January 18th, 2017
Note from William: This post continues my series of observances of the 50 year anniversaries of the historic performances that I attended at San Francisco Opera during the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler. This is the thirteenth of sixteen such observances of performances from the company’s 1965 Fall season.
Less than 15 hours after the conclusion of the Saturday night San Francisco Opera performance of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” [50 Year Anniversaries: “Ariadne auf Naxos” with Hillebrecht, Thomas, Grist, Vanni – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 1965], I was back at the War Memorial Opera House for a Sunday matinee performance of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” – my first Sunday matinee performance ever, sitting in a first row orchestra seat just the left of Maestro Piero Bellugi.
Three members of the “Ariadne” cast had also returned to the War Memorial, each to perform in the lead “Barber” roles. The Saturday night Arlecchino, California baritone Heinz Blankenburg, became the Sunday Figaro; the Brighella, British tenor Alexander Young, became Count Almaviva; and the Naiad, Italian lyric coloratura Jolanda Meneguzzer, became the Rosina.
The cast was rounded out by Chilean baritone Ramon Vinay as Doctor Bartolo, Italian basso Ugo Trama as Don Basilio and California mezzo-soprano Claramae Turner as the maid Berta.
In the 1965 season at the War Memorial Opera House, there were three performances of “Barber”. Three of the cast members (Young as Almaviva, Vinay as Bartolo and Trama as Basilio) sang all three. For the third performance there were cast changes for the roles of Rosina (Jolanda Meneguzzer replacing Reri Grist), Figaro (Heinz Blankenburg replacing Richard Fredricks) and Berta (Claramae Turner replacing Sopna Cervena).
[Below: Figaro (here, Richard Fredricks, left) encourages Rosina (here, Reri Grist, right) to pursue her romantic inclinations; edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]
Jolanda Meneguzzer’s Rosina, Heinz Blankenburg’s Figaro and Alexander Young’s Almaviva
I found the performance to be thoroughly engaging. I had seen Meneguzzer in a couple of comprimario roles. I had also had been at performances of her Zerlina in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” on two previous occasions (1962 and 1965 seasons), and would see her repeat Zerlina later that week. However, it was the role of Rosina that allowed me to truly experience the full range of Meneguzzer’s vocal and acting abilities, including the charm of her comic timing.
I had been an admirer of baritone Heinz Blankenburg in such roles as Paolo in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” and Arleccino in “Ariadne auf Naxos”. Like Rosina, the role of Figaro provides abundant opportunity for one to get the measure of an artist.
[Below: California tenor Heinz Blankenburg, here as Figaro in a 1967 Hamburg State Opera performance of Mozart’s “Der Hochzeit des Figaro”; edited image, based on a frame from a video on youtube.com.]
My one reservation in what I regarded as an excellent cast was the Alexander Young’s Almaviva. There was no question that Young was a fine artist, who sang at the San Francisco Opera only during the 1965 season. For me, Young’s performance was light on Almaviva’s lusty energy, that should propel the action in this best-known of operatic comedies.
[Below: British lyric tenor was Count Almaviva; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]
Ramon Vinay’s Doctor Bartolo and Ugo Trama’s Don Basilio
In yet another 1965 season example – possibly the most memorable – of former heldentenor Ramon Vinay’s successful foray into the baritone repertory, Vinay proved a hilarious and fussy Doctor Bartolo, delivering the goods in Bartolo’s great aria A un dottor della mia sorte.
Ugo Trama’s deep basso voice lent gravitas to the role of Guardiano in “Forza del Destino” [50 Year Anniversaries: “Forza del Destino” with Leontyne Price, Konya, Wolansky – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 1965], but it was Trama’s comedic skills with which his San Francisco Opera appearances (limited to the 1965 and 1968 season) are most associated.
[Below: Don Basilio (Ugo Trama, left) suggests to Doctor Bartolo (Ramon Vinay, right) that the most effective way to deal with a rival is to invent false rumors about him to be spread around; edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]
Trama had brought charm and spirit to the role of Leporello [50 Year Anniversaries: “Don Giovanni” with Leontyne Price’s Donna Anna – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 1965] in a pair of “Giovannis” earlier in the season. He was also enlisted for a very funny, vocally first rate Don Basilio, which he sang in all three “Barber” performances.
[Below: Ugo Trama as Don Basilio; edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The 1965 “Barber” Rosinas, General Director Kurt Herbert Adler and Maestro Piero Bellugi
Two lyric coloratura sopranos – the Italian Jolanda Meneguzzer and the American Reri Grist – shared the role of Rosina in San Franciso Opera’s 1965 season.
I have been fortunate to have interviewed both of them and believe their own recollections of their appearances at the San Francisco Opera in the mid-1960s [see A Star Among Legends: A Conversation with Coloratura Soprano Reri Grist and A Conversation with Lyric-Leggiero Soprano Jolanda Meneguzzer] have documentary interest.
First, Grist and Meneguzzer both enunciated their respect for General Director Kurt Herbert Adler. Grist stated: “I was very fond of Adler and had great respect for him. I know that he had his tantrums, but he was knowledgeable about opera and had a great respect for anyone who gave all he or she had to offer.”
I can’t resist quoting extensively from my posted conversation with Signora Meneguzzer, about the morning that Kurt Herbert Adler allowed Jolanda Meneguzzer to see a not well-known facet of of his personality, so different from “his tantrums”:
“Colleagues and company personnel knew of my desire to visit Disneyland. After my debut in Los Angeles, Maestro Adler who is always so stern, with a hint of a smile said, ‘You were good. Let’s go to Disneyland tomorrow morning, provided that no one know’.” The next morning I found a car waiting outside the hotel. It was an amazing day. It was like I was in the company of a fun, smiling young man, so different from the gruff maestro!
We were two carefree kids having innocent fun. We tried all the rides, saw and bought the colorful gadgets that were offered us. Then the Maestro returned the same as always, a little distant and very serious, with no confidences. I had earned an award. It was my prize!”
Maestro Bellugi, whose friendship was so important to the career of the San Francisco Opera’s Music Director Nicola Luisotti (2009 through 2017/8) [see A Maestro of Music and Metaphor: An Interview with Nicola Luisotti] only conducted at the San Francisco Opera during the 1965 season.
However, Meneguzzer, in her conversation, provided me with a charming story about Maestro Bellugi. She said: “I cherish my memories of Maestro Bellugi. He had been a great friend with whom I always worked with a lot of enthusiasm. He was a man who sought refuge in a world of his own, far away from reality.
“I remember once, in San Francisco, that we were staying in apartments very close to each other. He came to my door, desperate because he could not find the telephone, I found that he had closed the phone in the refrigerator, where it had been confined because it rang too often, disturbing the Master who had to study.
“He was a great musician, gifted and refined, without a doubt in my mind of all the conductors with whom I have worked, none was with more pleasure, though I like to remember working other names such as Claudio Abbado, Antonino Votto, and Tullio Serafin.”
Tags: 50 Year Anniversaries
January 13th, 2017
The following interview took place at the 2016 Glimmerglass Festival, whose facilitation of the interview is deeply appreciated.
Wm: Typically, my opening interview questions relate to one’s childhood experiences with music and opera. However, you have given quite a summary of your life so far in your autobiography Odyssey of an African Opera Singer: From Zwide Township to the World Stage, now in its second edition. That autobiography provides an absorbing account of your growing up during the tumultuous 1990s and first decade of the 21st century in post-apartheid South Africa.
[Below: the cover of Musa Ngqungwana’s autobiography, from amazon.com.]
You relate details of your basic education and your training in choral music in missionary schools and in the newly established multicultural schools, partly based in your native language of Xhosa.
In your autobiography, you note that was a videotape of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” from the 1978 Glyndebourne Festival, in which Jamaican-born British bass-baritone Sir Willard White was the Speaker. This appears to have been a “life-changing” event for you. Would you describe its importance in more detail?
MN: It was in the year 2000 when I was 16, and part of the Viola Men’s Chorus in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. At that time, I was not aware that black people performed opera. Here was a black person, in Britain, in a costume singing opera. I was overtaken by that image.
I knew on the spot that I wanted to dress up and be involved in opera. But to my limited knowledge at the time, I wasn’t aware that blacks could study opera singing in South Africa, nor knew if there were any opportunities for an opera career there. I studied engineering but couldn’t afford to continue my engineering degree.
[Below: Bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana; edited image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of musangqungwana.com.]
Wm: In your autobiography you speak of the importance of your experiences as an adolescent and youth in choruses, but note that the South African pedagogical styles for choral singing are so different from European music that you lacked the preparation to read or write music, yet in 2010 you were accepted into the prestigious Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts [AVA]. Would you explain what happened in that decade that led to AVA inviting you to study with them?
MN: We started an opera ensemble with colleagues in Port Elizabeth, after we came across a reference in a free newspaper, The Algoa Sun, to a Monica Oosthuizen of the Port Elizabeth Opera Club.
Monica was an opera aficionado, who promoted opera concerts, particularly in the Port Elizabeth region. She invited us to audition for her, and, satisfied that we had talent, arranged for the facility for us to conduct a free concert, and also introduced us to a prominent South African soprano, Mimi Coertse, who was based in Pretoria.
Coertse, noting my inability to read or write music, asked me why I wasn’t studying music. She arranged for an audition for me and my colleagues before a panel that included herself and the South African opera director Niels Hansen.
[Below: the University of Cape Town’s Professor Virginia Davids (left) in 2016, on the occasion of Andre Thomas (right) succeeding her as the Musical Director of the ComArt Choristers at Elsies River (a suburb of Cape Town); edited image, based on a photograph from Artsvark Presser.
After the audition I was referred to Professor Virginia Davids, then the head of vocal studies at the University of Cape Town [UCT]’s College of Music. With her assistance I was able to audition and eventually got accepted into UCT’s music program, where I began to learn about music, voice and opera performance. Professor Davids was my voice teacher for six years.
Among my professors during my six years at UCT was Professor Angelo Gobbato and Professor Kamal Khan. Professor Khan had assisted Maestro James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He then led the UCT Opera School (a part of UCT’s South African College of Music) from 2009 until 2016.
[Professor Kamal Khan, University of Cape Town College of Music; edited image of a publicity photograph.]
Wm: I’ve been impressed by the University of Cape Town alumni whose performances I’ve reviewed, including those of sopranos Pretty Yende and Golda Schultz.
Please continue your narrative about your acceptance into AVA.
MN: Professor Khan told me that AVA is a top school, although not for everyone. There are only about 25 students at a time, and they accept only five or six students a year. Dr Khan said that if one survives AVA for four years, you have a better chance in being ready for an opera career.
He made the point that at AVA, the conductor requires that you sing come scritto, following the strict markings as per what the composer wanted.
It was arranged that I would make a video recording of my singing, which was sent to the President and CEO of AVA, Kevin James McDowell. In 2009, I was chosen for AVA on the basis of that video.
I wasn’t able to begin the program in 2009, but they had a full scholarship waiting for me. I arrived in 2010 and was enrolled for four years.
Wm: Tell me about your experiences at AVA.
MN: AVA is very clinical in approaching music. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I was there to study. AVA is the kind of school that when faculty members tell you that you’re singing flat, they will explain why you are flat and then will show you how you can correct the problem. They sometimes get under your skin on purpose, but they are never unprofessional.
Laurent Philippe was my first coach. He’s French. I was not used to his type of honesty in criticizing my singing. I remember thinking that this would be a tough ride.
But I came to appreciate that honesty, which is respected by artists who have worked with him. As an example, tenor Michael Fabiano, who is also an AVA graduate, still works with Laurent.
Laurent Philippe advised me that once I learn all the music, I should sing it all the time, so that my muscles would get used to it.
At AVA you learn the craft. When the vocal coaches give you advice, you listen to them. You are respectful and accept criticism.
I had expected to take AVA a year at a time, and to have the goal of landing an agent before the end of my time there. But events moved much faster than I expected.
Wm: Tell me about those events.
MN: In my third year, in March 2013, I was a Grand Prize Winner in the New York Metropolitan Opera competition.
By October 1 of that year, I had an agent, Bill Guerri of Columbia Artists Management (CAMI).
In my final year at AVA I landed my first job with a contract with Francesca Zambello for Puccini’s “La Boheme” at the Washington National Opera.
[Below: the Bohemians Schaunard (Christian Bowers, left), Marcello (Trevor Scheunemann, center, standing), Colline (Musa Ngqungwana, standing, second from right) and Rodolfo (Alexey Dolgov, right, kneeling) play a trick on their landlord Benoit (Donato DiStefano, seated, center) in the 2014 Washington National Opera production of Puccini’s “La Boheme”; edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
Wm: What were some of the roles that you performed as a student as AVA?
MN: I performed two roles in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” – the Commendatore in the first performance and Leporello in the following five – exchanging those roles with AVA basso Nicholas Masters.
The conductor was Maestro Maestro Macatsoris, who is very finicky about performing operas by Mozart and Verdi. You can work for two hours with him on one page of secco recitative with him yelling at you. No one is going to take your hand at AVA.
I also sang Il Talpa in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro”, Graf Waldner in Richard Strauss’ “Arabella”, Bartolo in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, Dulcamara in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”, the Comte in Massenet’s “Manon”, Sancho in Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” and Gremin in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”.
Of the roles I’ve done, the most demanding was the title role of Verdi’s “Oberto”. I was 26 at the time.
Wm: I saw that role performed by Ferruccio Furlanetto at the San Diego Opera.
MN: Ferruccio Furlanetto is one of my favorite people. I love the way he does things. I’ve seen him perform the role of King Philip in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” three times.
Wm: The first time I saw you in performance was as Queequeg in Heggie’s “Moby Dick”, conducted by Maestro James Conlon [Review: Maestro Conlon Captains Another Successful Launch for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” – Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2015], just two years after your graduation at AVA. How did that come about?
MN: I wasn’t sure how the Los Angeles Opera came to offer the role to me, but now I know that my agent Bill Guerri had a hand in getting me that role. The part of Queequeg is interesting. I know that I should be able to sing Queequeg for the rest of my life.
[Below: Queequeg (Musa Ngqungwana, center) has fallen ill, greatly disturbing the Greenhorn (Stephen Costello, left) and Pip (Talise Trevigne, right); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Wm: Your Glimmerglass Festival debut role was in a Rossini rarity – Gottardo the Mayor in Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra” at the Glimmerglass Festival [Review: Gilmore, Angelini, Ngqungwana Take Flight in Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 7, 2016]
MN: I enjoyed working with Maestro Joseph Colaneri. If you come prepared, he is very flexible. I think I greatly benefited from working with him. I cannot drive 120 miles an hour, and if I’m trying to sing Rossini coloratura with an inflexible conductor, it can be a problem.
But supportive conductors can help you deconstruct how you are singing, and help you find the right voice, as if you are pounding a sword to re-forge it.
[Below: Musa Ngqungwana (right) with Glimmerglass Festival Ensemble Member Simon Dyer in the 2016 production of Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie”; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Wm: I am scheduled to review your Porgy in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”, in a Francesca Zambello production that will open the 2017 Glimmerglass Festival.
MN: I felt greatly honored when Francesca chose me for that role. She told me that she would arrange for coaching for me to learn the Gullah accent. I’m on a timeline to master the role.
Wm: As you move into your mid-30s, what roles do you aspire to take on?
MN: It’s been my interest and dream to sing Verdi bass-baritone roles. I’ve already done the High Priest of Baal in Verdi’s “Nabucco” at Opera Philadelphia in Thaddeus Strassberger’s production, and I am currently preparing for Amonasro in Verdi’s “Aida”. I shall slowly build up as necessary on this demanding but important repertoire as I grow into it.
I’m, of course, open to any Mozart or Rossini role, such as Leporello in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” or Mustafa in Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”.
Wm: What roles do you consider yourself ready for, and what roles do you expect to wait for?
The vocal coaches want the artists they teach to have long careers, and my vocal coach has his own ideas of what I’m ready for.
To have a career you have to respond to the opportunities that are offered you. The great tenor George Shirley told me that the only way that you know you’re ready is if you can sing all the parts of the role in one attempt/run without getting tired. Then you know you are ready for it.
I believe how you sing with a coach is different than how you sing in theater with a conductor, and how you sing in rehearsals is different than how you sing in the middle of a run. Coaches can’t be with you for everything that is going on.
I will return to Glimmerglass to do Porgy. I know that I can sing Queegueg for the rest of my life. Of course I do the smaller parts in Puccini’s “Tosca”. I’m interested in Michele in Puccini’s “Tabarro”. Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” is outside of my personality. My manager already has ideas of what I should do.
I’ve been asked if I want to sing German roles. In three years time, I figure I want to try John the Baptist in Richard Strauss’ “Salome” and hopefully would grow into it. After that I would consider the Dutchman role in Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman”. At age 45 I might try to go for Wotan in Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”.
Wm: I’m looking forward to seeing how your career progresses. Thank you for your time for this interview.
MN: Thank you.
Tags: 2008-2017 William's Interviews
December 31st, 2016
Note from William: This post continues my series of observances of the 50 year anniversaries of the historic performances that I attended at San Francisco Opera during the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler. This is the twelfth of sixteen such observances of performances from the company’s 1965 Fall season.
The next opera on my Saturday night San Francisco Opera live performance series was the October 23 opening performance of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”, introduced by the company to the United States eight years before [Young Rysanek Promotes Strauss at L. A.’s Shrine – “Ariadne auf Naxos” – San Francisco Opera, November 1, 1957].
The company revived the George Jenkins production seen in San Francisco in 1957 and 1959, but with a cast that consisted of several artists who had successfully performed the opera at the 1965 Salzburg Festival in a Günther Rennert production under the leadership of the legendary Maestro Karl Böhm.
Rennert, one of the important directors associated with the rebuilding of a European Opera infrastructure after the devastation of World War II, had, two years earlier, recreated his famous production of Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia” for the San Francisco Opera [50 Year Anniversaries: Grist, Valletti, Prey in “Barbiere di Siviglia” – San Francisco Opera, September 28, 1963.]
The Rennert Salzburg “Ariadne” production’s leads, German dramatic soprano Hildegard Hillebrect, New York lyric coloratura soprano Reri Grist and South Dakota heldentenor Jess Thomas – respectively Rennert’s Ariadne, Zerbinetta and Bacchus – were engaged by San Francisco Opera for its 1965 season “Ariadne”.
The principal characters in the the opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” are dual roles. The artists who play Ariadne, Bacchus, Zerbinetta and her commedia dell’arte troupe appear both as the performers themselves and the characters they play. The prologue, in which the egos of the temperamental diva and divo clash with one another and with the Composer, provides a rare opportunity for comedy for artists whose repertories consist mainly of dramatic soprano or heldentenor roles.
Jess Thomas’ Bacchus
Jess Thomas, the Salzburg Bacchus, repeated the role for the San Francisco Opera, the site of his first professional operatic success in smaller roles in the 1957. In the ensuing years, with experience in lead roles in European houses, Thomas was recognized as an international opera star.
For his return to San Francisco after a seven season absence, Thomas was assigned four roles – besides Bacchus the roles of Walther [50 Year Anniversaries: Jess Thomas’ Victorious “Die Meistersinger” – San Francisco Opera, September 11, 1965] and Mario Cavaradossi [50 Year Anniversaries: “Tosca” with Marie Collier, Jess Thomas and Ramon Vinay – San Francisco Opera, October 21, 1965] and the title role in Wagner’s “Lohengrin”.
In glorious voice for Bacchus, as he had been in the performances I attended of his Walther and Cavaradossi, the 1965 season confirmed Thomas’ ascendancy as the lead tenor in the “German wing” of the San Francisco Opera repertory, a position in which he would be unchallenged for the next decade.
[Below: Hildegard Hillebrecht (left) and Jess Thomas (right) are featured on the cover of the DVD recording of the 1965 Salzburg Festspielhaus production of “Ariadne auf Naxos”; resized image of a Arthaus Musik DVD cover]
Helen Vanni’s Composer
Joining Hillebrecht, Grist and Thomas in San Francisco was mezzo-soprano Helen Vanni, who gave a fine performance as the high-strung Composer. Vanni had previously impressed me as Dorabella in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” [50 Year Anniversaries: “Cosi fan Tutte” with Schwarzkopf, Vanni, Valletti, Prey, Wolovsky, Grist – San Francisco Opera, October 19, 1963], as she would in two other roles at the War Memorial Opera House the next spring – the title role of Thomas’ “Mignon” and Isabella in Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”.
Reri Grist and the Commedia dell’Arte Troupe
The representative of “grounded” human reality among the opera’s gods, goddesses, and eg0-driven artists is Zerbinetta, the leader of the an improvisational comic dance troupe. Properly played, and Reri Grist performed the role masterfully, it is the character that gains the audience’s sympathy.
Zerbinetta sings one of most taxing of coloratura arias, the lengthy Grossmächtige Prinzessin. Grist’s peerless delivery of the showstopping aria, sung not just to Hillebrecht’s Ariadne, but, at the foot of the stage, directly to the audience, is a lasting memory. [See my interview with her at A Star Among Legends: A Conversation with Coloratura Soprano Reri Grist.]
[Below: Lyric coloratura soprano Reri Grist as Zerbinetta; edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]
The men in Zerbinetta’s troupe were led by the Arlecchino of Richard Fredricks and the Brighella of British tenor Alexander Young. Fredricks, a lead baritone for the New York City Opera had performed several roles earlier in the decade for the budget-priced San Francisco Opera Spring Opera Theater. During the 1965 main season (the only main season in which he participated) he sang eight roles.
I would see Young as Almaviva on the next afternoon’s Sunday matinee of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”.
[Below: Zerbinetta (Reri Grist, left) dances with Brighella (Alexander Young, right); edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]
(The Sunday afternoon’s “Barber” Rosina – Italian lyric soprano Jolanda Meneguzzer – was also in the Saturday evening “Ariadne” cast, singing the role of Naiad, in the trio that consisted also of Annamaria Bessel’s Dryad and Gwen Curatilo’s Echo.)
Zerbinetta’s troupe was rounded out with bass John West as Truffaldino and tenor Raymond Manton as Scaramuccio.
[Below: Zerbinetta (Reri Grist, center, second from right) dances with Scaramuccio (Raymond Manton, far left, facing away from camera), Truffaldino (John West, second from left) and Brighella (Alexander Young, right); edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]
Raymond Manton “owned” the part of Scaramuccio during the first four seasons (1957, 1959, 1965 and 1969) in which “Ariadne auf Naxos” was performed in San Francisco. Manton’s San Francisco Opera career spanned the 1955 through 1978 main seasons.
[Below: Raymond Manton as Scaramuccio; edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]
Hildegard Hillebrecht and the San Francisco Opera
Hildegard Hillebrecht’s San Francisco Opera debut occurred on the Los Angeles tour in November 1964, when she replaced Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” with a performance that reportedly “saved the show”.
Subsequently, Hillebrecht replaced another famous artist, Christa Ludwig, as Ariadne in Günther Rennert’s production of the Strauss work for the 1965 Salzburg Festival, led by the legendary conductor Karl Böhm. In Rennert’s production, Thomas and Grist, the artists in the roles of Bacchus and Zerbinetta – whose quite different interventions transform Ariadne’s life on Naxos – both had notable ties to the San Francisco Opera.
[Below: German soprano Hildegard Hillebrecht; edited image, based on a historical photograph.]
Hillebrecht and Thonas were both scheduled together in assignments at the San Francisco Opera – two performances as Elsa and Lohengrin in Wagner’s “Lohengrin”, opening October 8, as well as the two performances as Ariadne and Bacchus, beginning with the October 23 performance on my series.
However, Hillebrecht, the artist who “rescued” San Francisco Opera’s “Rosenkavalier” on its 1964 Los Angeles tour and “rescued” the Salzburg production was indisposed the day of the opening “Lohengrin”, creating one of the most stressful days in the history of the San Francisco Opera.
It was not her fault, of course. Artists cannot or should not perform if afflicted with one of the series of “showstopping” illnesses. Her indisposition revealed, however, that San Francisco Opera did not have a cover to sing Elsa in the event of Hillebrecht’s unavailability.
It’s traditional for opera companies to include on its tickets a phrase like “cast and opera subject to change”. As a teenager, I had tickets to a performance of a San Francisco Opera production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” for whom Maria Callas was the announced star, but when she was fired by the opera company, the company substituted Verdi’s “Aida”. However, there were many days between Callas’ firing and the “Aida” performance, so no one was shocked by a Nile Scene instead of a Mad Scene.
But San Francisco Opera’s solution was to switch two performances. Although “Barber of Seville” was performed October 7 and was scheduled for October 11, the “Barber” cast was persuaded to perform October 8 without the customary rest between performances and the opening “Lohengrin” was moved to October 12 with its repeat taking place on October 14 (thus with only a day’s rest between two Wagner performances, rather than the four day’s rest originally scheduled).
This solved the problem of the company’s obligation to perform an opera on the evening of October 8th, even if the cast and opera differed from what the patron expected. The public relations aspect of the change was mitigated somewhat by the fact that in those days the opera “subscribers” had performances on each Tuesday and Friday night of the season so shifting which operas were performed on a given Tuesday or Friday night would not have been a major issue for many subscribers.
But the subscribers constitute only part of the audience, and one suspects that among those who bought tickets to the Wagner performance and to the Rossini performance, were interested in, say, “Lohengrin” and not “Barber” and vice versa.
I have only attended one Hillebrecht performance, that being the Saturday night “Ariadne” on October 23rd, and I found her to be an excellent Ariadne in good voice. For whatever reason (and I suspect October’s high drama may have been the reason) she never returned to the San Francisco Opera after the 1965 season.
Other cast members and crew
The performance was the San Francisco Opera debut of German conductor Horst Stein. The opera was staged by German director Paul Hager.
Chester Ludgin was the Music Master, Scott Beach the Major Domo, Howard Fried the Wigmaker and William Whitesides the Dancing Master.
Tags: 50 Year Anniversaries