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 third of 13 such observances of performances from the company’s 1964 Fall season.
San Francisco Opera during the early years of the long-play record was a regular stop for recording artists whose full-length operas were being promoted throughout the world. A majority – it seemed like almost all – of the legendary singers of the era came to San Francisco.
Having been hooked on opera in my junior high school days, having a nice collection of complete opera recordings and having an eight opera subscription to the San Francisco Opera that I obtained as a Freshman in a local university, my main concern was making sure that I would attend performances of everyone I wished to see.
Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin
My regular attendance of opera coincided with the years that German soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, one of the most illustrious stars of EMI records (released under the “Angel” label in the United States), performed with the San Francisco Opera.
[Below: German soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf; resized image of her obituary photograph.]
Schwarzkopf made her San Francisco Opera debut in 1955 and sang seven roles – three in two or more seasons – in eight of the ten seasons between 1955 and 1965. I saw her in five performances of three roles.
She was my first Fiordiligi in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” [See Cosi Fan Tutte – October 25, 1956 and 50 Year Anniversaries: “Cosi fan Tutte” with Schwarzkopf, Vanni, Valletti, Prey, Wolovsky, Grist – San Francisco Opera, October 19, 1963.]
Schwarzkopf was my first Donna Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” [50 Year Anniversaries: “Don Giovanni” with Tozzi, De Los Angeles, Schwarzkopf, Evans and Lewis in Zeffirelli’s Production – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 1962].
Her silvery voice with its luscious vibrato and stage elegance made her a favorite of mine and of San Francisco audiences. (She had no trouble displaying the innate dignity within the characters of the Marschallin, Fiordiligi and Donna Elvira.)
Four years prior to this 1964 performance, Schwarzkopf had been my first Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” [50 Year Anniversaries: Schwarzkopf, Boehme in San Francisco “Rosenkavalier” – September 29, 1960].
A story only partially known is the dedication of the San Francisco company in promoting reconciliation with artists whose performance careers in the first half of the 1940s took place in the opera houses of such enemy nations as Germany, Austria and Italy.
In my remembrance of that 1960 “Rosenkavalier” performance, I wrote extensively of the controversies surrounding certain German and Austrian artists, including Schwarzkopf, who spent World War performing in Nazi-controlled opera houses. I made a point of the role of Kurt Herbert Adler and the San Francisco Opera in persuading artists who had been “shunned” by other American companies to perform in San Francisco.
Since “Rosenkavalier” was not on my Saturday night series I had to purchase an extra ticket for the Thursday night series. It was a memorable purchase. Schwarzkopf spent only a week in San Francisco, singing three performances of “Rosenkavalier” on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.
Her appearance at the Sunday matinee that followed the Thursday night performance I saw was the last time she ever performed with the San Francisco Opera.
She later held master classes with the San Francisco Opera young artists’ program. Some of these artists, including baritone Thomas Hampson, credit her advice and instruction in the master classes and private instruction arranged by the San Francisco Opera, as important influences on their careers.
Schwarzkopf’s cast members included two of her favorite colleagues, both of whom were represented on major opera recordings, including “Rosenkavalier: – soprano Irmgard Seefried and baritone Otto Edelmann.
Irmgard Seefried’s Octavian
Although Imrgard Seefried was a favorite colleague of Schwarzkopf (who referred to Seefried’s perfect vocal style as something that came naturally to Seefried, but that other artists worked hard to achieve.
During the war years, Seefried was in her 20s, so had to wait (as did a large number of the opera artists whose names we still remember) until war’s end to begin their international careers.
[Below: Irmgard Seefried in 1962; resized image of an historical photograph.]
Seefried is a high soprano, so the role of Octavian, which is almost always sung by mezzo-sopranos, was quite a different effect. Yet, she was the Octavian on the Deutsche Grammophon recording, so brought the authority of Central European acceptance that she was a world class exponent of this role.
I confess to reserving judgment that Thursday night. Since she never returned to the War Memorial Opera House stage, I never had a clear impression of which roles I would have most enjoyed seeing and hearing her perform.
Otto Edelmann’s Baron Ochs
The Ochs, Baritone Otto Edelmann, was an Austrian affected by World War II. However, there was not ever any discussion of whether he collaborated with the Nazis. He was drafted into the German Army, and, not too long afterward, became a prisoner of war of the Russians, who held him for two years.
He was Ochs to Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin on the EMI “Rosenkavalier”. His San Francisco Opera performance that Thursday night was magnificently sung, and very funny.
[Below: Otto Edelmann as Baron Ochs; edited image of a publicity card.]
Like Schwarzkopf and Seefried, he never appeared in San Francisco with the company after that week’s Sunday matinee, although, unlike Schwarzkopf, he and Seefried did return to Los Angeles for a single performance of “Rosenkavalier” at the Shrine Auditorium on the San Francisco Opera tour.
Reri Grist’s Sophie
Of the four principals, the only American (the only non-European) was the enchanting lyric-coloratura soprano Reri Grist. Coming to opera via Broadway (Bernstein’s “West Side Story”) . This being 1964, one would suppose the casting an African-American as a Viennese debutante might have mad news.
[Below: Reri Grist was Sophie; resized image of an historical photograph.]
But it was seven years prior to this season that Leontyne Price had begun systematically taking on the roles. not just of the Nubian princess Aida, but of French nuns, Spanish noble ladies, young Japanese girls, and Italian royal court performers.
If the Met had with tentativeness, offered contralto Marian Anderson, the role of Ulrica, a fortune-teller with supernatural powers, to break its “color barrier”, there appeared to be no roles off-limits to African-Americans with the requisite voices.
Two nights later, I would return to the War Memorial Opera House for another major opera by Richard Strauss – one with an African-American singer in the title role, Ella Lee in “Die Frau ohne Schatten”.
The opera was conducted by 52 year old Ferdinand Leitner, whohad; spent the last years of World War II in Berlin. The perfromance was by directed German stage director Paul Hager with sets by German set designer Leni Bauer-Ecsy.