Friday, December 11, 2015
The Fall of the House of Getty
San Francisco Opera closed its fall season with a double-bill of one-act operas based on Edgar Allen Poe's short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. They were written by San Francisco billionaire Gordon Getty and early 20th century French musical genius Claude Debussy, respectively, and let's just say that most of the audience left the War Memorial Opera House whistling the amazing video projections. They were created by David Haneke for David Pountney's co-production with the Welsh National Opera which premiered the program last year, and almost compensated for the numbing banality of the music all evening. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)
Usher House, Getty's contribution, had a libretto written by the composer which was talky and ridiculous, starting with the tale's unnamed narrator transformed into none other than Eddie Poe, an Ivy League classmate of Roderick Usher. Roderick's crazy, cataleptic sister Madeline is written for a dancer (Jamielyn Duggan) who thrashes around and flops to the stage in between long monologues by Roderick (heroically performed by baritone Brian Mulligan) about the arcane knowledge within the libraries of the House of Usher from ancient times and how they need to be passed on, maybe to Eddie Poe. This dreary dialogue was presumably meant to evoke Goethe's Faust but was more reminiscent of the cheapie 1960 Roger Corman film with Vincent Price hamming it up as neurasthenic, epicene Roderick. As for the music, it was spare, unvarying, and extraordinarily dull, the work of an inferior composer who donates enough money to arts organizations to ensure performances of his work.
Gordon Getty is a more interesting character than the usual portrait of a music-loving philanthropist who happened to inherit billions from an oil dynasty. That corporation was headed by J. Paul Getty, an Oklahoma wildcatter who ended up unimaginably rich when he won the rights to oil patches in the Neutral Zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the 1950s. (For an interesting Forbes article entitled The Getty Family: A Cautionary Tale of Oil, Adultery, and Death, click here.) The miserly monster J. Paul Getty treated his five children from various wives with disdain, and most of his fortune went to a trust for his art collection and eponymous museums in Los Angeles, while the money that Gordon and his siblings finally inherited in the 1980s was from the Sarah Getty Trust (J. Paul's mom). Gordon showed his mettle when put in charge of the trust in the 1980s, and he sold Getty Oil to Texaco which put him into the middle of controversial litigation with what were left of his siblings and their heirs (drug abuse and premature death seem to be a recurring pattern in this clan).
After political maneuvering by his California State Senator friend John Burton and his Saint Ignatius classmate and longtime consigliere Judge William Newsom, California trust law was changed so that Gordon could break the Sarah Getty Trust and divide the money among remaining heirs. Retired Judge Newsom at 81 remains Gordon's investment advisor for the Ann and Gordon Getty Trust, while Newsom's son Gavin is subsidized in his political career through a series of businesses like Plump Jack Winery where the Trust is a major investor. (For a great 2003 article by Peter Byrne on the longtime Newsom/Getty relationship, click here). Reading all this history recently, made me realize the opera that I want to see is The Fall of The House of Getty, where the decadent title family becomes progressively more neurotic and macabre while the entire world is collapsing because of climate change brought on by greedy oil dynasties like them.
After intermission, the Debussy version of the same tale was performed, and though it was an incomplete set of fragments reconstructed by British musicologist Robert Orledge, the music was still more complex and fascinating than anything in the previous hour. Brian Mulligan as Roderick again and Edward Nelson as his friend were very good, but the entire effect was dispiriting. With all the good composers out there who would like a shot at a big-time opera house performance, why were resources being spent on this? The answer is obvious, and does no artistic credit to either the Welsh National or San Francisco Opera companies, although it is completely understandable and even financially prudent that they did so.