South Hills native directs Pennsylvania debut of Handel opera
At an age when she might otherwise have been a fan of NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys, Crystal Manich knew better.
“I fell in love with opera when I was 15,” the Peters Township native recalled. “I had a little bit of background in flute, dance and piano, very small, though. But when I listened to opera for the first time, it made me realize that music really spoke in a bigger way.”
About ‘Richard the Lionheart’
• George Frideric Handel composed “Riccardo primo, re d’Inghilterra” for the Royal Academy’s 1726–27 opera season in London. It was neglected for a considerable amount of time before being resurrected in Europe in the mid-1960s.
• Pittsburgh Opera’s production will mark only the second time “Richard the Lionheart” has been performed in the United States. The first was by Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2015.
• The story takes place in Cyprus in the late 1100s and is about King Richard I of England’s pending marriage to the Spanish princess Costanza.
• While Handel was a German living in England when he wrote the opera, the libretto was written by an Italian, Paolo Antonio Rolli, in his native language, which was considered the operatic gold standard at the time. Pittsburgh Opera will project English supertitles in translation above the stage.
• The role of Richard will be sung by a woman, mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl. Handel wrote the role of King Richard for a castrato, and today, roles written for castrati usually are performed by mezzo-sopranos, whose voices most closely resemble them.
• To make the live accompaniment sound authentic, Pittsburgh Opera is partnering with Chatham Baroque to add three classical Baroque performers to its orchestra. Pittsburgh Opera also is partnering with Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama to create custom sets for the performances.
Combining that interest with a love of the theater, Manich has built a career internationally as a freelance stage director, working on productions from Arizona to Argentina to Australia.
The 2000 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School – her family relocated within the South Hills just before she started high school – is returning to her home city for George Frideric Handel’s “Richard the Lionheart,” presented by Pittsburgh Opera.
Scheduled for Jan. 21, 24, 27 and 29 at the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School Theater, the performances mark the Pennsylvania debut of the opera, which Handel composed in 1726 with the title “Riccardo primo, re d’Inghilterra.” It has been staged only once before in the United States.
Manich, who now lives in New York City, began her professional career with Pittsburgh Opera, and “Richard” marks the eighth production she has directed for the company.
She remembers her interest in the theater being piqued when she was 12.
“I realized, for the first time, that because it wasn’t a movie, it was much more interesting to me,” she said. “Something like that could happen before a live audience, and that it could work.
And so she started acting in school plays, until Cindy Schreiner, her Mt. Lebanon High School drama teacher, suggested a different role.
“She said to me, ‘You’re a really great actress, but I think that you’re a leader, and you should consider that maybe you’re a director,’” Manich recalled. “She let me direct a scene from ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ and it clicked. It just made sense to me. And she was right.”
Manich was 16 at the time, and her career path was set.
“I’ve known for a long time that this was what I was going to do,” she said.
She went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Carnegie Mellon University, and then started working for Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, which presents works designed to engage diverse, new and younger audiences.
That company’s artistic and general director, Jonathan Eaton, brought Manich along to assist when he directed Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “The Magic Flute” in 2006. She must have made an impression.
“Pittsburgh Opera hired me to be assistant director at the company for two years.”
Two years later, she got her first opportunity to direct a production, of a Giacomo Puccini classic.
“They gave me ‘La bohème’ at a time when I really didn’t have an credits under my belt,” she said, crediting Christopher Hahn, Pittsburgh Opera’s general director, with giving her “that big break that everyone needs. It really set me off for what I’m doing now.”
She also mentioned others who helped her along the way, including high school television club adviser Judith Hulick and Carnegie Mellon drama and music professor Gregory Lehane.
“I don’t know if this is just a Pittsburgh thing, but I did have a lot of mentors, from a very young age,” Manich said. “I felt very supported, and I couldn’t have done it without those people.”
For more information about Pittsburgh Opera, visit www.pittsburghopera.org.