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Pittsburgh Opera’s debut of The Last American Hammer will change your mind about opera.

Stories Aaron H. Bible
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Pittsburgh Opera’s production of The Last American Hammer (Feb. 22, 25, 28; March 1) at the Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters in Pittsburgh’s Strip District promises an engaging and surprising introduction to opera for new audiences. With a run time of only 75 minutes, it’s approachable to first-time operagoers.

The Last American Hammer will star current and former Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artists and be performed in an intimate setting. The opera is sung in English with supertitles projected above the stage. The Pittsburgh events mark only the second set of performances of this opera. It premiered in Washington D.C.’s Atlas Performing Arts Center in September 2018.

The action of the performance unfolds in a rural Toby jug museum in rural Ohio, where conspiracy theorist Milcom Negley holds a rare, 17th-century British pitcher hostage with a hammer. Negley, a one-man militia, rages against the tyranny of federal overreach.

Negley is a “Thirteenther”—he believes an obscure, would-be Thirteenth Amendment negates the authority of our government. He occupies the museum because it is the only place left in town to receive federal funds—a grant for the upkeep of a rare 17th-century British pitcher known as “Sir Oswyn.”

Although Negley expects to be swarmed by military drones, attention is paid only by Agent Reyes, a young rookie FBI field specialist. Negley explains that the town’s only major source of employment—a hammer manufacturer—has gone under, leaving the residents lost. He is armed with the last hammer to roll off the plant’s line and intends to hold a proxy trial against the US government using Toby jugs as physical stand-ins for a court. Toby Jugs are pottery jugs in the form of a seated person. (The real American Toby Jug Museum is in Evanston, Illinois.)

Though many think of opera as a waning 19th-century art form, a tremendous wave of new operas is currently revitalizing the genre with timely stories and fresh approaches. “People have stereotypical views about operas such as: ‘they’re all hundreds of years old, set in other countries, and are performed in large concert halls in a foreign language.’ Those operas do exist (we are doing two of them later this spring–Carmen and Norma), but The Last American Hammer is different. It’s in English, it premiered last year, it takes place in present-day America, and it’s being performed in a 195-seat venue,” says Chris Cox, director of marketing and communications for the Pittsburgh Opera. “This show could definitely change the way some people think about opera. The art form is actually in the midst of a Renaissance, with a large volume of new works being produced, many of them contemporary chamber pieces—in English—designed for intimate venues like ours.” It’s also notable that Pittsburgh Opera is doing a brand-new production of Hammer. The company will make its own sets and costumes—different from those featured in the world premiere. “That’s also something many folks don’t realize about opera: it’s not a traveling Broadway show that rolls from town to town. These performances will have their own separate cast, musicians, sets, and costumes,” Cox says. “Another little-known-fact about opera is that the singers don’t use microphones.”

The production highlights members of Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist program, which has been a launch pad to international prominence for many young singers. Urban Arias, which commissioned the piece, describes it as “a satirical but heartfelt examination of the fallout that occurs when the American Dream fails to materialize. [It] features a bluegrass-infused score that brings American roots to the operatic stage.” Composer Peter Hilliard will attend the Feb. 25 performance and librettist Matt Boresi will be in town through opening night.

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