Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the ‘Standard Repertory’ of opera

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Rising Stars – An Interview with Michael Todd Simpson

July 10th, 2014

The following interview took place with the deeply appreciated facilitation of the San Francisco Opera.

[Below: Baritone Michael Todd Simpson; resized image, based on a publicity photograph.]


Wm: You are from Gastonia, North Carolina. Are you from a family with deep North Carolina roots?

MTS: Our entire family, including aunts and uncles, grew up on the same road. My great grandfather lived a mile down the road from us. We lived in a small town where we saw each other every day. We had a much different upbringing than most Americans experience.

My wife and family live in Seattle, and I’m afraid, though, that I don’t get home to North Carolina as much as I’d like.  

Wm: What are your earliest memories of music, and of singing? 

MTS: My earliest memories of singing were as a five-year old in our local Baptist church. My dad would put me on a chair behind the pulpit so I could reach the microphone. Singing was always something that was fun for me as a child.

I would sing in church and at school at any opportunity. It was always something that brought people around me joy.

Wm: More than one opera singer I have interviewed has had a background in gospel singing.

MTS: Well, I wouldn’t quite call myself a gospel singer. But, growing up singing in church teaches you the most valuable lesson for a singer. I learned at a very early age how to interpret songs, convey their meaning, and sing from the heart. I feel no matter what you background or belief system as a singer you feel a  power beyond yourself.

Wm: Have you found that your experience with the dramatic music associated with the charismatic religions has impacted your operatic performance?

MTS: Absolutely. Southern gospel and bluegrass are just a few steps away from Puccini and Mozart.

Wm: Did you take part in your high school musical?

MTS: Actually, no. Theater and choir were separate activities in my high school. But I did participate in a few summer community theater festivals. I got to play Olaf, the bass part in the Barbershop quartet in The Music Man and Lun Tha in The King and I.

[Below: Michael Todd Simpson; edited image, based on a Rebecca Fay photograph, from michaeltoddsimpson.com.]


Wm: You attended Erskine College, a Christian college in Northwestern South Carolina, where you obtained a degree in musical performance. What experiences at the undergraduate level furthered your career?

MTS: As a undergraduate, I concentrated on church music, oratorio and art song.

There were two key moments that helped determine my future. I took part in a vocal competition, the South Carolina National Association of Teachers of Singers, in which I took first prize in my junior year (1996).

One of the officials there, who taught at the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia, asked what my plans were – whether I was pursuing a career in church music or in music education.

He suggested that I consider entering the Masters program at USC. That conversation caused me to think seriously about pursuing vocal performance at the collegiate level.

Wm: But you didn’t obtain your masters in South Carolina. How did you choose to apply to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music?

MTS: Dr John Brawley, my theory professor, was very influential in recitals and boards. At one recital he said: “You know, son, that if you really apply yourself you have what it takes. The sky is the limit!”

I was 21 at the time and knew that so far I had been lucky. I decided that as long as the doors keep opening, I’ll continue to go through them. Dr Brawley died my junior year, before the NATS competition.

I only applied to CCM. I had one lesson with Barbara Hahn, who later became my teacher. I asked her if she thought I could get in.  She laughed and said sure, if I sing well at my audition. I guess I did.

Wm: You obtained a Masters in Vocal Performance at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, which appears to be a good school for an opera singer with an affinity with musical theater. What did you learn there?

MTS: First, I learned that at CCM you can’t do musical theater and opera at the same time.

I told the Dean of Admissions that I wanted both, but a Masters degree in musical theater didn’t exist, so I was told that to obtain a Masters from CCM, I would have to concentrate on classical voice and opera.

In fact, when I was at CCM, the musical theater department performed Bernstein’s Candide. A couple of fellow students and I requested to audition, but none of the opera students were allowed.  It’s too bad. I would have loved to play Maximillian.

Wm: When you finished your masters at CCM you become a member of the Seattle Young Artists Program and after that a Glimmerglass Festival Young Artist?

MTS: Yes, I was pursuing my DMA at CCM, their postgraduate opera-training program. I left the program in the spring of 2003 after being accepted into the Seattle Young Artist Program for the fall.

That summer was my first at Glimmerglass. I drove cross-country between Seattle and Glimmerglass for three years. I am so grateful for those experiences. I feel like they really helped me bridge the gap between university life and the professional world.

Besides figuring out how to sing and getting lots of performance experience, I found the best manager in the business (Caroline Woodfield, and thankfully she took me on) and had the opportunity to audition for many prominent casting directors.

Wm: I’ve found that once an artist has been selected by a certain Young Artist program, that there is considerable loyalty to that program and the opera company sponsoring it. Do you feel it has given you a special relationship with the Seattle Opera?

MTS: I really do. Every time I return to Seattle Opera as a principal artist, it feels like a homecoming. It’s such an open, fun work environment, and the people are amazing to work with.

I owe so much to Seattle Opera’s Speight Jenkins. He has given me so many opportunities for which I will always be grateful.

Yes, I feel loyal to Seattle Opera, but more than that I feel like Seattle Opera has been loyal to me. My wife, Julia, and I actually live in Seattle now, and it’s nice to be more connected to the happenings at Seattle Opera. We love Seattle. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Wm: I first saw you as Guglielmo in John Cox’ production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” at The Dallas Opera in 2010. What were your impressions of working with this famous British director?

MTS: John Cox was incredible. What I remember most about John is that whenever we had a question about blocking or interpretation in a scene, he would eagerly jump up on stage and act out the scene, showing us exactly what he had in mind. It was awesome, and really entertaining!

The whole experience of putting of putting the show together was unforgettable. I had been looking forward to sharing the stage with Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso and Nuccia Focile as Despina.

Wm: In my interview with your Fiordiligi, Elza van den Heever, she made the point that Cox spent time with her teaching her when to stand still and project calm.

MTS: John told me the first day of staging that he would teach me the proper staging for the count or I could do my own thing, he didn’t care. But I understood what he meant. He knows what works, including those moments that need so little, as Elza was describing.

Wm: You took over the role of Escamillo in the 2011 Glimmerglass Festival production of Bizet’s “Carmen” in Francesca Zambello’s first season there. You had sung in several Glimmerglass seasons before Francesca took over. Had you worked with her previously?

MTS: Yes, I had. I sang my first Escamillo in Francesca’s production of Carmen at Opera Australia in Sydney in 2009. That was my first experience working with her. I loved that show because I got to make my first entrance on horseback, singing my Toreador aria.

[Below: Escamillo (Michael Todd Simpson, on horseback) arrives to promote his bullfight; edited image, based on a production photograph for the Opera Australia.]


Wm: How did you come to her attention as Escamillo?

MTS: I was singing Silvio in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci in a Cav/Pag with Virginia Opera. And it just so happened that my wife Julia was visiting at the time and we were out on the beach.

My agent rang and said Francesca was looking for an Escamillo and wanted to know if I could audition for her in Washington D. C. – in two days!

The aria was not even part of my rep at the Time! I hadn’t looked at the role since my undergraduate days when a teacher was crazy enough to suggest I learn it. I re-learned it in two days, feverishly memorizing the French as we strolled along the beach.

I knew how big of a deal this would be for my career, so that really lit a fire under me. Somehow, I pulled the audition off. Francesca hired me under two conditions – I had to study with Pierre Valet and I had to lose 25 pounds.

Wm: I always make the point that the Toreador Song may be familiar to everybody, but that doesn’t mean it easy to sing.

MTS: It is one of those arias and one of those roles that is deceptively difficult. Everyone from basses to bass-baritones to lyric baritones like myself have attempted this role – and it’s difficult for all. I think very few have actually succeeded in this role – Sam Ramey comes to mind as a stellar Escamillo.

But, as a lyric baritone, my Escamillo is a totally different color and character. I have been working for years on this aria, off and on.  It really demands a high level of technical mastery. I feel fortunate to be able to grow into this role, and I feel I am still doing just that.

My next Escamillo is coming up in a couple of years and I’m excited to see where my voice will be, because i think that his role is well suited for me.

Wm: Since then, you’ve sung Gaylord Ravenal in Zambello’s production of “Show Boat” and have been cast in a role in her production of “Florencia en el Amazonas” in Washington, D.C. Do you think of yourself as one of Francesca’s company of artists?

MTS: I would be honored to place myself in that company. A lot of the opportunities I have gotten have come from both good timing and being ready for anything – a last minute audition or casting change. And I’ve been crazy enough to go for it and say yes, even to roles that are still growing and developing in the voice. When Francesca says “Jump”, I say “How high?”

[Below: Gaylord Ravenal (Michael Todd Simpson, right) and Magnolia Hawks (Heidi Stober, left) "make believe" that they are in love; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: You’ve had the advantage of being called upon in several last minute casting changes the past few years, have you not?

MTS: Well, yes. It’s been the story of my career that I have been able to replace someone in a role at the last minute. Getting those calls are really exciting and scary at the same time.

I’ve gotten calls for last minute auditions or to replace someone right away for entire or partial runs of performances, sometimes for a show I haven’t sung in a year or more. I work well under pressure and fortunately all of these last minute opportunities have really benefitted my career.

Wm: In “Show Boat” when Captain Andy asks Ravenal if he is a quick study, and Ravenal replies yes, Andy may be talking about you as well as your character.

I can’t pass by the opportunity to talk about the role of Silvio. I wrote the program notes for a production of Gounod’s  “Romeo and Juliet”, in which I made the point that Gounod, in “Faust”, really created or at least popularized a new way to express the emotion of love in opera. I call it “sweet melody”. Silvio’s love song to Nedda, I think, is a perfect expression of this idea.

MTS: One of the first pieces that Barbara Hahn assigned me at CCM when I was 23 or 24 was Silvio’s music. She said for me to learn this inside and out. She knew it would fit my personality and that I’d be singing it for a long time.

Right away, I was offered the role of Silvio by The Dallas Opera, in Stephen Lawless’ production.  The production then traveled to the New York City Opera, the Palm Beach Opera and the Pittsburgh Opera. I did five Silvios in five years.

It is one of those roles that is so true to the drama that you don’t have to do much else. You can let the musicality speak for itself. I call it “riding the wave”. Going from the aria to the duet is erotic ecstasy. It’s otherworldly!

Wm: When you take on a part like Gaylord Ravenal, do you work out the character’s backstory, covering the four decades of his life.

MTS: I found most of the work on the character came in the rehearsal room, especially since I was hired only a few weeks before rehearsals started in D. C. and preparation was rushed.

But I found the book to be the biggest help in learning about this character. Now, after the second time working on this role, my understanding of Ravenal has absolutely deepened, but most of this really comes from collaboration in the rehearsal process.

Wm: One of Francesca Zambello’s ideas that I find so interesting is that opera singers should be trained in dancing, like so many musical theater artists are.

MTS: It really is a collision of worlds. Working in Show Boat with all these expert dancers is definitely a humbling experience, and I do get a hard time about the few dance steps that Ravenal has – they make fun of my shuffle every time! I do plan to take some dance lessons in my off time.

Wm: Besides Gaylord Ravenal, you sing Billy Bigelow in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” – two roles that share the lyrics of Roger Hammerstein II.

You perform opera in several languages. Do you look forward to roles with poetic lyrics originally written for artists to sing in English?

MTS: Yes, I do look forward to singing in English.

Some singers I know prefer singing in anything but English. I personally love it, especially in this genre. This season I have had the privilege of singing three works in English: Demetrius in Britten’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, John Sorel in Menotti’s The Consul, and of course, Ravenal in Show Boat.

All of these roles are of vastly different styles. But I think singing in English presents a different challenge because you’re singing to an English-speaking audience. But it also helps me connect more deeply to the characters and the text.

I seem to have a certain affinity for English diction. So yes, I really enjoy it and hope to do more contemporary American works in the future.

Wm: It’s too bad there isn’t a big lyric baritone role for you in Floyd’s “Susannah”.

MTS: Well, I wouldn’t mind some day trying out the role of Olin Blitch in Susannah.

Wm: “Carousel” takes place in New England, but the role of Billy Bigelow fits nicely with a Heartland American accent, even one with a hint of the South.

MTS: I played Billy with a bit of Southern, but mostly as a nomad who loses a bit of his accent as he moves north.

Wm: What were the “Carousel” accents like in Britain when you sang Bigelow there?

MTS: The cast was mostly British and the accents were amazing, mostly a coastal Maine dialect.

Wm: What roles would you like to sing?

MTS: New roles? If we’re talking musical theater: Sweeney Todd, Emil Debeque (South Pacific), Lancelot (Camelot), and Don Quixote (Man of La Mancha) are on my short list. For opera, I’d love to sing Billy in Billy Budd, Valentin in Faust and eventually Eugene Onegin.  But truthfully, I’m really excited to revisit my old standards because I’m coming into my prime in roles like Marcello in La BohemeEscamillo and Don Giovanni.

[Below: Michael Todd Simpson as Marcello in Puccini's "La Boheme"; edited image, based on a production photograph for the Seattle Opera.]


Wm: What about the Romantic era classics like Wagner and Verdi?

MTS: Puccini is probably as big as I will get with this lyric baritone. I would like maybe to sing Posa in Verdi’s Don Carlo, but that is the only Verdi I expect ever to get close to.

I’m doing the Herald in Wagner’s Lohengrin in 2017, but I doubt I will be belting out Wotan in my future. But who knows?

Wm: Returning to the subject of “Show Boat” I’ve frequently made the point that San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House is a perfect place to hear the operas of Wagner and Puccini, two composers who use the full sound of a large orchestra as a key element of the drama. What are your thoughts on “Show Boat” being performed in the War Memorial?

MTS: I think it is a perfect house for Show Boat. The music of Show Boat, especially the duets, are very “Puccini-esque” – the warm acoustics of the War Memorial are perfect for natural singing voices.

Wm: How does the acoustics of the house affect you as a singer?

MTS: It affects everything you do. I sang Carousel at the Barbican in London, where the acoustics are so dry. I think the sound is dead by the time it reaches the second row of the audience. It’s like trying to sing into a pillow.

It’s scary singing in a non-responsive hall. You end up singing tentatively just trying to get your bearings and hear what the hall is giving back to you. But if the hall is welcoming, you can go all out and have confidence that the audience is hearing what you want them to.

Singing at the War Memorial Opera House is like singing in the shower. It just feels good.

Wm: One of the arguments that I have been making is that Americans have produced two rich source of memorable melody, which I believe should be exploited in creating American operas in the future. These include the American musicals and the film scores of the blockbuster Hollywood movies.

The composer that has tapped into these sources, I believe, is Jake Heggie, most obviously in his opera “Moby Dick”.  What are your thoughts on this observation?

MTS: Like you, I was fortunate enough to be in Dallas to see the premiere. I love Jake’s writing and would love to work with him someday. His writing is striking, both musically and visually as you see in Moby Dick.

I do agree with you that American opera is going to see a rebirth, a new way of writing that incorporates many different styles from our American heritage – from jazz to gospel to the American musical.

American opera is becoming more grand, more visual, especially with the trend towards Opera in HD for the big screen.

Wm: I can’t leave you without confessing that in a review of one of your performances I garbled your name! Fortunately, with the Internet a mistake like that can be corrected eventually.

MTS: That’s right! I had forgotten that. I looked at this good review and I said “he’s got my name wrong”. Apology accepted!

Wm: Thank you for your time. I enjoyed our very interesting conversation.

MTS: Thank you also.



For my reviews of Michael Todd Simpson performances, see: Aboard San Francisco Opera’s “Show Boat”: Showy Cast, Abundant Show-stoppers – June 1, 2014, and also,

Costa-Jackson, Diegel, Matanovic and Simpson Excel in Glimmerglass Opera’s “Carmen” – August 13, 2011, and also,

Bel Canto “Cosi fan Tutte” at Dallas Opera – February 18, 2010.


Tags: 2008-2014 William's Interviews

In Quest of Less Well-Known Operas – July-December, 2014

July 8th, 2014

This feature highlights selected performances of operas at the 2014 Santa Fe Opera Summer Festival and in San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles that I am scheduled to review.

This list is supplementary to previous lists in this “Quests and Anticipations” series of selected operas being performed from July, 2014 through February, 2015.

These are Bizet’s “Carmen” in Santa Fe and Verdi’s “La Traviata” in Los Angeles [See Popular Opera Offerings in Southwestern Vacation Destinations – March-September, 2014]; 

Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in Santa Fe and Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” at the Glimmerglass Festival, New York [See Selected French and German Opera Offerings Coast to Coast April-August, 2014];

Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” in Santa Fe and Bellini’s “Norma” and Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” in San Francisco [See “Bel Canto” Italian Works in Toronto and the American Southwest – April-October, 2014];

Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” and Picker’s “An American Tragedy” at the Glimmerglass Festival, New York, Floyd’s “Susannah” at the San Francisco Opera, and Corigliani’s “The Ghosts of  Versailles” at the Los Angeles Opera [See In Quest of Opera Company Performances of American Works – July 2014 to February 2015.].

Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Glimmerglass Festival, New York, Puccini’s “Tosca” and “La Boheme” at the San Francisco Opera and Puccini’s “La Boheme” at the San Diego Opera [See A Selection of Popular Puccini Opera Performances – July 2014-January 2015.]

Mozart’s “The Impresario” and Stravinsky’s “Le Rossignol” at the Santa Fe Opera, and Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and Bartoke’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” at the Los Angeles Opera. {See Anticipated Opera Operatic “Double Bills” in Santa Fe and Los Angeles – July-November, 2014.]


Doctor Sun Yat-Sen (Huang Ruo), Santa Fe Opera, July 26, 30, August 8 and 14, 2014.

Santa Fe Opera mounts the American premiere of Huang Ruo’s opera about Doctor Sun Yat-Sen, Although he was a central figure in early 20th century Chinese history, the opera, which will be sung in the Chinese Mandarin dialect, is focused on Sun’s personal life.

[Chinese composer Huang Ruo; image from the Santa Fe Opera.]


Tenor Warren Mok, the creator of the title role at the opera’s Hong Kong premiere in 2011, will introduce it to Santa Fe.

Soong Chingling, Sun’s wife, is sung by Corinne Winters, Ni is sung by Mary Ann McCormick, Charlie Soong by Don-Jian Gong. The role of Mr Umeya is sung by Chen-Ye Yuan.

The conductor will b e Carolyn Kuan. THe director is James Robinson, scenic designs by Allen Moyer with costume designs by James Schuette. Sean Curran ua choreographer.


Capriccio (Richard Strauss) Lyric Opera of Chicago, October 6, 9, 12, 1, 22, 25 and 28, 2014.

A stellar cast has been assembled for the mounting of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ late career work, “Capriccio”.

[Below: Renée Fleming as the Countess; edited image, based on a production photograph for the New York Metropolitan Opera.]


Renée Fleming is the Countess, Anne Sofie von Otter is Clarion, Bo Skovhus is the Count, William Burden is Flamand, Auden Iversen is Olivier and Peter Rose is La Roche in a mounting of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ “conversation piece”.

Sir Andrew Davis is the conductor.


Partenope (Handel), San Francisco Opera, October 15, 18, 21, 24, 30 and November 2, 2014.

Handel’s melodic opera about Queen Partenope of Naples is shifted to Paris  in the 1920s in Christopher Alden’s award winning production from London’s English National Opera.

[Below: one of the Andrew Lieberman sets for "Partenope"; edited image of a production photograph, from christopheralden.net.]


Soprano Danielle DeNiese [Rising Stars: An Interview with Danielle De Niese, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Danielle De Niese, Part 2] is Queen Partenope. Counter-tenors David Daniels [Top of His Game – An Interview with David Daniels] is Arsace and Anthony Roth Costanzo (in his San Francisco Opera debut) is Armindo

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack is Rosmira, tenor Alek Shrader is Emilio, baritone Philippe Sly is Ormonte. Christine Curnyn conducts


Florencia en el Amazonas (Catan), Los Angeles Opera, November 22, 30, December 10, 14, 18 and 20, 2014.  

Zambello’s production of Daniel Catan’s Spanish language opera stars sopranos Veronica Villaroel as Florencia Grimaldi, basso Jose Carbo as Riolobo, soprano Lisette Oropesa (Los Angeles Opera debut) as Rosalba and Arturo Chacon-Cruz as Arcadio. David Pittsinger is the Captain, Gordon Hawkins Alvaro, and Nancy Fabiola Herrera is Paula.

[Below: Riolobo (here, Nathan Gunn in the Francesca Zambello production at Seattle Opera) is a mysterious presence in Catan's "Rlorencia" production; resized image, based on a Rozari Lynch photograph for the Seattle Opera.]


Robert Israel designed the scenery, Catherine Zuber the costumes, with Eric Sean Fogel as the choreographer. Grant Gershon will conduct.


Tags: Quests and Anticipations

Review: San Francisco Opera’s Pérez, Costello, Kelsey Lineup Leads to High Scoring “Traviata” – July 5, 2014

July 6th, 2014

San Francisco Opera celebrated the Fourth of July weekend with a performance of Verdi’s “La Traviata” that introduced the “July cast”, consisting of mostly American singers led by Chicago-born Ailyn Pérez as Violetta, Philadelphia-born Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Honolulu-born Quinn Kelsey as Giorgio Germont. 

The performance took place before an audience of over 2600 at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. It was simulcast to an additional tenfold of spectators. An audience of 26,000+ was located at the home of the San Francisco Giants, AT&T  Stadium for the eighth in the series of popular S. F. operatic performances telecast live at the Giant’s ballpark.

[Below: Ailyn Pérez as Violetta, in the second act of Verdi's "La Traviata"; edited image, based on a Kristen Loken photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The production incorporated the attractive sets of John Conklin, first seen in 1987, but absent from the War Memorial Opera House stage for a decade. The staging was originally conceived by the eminent British director John Copley.

(The sets, of course, were conceived long before there was any thought of baseball stadium simulcasts, or for that matter, the construction of the AT&T ballpark for the Giants. Yet, according to Frank Zamacona, the simulcast’s director – who, like myself, was present at the War Memorial – the sets were so constructed that they fit perfectly on the ballpark screen.

[ Below: Stephen Costello as Alfredo Germont; resized image of a Kristen Loken photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Not only was the Copley-Conklin production telegenic, so too was the cast, bringing together, for the first time on the San Francisco Opera stage, the husband and wife team of Pérez and Costello, even though both of them had separately appeared previously here in “La Traviata”.

Pérez had sung a single Violetta in the 2009 mounting of “La Traviata” in a production borrowed from the Los Angeles Opera. Costello had sung the role of Alfredo on two occasions in the previous month, to the Violetta of Nicole Cabell.

Ailyn Pérez’ Violetta and  Stephen Costello’s Alfredo

“Traviata” is one of several operas in which this popular operatic couple appear together. The obvious chemistry onstage between them is enhanced by the beauty of their lyric voices, each with the requisite power and technique to excel in these iconic roles. Both graduates of Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, they now have years of experience in blending their vocal instruments.

I’ve reported previously on their Violetta and Alfredo elsewhere [Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello Star in Cincinnati Opera’s “La Traviata” – July 26, 2012].

[Below: Alfredo Germont (Stephen Costello, right) expresses his love for Violetta (Ailyn Pérez, right); edited image, based on a Kristen Loken photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The Pérez-Costello expertise in projecting young love also shone through in their portrayals of the famous young lovers of Gounod. [See Costello, Pérez in Passionately Romantic “Romeo et Juliette” – San Diego Opera, March 13, 2010 and Costello, Pérez, Grimsley and Mulligan Brilliant in Spectacularly Staged “Faust” – San Diego Opera, April 23, 2011.

They also excelled as Mimi and Rodolfo in Puccini's "La Boheme"  [See L. A. Boheme: Pérez, Costello Lead Youthful Cast in Classic “Cinematic” Production: Los Angeles Opera, May 12, 2012.].

Quinn Kelsey’s Giorgio Germont

The results of the American investment in Young Artists’ programs that began 57 years ago with such trendsetting programs as the Santa Fe Opera Apprentices and the San Francisco Opera Merola program (as well as such opera-oriented academic programs as Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts) are evident not only in the performances of Pérez and Costello, but also in the emergence of yet another stellar dramatic Verdi baritone, Quinn Kelsey.

Of native Hawai’ian descent [See Rising Stars: An Interview With Quinn Kelsey], the alumnus of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center has emerged as a new star in a vocal category that requires both a large voice and strength and lyrical beauty in the higher part of the baritone range, that is prerequisite for success in the major baritone roles of Verdi’s maturity.

[Below: Giorgio Germont (Quinn Kelsey, left) reaches an understanding with Violetta (Ailyn Pérez, right); edited image, based on a Kristen Loken photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I have recorded Kelsey’s successes in Verdian roles [See A Second Look: “Attila”, Verdi and Italian Opera in the Luisotti Era – San Francisco Opera, July 2, 2012 and An Admirable “Aida”: Hui He, Berti, Smirnova, Kelsey Are Impressive – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 15, 2012 and Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009.]

Kelsey produced what one expects of a great Germont – a secure sound, formidable technique, and a dramatic feeling for the character.

A Germont must convince the audience of his initial hostility to Violetta’s scandalous cohabitation with his son. Then, in a few phrases Germont must display first empathy to Violetta’s sacrifice, and, in the following scenes to become the defender of her honor and, ultimately, at her deathbed, to express both paternal love and deep regret at his interference in her life.

Kelsey’s theatrical instincts were evident throughout his performance, portraying, often through facial expression and a still posture, the dignity and inner turmoil of this father from Provence.

[Below: Ailyn Pérez as Violetta, seen on the San Francisco Giants' scoreboard during the simulcast of Verdi's "La Traviata" to AT&T Ballpark; resized image, based on a Scott Wall photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Giuseppe Finzi has taken over the baton for the final four performances of “Traviata”. With Finzi leading the experienced San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece is in good hands.

A Personal Observation

I had attended the first performances of both the June and July casts of “La Traviata” and have remarked on the dramatic impact of having young attractive singers skilled in Verdian technique, portraying the young lovers [Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Traviata” Starring Cabell and Pirgu – San Francisco Opera, June 11, 2014].

The first cast consisted of Nicole Cabell, one of the luminous alumnae of the Chicago Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center as Violetta and, as Alfredo, Albanian Lyric tenor Saimir Pirgu, a protege of the eminent conductor Claudio Abbado whom the world lost this year.

They were joined by Vladimir Stoyanov, whose singing at the Berlin Staatsoper had impressed me.

The fine performance was conducted with passion by San Francisco Opera’s music director Maestro Nicola Luisotti.

Readers of my reviews may have noticed a divergence in opinion between myself and the lead critic of the newspaper of record in San Francisco, who, I suspect, shocked the San Francisco Opera administration and artists with what many regarded as a mean-spirited review.

Among the points of disagreement between my review and his was his indictment of the Copley-Conklin production that he charged had been mounted for the “umpteenth time”.

(In point of fact, at the end of the July 2014 run, the production will have been seen a total of 55 performances in 27 years. As noted above, the Copley-Conlkin “Traviata” was not seen at all from Fall 2004 to the beginning of Summer 2014.

To me, the average of two performances a year over a quarter century seems to suggest that this is not an overexposed production. Nor would I wish to see any opera company trash an expensive production simply because the reviewers (even including myself) feel they have seen it too often.

Over the years, I have been impressed by the quality of the singing and the productions at San Francisco Opera. There may be a time when something mounted here deserves some harsh words from knowledgeable critics, but certainly not the Copley-Conklin “Traviata”, especially not with the world-class singers that San Francisco Opera presented this summer.


See also my interviews with the lead artists: Rising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 1 and Rising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 2, and also,

Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 1 and  Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 2.

Tags: 2005-2014: William's Reviews