perceives the setting that way, as both are a factor in the audience’s visual (and auditory) perception. Director Karla Boos pushes this a little further than usual, placing the musicians ON the stage, not below it, or behind a screen, as if to remind the audience that it’s not all about the singers—I found myself looking over to them at choice bits, but that’s just the way I chose to enjoy the show, and when they went into a slinky Afro-Cuban groove during one of the “Havana” parts, I double-checked to make sure The Buena Vista Social Club hadn’t dropped in to jam.

I could have done without the video monitor at the other end of the stage, with nothing but a close-up of the conductor waving his arms. I heard that it was for “cueing,” so the vocalists could follow him from more than one point, but I don’t buy it. I doubt the vocalists needed it and it just annoyed me, a person in the audience. Guys—try it without the monitor and see what happens.

The cast consists of seven women, including mezzo-soprano Raquel Winnica Young, playing Federico García Lorca in what is known in the trade as a “trouser role,” meaning a woman playing a male role. She plays her (literally) trousered character understatedly, adding to the Ainadamar’s blood and fire (of which there is plenty) only when she sings, and then giving the production much of its heart.

Carolina Loyola-Garcia plays two roles, one of them a nameless Flamenco-style dancer, who functions as a sort of a Greek chorus. I am as qualified to evaluate dancers as I am to evaluate opera singers (zero equals zero), but I did think she moved gracefully. I will give her a pass on the way the dragging of her feet seemed to reverberate in the room, as that might have been intentional, but I couldn’t help but think of something I once learned at the ballet—never sit in the front row—it takes away from the aesthetics when you hear the men grunting as they lift the ballerinas up…

(The other performers all sing well and make the most out of their multiple roles, but would someone please remind the one on the far right that she’s playing a supporting part?)

Again, I don’t claim to know anything about singing from a technical standpoint, much less about opera singing, but soprano Katy Williams, in the lead role of Margarita Xirgu, made me believe her character without ever seeming to be saying, “Look how well I’m singing! Am I not fabulous? That’s what divas are for!” It’s all about the audience, in the long run, not judges and their scorecards; Katy Williams made me feel her pain.

To go on about this for a moment, here is a clip of an aria so famous even this barbarian has heard of it:

…“Vesti la giubba,” from Pagliacci. This is the song that closes the first act, when Canio (my great-grandfather’s first name—I digress) finds out about his wife’s infidelity, but still has to put on his clown makeup and perform. I have heard that what is officially known as the “laughing sob” (at just about 0:40) is one of the greatest challenges in opera—what can you do with no words at all—the same way I have heard King Lear’s wordless scream called the greatest lines Shakespeare ever wrote. I’m not trying to compare Katy Williams to Pavarotti any more than I’m trying to compare Ainadamar to Pagliacci. I’m just saying that art is there for the emotions it evokes from the people who either look at it, listen to it, or both, and that this production has plenty of those.

By the way, the show runs eighty minutes, with no intermission, and there is no fat lady.

When can I see Ainadamar?
October 19 – November 3, 2012
(Tuesday/Friday/Saturday/Sunday all shows at 8:00 PM)

Where is it?
East Liberty Presbyterian Church
116 South Highland Ave (map)
Pittsburgh, PA 15206

How much are tickets?
Sunday; Tuesday: $35
Friday: $40
Saturday: $45

Buy tickets