This year marks the 50th anniversary of my first performance of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”. The San Francisco Opera performance was held on the first of November at San Diego’s Fox Theatre and starred Dorothy Kirsten in the title role, Margaret Roggero as Suzuki, Giuseppe Campora as Pinkerton and Louis Quilico as Sharpless.
Kirsten, the lyric soprano whose value to the managements of the Metropolitan and San Francisco Operas from the mid-1940s to mid-1970s was inestimable, opened the 1956 San Francisco season in the title role of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” on September 13th. She drew the honor of opening the San Francisco season on six occasions between 1952 and 1970.
[Dorothy Kirsten in a studio production photograph.]
Yet, in 1956, she performed with the company only five times. She repeated Manon Lescaut twice, once in San Francisco on September 20th, then on the October 19 opening of San Francisco Opera’s Los Angeles season. Two nights after her November 1st Butterfly, she repeated the role in Los Angeles.
Campora, the Pinkerton in the November 1 (and 3) “Butterfly”, during the season’s San Francisco performances was Fenton in Verdi’s “Falstaff” on September 21 and 27, Pinkerton on October 7 (to Licia Albanese’s Butterfly), and Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” on October 12 and 18. In Los Angeles, he repeated Fenton on the 23rd.
[Below: Giuseppe Campora, in a promotional photograph for the Teatro Comunale Bologna.]
Campora performed Nemorino in Pasadena on the 29th, before joining Kirsten in the two performances of Butterfly. Roggero (Siebel in 1955’s “Faust”, highlighted elsewhere on this website), returned as Suzuki for the three performances of “Butterfly”: October 7 in San Francisco and November 1 and 3 performances.
Quilico had joined Kirsten in opening the San Francisco season, playing her brother Lescaut in the September 13 and 20 performances, and Belcore in “L’Elisir d’Amore” on October 12 and 18 in San Francisco and October 29 in Pasadena. He was Marcello for two performances of Puccini’s “La Boheme” — October 16 in San Francisco and October 21 in Los Angeles. He performed Sharpless in all three “Butterflys”, October 7, November 1 and 3.
The conductor for the San Diego “Butterfly” performance was Kurt Herbert Adler, who, by then, fully engaged as de facto General Manager, had shed all of his conducting duties in San Francisco for 1956 and 1957, except for one or two performances each season on the Southern California tour.
Unlike 1955’s “Faust” in San Diego, which starred Jan Peerce and Licia Albanese, neither whom I saw again in operatic performances, I attended operas starring Kirsten, Campora and Quilico in subsequent seasons at San Francisco. Of the three, Kirsten was the one whom I saw most often – in nine performances in seven different roles, including many of the roles particularly associated with her. A decade later I saw her as Butterfly at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House with Janis Martin (a future Bruennhilde) as Suzuki, Ottavio Garaventa as Pinkerton and Chester Ludgin in Sharpless.
She was my first Minnie in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West”, in San Francisco’s 1960 production in which she and her Dick Johnson, played by Sandor Konya, rode horseback into the Sierra, and Tito Gobbi was a memorably villainous Jack Rance. She was my first Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades”, in a truly exciting English-language version in 1963 with James McCracken the Ghermann and Regina Resnik the Countess.
Kirsten was my first (Puccini) Manon Lescaut in 1966 with Robert Ilosfalvy as Des Grieux and (so far) my only Fiora in Montemezzi’s “L’Amore dei Tre Re”, with Campora as her Avito. I also saw her in as Puccini’s “Tosca” twice, in 1970 with Placido Domingo and Louis Quilico (in the first of that decade’s weekly broadcasts of San Francisco Opera performances) and with Wieslaw Ochman and Kostas Paskalis in 1972 (the last time I saw her in performance). Additionally, I saw her 1969 Mimi in Puccini’s “La Boheme”, co-starring Luciano Pavarotti and Sesto Bruscantini.
Campora was my first Avito in 1966 when he re-united with Kirsten in “L’Amore dei Tre Re”, the only other time I saw him. Quilico, re-united with Kirsten in 1970, was Scarpia in “Tosca”. In 1974, he was my first Miller 1974’s Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” with Katia Ricciarelli, Pavarotti, and Giorgio Tozzi, a performance I attended three times.
Why was Kirsten, who opened the season, used only five times in San Francisco Opera’s 1956? Perhaps one might examine the roster of sopranos for the season. Albanese performed Butterfly and Mimi in Puccini’s “La Boheme”, Eileen Farrell was Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, Leyla Gencer played the title role in Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini”, Patrice Munsel was Despina in Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” and Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”, Birgit Nilsson was Bruennhilde in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere”, Leonie Rysanek was Senta in Wagner’s “Fliegende Hollaender”, Sieglinde in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” and sang the title role in Verdi’s “Aida”. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf was Alice in Verdi’s “Falstaff” and Fiordiligi in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” and Renata Tebaldi performed the title role in Puccini’s “Tosca” and was Maria Amelia in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra”.
This was an extraordinary soprano roster to be assembled for a seven and a half week period of performances in four cities. Ironically, one of the concerns of the day, was that we lacked the kinds of operatic voices that constituted this or that “Golden Age”. Let me know the opera house today that can offer the contemporary equivalents of Albanese, Farrell, Gencer, Kirsten, Munsel, Nilsson, Rysanek, Schwarzkopf and Tebaldi, all performing within a seven and a half week period, and I will do my best to get there for that period of time.