There were winners all around at Los Angeles Opera, when Placido Domingo conducted a stellar performance of Puccini’s “Tosca”. The winners included the opera’s leading men – tenor Marco Berti as Cavaradossi and Lado Atalneli as Baron Scarpia. “Tosca’s” several important comprimario roles were well-cast also.
The winners included the brilliant stage direction and production design of John Caird, the supportive conducting of Maestro Domingo, and, for that matter, Giacomo Puccini, the composer of the highly dramatic and brilliantly theatrical music of “Tosca” -
But ultimately, the evening belonged to soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who has joined the ranks of the great Toscas of the 113 years of its performance history.
Sondra Radvanovsky’s Tosca
Tosca is one of the roles on which a dramatic soprano’s career is judged. It is both vocally and histrionically challenging, requiring the display of a range of emotions and behaviors – jealousy, ardor, anger, suspicion, vulnerability, resignation, calculation, confusion and terror. An effective actor, Radvanovsky displayed the required voice of power, but also a voice of great beauty.
Over the past several years I have reported on the Illinois native’s brilliant successes in the Italian repertory, ranging from Donizetti (The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008) to Verdi (21st Century Verdi: Radvanovsky Leads World Class Lyric Opera “Ballo” Cast – Chicago, November 15, 2010) to Puccini (Friedkin’s Miraculous, Radvanovsky’s Revelatory L.A. “Suor Angelica” – September 6, 2008).
[Below: Sondra Radvanovsky as Floria Tosca; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Still in her early 40s, one expects (and, in every occasion I’ve observed, invariably gets) a Radvanovsky performance to be a memorable operatic event.
The audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion got such a memorable performance, and showed its appreciation with lengthy and tumultuous applause at the end of her affectingly-sung showpiece aria Vissi d’arte and a standing ovation for her at the opera’s end.
Marco Berti’s Cavaradossi
A great Tosca is at her best when she is complemented by great voices singing her lover Mario and her adversary Scarpia.
Italian tenor Marco Berti is one of the finest artists currently performing the spinto roles that require large and expressive voices.
[Below: Marco Berti as the Cavalier Mario Cavaradossi, edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Berti dispatched his two great arias – the first act Recondita armonia and the third act E lucevan le stelle - impressively . He proved himself vocally worthy in his duets with Radvanovsky.
Lado Ataneli’s Scarpia
I had remarked on Lado Ataneli’s characterization of the sinister Baron Scarpia in a traditional production [See House of Puccini: Striking San Francisco Opera “Tosca” with Pieczonka, Ataneli and Ventre – June 14, 2009].
[Below: Lado Ataneli as the Baron Scarpia; edited image of a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
One of the great singing actors from the Republic of Georgia, Atalneli possesses a robust baritone, that is full and rich. Ataneli easily met the expectations of this iconic villain role.
John Caird’s Directorial Concepts
I had reported at length on this Houston Grand Opera-owned production in its debut season [see A New “Tosca” for Houston Grand Opera – January 30, 2010.] Although it is a non-traditional production, in the sense of its organization around a unit set and its inclusion of a surreal spiritual element, it was true to the basic storyline of Puccini’s thriller.
[Below: Tosca (Sondra Radvanovsky, center) attempts to comfort the tortured Cavaradossi (Marco Berti, prostrate on floor), as, from far left, Sciarrone (Daniel Armstrong), Spoletta (Rodell Rosell) and Scarpia (Lado Ataneli, center, behind Radvanovsky) look on; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Over the years, the opera “Tosca” has had its musicological detractors (one or two even quoted in the provocative “scholarly essay” contained in the opera’s program), but over the years the opera’s international popularity has never diminished. Now even the academic community has begun to show its appreciation for Puccini’s genius in composing this opera, Puccini having won the critical support of such musicologists as Julian Budden, the preeminent authority on the operas of Verdi and Puccini.
Its attraction to the British director John Caird, much of whose whose career has been associated with performances of the Bard’s plays and with the London legitimate stage, confirms the solid theatricality of the work.
The drama is fast-paced, yet filled with detail – all of which supports the story. In the few hours after the escape of a political prisoner (Angelotti) from the Rome’s Castel Sant’ Angelo, a series of events will lead to Angelotti’s suicide; the execution of a left-leaning nobleman (Cavaradossi) whose path Angelotti happens to cross; the murder of Scarpia, the Roman chief of police by Cavaradossi’s lover, Tosca; and Tosca’s leap to her death.
[Below: British Stage Director John Caird; resized image, based on a promotional photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
One needs only to follow Puccini’s stage directions to assure a satisfactory theatrical presentation, but in the hands of a masterful stage director, and John Caird is certainly one, there are abundant opportunities for original ways to present the story.
If one reads my review of the production’s premiere season at the Houston Grand Opera hyperlinked above, the details of Caird’s production are described there. Yet there were noticeable and inventive changes between the Houston and Los Angeles performances, in part, of course, because there was not a single overlap in persons between the two casts. (Caird, as most of the great directors do, tailors his stage direction to the singers who are performing the roles.)
The most distinctive features of Caird’s production is the use of a unit set (designed by British set and costume designer Bunny Christie) and forecurtains evoking innocence, blood and sin, before each of the three acts (each of which is ripped down by the character who speaks the first words in each act.)
Even more pronounced in the Los Angeles performances is the role of the shepherd, in Caird’s concept converted to a spiritual presence. Instead of the shepherd appearing only in the third act as envisioned by Puccini and his librettists, a young girl clad in the innocence of a communion dress, appears in the first act church scene (in the vicinity of the holy water font), then in the second act leads Tosca out of Scarpia’s headquarters after Tosca has stabbed Scarpia to death.
In the third act the young girl appears in the prison, singing the shepherd’s song, then resting in the opening through which Tosca will leap to her death.
The concepts are fascinating and work in performance. (Although the young girl is extratextual, nothing she does interferes with the storyline of “Tosca”.)
Bunny Christie’s Unit Set
There are advantages to a unit set in that scenes can change rapidly so as to shorten the length of performances and the time and expense of stagehands moving sets. I refer to unit sets as “puzzle boxes” whose results can be either salutary or ridiculous, depending on how far of a stretch it is to incorporate the various scenes of an opera within a single framework.
“Tosca” has three scenes, that take place around the alter in a Roman church, in the chief of police’s offices in the Farnese Palace, and in the prison courtyard of the Castel Sant’Angelo.
For purposes of the story’s action, for the first act one needs a painter’s scaffold, an alter, a receptacle for holy water and the entrance to the side chapel of the Attavanti family. For the second act one needs Scarpia’s desk and a doorway leading to a room where torture takes place. For the third act one simply needs an open space in which Cavaradossi can see the stars, and a jailer and firing squad can move about, as well as the ledge from which Tosca will jump. (That jump, of course, has to be believable.)
[Below: Bunny Christie's unit set for "Tosca" , displaying the first act church scene with the Baron Scarpia (Lado Ataneli, upper right) at the top level of the painter's scaffold; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The set’s basic structure is that of the third act’s spacious prison yard. Into the yard, for the first act, the arresting image of a multi-story painter’s scaffold (not inconceivable in a Roman church) has been placed. For the second act a jumble of art treasures have been piled (said to be paintings and statuary that the venal Scarpia has looted from Roman homes and institutions). The torture room is placed in center stage, although what happens there is shielded from audience view.
In performance, the unit set works, and its elements are continuously interesting.
Notes on the supporting cast and conducting
The supporting cast was excellent. Joshua Bloom was Angelotti, Philip Cokorinos the Sacristan, Rodell Rosel the Spoletta, Daniel Armstrong the Sciarrone and Hunter Philips the Jailer. Fourth grade student Eden McCoy played the young girl.
Placido Domingo, whom I had seen admirably perform the role of Cavaradossi in two separate productions, conducted the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra with authenticity and a knowing attention to the opera’s vocal demands on the principals.
I recommend this cast and production of “Tosca” unreservedly, both for the veteran opera-goer and those new to opera.
For my other reviews of Sondra Radvanovsky, see: Radvanovsky’s Astonishing Anna Bolena Adorns An Admirable Cast – Washington National Opera, October 6, 2012, and also,
Radvanovsky, Zajick, Lopardo, Anger Star in Conlon-led Verdi “Requiem” – San Francisco Symphony, October 22, 2011, and also,
Licitra, Radvanovsky Gleam in Lyric Opera’s Glorious New “Ernani”: Chicago, November 5, 2009, and also,
Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009.
For another review of a performance starring both Radvanovsky and Marco Berti, see: Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009.
For my other reviews of Marco Berti, see: An Admirable “Aida”: Hui He, Berti, Smirnova, Kelsey Are Impressive – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 15, 2012, and also,
Luisotti Leads Superb “Turandot” Cast In David Hockney’s Treasured Production – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2011, and also,
Halevy Triumphs in Ponnelle “Carmen” – S. F. December 3,
Hvorostovsky, Guryakova, Berti Excel in Houston “Simon Boccanegra” – November 4, 2006.
For my other reviews of Lado Ataneli, see: Power Verdi: Chanev, Marambio, Ataneli in Deutsche Oper Berlin “Ballo” – April 25, 2009, and also,
Power Verdi: Ataneli, Vargicova Excel in San Diego Opera “Rigoletto” – March 28, 2009.
For my review of another John Caird production, see: Brandon Jovanovich Triumphant in Historic “Don Carlos” Production – Houston Grand Opera, April 13, 2012.
Grand Opera, whose most popular works offer poignant drama, theatrical situations and spectacle, is a favorite of the modern stage directors and production designers. Classic operas from the core repertory are rethought, often shifted in time and place, and presented in unfamiliar contexts.
Sometimes their adventures in regietheater, as the Germans call it, are absurb (see The Singing’s Erste Klasse, but Railroad-Themed “Samson et Dalila” Production Ends in Train Wreck – Deutsche Oper Berlin, May 29, 2011), and have led to the coining of the pejorative “Eurotrash”.
Yet in the hands of the best of the breed, who like and trust the operas they are presenting, the results are insightful and illuminating.
Over the next few weeks, I plan to review and comment upon the products of a French, a British, an American and a Canadian stage director, each of whose work I have praised on this website previously, and whose approaches to the world of opera I regard as both innovative and true to the spirit of the operas they present.
The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann), San Francisco Opera, June 5, 11, 14, 20, 23(m), 27, 30, July 3 and 6, 2013.
I have reported on Toulouse-based Laurent Pelly’s conceptualizations of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” at the Opera National de Paris and Donizetti’s “Fille du Regiment” at San Francisco Opera, and of Verdi’s “La Traviata” in Santa Fe. His presentations of high-spirited action (clad in Pelly-designed costumes) over jagged surfaces are always interesting and never stray from the spirit of the piece.
He returns as stage director and costume designer to the San Francisco Opera to launch its summer session in a new production of “Tales of Hoffmann” The opera stars Matthew Polenzani in the title role.
Pelly and Conductor Nicola Luisotti will use the newest performance edition of this work, which differs markedly from the version that held the world’s opera stages for over a century (including all previous mountings at San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House.)
[Below: Stage director-costume designer Laurent Pelly, edited imaage, based on a promotional photograph.]
Hoffmann’s muse, Nicklausse, will be sung by Angela Brower. The objects of Hoffmann’s disastrously misplaced affections – the doll Olympia, the aspiring singer Antonia and the courtesan Giulietta – are sung by Hye Jung Lee, Natalie Dessay and Irene Roberts. Christian Van Horn sings the Four Villains, Steven Cole the four grotesques.
Pelly’s long-time collaborator Chantal Thomas designed the sets, Christian Rath is the assistant director.
The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (Offenbach), Santa Fe Opera, June 28, July 3, 6, 12. 19, 30, August 7. 15. 21 and 24, 2013.
The previous work of Scottish-trained director Lee Blakeley at Santa Fe Opera has focused on the sordid reality of some of the settings of popular operas. Thus he conceives of what the neighborhood would be like in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” for a woman whose sexual favors are “sold” to an American naval officer and on how 19th century colonial Sri Lankans in Bizet’s “The Pearlfishers”, who are engaged in world trade, would dress.
But Blakeley explores the comic as well as the somber. To open this summer’s Santa Fe Opera season, Blakeley has been engaged for an entirely different realm, the imaginary Gerolstein of Offenbach’s comic operetta, governed by its worldly Grand Duchess.
[British stage director Lee Blakeley; resized image of a promotional photograph.]
Superstar soprano Susan Graham, who herself hails from New Mexico, is La Grande-Duchesse, who becomes very interested in the military career of Fritz (Paul Appleby), a private second class, who will advance through the ranks to become General Fritz midway through the opera.
Graham’s character, billed by the Santa Fe Opera’s publicists as “the ultimate cougar”, finds great opportunity for comic situations with Kevin Burdette’s General Boum, Jonathan Michie’s Prince Paul and Aaron Pegram’s Baron Puck. Anya Matanovic performs the part of Wanda, the Grand Duchess’ rival for Fritz.
The “Grand Duchess” librettists, Meilhac and Halevy, although now best remembered as the librettists for Bizet’s “Carmen”, at the time made their big money as the librettists for Offenbach’s operettas.
Although the opera will be sung in French, all the spoken dialogue will be in English. Emmanuel Villaume is the conductor. Adrian Linford the Scenic Designer and Jo van Schuppen the Costume Designer.
The Flying Dutchman (Die Fliegende Hollaender), Wagner, Glimmerglass Festival, July 6, 12, 14(m), 18, 27, 30(m), August 4, 10, 12(m), 16, 20(m) and 24.
Francesca Zambello’s extraordinary career as production designer and stage director for both grand opera and musical theater has assured that she is not only one of America’s – but of the world’s – most important and effective figures in the staging of live vocal performance.
Adding the duties of artistic administrator of both the Glimmerglass Festival and the Washington National Opera, her creativity seems boundless.
Whatever projects she takes, one knows that she will often find unexpected relevance to today’s world in the masterpieces of times past. Yet even her most controversial ideas seem to be discoveries of elements existing within the work, rather than artifices imposed from the outside.
[Below: American stage director Francesca Zambello; edited image of a photograph for the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Ryan McKinny is the Dutchman, Melody Moore is Senta, with Jay Hunter Morris as Erik and Peter Volpe as Daland. The sets for the new production are by James Noone, with costumes by Erik Teague. John Keenan conducts.
Mefistofele (Boito), San Francisco Opera, September 6, 11, 14, 17, 20, 24, 29(m) and October 3, 2013.
In 1989 the then 34-year old Canadian production designer Robert Carsen created a stunning new production of Boito’s “Mefistofele” for Samuel Ramey and the San Francisco Opera, that was repeated in San Francisco in 1994. The sets were designed by Michael Levine.
[Below: Production designer Robert Carsen; resized image of a promotional photograph.]
The performances were more or less recorded on a still available DVD (I emphasize the term “more” because the gleefully decadent Dirk Diggler-like prosthetics of the male demons in Hell in the DVD performance are covered by nappies.)
Disposed of through sale to another opera company, rather than destroyed, as so many of San Francisco Opera’s important productions were by the previous administration, the Carsen-Levine sets have been re-acquired (now co-owned with the New York Metropolitan Opera) and will open the San Francisco Opera’s 2013 Fall season.
Nicola Luisotti will conduct. Ildar Abdrazakov is Mefistofele, Ramon Vargas is Faust and Patricia Racette is Margherita. Laurie Feldman Santoloquido will direct the revival.
IC: In some countries, yes I think so. Perhaps not in Germany, but I do believe reductions in subsidies are coming and cannot see what can be done to prevent them.
I’ve heard reports of total confusion in some Italian houses. Artists are beginning to avoid some companies where they worry about payments being delayed, sometimes for long periods of time.
Wm: Should it happen that American opera companies’ financial situations improve so that ticket prices can be lowered, do you still see problems for opera?
IC: I’m also concerned about the leadership of opera companies. First, I want everyone to know that I am going to hang around. I’m not going anywhere.
But I don’t see a lot of new leaders who have the experience of being general directors, who have the skills to make an opera company work. Twenty years ago there were more general directors.
[Below: the fateful boat trip in San Diego Opera's 2003 presentation of Tobias Picker's "Therese Raquin"; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
There are new artistic directors, who will want to schedule Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” and other high cost projects. They may not have the steadying hand of a general director who can grasp all the elements that it takes to assure an opera company’s viability.
The impending loss of experienced general directors like Speight Jenkins of the Seattle Opera, and David Gockley, who has announced that he will be retiring as San Francisco Opera’s general director later in the decade, worries me.
Wm: So a key responsibility of a general director is to judge how much risk a company can take in its quest for artistic integrity.
IC: Yes. There are opera companies that offer unusual repertory that have modest budgets but very loyal clientele. The Long Beach Opera is such a company.
I admire the risks that the Minnesota Opera takes. There ticket prices are lower, and they rely on less expensive artists. I admire the fact that even companies of the size of the San Diego Opera are taking risks.
But if you offer unusual repertory in the upper tier theaters with the highest price tickets, you have to be very careful. When patrons have to pay over $200 a ticket, they become very cautious in what they commit to.
[Below: Stephen Costello (2010) in the title role of Gounod's "Faust" ; resized image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Even a work like “Murder in the Cathedral” with a major star did less well financially than we had thought it would.
I’ve thought about mounting a double bill of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” and Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” in the future, but cannot imagine a huge return for it. I’m working on the 2016 season now and believe it is far too early to consider such fare.
Wm: Speaking of San Francisco Opera’s David Gockley, he obviously studies how many times an opera should be performed in San Francisco in a season. He schedules some operas for five performances and others for as many as eleven. But San Diego Opera performs four operas four times each. How do you as a general director determine how to manage risk in such a situation?
IC: I can say quite publicly that at the San Diego Opera, Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Verdi’s “La Traviata” can sell 11,000 tickets each. For unfamiliar works, we seldom get past 8,000 tickets. For, say, Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”, you are down around 8,000. That doesn’t sustain the revenues we need.
Every opera loses money. But it gets very bad with some operas.
You can mitigate this a bit with careful planning. Since at our company we can control the number of persons in the opera chorus in a given season, last year (2012) we did a season with small choruses, including Strauss’ “Salome”, Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” and Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” knowing we would have big choruses this year for Verdi’s “Aida” and Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Delilah” and of course “Murder in the Cathedral”.
[Below: Ekaterina Siurina as Leila (2008) in Bizet's "Pearlfishers"; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Wm: You have been associated with the promotion of two French works, Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” and Massenet’s “Don Quixote”. One result of your Zandra Rhodes production of the former is that Bizet’s opera become one of the most performed of French operas. Do you see a similar path for “Don Quixote”, an opera you mounted for Furlanetto in 2009 and will revive for him next year?
IC: I do. Seattle Opera has already performed it, and I believe that the Lyric Opera of Chicago is looking at it as well.
Wm: Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company has announced it for May, 2014 with Furlanetto.
IC: There you go. It’s an appealing story with great music and only requires three principal singers.
Wm: We were both at the world premiere of Heggie’s “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera, which San Diego Opera co-sponsored and later performed. In my review I predicted that Jake Heggie or someone who writes in his style will compose the Great American Opera. Do you agree with that assessment?
IC: I think that Heggie has the capacity to have a truly great work. I think the ensemble work in “Moby Dick” is extraordinary.
[Below: the sighting of the white whale by Captain Ahab (Ben Heppner, center in black), Starbuck (Morgan Smith, front right in tan sweater vest) and the crew of the Pequod in Heggie's "Moby Dick" (2012); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
The size of the current production of “Moby Dick” will be beyond the resources of many opera companies. Eventually, a smaller production will be created that permits it to be performed outside of the major houses.
Wm: The San Diego Opera will join the The Dallas Opera and other companies in sponsoring Heggie’s next opera, “Great Scott”. What can you tell us about how that commission is coming?
IC: Heggie’s new opera for The Dallas Opera is a comedy, and the company has brought together an appealing cast that may well attract a wider audience.
Jake is working on the music. The libretto is underway. We don’t get reports until there is something genuine to show, but Jake could indeed sell the idea of a popular American comic opera.
Wm: What American operas do you believe are candidates for the standard repertory?
IC: I think Carlyle Floyd’s “Of Mice and Men” and “Susannah” both belong in the standard performance repertory. I think Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is unjustly neglected. I was pleased that The Dallas Opera staged Argento’s “The Aspern Papers”.
[Below: Anthony Dean Griffey as Lennie (1999) in Carlyle Floyd's "Of Mice and Men"; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
But I don’t think every new opera needs to be thought of in terms of becoming standard repertory.
Wm: In fact, almost every opera ever written in history has seldom been performed after its first run, even if it had a first run.
IC: What I see happening is that a lot of companies are creating purely “local interest” operas for their domestic audiences. Fink’s opera “The Conquistador”, that we premiered, had resonance across the U.S.-Mexican border. If it had been performed in Chicago, it would not have had such a great connection, but there is an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright that might have appeal in the Midwest.
[Below: the stage setting for Myron Fink's "Conquistador" (1997); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
One of things to get used to is that we are coming into a world of entertaining “disposable operas”, that are done relatively inexpensively, that the audience can enjoy and not see again.
Jonathan Dove’s “Flight” that saw at the Opera Theater of St Louis was such an opera that has now vanished in the United States.
Wm: Two seasons from now, the San Diego Opera will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. As your company moves into its second half-century, what would you like to see it accomplish, in such areas as community education and outreach, structure and financing, and repertory choices?
IC: We must stage operas which build up an audience that will trust the institution. If we had significantly lower prices they would trust anything we plan for them. We need to look for works not done in this area, because not many travel people to see their operas.
At our current prices, they don’t go to see Berg’s “Wozzeck”, which, though an artistic success when we mounted it, is not a big audience draw.
I would like to see as a diverse repertory. We need reliable funding. That is the next issue to address- getting a donor base that cares about having opera in San Diego County.
Lyric Opera of Chicago will be there forever. I describe Chicago as a vertical society. One’s great grandmothers are buried there. There are deep roots. Chicago has a high level of ownership of its opera.
[Below: Lucas Meachem as Figaro (2012) in Rossini's "Barber of Seville"; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
In San Diego, we don’t have the depth of ownership and roots. We are all above ground. That’s what all the arts and cultural activities are facing in San Diego. We’re living on very few donors, most of whom are opera-goers. I think that would take another 20 years before we can feel safe. We need to get legacy gifts for the opera in wills.
In terms in the opera company’s structure, I don’t think anything needs to or can change. We need to bring the best international singers that we can.
I would love to see to go from four operas back to the five operas a season we used to produce, but we would need higher ticket prices and/or greater numbers of donors. If we went back to five at the present time, we could destroy the company.
Education and outreach is very interesting. We hear that we have to reach out to children, but I’m not sure that is what we should be doing now. We ask for donors to give tickets to tertiary students, university students. Students leap at it and they come.
Many of these university students will remain in the city and in a couple of years may be able to afford a ticket. In the intermediate term we need to concentrate on who can buy tickets.
Since San Diego County is a center of the biomedical research and technology, we have “Life Science and High Tech Night at the Opera.” There will be about 250 people from the high tech area at performances, some who have never been at the opera before. Some of these become subscribers. They have the income to act immediately.
We are working to get friends to bring friends who can afford to buy tickets. We will continue to have a student night at the opera, that brings in about 10,000 people a year. I would love to have the money to do another performance just for young people, but it is a dangerous time for the survival for American companies.
[Below: Dame Josephine Barstow as Kabinicha (2003) in Janacek's "Katya Kabanova"; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Wm: You are a skeptic as to the likelihood that high definition movies of live opera performances will bring large numbers of new people into the opera houses.
IC: Well, they are truly brilliantly done. They have their place, but the bottom line is that in the HD movie theater you are seeing the movie, one that’s in your face with close-ups. The film director has decided what you should look at. You have lost visual choice.
In an opera house the experience is totally different. You’re immersed in the action. You decide whether you want to watch this singer, or the chorus, or the scenery.
It’s only theory that persons who buy those $15 tickets, who are not opera-goers anyway, are then going to go buy a $200 ticket to see if the experience is different. There are no statistics that it is beneficial for opera companies.
If anything, I suspect we lose some of our patrons to the HD theaters. The movie theater has conveniences that you don’t get in the opera house. You can come in shorts. You can eat popcorn and wander in and out at will.
Wm: I’ve commented that I find that, of all the audiences in the opera houses all over the world that I come across, that the San Diego Opera audiences seem to be the best-dressed for the regular performances, at least for the Saturday night series that I usually attend. Do you have a thought about that?
IC: Personally, I am envious of the live theater companies where you know you don’t have to be decked out in the audience. I’m always a bit embarrassed when I go to the theaters here in town wearing a suit.
But many of the ladies like to wear fashion to the opera and many of their men are in tuxes. I could see that it might be a put-off to some people.
Wm: I’ve found, even in some big cities, that it’s unusual, except on the season opening nights, for men to wear formal wear. Those who do seem embarrassed, as if they didn’t get a memo on the dress code. It’s different in San Diego. There are lots of tuxes. I’ve come to the conclusion that San Diegans actually enjoy dressing up for the opera.
[Below: Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II (2004) in Verdi's "Don Carlo"; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
IC: I hadn’t thought of it in that way. Yet, whenever we have a student night on the program, I’m amazed that the young ladies turn up in prom dresses.
It does seem that opera here is considered a special event where you dress up, but I do like to see the guys in suits.
Wm: Is there a question that you wish I had asked you, and, if so, what would have been your answer?
IC: Oh yes, I hinted at it earlier. The question would be “When am I retiring?” The answer is that I have no plans to do that. I’m healthy at the moment. I enjoy what I’m doing and the board is supportive.
I’ve been at the San Diego Opera for the greater part of the 46 years that I’ve been in the business. My staff is superb. To be able to ask persons of the caliber to come here to work, and to get them here is very rewarding.
Once Opera Australia’s search committee interviewed me for a position there. I knew that at Opera Australia they limit the number of foreigners who can work with the company.
I asked if I would have to operate the company with that restriction. When the answer was affirmative, my response was that it is too limiting. In San Diego, I’ve never had a problem in hiring a foreigner.