Shining Brow-an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright

If there was ever a life that should be made into an opera it is that of America’s greatest architect Frank Lloyd Wright. For after all, operas are nothing but drama of great proportions with scandalous goings on in-between. Although I truly admire Wright as an architect, having been fortunate enough to visit a few properties of his during my travels, as a father and a husband, not so much, Many people don’t know that Wright was married not once but three times. His often “playboy” style life caused him and the women connected with him to be the subject of immense gossip and scrutiny, straight out of the pages of a script for a soap opera, or even worse, a Spanish telenovela. (The latter is even more drama-laced than the American soap opera, if you can imagine.) However, for Wright nothing was as scandalous as when he ran off with a woman by the name of Mamah Cheney, a married neighbor of his and the first Mrs. F.L.W. back in stolid and conservative (according to Wright) Oak Park, Illinois. The scandal grew to even more epic proportions when Mamah was murdered by ax and her children and four others died in a fire at Taliesin, Wright’s estate in Wisconsin, the horrific crime having been committed by a deranged servant.

Of the three Wright properties I’ve visited, none had a physical location as spectacular as that of Fallingwater. Although many are fortunate enough to have visited it, how many can say they’ve seen an opera performed there? Yes, that’s right, this weekend on the evenings of June 7 and 8-the same weekend as Wright’s 146th birthday (and mine as well I might add, although I’m not nearly as old) the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh will perform “Shining Brow,” on Fallingwater’s famous exterior terraces. The audience will be viewing it from seating areas on a path and a bridge. The American opera has music by Daron Hagen (the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship among numerous other accolades) and libretto by Paul Muldoon, an acclaimed Irish poet   And lest you think that this doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, this will be the first time the most famous residence in the state of Pennsylvania will have ever hosted an opera. It will showcase the 11 most turbulent years of Wright’s life, beginning with Wright’s introduction with the Cheneys, his dalliances with Mrs. Cheney, and her subsequent death, as well as exploring his relationship with architect Louis Sullivan, his mentor and friend.

“Photo courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy”

The two act opera features five performers and seven musicians. While tickets are not cheap ($350), by all accounts it seems like a once in a lifetime experience. Is it really so special when Elton John goes on tour anymore, considering how many decades he’s been touring? Yet some people wouldn’t think twice about spending that same amount to see him live. Catching a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City-well, tickets for such an event are hardly cheap, especially for prime seating, but it’s still just an indoor venue. But to watch an opera live at Fallingwater-that is undoubtedly something that doesn’t happen every year.

Pittsburgh’s Lara Lynn Cottrill as Mamah Cheney with Kevin Kees as Frank Lloyd Wright in Shining Brow (photo by
Mark Abramovitz)

Performances for Shining Brow begin at 7:30 PM with audience members invited to a reception at 6:30 PM (a rain date is in place for June 9 if one of the performances is cancelled). Light summer fare and wine will be offered before the performance, with the chance to meet the actors and musicians following the show for champagne, dessert and a birthday toast to none other than Wright himself. A chartered bus is available at a cost of $35 per person for the Saturday performance that will leave from the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh facilities in the Lawrenceville section of the city. (Having driven down to Fallingwater myself, I can say that it’s really out in the middle of nowhere and driving back to the city at night is something I can’t imagine, so the $35 seems money well spent.)

Although I discovered these unique performances a bit too late for it to be approved by “in-house accounting” (i.e. me), it did seem like it would have been an incredible birthday to remember, all the more that Wright and I were born 118 years and a day apart. But if you’re like me, hopefully you can catch a performance when it is performed next month at the Twentieth Century Club in the Oakland neighborhood, home to the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s SummerFest 2013.

For tickets to “Shining Brow”s Fallingwater performances, click here.

You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    JoAnn M.
    June 5, 2013 at 11:55 pm

    What a fabulous post! “Shining brow” sounds like a wonderful event! I agree, Wright’s life deserves the “operatic” treatment! It proves that truth is stranger than fiction! I wish I could attend! It would be worth the money just to be in the presence of Fallingwater for an extended period of time. I still can’t believe that Hollywood hasn’t done a bio pic on Wright’s life.

    Like you, I admire Wright’s enormous talent, but his personal life was totally scandalous! I still remember how riveting my professor’s lectures were when I studied Wright in college. I was shocked to learn that he abandoned his first wife Catherine and his six children for a client’s wife. The murders at Taliesin (“Shining Brow”) in Wisconsin were unbelievable!

    When I visited Fallingwater in middle school I remember that I could feel the house even before I saw it! It has such a presence! It is like a living, breathing object. The Kaufmann’s must have felt like they were living inside a piece of art.

    Gemini’s are unpredictable, but always interesting! I will be toasting Frank on his birthday, June 8, in thanks for his breathtaking body of work!

    I hope you have a wonderful birthday Julie! 🙂

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    June 6, 2013 at 2:08 am

    Yes, to be at Fallingwater where you would be more like a guest and not just a tourist visiting would be incredible!

    As for Hollywood, maybe they’re waiting for the right man to play him? Although he’s much too young, I think L. DeCaprio would be amazing-I find him incredible and so versatile as an actor.

    Yes, his life would be considered even scandalous by today’s standards but can’t even begin to imagine it in the early 20th century!

    I’m a quasi-opera fan but just think between the subject matter and setting, it would be an unforgettable experience.

    And many thanks for the birthday wish! I hope one of these years to travel somewhere for my birthday, perhaps to visit a F.L.W. property to make it more special 🙂

  • Reply
    JoAnn M.
    June 6, 2013 at 2:24 am

    I often wonder what it was like to be a guest at Fallingwater or any of the Wright homes, especially when they were just built! I wonder if the guests really understood just how innovative these structures were at the time.

    I love Leonardo DiCaprio! He might be a good choice to play Wright. He did a great job playing the elderly J. Edgar Hoover. I think I’ve seen all of his movies. He is very versatile.

    I love classical music and some opera as well. Seeing “Shining Brow” in that setting would be an incredible experience!

    Maybe you can take the Oak Park tour on one of your birthdays. I have thought about treating myself to the Oak Park trip for one of my birthdays. 🙂

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    June 6, 2013 at 2:36 am

    Yes, the homes he designed are those kinds of place where one can’t imagine that “mortals” (well, very wealthy mortals) actually live in such spaces. I know I definitely felt that way at Biltmore and at Fallingwater for just the unique design that’s connected with nature. And yes for a home of that degree in the 1920s/1930s, unimaginable.

    Yes, he was excellent as Hoover and also in the Aviator (drawing a blank on the real person’s name for the latter. Another decade and I think he could fit the bill 🙂

    I actually did tour Oak Park and loved it! Still find it so ironic that he and Hemingway lived a block apart and both found Oak Park so oppressive and stifling (I love Chicago and would kill to live there!). A dream is to visit Taliesin, their remote location though in terms of getting there makes it stay a dream until I can figure out the logistics!

  • Reply
    JoAnn M.
    June 6, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    I remember reading and commenting on your FLW post last year when you mentioned your trip to Oak Park, I should have said Chicago. As you probably know, there are a lot of early homes there. Also, I remember you mentioning that The Robie House was one of the homes you wanted to see. I would love to see the restoration! I would also love to visit Taliesin! There is so much Wright history there.

    Did you see the Ken Burns documentary on Frank on PBS from a few years ago? It is the best I have seen so far!

    DiCaprio did do a good job playing Howard Hughes in “The Aviator”. I think of him as an actor with real talent not a movie star. He just happens to be gorgeous as well. 🙂 Have you seen “The Departed” and “Shutter Island”? They are both great Leo movies!

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    June 7, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Ahh yes, the Robie House I would love to see! And I definitely want to get some of those awesome Lego sets. I’ve held off on getting any as I don’t have anywhere nice to display them!

    No, I have not seen the Burns’ documentary. Although he is such an excellent filmmaker, I’m sure it’s first rate.

    Yes, Howard Hughes never would have remembered. I completely agree about DiCaprio-any role he takes on, he becomes it (reminds me very much of Daniel Day Lewis). I did see Shutter Island (loved even though creepy) but only parts of the Departed. I did think he was excellent in the Great Gatsby too!

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.