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 ninth of 13 such observances of performances from the company’s 1964 Fall season.
The next offering on my Saturday subscription series to the San Frnacisco Opera was Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, which marked the return of Swedish superstar soprano Birgit Nilsson to the War Memorial Opera House stage.
I had seen Nilsson once before as a young teenager in her American debut season with the San Francisco Opera. It was the first German opera I had ever seen. It took place at the mammoth-sized Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles [See Die Walkuere – November 4, 1956.]
What I had not realized at the time is the performance i saw (that boasted the incomparable cast of Austrian soprano Leonie Rysanek as Sieglinde, Nell Rankin as Fricka, Ludwig Suthaus as Siegmund and Hans Hotter as Wotan) is that this was only Nilsson’s third performance with the San Francisco Opera. She had only appeared in two performances at the War Memorial prior to that performance at the Shrine.
After the 1956 season, she was absent from the San Francisco Opera for seven seasons, returning for a new production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and in the lead role of Puccini’s “Turandot”. She sang the role of Leonore in “Fidelio” twice. My attendance of her second and last Leonore was only her fourth performance in the War Memorial Opera House ever.
She would appear three more times in the 1964 War Memorial Opera House season as Turandot, which I will report on soon, but then was absent from the War Memorial for another five seasons.
Her fellow principals in “Fidelio” were Jon Vickers as Florestan, Geraint Evans as Don Pizarro, Lee Venora as Marzelline and Glade Peterson as Jacquino.
[Below: Florestan (Jon Vickers, left) is reunited with his wife, Leonore (Birgit Nilsson, second from left); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
For the new “Fidelio” production the stage director (Paul Hager) and conductor (Leopold Ludwig) returned from the previous production seen in 1961 [50 Year Anniversaries: Brouwenstijn, Uhl, Schoeffler, Horne, in “Fidelio” at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, October 5, 1961].
Over two decades later, Nilsson participated in a Living History project in which she stated that she always thought of the San Francisco Opera as a “German house” because of the presence of the Austrian-born General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, the prominent roles that German director Hager had in staging San Francisco Opera productions, and the prominenc ef Conductor Ludwig.
[Below: German stage director Paul Hager; edited image of a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Since, with the exception of Turandot, all of Nilsson’s roles in San Francisco were from the German repertory, it is not illogical that for her appearances in works of Beethoven, Wagner and Richard Strauss, that artists from Germany and Austria should be participants in the mounting of these works.
Yet, it can also be demonstrated – to take just a couple of the numerous examples that could be offered – that Adler proved a strong advocate for the bel canto works, nor has any mid-20th century impresario been more avid in championing the works of Massenet, whose Manon, Esclarmonde, Werther and Le Cid were all had new productions in the 1970s.
However, “Fidelio” proved a triumph, sung by a Swedish Leonore, performing with a Canadian Florestan, a Welsh Don Pizarro, and Americans for Marzelline and Jacquino, was triumphant, with Beethoven’s great orchestral passages under the German Ludwig’s formidable conducting.
[Below: German conductor Leopold Ludwig; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
One personal note. Two evenings before I sat in one of the box seats located in the center of the War Memorial Opera House’s elegant tier of boxes. The luxury of the foyer for those with box seat tickets is a rare experience, but with decades of experience attending performances at the War Memorial Opera House, it’s not where I like to sit.
Comfortable in my 12th row orchestra seat on the center aisle, I kept receiving invitations from a friend whose orchestra seat was in sat in the front row. She sat next to a woman who always left before the final act of whatever opera was playing.
I liked the location of my regular seat and, because I was a college student and college students always know these things, I knew the sound was better where I sat.
Finally, I was persuaded by my friend to come down and join her for the last act of “Fidelio”. Experiencing the two scenes of the last act in the imposing new production by Wolfram Skalicki, with Nilsson, Evans and Vickers just a few feet from you, and Ludwig leading the San Francisco Opera orchestra in the Leonore #3 Overture was a transformative experience.
(To complete my education in the near-to and distant-from the stage seating at the War Memorial, in a couple of weeks I had to accept the only seat available for sale at the War Memorial – in the last row of the highest balcony – if I were to see any of the three performances of Joan Sutherland in Verdi’s “La Traviata”.)
The next season San Francisco Opera offered a new series and I asked for and was given two seats on the center aisle by the conductor. I’ve had them every season since.
I also sit in other parts of the opera house. I am certainly aware that its sight lines and acoustics are wonderful from most everywhere in the opera house, and that not everyone would wish to sit so close to the action, but I know what I like.
This continues a conversation that began with A Conversation with Lyric Coloratura Soprano Laura Claycomb, part 1.
[Below: Soprano Laura Claycomb; resized image of a Sergio Valente photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]
Wm: In your performance as Adele in Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus,” Houston Grand Opera has announced that they are using microphones for the spoken dialogue, although not for the singing.
This brings up a point that I keep encountering. Ever since a couple of decades ago when Los Angeles Times critic Martin Bernheimer stated that it was a “dirty little secret” that opera companies miked their regular performances. I know people who never agreed with anything else that Bernheimer ever said that can’t shake the belief that he had to be correct on this assertion.
For the record, is it true or not true that opera singers are routinely miked?
LC: The assertion is totally false, as far as I know! It’s just a crazy idea that opera companies would even think of miking a regular opera performance.
First of all, as opera singers, our voices are trained to project. We sing in such a way that our voices carry acoustically – that’s the magic of the classically trained voice and why we put so many years of training into studying it.
It’s hell for us to sing with mikes. Miking distorts the sound of our voices and how we hear ourselves in the hall; we automatically change our sound to adapt to the acoustics we hear, so mikes can be disastrous!
Floor mikes would also pick up shuffling if they were turned on. Body mikes – they are damned uncomfortable to wear, as the radio transmitter is like a hard little cigarette pack you have under your costume.
The mike itself has to go someplace either on your costume or in your hair, with a line to this cigarette pack. There’s no way you couldn’t see it or the bulge in your costume from the transmitter.
Wm: There are some special situations, like the dialogue in “Fledermaus” and some of the classic musicals like Kern’s “Show Boat” where there is a lot of dialogue that covers orchestral underscoring.
LC: Yes, I’ve been miked rarely, and always for dialogue or some strange effect (or because we’re outside on a lake and the orchestra’s indoors, for example, so there is no way for us to set an acoustic balance with our voices.)
[Below: a lakeside scene from the 2013 Bregenz Festival production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; edited image, based on a photograph for the Bregenz Festival.]
Wm: You referring to the lake in Bregenz, Austria. I’ll have a question about that in a moment.
LC: So, I really don’t know how they think we could surreptitiously hide mikes and get away with it. I think at the old Canadian Opera Company Hummingbird Theater that they used foot mikes to amplify the sound, as the house was not made for opera, but that amplified EVERYTHING.
I’ve heard rumors of people at the Met being miked, but I’ve never experienced it first-hand. Rumors!
Wm: In those rare cases where there is a reason to mike, does it change the way you sing?
LC: As it is, the mike in “Fledermaus” required me to lower the pitch of my voice when I was speaking to be understood in the hall, otherwise it distorted.
I think that if I just spoke the lines without the miking I could be heard better, but what do I know? They wanted to make things easier for us during the dialogues, and they cut them off when we sang.
Wm: I have an acquaintance who insists that all the equipment in place to record DVDs and the like is a subterfuge to mike the singers. He insists that the critic Martin Bernheimer is right.
LC: I bet he’s a conspiracy theorist, as well . . . Ha Ha! No, as I said before, we train years (me, since I was 15!) to sing acoustically. On all the recordings I’ve made, I’ve found it maddening to try to get the right mix in the middle of the voice without blasting the speakers out once I get into my high register.
I’ve had mikes for outdoor concerts, etc., but frankly, even with the best technicians in the world, I never like the sound quality.
I know that it can be very damaging if a reviewer makes aspersions that suggests that the cast is miked, even if the reviewer knows it is not true!
One reviewer of a Houston Grand Opera performance of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” quizzed the press box so much about “the miking of the show” that finally Patrick Summers, who was conducting the show, came out during the break and personally assured her that under no uncertain terms was there ANY miking going on during the show.
He explained that the mikes across the front of the stage were for the radio broadcast. The review STILL wrote a review that stated that “the miking was off in the “Lucia” sextet…”
I would think the cast would know if it were miked. You can’t “sneak” a miking system onto an artist. And if they think we’re being boosted surreptitiously with the radio mikes?? Come on, you’d hear footsteps and rustles of dresses much louder, too.
The Wortham (where Houston Grand Opera performs) has a wonderful acoustic. I have sung on that stage in countless years of rehearsals, on my own to a darkened hall after shows, and the acoustic is always the same. That wouldn’t be the case if we were being “helped . . ”
The reviewer had to rescind the fallacious assertion later, but who reads the errata? THIS is how these rumors get started. For example, there were always rumors that Kathleen Battle was being miked at the Met. She may not have the largest voice in the world, but I covered her in San Francisco at the beginning of her career, and I can assure you that voice carried its pearly tones in all the rehearsal halls and the War Memorial Opera House with ease. Unamplified.
Wm: Fifty years ago it was typical for a famous singer to spend only a week or so in a city, with a brief rehearsal and a couple of performances, even in a major “international” company like the San Francisco Opera. Now there is usually a much longer time that an artist will be in a particular city.
You obviously have a special bond with the Houston Grand Opera.
LC: A singer develops a fan base in a community, and that becomes an important consideration for returning on a regular basis. In the Houston Grand Opera audience polls, I’ve ranked up there in popularity with operatic superstars, and such audience support matters to me.
HGO music director, Patrick Summers, has always been an important influence on my career decisions from the beginning of my career in San Francisco.
He’s the one who insisted I immediately come back to Houston to follow up on my huge success in Verdi’s “Rigoletto”. I had to cancel a show in Paris to make it happen, but I’m glad I did it.
He knew the community needed to see me on a regular basis to develop a relationship with me.
Wm: I don’t think there’s been that much discussion of how important the relationships between artists and the cities in which they perform can become.
LC: I’ve done all my major repertoire and then some, at HGO, so it’s hard to find something I haven’t already done there. I owe a great deal of my visibility to them and especially to Patrick.
Summers suggested that I take on the title role of Massenet’s “Manon” and other French repertoire now, but unfortunately that is not something that Houston expects to do in the near future.
If I’m not at HGO, though, I will not neglect my Houston public – I’ll be back there with David Daniels to do a Gala concert with Mercury Orchestra this next Spring. And I intend to keep coming back to Houston as much as I can, in some venue or another. Houston has much more than “just” HGO!
Wm: And, of course, Houston is not the only city in which you have a following.
LC: There are, in particular, several cities that have really taken me into their hearts – San Francisco, Houston, Brussels, Tel Aviv and Moscow, in particular.
There is something special about feeling an ongoing relationship with your public – that they want you to do well, that they’re there to see you, and have a history with you.
Many times this happens not only because you have been a frequent enough presence there, but also because the local press introduces you and keeps your public up-to-date and interested in what you’re doing.
It is not about “spin” or publicity per se in the press. It’s about keeping your public involved in your artistic development. It makes a huge difference to keep coming back on a regular basis so that your public doesn’t either forget you or feel abandoned.
Wm: How do you compare the support in your home town of Dallas, Texas with that of Houston?
LC: I don’t think enough of the Dallas community has embraced opera as something more than a “society” event yet. There’s more work to do there. I think the future of opera is more secure in Houston, because its support is more broad-based within the community.
[Below: Rigoletto (Paolo Gavanelli, right) comforts Gilda (Laura Claycomb, left) in the 2011 Frank Corsaro production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at The Dallas Opera; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
I have a lot of confidence that Dallas Opera will show a resurgence with the new leadership there. I think the dark days of scaling back to three operas a year are behind them.
The move to the new Winspear Hall has been difficult, as it requires putting a lot more butts in the seats, but Keith Cerny, Emmanuel Villaume and their team are giving new momentum and energy to the programming and marketing. I worked with Emmanuel towards the beginning of our careers, doing “Rigoletto” in Paris.
He was talented then, and has built on his already impressive know-how of the voice in the meantime, so I’d say the future looks bright in Dallas. And he’s a lovely person, to boot. That makes a big difference in my book of who will really touch lives with their music-making.
Wm: In the first part of the conversation you talked a bit about your working with Patrick Summers last summer in Bregenz doing your first Queen of the Night. That’s quite a different venue from the regular opera house, is it not? What was it like doing a role debut in such a setting?
LC: Well, it was a crazy idea to debut that role in that sort of a venue! Ha ha! It’s outside on a lake, the actual stage is on an island, and the audience (7500 people a night for 30 nights) is on the shore of the lake.
[Below: a view of Johan Engels’ sets for the 2013 and 2014 Bregenz Festival production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; edited image, based on a production photograph for the Bregenz Festspiele.]
Here you are miked and the orchestra is indoors and you are connected to them only through the monitors. It’s pretty much like being part of a Cirque du Soleil show or Disneyland!
Because the investment is so expensive to put it on, they do every show of the festival for two summers running. So I also sang the role again this last summer.
I had resisted doing the Queen of the Night my entire career. Patrick Summers had asked me if I wanted to do it in Bregenz with him, and said I could do Pamina instead if I wanted… But since he thought I could do it, I finally decided to take the plunge.
Heck, he had already asked if I could do it in Houston years before, and I had turned it down because I was afraid I didn’t have the metal in my voice to sing it.
So many sopranos start out their careers singing the Queen and then drop it as they lose the high notes. Or they get pigeon-holed in this role and lose the strength of their low notes by singing it too much.
I’ve always had the high notes for it, so in a way I was proud that after 20+ years of singing difficult rep, I was able to debut this role and still have high F’s – ha ha!
I finally figured out I just need to sing it with my voice, not the idea I have in my head of it. It’s a role where no one can criticize you for being “too old” for it, as she is a mother with a late teenage daughter…So I figured it would be a good role to have up my sleeve for the future.
Wm: Tell me more about the production.
LC: The setup in Bregenz is peculiar, because it’s such an enormous stage, so you feel very much like a cog in the machine. But it’s fantastic.
David Pountney, with whom I’ve worked on spectacular new “Rigoletto” and “Lucia” at New Israeli Opera many moons ago, really let his imagination run wild with this “Magic Flute”.
We made our first entrance on a canoe, and many elements of the show came in via the water. (A big hand that Tamino enters on, a glass box that Pamina glides by in for Dies Bildnis, the three boys on a big turtle…)
[Below: a scene from the David Pountney-Johan Engels production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” for the Bregenz Festival; resized image of a production photograph for the Bregenz Festspiele.]
The late Johann Engels, who very recently passed away, created a miraculous landscape of giant inflatable grass fronds that inflated and deflated with different lighting inside for the different scenes.
We had some technical problems the first summer (one of the other casts’ canoe capsized!) but everyone was ok after that, and we knew what to do the second summer.
In Der Hölle Rache, I shoot up on a tiny platform about 5 meters in the air, with my skirt lit up with lights. It’s pretty spectacular, and neat to feel you have the audience in your hand at that point.
That first summer (2013), I was crazy enough to be doing Zerbinetta at Glyndebourne at the same time as Flute, so I was pretty exhausted!
But last summer, I finally thought I could relax and enjoy Bregenz without worrying so much about singing the part with all the back and forth travel.
But then it rained the ENTIRE SUMMER, just light enough so that we would start the shows, and then it would rain the entire show. And we kept going- – and the audience stayed!!
That was the most amazing thing. I don’t think I had one dry show all summer. But if I can sing the Queen in those kinds of conditions, I can sing it in any condition!
Wm: You were a part of Artistic Director David Pountney’s last season as director of the Bregenz Festival. Did this add an element of poignancy to the festival?
LC: Well, yes, but for a reason more than David’s farewell, in retrospect. This summer, our last show of “Flute” was quite bittersweet, as we had all been together for two long summers on a very ambitious, difficult and rewarding show. Even the costume designer, Marie-Jeanne Lecca and the set designer,
Johan Engels came out at the last show – ostensibly for bows – but mainly to give tribute to David Pountney, with whom they’ve collaborated frequently. They even fashioned a costume for Johan like the bad guys of Monostatos (one of the opera’s chief villains).
[Below: Set and costume designer Johan Engels (center, back to camera) dons one of the costumes to take a curtain call; edited image of a personal photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]
Little did we know that it would be the last time we would see Johan. He had a fatal heart attack in November and is dearly missed. (It was his beautiful production of Weinberg’s “The Passenger” that Patrick Summers had brought over to Houston Grand Opera, and Johan’s production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” is planned in Chicago in coming years.)
Wm: I reported on one of those performances of “The Passenger” in Houston. It was an impressive production that will travel to Lyric Opera of Chicago in a few weeks.
LC: It’s wonderful that HGO is doing such important work. It’s just one more instance of how Houston is bringing attention to works that need to be heard, and making sure that they reverberate even further outside of Houston. . . Patrick Summers was the key brining Housotn, Chicago and Bregenz together. It’s so great to see when your worlds and your contacts collide!
I’m so glad he could be there for David Pountney”s farewell, and I was honored to be a part of the festivities, as well. The crew floated in on a boat with a sail that said something to the effect of “Farewell, David, we love you” on it. There was a huge fireworks show after our bows. It was an amazing send-off.
And this was after the “official” send-off the weekend before, which David put together (and acted in) himself. Some singers did a few arias from past shows with schtick involding David and then we did Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) in its entry, where David was the one we were auditioning for (actually a man who was doing a great impression of David, and then David came onstage and “found out” the imposter . . . )
My participation hadn’t been planned. One of my Queen of the Night colleagues pulled out towards the end of the run and between me and the remaining Queen, we had to fill in for her appearances for the rest of the run.
I ended up singing two shows of “Flute” back to back at some point, so it was a good challenge! And then I jumped in this staged production of “Schauspieldirektor” for her with only two days’ notice! With tons of German dialogue. Have I mentioned that I hate dialogue? I’m train to sing, damn it, not talk!
Anyhow, lucky for them I had done BOTH roles, as they had decided in this version that I’d sing the aria of one of the soprano roles and then sing the OTHER part in the ensembles! I actually remembered my lines, and the show was a huge success.
We had a hilarious time setting up the staging, and everyone was amazed I could be so funny, even David. I didn’t think it was such a departure, but come to think of it, Queen of the Night isn’t that funny a role , nor is Gilda nor Lucia. Am I am pretty funny, I must admit. Note to self: more comic roles . . .
Part 3 of this conversation follows soon.
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 eighth of 13 such observances of performances from the company’s 1964 Fall season.
On Thursday night October 15th, I added another opera to supplement my 1964 Saturday night subscription to the Fall season of the San Francisco Opera.
Although I had seen the production of Verdi’s “Nabucco” when it was performed three seasons earlier [50 Year Anniversaries: Bastianini’s “Nabucco”, with Tozzi, Cioni and Janis Martin – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 1961], I had wanted to see the great dramatic baritone Tito Gobbi in one of the classic baritone roles.
[Below: Tito Gobbi as Nabucco, in the photograph used for his recording; resized image of an historical photograph.]
I had seen Gobbi perform two of the great baritone roles of Verdi’s later career, Boccanegra [50 Year Anniversaries: “Simon Boccanegra” with Tito Gobbi, Giorgio Tozzi – October 6, 1960] and Iago [50 Year Anniversaries: McCracken, de los Angeles and Gobbi in “Otello” – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 1962 and 50 Year Anniversaries: “Otello” with McCracken, Gobbi and Lorengar – San Francisco Opera, September 19, 1964.]
I had also seen him in two Puccini roles Jack Rance [50th Birthday Celebrations: Dorothy Kirsten Rides High in “Girl of the Golden West” – San Francisco Opera, October 1, 1960] and Gianni Schicchi [50 Year Anniversaries: Tito Gobbi as Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi – San Francisco Opera, October 10, 1964].
[Below: Italian baritone Tito Gobbi; resized image of an historical photograph.]
But it seemed a special opportunity to see him the early Verdi role, Nabucco, that had such an influence on the development of the Italian baritone voice during the decades in which Verdi was the principal authority on how the Italian baritone should sound.
My decision to make a special effort to see Gobbi at the War Memorial Opera House for the third time in hand in his third role that season turned out to be truly important. This turned out to be Gobbi’s last performance ever at the War Memorial Opera House.
Gobbi would sing Nabucco for San Francisco Opera the next Sunday on their annual visit (at that time) to Berkeley’s Hearst Theater and would take part on the San Francisco Opera’s November tour to Southern California.
Other Cast Members
The extraordinarily challenging role of Abigaille was sung by Massachusetts dramatic soprano Gladys Kuchta, whom I recently seen in another extraordinarily challenging role, that of the Empress in Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” [50 Year Anniversaries: Ella Lee, Dalis, Kuchta, Waechter, Martell in “Frau ohne Schatten” – San Francisco Opera, September 26, 1964].
[Below: Dramatic soprano Gladys Kuchta; edited image, based on an historical photograph.]
A major presence for almost two decades at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Kuchta had been impressive in her two roles in the 1964 season with the San Francisco Opera, but, this was her second-to-the-last performance at the War Memorial, and except for the 1964 tours to Berkeley and the Southland, she was not to appear with the San Francisco Opera again.
Another artist who was present only for the 1964 and only in two operas was lyric tenor Franco Tagliavini, a 30-year old hailing from the Calabrian city of Reggio Emilia. He was engaged for Ismaele and also for Calaf in Puccini’s “Turandot”, the latter a heavier weight role than his voice would bear.
[Below: Italian Lyric tenor Franco Tagliavini; edited image of an historical photograph.]
He was a plausible Ismaele, without erasing from one’s memory the vibrant Ismaele of spinto tenor Renato Cioni three years before. Like Gobbi, this was the last season (and like Kuchta, the only season) he performed with the San Francisco Opera.
No artist was more associated with the Andreas Nomikos sets for “Nabucco” tht Giorgio Tozzi, who performed the role of Zaccaria in all nine performances (three in 1961, two in 1964 and four in 1970) that the production was mounted at the War Memorial Opera House. In a season in which he performed the diverse styles of Zaccaria, Gurnemanz in Wagner’s “Parsifal” and Timur in Puccini’s “Turandot”, he consistently displayed the sonority and command of the lower register that one associates with a great basso.
Janis Martin was cast as Fenena simply as an homage to a tumultuous weekend in 1961 when she achieved a level of fame in opera circles.
She performed the principal role of Ulrica in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” on Sunday evening and to sing the comprimario role of Giovanna in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” for a Monday student matinee performance. However, San Francisco Opera General Director asked that she add to her schedule for that Sunday and Monday the task of learning the role of Fenena and performing it that Monday night to replace the indisposed Margarethe Bence. Her success in pulling off such a feat was resounding.
Poignantly, as I was preparing this 50-year anniversary remembrance of that evening of October 15, 1964, Janis Martin, who was the last of the five “Nabucco” principals still alive, passed on at age 75.