La Belle Époque Cabaret: An Evening in the Bohemian Style


A grand, opulent setting for a cabaret

Oh, what a night! Here at CMA we are still in awe of the festive evening presented on July 27 together with the Pittsburgh Song Collaborative to evoke the spirit, history, and sounds of bohemian cabaret culture in La Belle Époque Paris. With a whiff of Pernod absinthe filling the air in the grandly ornate Music Hall Foyer, famous late-19th-century cabaret singer Aristide Bruant with his trademark red scarf, black hat, and bawdy, provocative sense of humor (portrayed by tenor Rob Frankenberry) acted as emcee and led us through an evening of songs, skits, and imagery. Tenor Joseph Gaines, mezzo-soprano Olga Perez Flora, and pianist Benjamin Binder (artistic director of the Pittsburgh Song Collaborative and assistant professor of music at Duquesne University) brilliantly brought to life songs from late-19th-century Parisian cabarets by writers and composers including Aristide Bruant, Claude Debussy, Paul Verlaine, Ludovic Halévy, Yvette Guilbert, and many others in a two-hour program. The performances were augmented by a colorful slideshow presenting paintings, photographs, song sheets, and lyrics to help illustrate the fascinating and rich history of Parisian cabarets, café-concerts, the opera, and music halls. Discussions of historic venues such as Le Chat Noir also were interspersed. It was truly a magical and fun-filled event complete with lots of laughter, delicious food, and drink.

Absinthe provided by Pernod

The cabaret evening was a fitting way to celebrate the exhibition Impressionism in a New Light: From Monet to Stieglitz (now on view through August 26). Impressionist artists banded together in alternative spaces—separate from the official academies and exhibition venues of the time—such as cafés and cabarets, to develop their artistic ideas and to engage in stimulating debates amongst themselves and the writers, actors, musicians, models, and other bohemian types that made up their social world. The cabaret program helped provide a sense of the context that was so important to the development of the art on view in the exhibition. The role that the cafés and cabarets played in this art world was well recognized and frequently discussed by the artists themselves.

Great thanks goes out in particular to Lucy Stewart, associate curator of education and adult programs for her enormous efforts organizing this beautiful and elaborate event! Additional thanks to Pernod Absinthe/Pernod Ricard for sponsoring the cabaret, and to Steinway Piano Gallery in Pittsburgh for providing the piano and to Kenneth Chu, Ryan McMasters, Stephen Baum, Anne Gaquere, and Emily Hipchen for helping to make this program possible. All photos by Jim Loomis Photography.

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