CS Spotlight: Marianne Cornetti with Pittsburgh Festival Opera

Marianne Cornetti, internationally renowned operatic Mezzo-Soprano, is the new Artistic Director of Pittsburgh Festival Opera. As an artist who is still in the middle of her career, Cornetti’s leadership is to increase the artistic product for PFO. Bringing in better artists, raising the artistic fees, and restructuring the Hans and Leslie Fleischner Young Artist Program from a ‘pay to play’ to Pittsburgh Festival Opera paying the artists. Each day since the announcement of her appointment to the Artistic Director role in December 2019, Marianne Cornetti has pursued this goal, and the reach of the company has expanded nationally and internationally. This summer, PFO was very fortunate to have a donor underwrite the entire Online Young Artist Program. It was a tremendous gift. It was a fully paid virtual young artist experience. 

“When life gives you lemons, we make limoncello. We embraced the pandemic, we were challenged by it, but we are not afraid of it.” 

Q: What makes your work with Pittsburgh Festival Opera unique, and what experience are you bringing in your new leadership role?

A: “I’m bringing 31 years of experience into this company, raising the level of artistic product throughout the company. Whether that is artistic content or a higher level of productions, it’s all of my years of singing around the world at a high level, and the experiences I had as a young artist with Pittsburgh Opera.  I want to give that back now to PFO. For our Online Young Artist Program, we had one Masterclass a week for 5 weeks with artists such as Angela Meade, Lisette Oropesa, Jane Eaglen, Greg Kunde and Chuck Hudson. We had personal development sessions. We brought in casting directors, managers, agents, and other people who helped to expose the young artists on how to market themselves, the pros and cons of going to Europe, and how to thrive in this business. Our Hans and Leslie Fleischner Young Artist Program this summer was such a major focus because we wanted to keep the program intact, even during the pandemic, so that we can continue it either online or in person next summer. 

Q: What projects have you all been working on?

A: “With everything happening with this pandemic, I said we are not giving up. This company must be VISIBLE.” 

When everything happened with COVID, we said we HAVE to do something. Why can’t we do that? I asked. We created Opera Without Walls (OWOW). We got a technical director, a sound director, and a film editor, and the director made the scenes in the genre of today. One of our scenes, Susanna/Contessa scene from The Marriage of Figaro, became the Kardashians, for example. Rob Frankenberry was the head of the Young Artist Program, and co Music director Mark Trawka, created click-tracks so that the singers could hear the pauses and beats in the music, and then the singer sang with the click track and sent the recording back in to be mixed.

Our technical director, Lynne Squilla, organized a technical staff  of a sound engineer and film editor, and they conversed on what was the best way to film this. They did some research and came up with utilizing the GoPro Osmo, which is five inches high and attaches to one’s phone, and follows the subject around everywhere they go. The stage directors prepared the singers with a story board and they filmed each shot by themselves to capture the entire scene. Some scenes had as many as 73 or more filming shots. As they were filming the shots, they were singing along with their own recorded click tracks of the music of the scene.

The director wanted to make each of these “episodes” as if you are flipping through television, even including commercials. The episodes are about 15 minutes or more in length, with six episodes total. Our opening date for the first episode was September 4th, and information has been released on www.pittsburghfestivalopera.org. All of the episodes will eventually be featured on the site. And all of the scenes will be added to the website.  Throughout this process, no one was ever together, and we put a tremendous amount of work into this project. Regardless, the product has been unbelievable. It has been INCREDIBLE. Every one of these young artists were responsible for the videotaping with the Osmo, and they have done a wonderful job.

Q: As the Artistic Director, how have you been able to still engage arts-lovers in the community, despite the pandemic?

A: We decided to use the original performance dates in July and create an Online Festival called UNSTAGED. We had: 

  • Performances by Cornetti’s Candid Concert. 
  • Marianne Cornetti singing the opening of the UNSTAGED season with Verdi to Broadway
  • Orchestra showcases from BEO Quartet 
  • PianOpera 4 hands on a piano 
  • Stunning Flutist Lindsey Goodman 
  • Interviews with the cast of Pagliacci
  • Carl Tanner 
  • Danielle Pastin
  • Discussions with prolific composer of Lysistrata (Mark Adamo) and putting together PFO’s Online Young Artist Program
  • A panel discussion called I, TOO, SING A Celebration of the Lives and Works of Classical Vocal Composers of the African Diaspora
  • Walking with Wagner discussion with renowned soprano, Jane Eaglen, tenor Kevin Ray and soprano Elisabeth Rosenberg
  • In addition, the festival included interviews with all of the voice faculty (Maria Spacagna, Nancy Maultsby, Rob Chafen) and dramatic soprano Christine Goerke and soprano Alex Loutsion, who are both hopefully returning to PFO to do “A Gathering of the Goddesses” in our gala next year
  • A performance of our children’s opera Rusalka, and a GRANDE FINALE with radio host Anna Singer and our Artistic Director Rob Frankenberry.

Q: What message would you give to anyone in a position of power and influence, who can pave a way for younger singers?

A: “The reality is we are not going back. The reality is that we will, of course, be live again. But, we are now in a reality of online content. We will see a wave of huge new online technology and content. To be in person, there is nothing better. To feel and hear someone take a breath, to see the conductor and his passion, we lose that. I know this is a devastating time for our art form, and we are all feeling so vulnerable. Because I am a singer, and my first love is other singers, it was absolutely vital that I went to our board and said, “There are singers losing their shirts. We have to pay. [We have to pay] everyone involved. So, we paid every artist and technician a portion of either their cancelled, Postponed or repositioned contract. I am so thankful for our board and for the company; I am so happy to be able to help fellow artists. 

What I really want to say to younger singers is that this is a very odd time. This is a time where people are less likely to practice, study, and remain optimistic, with the mindset that there is nothing to go back to. But you must continue to focus, continue to study, so that we do not emerge from this with a “COVID VOICE.” Dust those vocal folds off. Get your body engaged and moving. We WILL be back. It is not just the artists who need music. WE, as people, need music. We need our hearts filled up and our beings to be touched. Opera directors and others running opera companies must continue to push the envelope and not give up. I will not do that. 

Upcoming events from PFO and Marianne Cornetti include:

-“Mezzo Mania” with Marianne for the CS Music Online Masterclass Series this Thursday, September 10, 2020 7:00pm EST
-PFO is hosting the Mildred Miller International Online Voice Competition, for Mezzos only with all-mezzo judges, on November 6, 7, and 8 2020. The application is open now on YAPTracker. 

CS Music Staff

CS Music is THE community for singers, teachers, and pianists. CS began in 1986 with the first issue of The New York Opera Newsletter and later to the award-winning magazine Classical Singer. Since 2003 CS has expanded to included articles, audition listings, and events for both classical and musical theatre singers worldwide! Free online articles and listings are available at www.csmusic.net.