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 2012, Part Two

January 25th, 2013


Note from William: In Part One in my “end of 2012” comments [see Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2012, Part One], I raised the issue of how poorly documented many past productions of opera are, so many lacking meaningful descriptions of the staging or even photographs of sets and costumes.

Just after publishing that essay, I came upon a case in point. I was preparing another of my observances of opera performances that I attended 50 years prior to the present year and tried to find documentary evidence of a production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman” that occurred at the San Francisco Opera’s Spring Opera Theater (SPOT) in 1963 [see 50 Year Anniversaries – SPOT’s “Tales of Hoffman” – San Francisco Opera, May 3, 1963]. This provided me some insight into just how precarious may be the historical record of the careers of artists who were not the celebrities that the big classical record companies promoted.

The previous 28 of these “50 year anniversary” observations all were comprised of San Francisco Opera casts that contained major international stars with recording contracts with the likes of RCA Victor, Decca Records and EMI.


[Below: the Crusader Rinaldo (David Daniels, left, on knees) finds a match for his powers in the sorcerer Armide (Elza van den Heever, front right); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


[For my performance review, see: Handel’s “Rinaldo” in Chicago: Francisco Negrin’s Finely Sung, Fun-filled Fantasy – Lyric Opera, March 16, 2012.]


For most of these recording artists, production photographs exist, although very few of the artists in the costumes that they wear in a particular production. For the San Francisco Opera, arguably the most important of the regional American opera companies, there were few operas that were repeated more than two or three times in a season, and often there were cast changes even within the small number of performances. Although there were photographers with regular assignments, there seems to have been no attempt to produce a photographic record of all the operas mounted in a season, much less of every cast change.

Part of this seems to be a tradition of budgeting photography only for new productions, as opposed to revivals of previous productions. (In some European houses there continue to be revivals with only a couple of scheduled performances, for which one should not expect production photographs.)


[Below: Placido Domingo as Doge Simon Boccanegra; resized image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


 [For my performance review, see: Legend Making at Los Angeles Opera – Placido Domingo, James Conlon Lead Star-Studded “Simon Boccanegra”, February 11, 2012.]


But the San Francisco Opera management in the 1960s was under pressure (to the extent that the company’s formidable director Kurt Herbert Adler took notice of outside pressure) to engage American artists, especially those that had spent their careers in the United States rather than Europe.

An Adler response was the creation of the Spring Opera Theater (SPOT) in which young American artists were invited to perform. Some of these artists, like Marilyn Horne and James King, went on to become international opera stars as well as recording artists for the major classical record labels.

Even recognizing that few artists – whether today or in the past – achieve comfortable, financially  secure careers as opera singers, the odds were stacked against American artists of a half century ago to a greater extent than today. Currently, more companies exist than five decades ago, and the total number of American opera performances, even if diminished by the destructive impact of the recent economic downturn, remains much higher than a half century ago.


[Below: Arabella (Erin Wall, left) and Mandryka (Mark Delavan, right) discuss their feelings for each other; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera. ]


[For my performance review, see: Erin Wall, Mark Delavan Are Superb in Elegant New Production of “Arabella” – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2012.]


A major change is that American singers are now recognized as among the best in the world and there is no longer an observable preference by opera managements (and audiences) for European, as opposed to American, artists.

I can provide abundant examples. Consider that in each year for my “Thoughts and Assessments” feature, I put a few representative photographs of productions I’ve reviewed during that year.

The 2012 photographs in parts one and two of this essay include nine American-trained artists (Nicole Cabell, Charles Castronovo, Stephen Costello, David Daniels, Mark Delavan, Ailyn Perez, John Relyea, Elza van den Heever and Erin Wall) any of whom can be considered as operatic artists of international rank. That list easily could be expanded to include many dozens more.

The nine artists listed were simply those in photographs that were not even chosen to make this point. (The criteria used to select these photographs, are that they oare of performances that took place in 2012 of productions, in most cases owned or co-owned by the opera company shown.)


[Below: Attila (John Relyea, left), frightened by the appearance of Pope Leo (Michael Devlin, in pontiff’s uniform), abandons his march towards Rome as Odabella (Lucrecia Garcia, center, in blue dress) looks on; edited image, based on an Elise Bakketun photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]


[For my performance review, see: Reveling in Early Verdi: Relyea, Garcia, Vratogna, Palombi in Montanaro’s Uncut “Attila” – Seattle Opera, January 14, 2012.]


Because so few operatic recordings are made these days, there will be fewer opportunities to hear these artists recorded in the kind of studio sessions to which some of the most talented (and luckiest) international stars of a half century ago had access.

The widespread availability of DVD recordings of live performances will offset the disadvantage of not having studio recordings to memorialize a career. Of course, those DVDs and, to some extent, YouTube and other visual and aural technologies, will provide evidence of the acting ability of most successful contemporary opera singers.

On the other hand, and very regrettably, many fine American opera singers from 50 years ago have little evidence currently available that allows us to remember and appreciate their careers. To my surprise, even the promotional photographs of several of them – meant to publicize their careers – are hard to find.

Some of these publicity head shots appear now to  have come under the proprietary ownership of the image dealers.

I try always to observe the spirit and  Digital Millennium Copyright Act (and have been known to use it in defense of this website), so with disappointment I chose not to use a promotional photograph of the tenor who sang Hoffman in San Francisco 50 years ago, because the head shot image that was taken for the purpose of  publicizing that artist, no longer seems to be in the public domain.

(Perhaps there is something operatic about the idea of one’s publicity photos becoming other people’s property  – like Hoffman’s reflection and Shlemil’s shadow being appropriated for Dr Dappertutto in the Venetian scene of “Tales of Hoffman”.)


[Below: Alfredo (Stephen Costello, left) comforts the dying Violetta (Ailyn Perez, right); edited image, based on a Philip Groshong photograph, courtesy of the Cincinnati Opera.]


[For my performance review, see: Ailyn Perez and Stephen Costello Star in Cincinnati Opera’s “La Traviata” – July 26, 2012.]


But purchasing artist’s head shots for the proprietary collections of image companies is a minor issue. They may be even be saving images that otherwise might disappear.

The larger issue is that opera companies are engaged in numerous complex activities to bring about performances in the present and planning in minute detail elements of performances in the near and distant future. There may be archival staff at the best-endowed institutions, and certainly dedicated volunteers that will take care of the past and keep the old files in order.

But I suspect that many opera companies lack the capacity to do much of this themselves. Sometimes a major library will take on the mission of preserving some of an opera company’s history, and perhaps more should.

But long-term continuity is not assured. When I was pulling together my 50 year remembrance of the Zeffirelli production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” [see 50 Year Anniversaries – “Don Giovanni” with Tozzi, De Los Angeles, Schwarzkopf, Evans and Lewis in Zeffirelli’s Production – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 1962], I contacted the Dallas Opera to see if there were photographs of the Zeffirelli sets that premiered in that city. But 50 years ago, it was the Dallas Civic Opera, not the Dallas Opera, that created that production.

Fortunately, the Dallas Opera did take over some of the files of the defunct Dallas Civic Opera, and found for me a black and white film strip with several images of artists in costumes created by Zeffirelli. It was wonderful that the Dallas Opera even saved the film strip, which was so grainy and scratchy that I’m sure many people would have thrown it away. (I’ll find a way of posting these images later in the year.)

There were wonderful American artists performing in the 1960s, a great number of whom are still alive. I would like very much to see a concerted effort to collect and preserve the remaining images and recordings and other evidence of this activity, before so much more is lost.


For the preceding posts in this series, see: Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2011, Part One, and also, Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2011, Part Two.

 See also, Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part One, and also, Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part Two, and also Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part Three.

See also, Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2009, Part One and also, Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2009, Part Two.


Tags: William's Thoughts and Assessments