Planet Opera: A San Francisco Treat

Email a Friend

When I ask opera singers where they like to perform, they diplomatically name the great theaters of the world. But if I say, “Tell me where you go for the sheer pleasure of practicing your craft and enjoying yourself?” the singer will smile, her eyes will light up, and then she will say, “Well, San Francisco, of course.” I hear this all the time.

In the June issue of Opera News there is an article in which Patricia Racette declares her love for the city and the San Francisco Opera. She is hardly the only one, though few stars have done 28 roles for the company. In the 2013-2014 season, Racette will sing Margherita in the season-opening Mefistofele by Boito and then will return in June 2014 as Julie in Showboat and the title character in Madama Butterfly.

The San Francisco Opera began performing in 1923 and, in its 90 seasons, has presented the American debuts of many marvelous artists, including Boris Christoff,  Tito Gobbi, Sena Jurinac, Mario del Monaco, Anna Netrebko, Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Margaret Price, Leonie Rysanek, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Giulietta Simionato, Georg Solti, Ebe Stignani and Renata Tebaldi. 

You don’t need me to tell you that San Francisco has a lot to like. When I hear arch-conservative politicians and fire-and-brimstone preachers grumble about “San Francisco Liberals,” they might fool their constituents but they sound pretty envious to me.

This is a city with gorgeous weather; beautiful architecture; laid-back multiculturalism; a fabulous culinary scene nourished by some of the best agriculture and wine production in the world just across the bay; easy virtue in all of its expressions; a grand literary tradition (from Jack London and Steinbeck to the Beats to Armistead Maupin); an excellent orchestra with a superstar conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, known to all as MTT; the San Francisco Ballet, often called America’s best; excellent baseball and football; a proud and courageous gay and lesbian community; and a large core of generous, wealthy people--some of them “old money,” others prosperous thanks to high tech start-ups in the nearby Silicon Valley--who believe in philanthropy as a means of social and cultural improvement for one and all. No wonder opera singers love San Francisco!

It is one of those cities, like New York and Cincinnati, with strong opera/baseball connections. Last October, at a performance of I Capuleti e i Montecchi, I heard a huge cheer from the upper tier at the end of the intermission. I looked up and saw projected, on the screen for the supertitles, “Giants win 5-0.” On this visit I found the company in excellent shape artistically. In addition to the Bellini, which starred Joyce DiDonato, there was Jack Heggie’s wonderful Moby-Dick with Jay Hunter Morris doing a fine turn as Captain Ahab, and Wagner’s Lohengrin that revealed in Brandon Jovanovich a superb exponent of the title role. I have heard here and there that he will not return to the role, which would be a loss. Music Director Nicola Luisotti led his first Wagner with this performance and imbued it with considerable romanticism.

A Proud Opera History 

When I think of opera in San Francisco, I point to two important groups, Italians and New Yorkers, who introduced important traditions that led to the creation of the San Francisco Opera. The city has one of the oldest Italian-American populations in America, even though it is on the West Coast. Many of these arrived from northwestern Italy around 1849 as part of the Gold Rush, with Piedmontese moving inland and establishing the California wine industry while Ligurians remained in the city, opening restaurants and engaging in fishery. Toward the end of the 19th century, San Francisco received a large influx of Sicilian immigrants. All of the Italians in San Francisco formed a core audience that craved opera. The city had some local performances, but everything changed when the Metropolitan Opera arrived for an extraordinary visit in 1900.

The Met performed nightly between November 12 and December 2. The repertory in that visit was more complex than what most companies now produce in an entire season: Roméo et Juliette; Tannhäuser; Aïda, Faust, Der fliegende Holländer; Lucia di Lammermoor and Lohengrin (on the same day); Il Trovatore; La Bohéme; Don Giovanni; Les Huguenots; Faust; La Traviata; Rigoletto – and an entire Ring Cycle.

In 1901, the Met returned to San Francisco with a comparably ambitious season and a generous one in 1905. A two-week engagement was booked for 1906. The first performance was Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba on April 16, followed on April 17 by Carmen, starring Olive Fremstad and Enrico Caruso (who sang in Italian). In the early morning hours of April 18, the devastating earthquake that every citizen of San Francisco learns about struck the city, causing huge destruction that was compounded by a massive fire that destroyed all of the scenery the Met brought, which included the two works that were performed as well as a dozen other operas.

Caruso, a capable amateur artist, did some drawings before he was conveyed by row boat to safety across the bay. The Met never returned, but the taste for opera was deeply imbued in San Franciscans. When Luisa Tetrazzini, nicknamed the Tuscan Thrush even though she was shaped more like a turkey, came to the city in 1910, an outdoor crowd of 100,000 came to hear her, as shown in photos in this video:

The hunger for opera was palpable when conductor Gaetano Merola (1881-1953) founded the San Francisco Opera in 1923. The magnificent War Memorial Opera House opened in 1932 right opposite City Hall, much as one would find in Italy or Vienna. Merola died on the job, conducting a singer performing “Un bel dì” from Madama Butterfly. He was replaced by another conductor, Kurt Herbert Adler, who led the company until 1981. Adler created the Merola program, one of the world’s leading young artist institutes. Adler died in 1981. Three distinguished heads, Terry McEwan, Lotfi Monsouri and Pamela Rosenberg, were in charge until 2006, at which point the current general director, David Gockley, arrived from the Houston Grand Opera. 

Looking Ahead

A hallmark of Gockley’s tenure has been the commissioning of new works. I am sorry I will miss Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, one of the three operas that comprise SFO’s annual June season, always a good opportunity to sample the company’s diverse offerings. This work will star Nathan Gunn and the young mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, whom I consider one of the finest artists of her generation. I hope to be present at the September 18 premiere of Dolores Claiborne by Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy. It is based on Stephen King’s 1992 psychological thriller and stars the formidable Dolora Zajick.

The SFO is at the top of the heap of the kind of diverse opera scene one would expect in the Bay Area. You can find listings in San Francisco Classical Voice. I would direct you to Pocket Opera, a little gem that has done opera in English since 1983. Go to West Edge Opera, formerly Berkeley Opera, which now performs in El Cerrito. Further afield is the West Bay Opera in Palo Alto, which has been in business since 1955. They also perform in Walnut Creek.

Opera San José, presents Falstaff, Hansel and Gretel, Madama Butterfly and Don Giovanni in its upcoming 30th anniversary season. It was founded in 1984 by the outstanding mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis. This company’s particular characteristic is that it uses a group of resident artists for a season, following the model of German regional opera houses.

The Bay Area has a large and diverse Asian population. I am fascinated by opera from China and like Red Bean Opera, which performs Cantonese opera. Which reminds me of an opera most people have forgotten: Franco Leoni’s one-act tragedy, L'Oracolo. This Grand Guignol story is set in an opium den in San Francisco and contains rich, if somewhat over-the-top, roles for baritone and soprano. It is the story of Chim-Fang, the evil character who runs the den. The role calls for a powerful singing actor (it could be played by Shenyang). The opera also contains a fortune-teller and an aged philosopher and, on paper, seems profoundly politically incorrect and quite juicy. The Met performed it on a double-bill with Pagliacci in 1922. It is time to bring it back!

Photos: 1) Cable car by Fred Plotkin/WQXR 2) Nathan Gunn as Yeshua and Sasha Cooke in the title role of 'The Gospel of Mary Magdalene' (J. Henry Fair/San Francisco Opera)