Thursday, January 20, 2005

San Francisco Opera

I used to live in San Francisco and most of my experience of professional opera theater comes from there. They are currently experiencing a financial crisis which is to be accompanied by the resignation of the current manager, Pamela Rosenberg. I want to try to evaluate her tenure by writing an appreciation of the San Francisco Opera with a list of memorable performances in no particular order—or rather in the order of memory. Note to Jean—this is my list. You write your own.

  • The first professional opera I attended was a performance of Bellini’s I Puritani in the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, a space more suitable for wrestling and the Ice Capades than opera. It starred Joan Sutherland and was memorable mainly for its sheer absurdity. There was a tiny set in the center of vast emptiness. Everyone seemed to move around Ms Sutherland while she stood in one place, as though she couldn't attend the rehearsals.
  • And another with Joan Sutherland years later: Terry McEwan brought Joan and Marilyn back to do one more Norma. Awesome singing. One longs for this.
  • Monserat Caballé and Marilyn Horne in Rossini’s Semiramide, dressed as decks of cards. They all looked so miserable. I sat next to a woman who loved Monserat Caballé as much as I loved Marilyn Horne. She would gasp during the soprano parts, while I gasped at the mezzo sections.
  • Olga Borodina as Dalilah. She has said that this is her favorite role and her favorite music. I’ve seen the video of her performance at the Metropolitan, and ours was much better. Her singing was very mature and sophisticated, musically a step above anything I had heard. The acting was very sexy. The sets of the San Francisco production are much sexier than the Met’s, and Olga felt her way into her surroundings. Olga Borodina achieved true greatness in this role. I thought that the golden age had come again. She is a fabulous singer of the here and now.
  • Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Der Rosenkavalier. Life altering. She has said that her husband, Walter Legge, taught her to lift her performances beyond the ordinary.
  • James Morris in Terry McEwan’s 1985 Ring cycle. Until then I didn’t think I could love Wagner.
  • Messiaen's opera Saint Francois d'Assise. I adore Messiaen. I have heard people complain about the score, but the opera is five hours long and more people walk out during Tristan and Isolda. Willard White was towering. And who can forget the angel playing her heavenly harp? Messiaen achieved his spiritual aim in this gigantic work.
  • This memory segues nicely into Glass’ Satyagraha, a work both numbing and deeply spiritual.
  • Missing Margaret Price and seeing Leontyne Price in Aida instead. She was the unqualified master of this role.
  • Anything with Marilyn Horne. Orlando Furioso.
  • Kiri in Capriccio. I don’t want to forget this wonderful singer. The Versace production, not the one they filmed.
  • Maria Ewing’s Salome. I went twice.
  • Reri Grist’s Ariadne auf Naxos. She brought the opera to a complete standstill.
  • Maria Collier’s Tosca. The curtain calls went on for hours. Well, maybe not hours. Nothing like that happens today. She wore a long red train and never stepped on it once. I hope I have remembered her name right.
  • La piece de la resistance: Helga Dernesch as Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus. I can see her now in her slender army uniform and cigarette holder. I laughed till I hurt. I smile thinking of it now.
Opera is food for the soul, and we judge an intendant by how nourished we feel. I have attended the opera during four different managers: Kurt Herbert Adler, Terrance McEwan, Lotfi Monsouri and Pamela Rosenberg. They are what I know of opera. The above list includes examples by each.

Adler made the San Francisco Opera the equal of any on earth, and his followers have not been able to match him. Adler made sure the best singers came here. His biggest blunder was with Maria Callas.

I complained bitterly about Lotfi Mansouri because of his commonness. He had three particularly notable seasons: one where all the sets were made from brown logs in different arrangements, one where strippers appeared in every opera, though only one called for them, and one in the civic auditorium where all the singers were miked like a broadway show. He was entertaining, but a bit crass.

Pamela is harder to evaluate. I once complained that we had gone from a first tier opera house to the equal of any medium-sized town in Germany. Pamela dares big and fails big. She is in the mainstream of German opera production, but sadly, we are not. She produced more empty seats than any of the others. From my list you should deduce that for me the singing is what really counts, and under Pamela Rosenberg the overall quality of the singing diminished.

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