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Pittsburgh Opera’s “The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson”

Dramady with Operatic Interludes Opens at the Byham

The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, as is widely known by now, is a play rather than an opera. There certainly is piano-accompanied singing, but about two thirds of the production is eloquently enunciated dialogue. It’s a masterfully crafted play that manages to encapsulate the persona of a remarkable woman into a tight 70 minutes. Much interest has been taken of late into remembering a neglected “local legend” and woman deserving her place in history, but the action is centered on one event that took place in Washington, D. C. Anyone expecting even a mention of Pittsburgh will be disappointed. But this is a good thing.

Sandra Seaton, in crafting her play, wisely chose to focus on one episode in a biographical subject’s life, rather than tackling an attempt to bring Mrs. Dawson’s “life and times” – and all who knew her – into an impossibly long story drawing heavily on psychological drama, a feat attempted by others with little success. She cleverly uses her text, as in Mrs. Dawson’s soliloquy, “I was so eager,” to encapsulate her fierce determination to see a future where others thrive on the fruits of her labors. Mrs. Dawson lived long enough to see the advent of singers such as Leontyne Price and others, though there were still obstacles to overcome. Even a partial list of well-known African American opera singers, present, and in the years following her death, would today make Mary Cardwell Dawson a passionately happy woman.

Mary Cardwell Dawson (Alyson Cambridge)

The basis synopsis of the play, without spoilers, has received publicity, and there were many on hand Saturday evening at the Byham to see and hear how it all played out. Thanks to solid material and much talent, it played very well. Careful attention to the dialogue is an absolute necessity, and one made easy by the cast, since a spot or two has a slight blur between memories and “asides” important to the drama. Quite naturally, soprano Alyson Cambridge carries the brunt of the show. Her vocal and dramatic abilities make her a natural for the role, and her performance was much appreciated by the large audience. She positively bubbles over with charm and personality.

Jazmine Olwalia, as Phoebe, the sweet but sassy aspiring Carmen, walked away with her part, providing much of the comedic element and singing with the fine, warm tones we’ve heard grow in volume and confidence over the past two seasons. Her “straight” readings of some of Bizet’s music were impressive, and in the spoken portions of the play she comported herself with as much poise as her character could muster and sent her voice to the farthest corners of the theater. She’s been a valuable part of the Resident Artist Program and it’s unlikely we won’t be seeing and hearing her again in the future.

Phoebe (Jazmine Olwalia, left) and Frank (Christian Mark Gibbs) listen to Isabelle (Meroë Khalia Adeeb) talk a little trash

Soprano Meroë Khalia Adeeb, as Isabelle, has a satiny soprano voice, beautifully timbred, and Christian Mark Gibbs, tenor, as Frank, matched her luscious tones in the portion of the Don José /Micäela duet from Carmen they sang. It was the most beautifully sung of the music the play has to offer.

Mary Cardwell Dawson (Alyson Cambridge) makes a phone call from the police station

For full production details and rapidly disappearing tickets for the remaining performances at the Byham Theater on April 30, May 3 & 5, 2024 visit Pittsburgh Opera.

And save time to take in the elaborate lobby placards and material created by the Denyce Graves Foundation. Ms. Graves herself was long announced to assume the title role here, but apparently it wasn’t to be.

The Artistic Team for The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson

Music Director / Pianist, Marvin Mills; Stage Director, Kimille Howard; Set Designer, James F. Rotondo III; Costume Designer, Jessica Jahn; Wig and Make-up Designer, Izear Winfrey; Lighting Designer, Todd Nonn; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight; Head of Music, Glenn Lewis; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Stage Director, Claire Young; Assistant Stage Manager, Bee Anderson

Scenery and costumes originally created for The Glimmerglass Festival; commission and production sponsored by Robert L. Turner

Original lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker
Original sound design by Andrew Harper

Lobby Display materials created by the Denyce Graves Foundation

David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera