Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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50 Year Anniversaries: “Nabucco” with Gobbi, Kuchta, Tozzi, Janis Martin – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 1964

December 19th, 2014

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.


Tags: 50 Year Anniversaries

A Conversation with San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley

December 17th, 2014

The following conversation with San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley took place in the administrative offices of the San Francisco Opera, whose facilitation of this conversation is greatly appreciated. It has updated my previous interviews with him [See An Interview with San Francisco Opera’s David Gockley, Part 1 and  An Interview with San Francisco Opera’s David Gockley, Part 2.]


[Below: General Director David Gockley attending a San Francisco Opera performance being simulcasted to A.T.& T. Park , home of the San Francisco Giants; resized image of a Scott Wall photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: The last time we sat down for a formal interview you were in your fourth season on the job. Now you are in your ninth of what you have determined to be ten years at the helm of the San Francisco Opera. I’d like to revisit some of the subjects we talked about a half-decade ago.

First, you very much identified with the goals of the previous General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, whose tenure was from 1954 through 1981. You spoke about Adler’s success in attracting many of best European opera stars to San Francisco, and the difficulty that American companies face in competing for their talents.

Yet, isn’t one of the phenomena of the past three decades or so that there have emerged so many North American superstars, whose ability to act appeals to American audiences?

DG: Certainly the perception is that Adler got the best people. I give him the benefit of the doubt that he was able to recognize good voices here and in Europe.

Did the public know that these were the best singers? Did everyone know that Leontyne Price was a nice girl with a beautiful lyric soprano voice?

Now, almost by necessity, we have to depend more on North American artists who live in this hemisphere and are happy to work for an American company. The young artists programs here, at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, at the Met, and at the Houston Grand Opera have turned out a stream of engageable people. Some have become prominent artists that are glad to work for us.

I think they have taken the place of the some of the Europeans who have not wanted to make the trek to North America where they earn lower income.

Wm: Then, it’s not enough for the American companies to offer a competitive fee structure.

DG:  For many European artists, no, because, when they are here for the six or seven weeks, all they can do is work through the rehearsal period and the wait for performance fees to kick in. In Europe, they can do guest engagements during the rehearsal periods with higher performance fees and also have lunch with spouses and children.

Wm: When Adler became San Francisco Opera’s General Director in the mid-1950s, no American Young Artists programs existed. You, yourself, were in one of the early classes of the Santa Fe Opera Apprentices, and, one could argue, the Young Artists program graduate whose career has had the greatest impact on opera in America. As the co-creator of Houston Grand Opera’s Young Artists Program with composer Carlyle Floyd, how do you assess the contributions these programs make to opera in North America?

DG: I assess that they have made a major positive impact. I think that being with a company for two or three years under the tutelage of top conductors, directors and coaches has fast-tracked a lot of American artists into careers that would have taken more time if they had had to knock around Europe.

[Below: Several of the 2012 San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows take part in a free community concert at San Francisco’s Sigmund Stern Grove, joined by soprano Leah Crocetto (third from right) tenor Michael Fabiano (second from right) and Maestro Giuseppe Finzi (right); resized image of a Scott Wall photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: Earlier this year you asked me informally if I thought that Carlyle Floyd’s “Susannah” would prove too “folksy” for San Francisco. Yet, in my opinion and that of many others, it proved to be one of the great artistic successes of your tenure. Do you think the time has come for this opera to be scheduled more routinely by the world’s opera houses, particularly if they use the Cavanagh production created for San Francisco?

DG: I think that “Susannah” should be done at least once decade in American houses. Its American folksiness is probably less attractive to some countries in Europe and other places, but there is no reason for it to be outside of the central repertory of American companies.

[Below: David Gockley, left, congratulates Patricia Racette, in costume for the lead role in Floyd’s “Susannah” on receiving the San Francisco Opera medal; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]

RACETTE GOCKLEY (400)       ]

I also like the production created for the Lyric Opera of Chicago [Robert Falls’ production from 1993], that we used at the Houston Grand Opera. We might have used it here, but there were technical problems in staging it.

Wm: In our last formal interview, you mentioned that you would be introducing operas to San Francisco Opera audiences by Jake Heggie, Carlyle Floyd, John Adams and Daniel Catan. The first three have taken place and Catan’s “Florencia en Las Amazonas” is scheduled for a future season. You have had a big role in promoting all of these composers and their major operas, as well as promoting George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” as a main-stage opera company production. Are you satisfied that there is now a core of North American operas that will have a place in the world’s standard repertory of opera?

DG: Will these operas be part of the repertory of American companies? Absolutely. Will they become part of world’s repertory? It’s probable that some will have less of a chance of achieving that.

Wm: You spoke of your inability to finance new productions owned by San Francisco Opera with the same ease that Adler did, although you have participated in several fine joint productions with other companies.

Opera productions, even by the most important artists, are expensive to store and suffer “wear and tear”. Yet there were productions from San Francisco Opera’s Adler and McEwen eras that in the aggregate represented millions of dollars in donor contributions and whose destruction is a cultural tragedy. Do you see a remedy for assuring the preservation of the sets and costumes for operatic productions that should be regarded as “world treasures”?

DG: I think that containerization makes it more efficient and less costly to store. I think that if you have a successful, iconic production it should be maintained.

We’ve followed the practice of European companies by charging higher rental fees so as to pay for the storage costs for the company-owned productions. We now have some 300 productions in 40 to 45 feet sea containers that we store in Pier 96 by the San Francisco Bay Wharf. I have maintained all the productions that I inherited.

We have had new productions of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and “Trttico” and Mozart’s “Magic Flute”,  but have kept the old productions that they supplanted. One of the reasons is that they are regular rentals to other companies and help replenish the coffers for the storage costs.

Wm: You took over an opera company that was probably in much worse financial shape than its reputation and steered it through a major world depression. Are you satisfied that San Francisco Opera is on the right track in developing the long-term financial stability that you have sought for it?

DG: The big answer is increased endowment and contributions. Yes, it will have to come from the tech world and the firms that bankroll them.

I think that – while it is hard to digest – that there is the feeling within the opera Board and key supporters that the only real way to insure the success of a company is to raise more contributions and build endowments. The artistic area is not where cuts should be made. We won’t cost-cut our future and survive.

[Below: the audience attending the San Francisco Opera’s annual free concerts in Sigmund Stern Grove; resized image, based on a Scott Wall photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: The opera world was shocked earlier this year when the San Diego Opera without warning announced its closing just before its 50th anniversary season, creating a backlash in San Diego that reversed the decision and has resulted in a degree of community involvement in the fate of the opera company that I have not really seen in San Diego before.

Regardless of your thoughts on the circumstances that led to the original decision, do you find this evidence of community support for opera in another California city encouraging?

DG: Yes, of course. San Diego needs its own opera company, but it has to be one that works on San Diego’s terms. What works now is not necessarily what worked 20 years ago, and what worked then, is not what works now.

I believe that the San Diego Opera leadership had just stopped evolving and became mired in the way that things were always done, and that would be considered the only formula that had value.

It took the threat of total dissolution to get the San Diego Opera and the people of San Diego to be doing what they should have been doing.

Wm: Your legacy in both San Francisco and at your previous home at Houston Grand Opera includes considerable efforts in community outreach. From your experience, what kinds of community outreach activities do find especially effective in introducing people to opera and building audiences for the future?

DG: I have invested in electronic media, such as simulcasting opera house performances in the San Francisco Giant’s ballpark. We’ve televised opera performances on KQED, our local Public Broadcasting Station, and in movie houses, although we still have too few participating cinemas.

As to its effectiveness, do we have hard data that it’s working? In the case of the ballpark simulcasts, yes. Although the simulcasts are free, to get a ticket, you have to sign up by e-mail, so we have hard data on the attendees that allows us to track their later behavior.

We know less about the impact of the television and cinema broadcasts, but we sense that there they are having a positive impact. We are convinced that the most cost-efficient way to reach the people who will be our future audiences is through electronic media.

Wm: As late as the 1960s a center orchestra seat at the San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House was priced at $10. Now the same seat is priced at $248 or $306, depending on whether it is mid-week or weekend, yet you still manage to attract large audiences. This must put enormous pressure on you and the company to assure that every night’s performance is “world-class” and will attract audiences. Would you respond?

[Below: the grand front curtain of the War Memorial Opera House; resized image of a David Wakely photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


DG: Yes, there has been an unbelievable rise in prices, although those 1960s prices were for a company with a volunteer chorus, whose orchestra was comprised of members of the San Francisco Symphony and other musicians.

We don’t like to raise prizes, but the realities of improvements in artistry and increased expectations of audiences, make everything much more expensive. This is a union-friendly community, and the stagehands, the dressers, the makeup artists the painters, the designers all have unions that push for fair wages and benefits. I’m not saying that what they receive is not deserved, it’s just hard to afford. It pushes the need for increased contributions even faster.

Does each production have to be a hit? Yes! Some of that has to do with the decline in full subscriptions. Back when you started attending, 80 percent of the house was filled with subscriptions, now less than 50 percent of each performance is filled with subscribers. That means we have to attract ticket buyers for half the seats in the War Memorial Opera House every performance.

Wm: In the past, the subscribers would get a mix of their favorite operas and those unfamiliar to them or even ones they didn’t like. But your “less than 50 percent” also includes the “design your own series” where the subscribers only pay for operas they want to see.

DG: The “less than 50 percent” includes everything we call a “subscription”. 

Because the prices have to be high, and because there are many other attractive forms of entertainment for the single ticket buyer, you have to have one hit right after another.

What might have been acceptable to a subscriber-dominated audience in the past might not be tolerated at all today. The pressure for everything to be a success is considerable.

Wm: You are the sixth San Francisco Opera general director and a new director or team will be in place for the Fall 2016 season. Several of the transition periods between the terms of your predecessors have been notoriously rocky. What would you regard as an ideal transition from one management to the next?

DG:  We are planning for as clean a “finishing up” and starting as there can be, with as little overlap as possible. I am looking for good will and restraint from both the person who is leaving and the person who is arriving. The new person should not criticize the predecessor, nor should the reverse happen.

For a while there will be two masters. The opera company staff has to show good will and restraint, not to take sides. No one should criticize what has gone before nor what might be changed in the future. One should concentrate on the company’s successes.

It’s a big challenge because of all the advance planning that an opera company must do to assure that quality will continue.

Wm: One of the changes over the past years is the relative decline in the idea of a single powerful critic at a “paper of record”. Now there are more sources of information on performances, both in the traditional press and electronic media. Do you regard this as a positive trend?

DG: When there is only one voice in a community, it is a powerful information source. There have always been community newspapers beyond the main paper. However, we now have the opportunity to quote a much broader group of reviews, and that can be helpful.

I think it is important to have these multiple sources observing us going forward, even when they are critical of what we have done, because they increase interest in what we are doing. The San Francisco Opera and the community need these sources of information.

Wm: Thank you for your time.

DG: You’re welcomeLet’s talk again closer to the end of my tenure here.

Tags: William's Conversations

A Conversation with Lyric Coloratura Soprano Laura Claycomb, part 1

December 16th, 2014

The following conversation with soprano Laura Claycomb began in the administrative offices of the Houston Grand Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is greatly appreciated. It has updated my previous interviews with her [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Laura Claycomb, Part 1 and  Rising Stars: An Interview with Laura Claycomb Part 2] and has continued subsequently on a wide range of subjects


[Below: Texas Lyric Coloratura soprano Laura Claycomb, resized image of a Sergio Valente photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]


Wm: Your most recent performance that I’ve had an opportunity to review took place at the Houston Grand Opera, where you were performing the role of Adele in Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”.

I understand that most of your colleagues in that cast were originally contracted to sing Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” with Anthony Dean Griffey, Susan Graham and Wendy Bryn Harmer, and that they all agreed to allow the company to change the opera to  “Fledermaus”. 

Griffey, who was Mozart’s Tito became Strauss’ Alfred. Graham, who was Mozart’s Sesto became Strauss’ Prince Orlofsky, and Harmer, who was Mozart’s Vitellia became Strauss’ Rosalinde. Every one of them agreed to take quite different assignments than “Clemenza”. How did you come to be part of that transformation?

LC: Changing operas while retaining their casts happens a lot more than you probably know. The opera company decides to do one thing, and eventually decides to change things (sometimes for reasons of money, but sometimes for artistic reasons, or to balance a season because other operas in the season have changed.)

Wm: It’s my understanding that once the HGO management decided they wanted to do David Pountney’s new production of Weinberg’s “The Passenger”, they wanted to include a popular, light-hearted work in their season.

LC: I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me. In any case, it was hard to convince me to take on Adele, as I had memories of me, as a 20-year-old, struggling with the high D’s and the acting in this opera. I was a senior at SMU when I made my professional debut at the Shreveport (Louisiana) Opera in this role. Hmm! I think perhaps now I don’t have trouble with the D’s and my acting. ha ha!

Diane Zola, Houston Grand Opera’s Director of Artistic Administration, had come into my dressing room after my last show as Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”. She convinced me that they couldn’t do “Fledermaus” without me. They needed an “I Love Lucy” type of character for Adele, and wanted me. How can you say no to that? Suzy Graham would be performing in it, as well as Tony Griffey, so I jumped!

Wm: It was quite a joy watching you all in that production. 

LC: I really liked the Australian production of “Fledermaus” that Houston mounted – it’s clever, good-looking and not your run-of-the-mill Viennese shtick.

[Below: Each separately contemplating a night in a Manhattan night club are, from left to right, Adele (Laura Claycomb), Rosalinde (Wendy Bryn Harmer) and Eisenstein (Liam Bonner); edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


No one would have ever imagined casting Griffey as Alfred. He is so sweet and shy until he gets onstage, but he is hilarious in the role. Offstage, the man can high-kick higher than the best of the Rockettes, and had us in stitches with his Latin Lover shtick during the rehearsals. Wendy Bryn was about to lose it during some shows, he was so funny.

 Wm: So few of his roles give him much opportunity to be funny onstage.

LC: He was a figure skater on roller skates as a youth like me (although he actually did competitions and stuff, I believe!), so we were always trying to figure out how to work that into the production. Alas, it never materialized.

But he was pretty hilarious, roller skates or no.   Liam Bonner as Eisenstein was absolutely fantastic, Susan Graham was “luxury casting” as Orlovsky and a joy to work with, as always, and our entire cast had loads of fun.

It’s always different when you have to dance in a show – it adds a certain light touch and energy to the whole show, and, for some reason, it brings a cast together more than usual.

Wm: I assume that as a Dallas gal, you deliberately gave Adele a Texas accent.

LC: We decided once we got into rehearsals that Adele had a big Texas drawl rather than the original production’s Bronx accent, as it was more fun for the audience and certainly a hell of a lot easier for me. We managed to add in a few funny phrases, which we had fun researching. (“Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit!”) Most of them involved farm or local animals of some sort. I think it’s a Texan thing. (You never question it if you’re from here!)

[Below: Laura Claycomb as Adele in the 2013 Houston Grand Opera production of Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


It’s always exciting for me to be with this caliber of people on stage, playing off one another, and that includes Jason Graae, a Broadway actor who was the original voice of Lucky Charms, in the non-singing role of Frosch.

One of his ad-lib physical gags towards the end of the run had us all in stitches, and we all had to break character and just laugh with the audience: it made me feel like Harvey Corman for a moment. The more we laughed, the more the audience laughed; it was a couple of minutes until we all (audience and cast) could get ahold of ourselves.

Just the mimed part of Liam and Reggie in the last act (with Liam stuffing Reggie [Reginald Smith, Jr as the lawyer Blind] into a cupboard) was worth the price of the ticket.

Wm: It sounds like that even though you were reluctant to sing Adele, you got through the experience just fine.

LC: It was a blast, but I don’t know, however, if Adele is a role I would want to sing again. She doesn’t have a lot to sing, but SO much to SAY. I only figured out after the show how to best memorize spoken lines. I used to believe I just needed to think them and know them and understand the flow of them, but I’ve discovered that didn’t help much. I was terrified of the dialogues!

Wm: So what helped you learn the dialogues?

LC: Well, I actually had a breakthrough months AFTER the shows were finished as to why it had been so hard for me to learn them. Believe you me, I had worked on them on my own, but just not the right way. We’re taught to sing but never taught how to TALK or to memorize just words without music!

[Below: Laura Claycomb in a George Souglides costume for the Czarina in the 2014 Bergen Opera production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Le Coq d’Or”; edited image, based on a personal photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]


First of all, I needed someone else to cue me when I was learning it – I had learned it on my own, and would make a huge annoying PAUSE when we got into rehearsals when it came to my line. Instead of “thinking” the lines, I finally learned that you just have to get them into muscle memory and only then work on your delivery and meaning. It sounds so counter-intuitive, but it’s true. And I learned that by having to learn a Russian opera!

Wm: Which brings us to your second role of this conversation. 

LC: I was debuting a new role – the Czarina of Shemakha in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel” in a new production by Mark Lamos in Bergen, Norway a few months later.

I’d never thought about it before, but for the past two decades, I have done operas in languages I actually speak. My German may be pretty bad grammatically, but I do speak it; and my French, Italian and Spanish are fluent. However, my Russian, pronounced wonderfully, is pretty rudimentary.

For this show, I had worked my butt off, making a word-by-word translation in my score of the Russian, and I had memorized the music while memorizing the ENGLISH translation of every word, so that I would know exactly what I was saying at every moment. I decided to put in the Russian transliteration only once I had the meaning in my head with the music in my own language.

WRONG WRONG WRONG! Baaaad idea! I just couldn’t memorize the thing (and I’m normally a REALLY quick study; ask anybody!) I had tried to teach my brain in a logical manner, but the brain doesn’t actually learn in a logical manner!

Wm: How does the brain learn to sing in an unfamiliar language?

LC: I finally figured out that I had to just chuck the English meaning out of my brain and get the Russian SOUNDS into my mouth mechanically. Finally, when they tripped off my tongue without me having a clue as to what they meant but were there just mechanically, I went BACK and added on the translation I had so painstakingly bashed into my brain before.

This whole experience helped me realize that I’m a mere mortal who has to memorize the thing into my muscle memory like everyone else. I guess, since I spoke the languages I was singing in before, I hadn’t noticed this process until now. I only noticed it with dialogue and truly foreign (to me) languages.

[Below: Laura Claycomb as the Queen of the Night in the 2014 Bregenz Festival production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; edited image of a production photograph for the Bregenz Festival.]


It helped me immensely with my dialogue for the Queen of the Night in Bregenz this summer, and next I’m learning some Szymanowski songs in Polish. Now I know how to go about it. You just have to make sure to not forget to add back in the meaning once you’ve got it memorized. ;-)

Wm: I was very interested in your taking on the role of the Czarina of Shemakha in Rimsky-Kosakov’s “Le Coq d’Or”  in Bergen, Norway earlier this year. It seems that there a lot of Russian fairy tale operas that would be well-received by 21st century audiences. What were your thoughts about that experience?

LC: It was great to put together a show with Mark Lamos again after so many years. I did Mozart’s “Finta Giardiniera” with him towards the beginning of my career (again, with Patrick Summers conducting!) at Washington D.C. Opera. This year, we had a great time putting together this amazing Russian piece, and I had the most gorgeous costumes made by George Souglides, who also did the set design.

[Below: Laura Claycomb as the Queen of the Night in Bregenz with her Pamina, Anja-Nina Bahrmann; edited image of a personal photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]


I had this huge collar with three gigantic golden crows that hovered behind my head. I desperately wanted to steal my gold costume under it – ha ha! (We don’t get to keep costumes, for those of you who don’t know!) It was all sequined on the top, with golden feathers on the bottom. My red gown which went on top of it had a huge train with red feathers – so sumptuous!

The real kick for me was when the Russians in the show (and in the orchestra) commented on how great my sung Russian was. Quite the compliment, and appreciated, considering how hard I had worked on it!! I couldn’t have done so well in the show without the choreographer, the ever-talented Seán Curran who translated Mark’s wonderful ideas into graceful movements for my body.

[Below: Laura Claycomb checks out her George Souglides costume for the Czarina in the 2014 Bergen Opera production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Le Coq d’Or”; edited image, based on a personal photograph, courtesy of Laura Claycomb.]


Bergen Opera is a relatively small company, but the administration, led by the vivacious Mary Miller, has big plans and do excellent work with very ambitious programming. I’ll return there to do Tytania in Robert Carsen’s production of Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” next year. It’s a fantastic place to work and a company to watch.

Wm: In the year 2014 an opera company in the Western European city of Bergen, Norway was presenting a Russian opera about a country’s leader whose actions were considered quite madcap. Were parallels drawn with any “current events”?

LC: At first, I was a little bit disappointed that nothing in current events was being commented on politically with the piece, but that’s really not Mark’s bag, and productions are planned years in advance, in any case. When we arrived in Norway, Russian president Vladimir Putin had just started the foray into Crimea.

It was interesting to get all my Russian colleagues’ points of view on the subject: they see the facts on the ground that it’s mainly a Russian-ethnic area and that Russia has made sure their people are there. And the Ukraine has had a corrupt and pretty useless government for a while, backed  by the U. S.

But my colleagues’ arguments sounded a little like the realpolitik going on in the Middle East, frankly, so I’m not too convinced. I won’t wade into that quarrel. Anyhow, the show commented on the stupidity of people in power in a more general manner without being overtly topical, giving it a more general appeal – which is true in every society! and it was a huge success.

Part 2 follows in a few days

Tags: William's Conversations

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