By Emerson Andrews
Pittsburgh Current Intern
For many in Pittsburgh, watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a staple of childhood. Whether your favorite part was the Land of Make-Believe, learning how crayons were made in a factory or feeding the fish, the show had something for everyone. Yet nothing was as spectacular as the one-act operas Fred Rogers wrote himself, which were then performed by most of the same cast that was there episode after episode.The Pittsburgh Festival Opera is hoping to recapture some of that spectacle in its upcoming 2019 summer season. The company is opening its 42nd season on July 13 with re-staged performances of two of Rogers’ operas; the first performances of them since their original PBS broadcasts in 1980 and 1982.
Rogers wrote thirteen operas for his program in total, from which Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s Artistic Director Jonathan Eaton was permitted to choose after approaching the Fred Rogers Foundation with the idea. Windstorm in Bubbleland and Spoon Mountain are the two operas the company is reviving, which Director Tomé Cousin believes is because of each of the opera’s’ “inner messages of unity, love, acceptance, forgiveness and happiness.”
Cousin has a unique connection to Rogers himself. He originally played the character Ragdoll Tomé on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a toy of Prince Tuesday’s that came to life through the power of imagination.“I was drawn to the project by a wonderful opportunity to work with Fred’s creative spirit again and play with this material again,” said Cousin. “My time on the program I still count as magical, so any chance to revisit and reconnect with old friends is a dream.”He brings that experience of the show with him to rehearsals every day, sometimes unintentionally. “Just yesterday in the rehearsals I’ve had a small problem addressing one character in Spoon Mountain by his correct name of Prince Extraordinary,” Cousin said. “When I was on the program I was the created playmate of the puppet Prince Tuesday. That name is burned in my brain, and I just call out Prince Tuesday instead of Prince Extraordinary.”
More importantly, Cousin wants his actors to live in the world Rogers created.
“That is what I’ve been aiming for in each rehearsal the more and more we work…to make the stage feel like the full Land of Make-Believe so the singers can be inside of that free space,” he said.
Cousin has had to navigate some challenges that come with translating a production written and filmed for television into a live performance. “With television, the audience’s frame is directed by the camera,” he said. “With stage work, the director, blocking, stage dimensions, choreography, props, musical timing and media—by Joe Seamans—all have to be blended together.”
As a professional artist for 50 years, Cousin has had plenty of experience in making sure all of those moving parts flow smoothly. In the case of a Rogers opera, that includes puppets. The Pittsburgh Festival Opera had new puppets for the shows created by costume designer Anthony Sirk. The company wanted to keep the puppets rather than have actors perform traditionally, partly for the unique opportunity and partly due to the importance of puppets to Rogers.
“Fred created many puppets, and most, if not all, were very subtly based on real people, favorite personalities in his life,” said Cousin. “They were not ‘just puppets’ to him. They were real fleshed-out personalities.”
He says today the operas may reach a different audience than the children they were intended for when first broadcast. “Those past children are now adults, and they have children. They want their kids to experience the same values and also be reminded themselves.”
“They were loved for the messages of love, acceptance, friendship, forgiveness, adventure, silliness and pretend,” he added. “In 2019 and beyond all those are still present and needed but I believe magnified by one-hundred!”
Cousin has nothing but words of praise for his fellow collaborators on this project. “Our wonderful conductor Robert Frankenberry had the huge task of fully fleshing out Fred’s musical material and making it timeless. The cast has brought such high level skills to the material and just dove in fully,” Cousin said. “Fred would be so honored, touched and, knowing him, humbled.”