Opera Warhorses

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

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Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2011, Part Two

January 3rd, 2012

Robert, who has had the San Francisco Opera subscription seats across the aisle from me for decades, related a funny incident to me. According to him, a young woman, attending her first opera at a Los Angeles Opera performance of  Puccini’s “Tosca”, came out at the intermission after the second act and remarked about Tosca murdering the Baron Scarpia “Boy, I didn’t see that coming.”

Regular opera goers will understand the humor that Robert sees in the story. Most long-term opera subscribers have seen “Tosca” many times and know both the score and the libretto very well. But if one reflects on the idea of a core repertory of operas that audiences go to again and again, one might regard it as a quite special idea. Two centuries ago, there was not a “core repertory” of operas. New operas were constantly expected and revivals of old operas were rather rare.


[Below: Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich, left) and Sieglinde (Anja Kampe, right) name each other, secure the sword Nothung, and run away together; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Power Singing, Powerful Imagery in Zambello’s “Walkuere” – San Francisco Opera, June 15, 2011.]


But the “standard repertory” of opera persists, not necessarily because opera companies prefer to perform the best-known operas, but because audiences – particularly in countries that have no tradition of large scale public subsidies of opera companies – vote for them with their ticket purchases. San Francisco Opera’s David Gockley has gone to great lengths, through a quite revealing commentary in his company’s recent opera programs, to quantify this phenomenon.

Because there are a specific number of subscription series, an opera will normally be performed for a minimum of six performances in a San Francisco season, but some operas sell so many tickets that they can be scheduled for up to twelve performances. This latter group Gockley names the “AA” operas. He wants good singers for all performances, but the “AA” operas don’t require “big name” stars. The “Double As” that he names are Bizet’s “Carmen”, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, “Nozze di Figaro” and “Magic Flute”, Puccini’s “La Boheme”, “Madama Butterfly” and “Turandot”, Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata”.


[Below: Mimi (Ana Maria Martinez, left) finds herself attracted to Rodolfo (David Lomeli, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

[For my performance review, see David Lomeli, Ana Maria Martinez Shine in Deeply Cast “La Boheme” – Santa Fe Opera, July 2, 2011.]


 Gockley announced a policy that San Francisco Opera will not repeat an “AA” opera more than once in five years. (Since “Butterfly” has been performed in 2006, 2007 and 2010, and “Nozze di Figaro” was performed in both 2006 and 2010, presumably these two operas will be out of the repertory for a while). The five year bracket is in evidence for “Carmen” (2006 and 2011) and “Magic Flute” (2007 and 2012).

He uses “such as” for his list, but it’s not clear what other operas than those he names would make the “AA” list. (He does not list Puccini’s “Tosca” or Verdi’s “Aida”, which perhaps are candidates.)

The “A” operas are those that Gockley is confident of scheduling for up to nine performances. He provides five examples in this list: Bellini’s “Norma”, Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”, Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”, Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” and Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”. In this list of five, the Donizetti, Gershwin and Verdi works cited have been performed during the Gockley era, and the other two a season or two before, so one guesses the assignment to categories is based on fairly recent experience with audience demand for tickets.

He stated that the “B” and “C” operas can sell up to six performances. The “B” examples consist of ones done during his tenure: Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” (performed in the 1869 version without the Polish acts); the three one-act operas of Puccini’s “Il Trittico”; Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Salome”; and three operas expected in the future – Berlioz’ “Les Troyens”, Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman” and Verdi’s “Falstaff” (all three of which perhaps generated intense internal discussion as to how many performances to schedule). World premieres, of which Gockley has shepherded three, are expected to attract enough attention to rate a “B”.

The “C” operas include “baroque works” and those of several composers – Berg, Britten, Janacek, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. (The last named’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk” will be on the schedule, according to an absolutely solid source, with Brandon Jovanovich as the Sergei.) He lists Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” (which has been expected to return to the San Francisco stage) and Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” and “Die Frau ohne Schatten” in the “C” category as well.

[Below: the Governess (Patricia Racette, seated) is now certain that the ghost of Peter Quint (William Burden, at window) is real; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Countdown to Britten Centennial: Conlon, Racette and Burden Impress in Enigmatic “Turn of the Screw” – March 12, 2011.]


According to Gockley, there are certain opera stars with sufficient box office appeal to make a “C” opera into a “B” or a “B” in to an “A”. (His examples are Placido Domingo in Alfano’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Angela Gheorghiu in Puccini’s “La Rondine”), although, he concedes, it is not so likely that a superstar box office draw could be persuaded to commit to a dozen performances, with the result that an “A” opera could be turned into a “AA”.

Gockley then reveals that each season is deliberately balanced to include – as an example of how a now typical nine-opera season is constructed – three AAs, two As, two Bs and two Cs. And, as a final consideration, over a five year period, the “Big Five” composers – Mozart, Puccini, Richard Strauss, Verdi and Wagner – all must be well-represented, although they need not be present every year.

I find his formulas for constructing an opera season to be fascinating and revelatory. One expects that the impresarios in other cities would shift some operas  from one category to another based on their own company’s experience. Some might take issue with the details (even with a personal great reverence for Berlioz I wonder whether the demand for “Les Troyens” in San Francisco will really prove to be in the same category as “Rosenkavalier” and only a category below “Lucia” and “Trovatore”.) But the Gockley formulas display an intense interest in what the audience will actually buy tickets to see and it suggests a healthy balance between the immensely popular, the new, and the little known. It’s nice to have three  Mozart operas in Gockley’s ten opera list of what he categorizes as AAs.

The core repertory – and what operas can be depended upon to generate box office appeal – will continue to be a subject of discussion on this website. David Gockley’s expressed thoughts on how a person running a company decides which operas to schedule, is an illuminating contribution to our understanding of how the opera impresarios make decisions.


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Tags: William's Thoughts and Assessments