Monday, June 19, 2023

100 Years of the San Francisco Opera

The San Francisco Opera celebrated its 100th anniversary season with a gala concert last Friday that was unexpectedly emotional for both performers and audience as many of us realized how pivotal the company has been in so many of our lives.
Civic boosters often announce that something is "world-class" in San Francisco, which is usually a laughably provincial claim, but the San Francisco Opera has genuinely been one of the great opera companies of the world over the course of its 100 years. It helps that its performing home is an extraordinary theater, the 1932 War Memorial Opera House. The beautiful building resonates with the ghosts of rare, magical performances where singers, orchestra, and audience converged in sublime, shared musical experiences.
The Friday concert began with Music Director Eun Sun Kim conducting the Prelude from Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg while a slide show of archival photos were projected on an unobtrusive screen. There were no captions on the names of the operas or the performers which probably irritated some in the audience, but it drew me deeply into the memoryscape with such odd remembrances as: "Oh, there's that ugly set for Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani where Carol Vaness was so awesome."
Fifteen singers closely associated with the company sang a wide range of arias, from Monteverdi to John Adams, and the slide show mini-histories would shift with each performance. In the photo above, baritone Brian Mulligan offered a soulful account of Batter My Heart from Adams's Doctor Atomic, which had its 2005 world premiere at the San Franciso Opera with Gerald Finley (onscreen) as Robert Oppenheimer. The slide show continued with the five Adams opera productions that have been performed by the San Francisco Opera, from the 1992 original Peter Sellars production of The Death of Klinghoffer to this season's cententary commission of Antony and Cleopatra.
I first went to the San Francisco Opera in 1970, seeing Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, unusual fare for a teenager but I was freakishly precocious. Moving to San Francisco in 1974, I joined the wild, wonderful Standing Room crowd who charged through the doors with their $3 tickets like they were in the opening scene of the movie The Red Shoes, where everyone races up the stairs trying to snag the best spot.
In the 1980s I made enough money to buy a subscription in the last row of the top balcony where the sound is the best in the huge auditorium.
In 1991, there was an ad on one of the classical music radio stations announcing that the company needed non-singing extras, known as supernumeraries, for a massive production of Prokofiev's five-hour opera of War and Peace. Backstage turned out to exceed all expectations, and for the next 20 years I joined the circus, marching around with banners, dragging tenors off to execution, and playing with complicated props, all while listening to some of the greatest voices in the world singing straight into my ear.
Much of our supernumerary stage business involved the San Francisco Opera chorus, which is one of the greatest operatic vocal groups in the world. With the right directors, they are also one of the most skilled and flexible acting ensembles besides.
One of the joys of growing old is having generational memories, which means I was able to experience legendary vocalists at the end of their careers (Leontyne Price, Carlo Bergonzi, Birgit Nilsson, Alfredo Kraus, Beverly Sills), the whole length of a career (Carol Vaness, Placido Domingo, Montserrat Caballe, Luciano Pavarotti), and those just coming into their prime (Elza van den Heever, for example). Two of the greatest sopranos I have heard over the years in San Francisco, Nina Stemme and Karita Mattila (pictured above) sang in Friday's program, and it felt like a privilege to have such a history with them.
The San Francisco Opera Orchestra has only been getting better with each succeeding decade that I have been listening to them, and it was a particular delight to have former Music Director Donald Runnicles as part of the evening.
What made the concert so special, however, was the energy from the audience, a sophisticated group who all seemed to be feeling their way through their own individual histories with this company.
May the next 100 years be as wonderful as the first.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Adriana Mater at the SF Symphony

Last weekend the San Francisco Symphony presented the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's second opera, Adriana Mater, in a performance that was yet another fabulous, maximalist sonic experience that rivaled Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten, currently playing across the street at the SF Opera. (All production photos by Brittany Hosea-Small.)
The opera was commissioned by Gerard Mortier for the Opera Bastille in 2006 and it has been under something of a curse since the opening, which was canceled hours before the scheduled performance because of a technicians' strike. There was another production at the Santa Fe Opera in 2008 but the work has been pretty much missing ever since. Three of the original creators were involved with this production at the SF Symphony, including Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen who conducted, director and incubator Peter Sellars, and lighting director James Ingalls. (The two women surrounded by this trio are Guest Chorus Director Jenny Wong and Costume Designer Camille Assaf.)
The story is set in an unnamed civil war in an unnamed country where Adriana is raped by a battle-empowered local young thug and decides to keep the baby over her older sister's protests. 17 years later in Act 2 the son learns the truth about his parentage and vows to kill the old guy, now blind and broken, who has stumbled back into town at that very moment. Will he commit patricide or not? I felt sympathy for the stance of Adriana who sings that she doesn't care one way or another. The libretto is by French writer Amin Maalouf whose family was part of the diaspora of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). The composer had just given birth and was fascinated by the music of two hearts, mother and child, working musically as one.
Those two visions make for an uneasy mix, but it evoked an orchestral score from Saarijaho that is one of the most remarkable things I have ever heard, with no conventional tunes but maximum musical color that was varied and fascinating for two-plus hours. I have never heard anything that sounded quite like this music. The writing for the chorus was extraordinary too, as if they were another section of the large orchestra, who were focused and superb all night.
Besides midwifing excellent operas from contemporary composers, the director Peter Sellars has been routinely casting excellent young singers of every ethnicity for decades, and the quartet of singers assembled for this production were all winners. The only complaint is that their singing was occasionally marred by odd directional amplification.
Fleur Barron as the title character was strong, smart, and occasionally sensuous, never playing the victim except when she starts guilt-tripping her son Yonas.
Nicholas Phan as the vengeful teenager gave another one of his musically intelligent performances, though he was hindered by Sellars' decision to have him spend most of the act waving around a prop assault rifle.
Christopher Purves as the Bad Guy was authentically menacing in Act One and pathetic in Act Two...
...and Axelle Fanyo was a nice addition as the hectoring sister of Adriana who offers a moment of simple forgiveness before a group hug at the end.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Art and Nature in Golden Gate Park

On a classic June Gloom afternoon, we rode Muni to Golden Gate Park yesterday for a picnic and a museum visit.
When asked if he wanted to go to the Crystal Fair at the SF County Fairgrounds off Ninth Avenue, Austin replied, "They couldn't pay me enough to go in there."
So we continued next door to the Botanical Garden...
...which was was one of the few places in this section of the park which was not overrun with people...
...possibly because they charge non-San Francisco residents an entrance fee.
Across the street at the public restrooms near the baseball fields, there was bizarre professional signage: "CLOSED DUE TO A SEWER LINE BREAK".
Portents of doom continued as we walked by the back of the California Academy of Sciences building which was disgorging a huge crowd all at once.
A fire alarm had gone off in the building and it was taking a very long time for fire engines to make their way through park traffic jams to check the situation out.
We continued on to the de Young Museum across the concourse for an Ansel Adams photography exhibit.
The lady in the festive outfit was in line for the museum's annual, week-long fundraising event...
..."Bouquets to Art" where local designers create floral arrangements to complement various artworks in the permanent collection.
The galleries were so crowded, however, that it felt like we were helping to incubate a new pandemic, so we only lasted about five minutes.
The Ansel Adams exhibit downstairs was less congested and was an interesting mixture of Adams's far-ranging work from the 1930s through the 1970s, arranged among photos from a few contemporaries along with younger artists that he influenced. As a teenager, I lived and worked in Yosemite National Park for a summer as a dishwasher at the Ahwahnee Hotel. Adams's images were being sold in every gift shop, and I grew contemptuous of the work, wondering why people didn't just concentrate on looking at the real thing, in living color, rather than having it mediated in black-and-white by a photographer. Seeing some of these same images fifty years later, however, has changed my mind. The lighting contrasts and the artistry still pop in surprising, unexpected ways.

Sunday, June 04, 2023

June Classical Music Overload in SF

There is a wealth of rare, ambitious operas and concerts in San Francisco this month, so here are a few recommendations. The SF Opera centenary season began its final June stretch on Saturday with a new production of Puccini's 1904 Madama Butterfly with a mostly Asian cast and conductor. It was musically splendid, with Michael Fabiano standing out as B.F. Pinkerton, and dramatically silly, with lots of billowing curtains and random projections.

While watching the cruel story, I remembered a speech from the 1986 play M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang where the Chinese opera singer deconstructs the opera for their French diplomat lover: "What would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner -- ah! -- you find it beautiful!"
Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Richard Strauss's rarely performed, four-hour, gargantuan fairy tale opera opened this afternoon, and it was an overwhelming sonic experience. Ranking as one of the composer's richest, most ambitious scores, it asks for a huge orchestra ("10 horns!" a musician friend exclaimed at intermission), a great conductor, and a cast which requires five of the best singers in the world. And guess what? The San Francisco Opera pulled it off, with Donald Runnicles conducting beautifully and the cast led by Nina Stemme without a single weak link. The staging is too much park and bark, but the colorful 1992 production from painter David Hockney is fun and engaging. Try to catch one of the next four performances.
The last opera of the 100th season will be new, Gabriela Lena Frank's El último sueño de Frida y Diego. The production has already appeared at the San Diego Opera. which co-commissioned the work with San Francisco. It has gotten mostly positive reviews, particularly for the visual production.
Across the street at Davies Hall this week will be a staging of Kaija Saariaho's 2006 opera, Adriana Mater. The composer died last week at the age of 70 and it feels like a blessing to be able to hear one of her major works right now.
Operatic midwife Peter Sellars encouraged Saariaho to write operas in the first place, and he will directing his original production this week. Music director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted that Paris premiere and will be conducting it again this week with his new orchestra, the SF Symphony.
Following the Saariaho will be a two-week residency of the German pianist Igor Levit, who New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross has gone bonkers for lately. In addition to a chamber music concert and a solo recital, he'll be playing Beethoven's Fifth Concerto one week and Busoni's 1904 Piano Concerto the next. The latter work is the longest concerto ever written for an instrument and a large orchestra, and Busoni even threw in a male chorus for the final movement. This work is performed even more infrequently than Die Frau Ohne Schatten, so check it out.