Summerfest's 'Shining Brow' an Impressive Achievement

Article excerpt

A great building may need a solid foundation, but people often achieve greatness with feet of clay.

The beautiful and moving opera "Shining Brow," which Summerfest presented July 11, looks beyond the brilliance of Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture to the messiness of his personal life.

The first regional performance of composer Daron Hagen's opera was given by Summerfest in June at Fallingwater, the famous house Wright built in Fayette County for Edgar Kaufmann. The July 11 performance in the Beaux Arts Ballroom of The Twentieth Century Club in Oakland was the Pittsburgh premiere.

"Shining Brow" is a very impressive achievement by Hagen and librettist Paul Muldoon. The words and music are each exceptionally smart, direct but also rich in allusions to literature and music. Hagen's music is wonderfully theatrical, with a vast array of musical styles and ready to turn on a dime. Some of it, such as a barbershop quartet, is evocative of the time of the story's action, the beginning of the 20th century.

It is a witty score, but for all its intelligence is also emotionally telling.

"Shining Brow" was presented in a chamber version commissioned by Summerfest. Hagen had already produced a smaller orchestration of his full score, but the instrumentation of the Summerfest version is reduced to seven players.

The composer shortened the opera for this version, from 21/2 hours to 70 minutes. Grand opera scenes with chorus were cut, along with many other trims.

The result is an almost-entirely intimate opera that conveys the heart of the story. The Prologue is an awkward scene between Wright and his mentor Louis Sullivan, from whom he has "purloined" an aesthetic perspective and a client. Wright then takes the wife of Sullivan's former client, Edwin Cheney. Wright refers to these actions as "borrowing," the way he quotes others' words.

Baritone Kevin Kees was a charismatic presence as Wright. While some may be allergic to his vibrato, Kees sang with good projection, resonance and line. His characterization was equally well-drawn -- a person full of himself, relentlessly selling himself and with more than a whiff of a con man. …