Willa Cather's 1905 short story "Paul's Case" is an indelible portrait of unhappiness in Pittsburgh. The protagonist, a misfit adolescent, flees the dreary workaday worlds of school and home by immersing himself in art and opera. But his ill-planned escape to glamorous New York finds a literal dead end.
To composer Gregory Spears, who first read the story in college, Paul's powerful emotions — not to mention the young dandy's own opera obsession — seemed tailor-made for operatic reinvention. Spears' Paul's Case world-premiered this past April at UrbanArias, in Arlington, Va. The 85-minute chamber opera — which The Washington Post called "an arresting little piece that communicates its haunting story with clarity and a sense of inevitability" — gets its second full production starting this week, at Pittsburgh Opera.
Cather, who'd yet to write famed novels including O, Pioneers!, published "Paul's Case" while working here as a journalist and schoolteacher. For Spears, the story captured the essence of adolescence, with its outsized drama. "If Paul were telling his story, he'd be the main character in an operatic adaption of his story," says the Brooklyn-based Spears, interviewed by phone.
Spears and co-librettist Kathryn Walat simply made the narrative more linear. "I wanted it to feel like a train, like there's no other conclusion [possible] than the conclusion that happens," Spears says. His score has been described as minimalist with Baroque touches.
The new production stars Pittsburgh Opera resident artists, a seven-member cast led by tenor Daniel Curran, as Paul. An interesting casting touch has the singers who portray Paul's hated teachers and principal also playing opera singers at a concert at Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall ... as well as the maids and bellboy at the Waldorf Astoria, where a runaway Paul has purchased a night of luxury with money stolen from his father's employer.
Spears says this casting technique fosters empathy for the educators — most of them women — as working people. But it also cleverly seconds Paul's fantasy of turning his oppressors into servants.
And fantasy-place is indeed the role of New York in Paul's Case, says Spears. Paul's personality (and fate) are forged by his hometown: "It's really all about Pittsburgh at the end."