The Three Tenures: A tale of the Pittsburgh Opera
When I received word that Tito Capobianco and Mark Weinstein would join Christopher Hahn to celebrate Pittsburgh Opera’s 75th
anniversary, I was both delighted and shocked. Delighted because the Pittsburgh Opera has had only four General Directors in its entire 75-year history and I had worked with three of them. Shocked because twenty-five years ago I was with Tito when Pittsburgh Opera
celebrated its 50th
Now, as if time stood still, I was excited to have the opportunity to revisit the past and talk with all three impresarios. To reminisce about our work together. To glean what memories remain most vivid for Tito and Mark. And to discuss current plans and future aspirations with Christopher.
The Tito Era: 1983-2000
I hadn’t seen Tito for more than 20 years. Yet the moment I walked into the Omni William Penn to meet him, the decades melted away. He was as distinguished and charismatic as I remembered. With a dashing smile and that distinct Italo-Latin accent that always drew you closer to hear the passion in his voice and the beauty of his words. His expressive hands, the hands of a stage director, still moved forcefully, yet gracefully, to punctuate his thoughts.
“Mr. C”—as I fondly called him then—was General Director of Pittsburgh Opera from 1983-1998 and Artistic Director until his retirement in 2000. But his relationship with our city and opera company began and continued throughout the 1960’s. It was PO’s first general director, the late Richard Karp, who noticed his acclaimed work in New York and persuaded him to direct numerous productions in Pittsburgh. “My relationship with Pittsburgh is 27 years,” Tito proudly stated.
I had the pleasure of working with Tito from 1986-1989 as his Director of Public Relations. When he hired me, I had never seen an opera production. Not one performance. He took a huge chance on me. When I asked him why, he smiled and immediately responded, “You gave a new point of view to looking at our product because it was new to you.” And he, in turn, gave me a deep passion for opera that remains with me to this day.
So how did Tito land in Pittsburgh as General Director when he was simultaneously fielding offers in Madrid, at Yale and from other distinguished venues? “Joe Vales (then President of the Board and President of Horne’s) convinced me that it was the best opportunity. So did Dr. Joseph Marasco. I was in transition…and so was Pittsburgh Opera. It was a great challenge here…and I always like a challenge.”
Upon his arrival, Tito changed Pittsburgh Opera’s trajectory in three short years. He considers the following milestones to be his major PO accomplishments: Moving the company from #33 position in the nation to #10; doubling the audience size and performance schedule; designing and building their own sets (many through the generosity of Pittsburgh’s own Al Filoni); moving the company to a new home at the Benedum Center; forming the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra (in a city dominated by the Pittsburgh Symphony); being one of the first
U.S. companies to bring English translations above the stage (Op Trans); creating Pittsburgh Opera Center (the predecessor to PO’s current and acclaimed Residence Artist program); and launching the Galaxy program for major benefactors.
“I got great support from this community. Unbelievable support.” During his tenure, Tito worked closely with Mayor Richard Caliguiri and major corporate CEOs like Vince Sarni (PPG), Edward Colodny (USAir), Anthony O’Reilly (H.J. Heinz) and many, many others to raise the Opera’s stature and prominence in Pittsburgh. But he fondly remembers and recognizes one particular powerhouse in the form of a petite, dynamic woman named Kathleen (Honey) Craig. “I explained to Honey Craig what I wanted to do…and she gave me 150% support from the very beginning. Due to her name and her prestige, doors opened with corporations…and others.”
Tito readily admits, “I love to play with the lions, not Mickey Mouse.” And he did, bringing some of the fiercest and famous names in opera to Pittsburgh—Luciano Pavarotti, Beverly Sills, Agnes Baltsa, Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, Sherill Milnes, Carlo Bergonzi and Joan Sutherland, to name but a few. Together with Gigi (his late wife), “a great partner to persuade them…and translate everything I said,” the company’s reputation and stature continued to grow until his retirement in 2000.
Today, Tito teaches around the country…and the globe. When I saw him, he had just come from working with Placido Domingo and students at UCLA, and was readying for his fifth trip to Russia to judge an international opera competition and conduct master classes. “I love to teach, to pass on my experience and to tell my students to be alert. Times are more difficult and much more demanding then ever before. Because of the cost of doing opera, we are in permanent transition. But that is life. That is progress.”
“I am very grateful to Pittsburgh,” Tito said as we parted. “With Gigi, I had some of the most beautiful years of my life here. This is the place where we lived longest.”
The Mark Weinstein Years: 2000-2008
After Tito’s departure (and my own) from Pittsburgh Opera, I lost touch with the company for many years. Then in early 2000, I met Mark Weinstein via a mutual friend. Mark was serving as PO’s General Director at the time. After volunteering my services on a few projects, he asked me to join him at Pittsburgh Opera and I served as his Director of Institutional Giving from 2004 to 2006.
I never knew what circumstances brought Mark and his family to Pittsburgh. So last week, I finally asked. His immediate response: “Tito Capobianco.”
Mark, a Harvard MBA with impressive arts management credentials, had been providing pro bono services to Tito over the years. They had initially met via Mark’s wife, the acclaimed mezzo-soprano Susanne Marsee, who Tito had discovered and directed in more than 30 opera productions. Mark was based in New York at the time, so random visits to Pittsburgh for his consulting with Tito represented the extent of his knowledge of our city. “I was not in the least familiar with Pittsburgh and never thought I’d move here,” he shared with a grin.
When Pittsburgh Opera began the transition to a new management philosophy in 1997, Tito assumed the role of Artistic Director and called upon Mark to be his Executive Director. Mark brought his expertise in fiscal management and long-range strategic planning to the company, increasing PO’s assets three-fold and establishing its reputation as an industry leader in financial management.
Upon Tito’s retirement in 2000, Mark served as PO’s General Director until 2008. After spending over a decade in Pittsburgh, he left to become the Executive Director of Washington National Opera and then the CEO of the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas, Texas. He is now the new President of Brevard Music Center in Brevard, North Carolina.
“I’ll tell you for sure…the best thing was finding this ‘bloody genius’—Christopher Hahn—who was willing to come to Pittsburgh to be the artistic director. I pursued him and, lucky for me, it was at exactly the right moment,” he exclaimed when asked to share his top Pittsburgh accomplishments.
What was it about Christopher Hahn that impressed Mark? “Christopher knew voices better than anyone I had ever met. Many people know some voices, not others…or what roles are good for someone because they’ve heard them in it. Christopher had the uncanny ability to figure out what they could do that they’d never done before. That is true artistic genius. His aesthetic was perfect, his artistic judgment great and he was a very, very good administrator.”
Soon after securing Hahn, Mark went searching for a Music Director. He found John Mauceri. “It was amazing that John would land here (in Pittsburgh). Here was a guy who trained with Leonard Bernstein…who had started the Kennedy Center Orchestra. He was head of the Hollywood Bowl! If I had asked him a year before or earlier, same as Christopher, it would have been ‘no’. The timing was perfect.”
Following Mauceri’s departure in 2006, Christopher Hahn deftly secured Antony Walker, PO’s current Music Director. “Clearly one of the best decisions ever made,” noted Mark. “Antony is incredibly talented.” (Note: Walker paid tribute to Richard Karp at the Saturday performance of AIDA,
conducting with Karp’s baton and thus ensuring that all four General Directors were represented on opening night of the 75th
Additional Weinstein highlights include bringing two powerful productions to the Pittsburgh Opera stage: Deadman Walking
(2004) and Billy Budd
(2007). “Deadman Walking
was a phenomenal opera that helped move Pittsburgh forward and deepened our audience’s understanding of an important issue. Billy Budd
was one of the greatest highlights of my time here and, I believe, Pittsburgh Opera’s history.” I was fortunate enough to work with Mark and PO on both productions.
Hosting the 2004 National Performing Arts Convention was another highpoint. “Where did all the opera, theatre, ballet, symphony, modern dance, composers—eleven groups—decide to have the first
gathering of all artistic companies? Not New York. Not LA. Pittsburgh. It is because Pittsburgh is a place where you can do anything. Accomplish anything.”
But just when I thought he was finished, Mark looked me right in the eye and said, “I want to make sure you emphasize that Tito’s era was all of this…and more. Capobianco transformed
American opera. He may not be from here and he may have a wonderful thick accent, but the fact is that he was one of the great American opera people who helped create the American opera scene. And he did that here in Pittsburgh as well. So we’ve had huge transformation in Pittsburgh over the years. With Tito. And then with the team we put together. Now Christopher Hahn is flying…and I feel like I was a part of that history in the making.”
Christopher Hahn: 2008-Present
Unlike his somewhat high-spirited predecessors, Christopher Hahn exudes a quiet confidence and understated sense of humor. I unexpectedly find him in his office—calm, cool and collected—and only hours away from launching PO’s 75th
anniversary celebration. I have worked with him on countless occasions over the last decade…and he’s always charming and gracious.
He may indeed, as Mark said, be “flying” at the moment. But he’s a realist as well. “We can’t ever take any of this for granted,” noted the man who became PO’s General Director in 2008. “Because, even though we have this storied 75 years, we can see around the country it is very easy for long-established companies to wither rather suddenly. So it’s an encouragement to look back and celebrate, but it’s a real encouragement to look forward to ensure there’s another 75 years.”
Pittsburgh Opera’s anniversary year clearly reinforces this artful approach to blending the past and future. This season looks back
on the three big operatic geniuses (Verdi, Mozart and Puccini), as well as looks forward
via three contemporary pieces by legendary composer Philip Glass and two newcomers, Nico Muhly and Gregory Spears.
Before leaving Christopher, I am reminded that Pittsburgh Opera came from very humble beginnings. “It’s fascinating to look back on 75 years and realize what extraordinary times and beginnings the company had. From a living room…to the Benedum stage,” recalled Christopher. “That’s a great testament to our community. This company was birthed in the smallest possible way, but flourished. Being able to celebrate that is noteworthy, but also humbling in a way because you realize how many people have given such a enormous amount of sacrifices to make it happen.”
The shock of so many years passing (seemingly in an instant) has been replaced by a calm reflection of the rich opportunities and experiences that Tito Capobianco, Mark Weinstein and Christopher Hahn offered me during my own varied tenures with Pittsburgh Opera. Today, a full twenty-seven years after I first walked through the doors of Pittsburgh Opera, I am so proud to be linked with a legendary Pittsburgh institution that has grown and changed with each new decade and each new leader. I can’t wait to see what the coming years bring and feel privileged that, in some small way, I too have been part of its dramatic and enduring history.
Cally Jamis Vennare is principal of Cally Jamis Vennare Communications.
Two performances of Pittsburgh Opera’s AIDA still remain: Friday, October 18 at 8PM and Sunday, October 20 at 2PM. Both at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets call 412-456-6666 or buy online here
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen