Pittsburgh Opera Goes Electric With World-Premiere Of ‘Ashes & Snow’

Feb 16, 2018

Pittsburgh Opera’s new world-premiere performance, Douglas J. Cuomo’s Ashes & Snow, might be an edgy, contemporary work, but it was inspired by a classic piece of music: Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, meaning "winter journey."

Schubert wrote this song cycle in the 1820s, as a musical setting for a series of 24 poems by German poet Wilhelm Muller. The poems tell the story of a jilted lover wandering a rural landscape in winter.

“I am finished with all my dreams. Why should I linger among the sleepers?” runs one line of the English translation.

With Ashes & Snow, Cuomo, a Brooklyn-based composer, has created new music for the same text, for voice, piano, trumpet, electric guitar and electronic sound effects. The work premieres with four performances Feb. 17-25 at Pittsburgh Opera’s intimate, 200-seat venue at its headquarters, in the Strip District.

While Cuomo is best known for his 2013 opera version of the stage play and film Doubt, his best-known tune is surely the theme music for the TV show Sex and the City. Ashes & Dust, needless to say, is quite different. Jonathan Moore, the London-based director with whom Cuomo developed the work, admires the composer’s eclecticism.

“He’s genuinely found, I think, a unique synthesis of street music, of jazz, of blues, of acid jazz, of a quite progressive kind of avant-garde pop music, even,” Moore said.

Moore and Cuomo’s stage production transports the action from the German countryside to a seedy motel in the American West. As we meet the unnamed protagonist, he has trashed his room and is deep into a bender. He’s also, at first, stark naked, which was just one challenge faced by tenor Eric Ferring, the Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist who sings the opera’s lone role.

“I think I underestimated the level of emotional and physical strength that it would take to carry out a show by yourself,” said Ferring.

“You’re just a fly on the wall during this guy’s journey in this hotel room just like any of us who have lost a loved one or who have broken up with someone when you’re in a room by yourself, crying and punching things and weeping and reminiscing and smiling,” said Ferring. “It’s definitely a raw evening.”

Cuomo himself plays guitar in the live instrumental trio, and the distorted, amplified sounds he makes constitute just one deviation from what’s usually heard in even contemporary opera. The tunes for the 24 distinct songs range from some that feel like Appalachian folk (think “Shenandoah”) or African-American field hollers to others more in the art-song tradition. The electronics add percussion, and sound effects like wind.

“I wanted to create this kind of sound world. This interior sound world that’s the psychology of our main character,” Cuomo said.

The production, as seen in a run-through earlier this week, also includes striking projected video by Joseph Seamans.

Ashes & Snow is sung in English, with the lyrics projected above the stage, and runs 75 minutes.

The opera is already booked for a production next fall at the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The opening-night performance on Saturday is sold out. Tickets for the remaining three performances are $45 and are available through Pittsburgh Opera's website.