In the late summer of 1964, I had my Saturday night subscription seats to the San Francisco Opera’s season, but as late as 15 days before the season’s opening night, the contract with the musician’s union was in doubt, and the season seemed like it would be canceled, until the Mayor of San Francisco himself proposed the compromises that saved the opera season.
The first performance on my Fall Season 1964 Saturday night series at the San Francisco Opera was a new production of Wagner’s “Parsifal” starring Hungarian heldentenor Sandor Konya as Parsifal, American mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis as Kundry and American basso Giorgio Tozzi as Gurnemanz.
[Below: Sandor Konya as Parsifal in the 1959 La Scala production hat was his role debut; edited image, based on an historical La Scala production photograph.]
It was the first night of a new production by Paul Hager, with sets and costumes by Wolfram Skalicki.
It was the occasion of the San Francisco Opera debut of Austrian baritone Eberhard Waechter, who sang four different roles – two German, two Italian – in the 1964 season, never again to return to the San Francisco Opera.
The Hager-Skalicki Production
Nearly two decades after the end of World War II, productions of the mystical “Parsifal” remained the least performed of Wagner’s ten major works either in Nazi Germany, which had glorified Wagnerian opera, or in postwar Europe. Except for two performances in 1950 and a single one in 1951 (the only three previous performances in San Francisco Opera history), “Parsifal” had been absent from the San Francisco stage.
San Francisco Opera’s general director, Kurt Herbert Adler, an Austrian emigre with impeccable anti-Nazi credentials, had proved to be a major figure in the postwar rehabilitation of artists who found themselves on the losing side in the Second World war.
[Below: Illinois basso Giorgio Tozzi as Gurnemanx in Wolfram Skalicki’s costume for the 1964 San Francisco Opera production; edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
A new production of “Parsifal”, staged by German director Paul Hager (the pre-eminent director at San Francisco Opera during the first decades of the Adler era) and the Austrian set and costume designer Wolfram Skalicki, was an affair of more than local significance. In what was then still an innovative device, scrims and projections were extensively used.
“Parsifal’s” music is intoxicating. Konya, Dalis, Tozzi and Waechter sang superbly. The projected colors and medieval images were absorbing. If there was any political (or religious) message intended, it eluded me completely.
Sandor Konya’s Parsifal
Konya was arguably the leading tenor of the San Francisco Opera for six seasons from 1960 through 1965, singing 13 different roles. (Parsifal was the seventh of nine roles that I saw him perform in San Francisco.) After the 1965 season, he appeared at the San Francisco Opera only for a single performance of Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, substituting for another tenor in a performance that I was fortunate to attend.
[Below: Parsifal (Sandor Konya, left) is unresponsive to the seductive songs of the Flower Maidens in the 1964 San Francisco Opera production of “Parsifal”; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
He had performed Parsifal at La Scala in 1959 and brought the role to San Francisco a half-decade later.
Very much in demand for the title roles of “Parsifal” and “Lohengrin” [see 50 Year Anniversaries: Sandor Konya, Irene Dalis in “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 27, 1960], Konya demonstrated the smooth legato and expressive tone that I refer to as bel canto Wagnerian singing.
Other Principal Cast Members
This was the third occasion in which Konya was teamed with the distinguished California mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis. (She was Ortrud to his Lohengrin, and Princess Eboli when he sang the title role in Verdi’s “Don Carlo”.
Dalis was one of the few artists from the decade of the 1960s or before to receive the San Francisco Opera medal, created in 1970 with Dorothy Kirsten as its first honoree. Others whom I had seen in the 1960s in San Francisco – Thomas Stewart, Sir Geraint Evans, Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek -= were to join her, The decisions to honor certain artists with the San Francisco Opera medal is a subject I will return to at a later time.
[Below: Irene Dalis as Kundry in the 1964 San Francisco Opera production of “Parsifal”; edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The Amfortas was sung by Austrian baritone Eberhard Waechter, who was one of the most important of the European artists of the immediate postwar era.
He had a impressive list of assignments in San Francisco Opera’s 1964 season (also appearing as Barak in Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten”, Almaviva in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” and the Elder Germont in Verdi’s “La Traviata”). Although I saw Waechter perform each of his four roles, I never saw him again after 1964.
[Below: Amfortas (Eberhard Waechter, center lying on the bench) is observed by Gurnemanz (Giorgio Tozzi, standing left); edited image, based on a Pete Peters photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Also never returning to San Francisco Opera after the run of “Parsifals” was French conductor Georges Prêtre.
Some operas work out to be once in a decade experiences. I was present at the San Francisco Opera a decade later for the revival (with modifications) of the Hager-Skalicki production in 1974 (Jess Thomas, Eva Randova, Thomas Stewart, Kurt Moll), for a new Nicolas Joel production in 1988 (Rene Kollo, Waltraud Meier, Jorma Hyninnen, Kurt Moll, with Walter Berry as Klingsor), for a Nicholas Lehnhoff production in 2000 (Christopher Ventris, Catherine Malfitano, Franz Grundheber and Kurt Moll). I also traveled to the Los Angeles Opera, for the Robert Wilson production with Placido Domingo, Linda Watson, Albert Dohmen and Matti Salminen).
“Parsifal”, to which a series of conventions and legends had become attached, has attracted a series of unconventional productions. Even though the Hager/Skalicki production was considered a substantive departure from the “Parsifal” traditions of old, it would seem conservative when compared to the productions of Joel, Lehnhoff and Wilson.
[For my extended remarks on the Wilson production (my first Wagner review on this website), see Domingo is the Redeemer of L.A.’s spellbound “Parsifal”: December 8, 2005 and “Robert Wilson’s Parsifal” in L A: Whose Spell is it Anyway?