March 19, 2012
Lyric Opera in High Gear For a Comeback
Sadly, opera companies have been disappearing lately under the continued bane of the Great Recession, and they don't return ... except one: That's San Francisco Lyric Opera, after a hiatus of three years. The company is producing David Lang's the little match girl passion at the ODC Theater, March 23-25.
Lyric Opera's short but eventful history began in 1996, when members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus formed a company in order to emerge, however temporarily, from being In the Shadow of the Stars, and sing front and center for a change.
After a few rocky years, Lyric Opera received a major injection of energy from the self-effacing Palmer Dynasty. In my long career of hanging out with and around opera companies, I have never met anyone like Simon Palmer. He served as the Lyric's CEO, CFO, PR, utility infielder, and occasional janitor — without ever using a title or speaking about his encompassing and all-important involvement. A secret executive director: We could use more of his kind.
Assisting her husband, also in civilian disguise, was Gladys Perint Palmer, the internationally renowned fashion illustrator, executive director of Fashion at the Academy of Art University, and former San Francisco Examiner fashion editor.
The family member up front was — and is — Barnaby Palmer, artistic director and conductor. From about 2002 until suspension of operations in 2009, Lyric Opera had some praiseworthy and critically well-acknowledged productions, putting the company on the map.
In addition to the standard repertory of such productions as Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Lyric also surprised and delighted with such relative rarities as Britten's Turn of the Screw and The Rape of Lucretia, Gounod's Romeo & Juliet.
Lyric Opera chorus master and Urban Opera founder/director Chip Grant gives high marks to Barnaby Palmer, "stepping into the void when some artistic and financial challenges almost swamped the company. Barbaby was thrust into the spotlight with Die Walküre, performed with two pianos at the Eureka Theater!"
The company moved to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, where it was doing very well, until the recession and a steep increase in rental (true to this day) forced it first to Cowell Theater, and later into surrendering to the economic Götterdämmerung.
And now, the time has come for Lyric Opera to be resuscitated. Palmer, just in from serving as assistant conductor with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, will lead performances, Grant doing the preparatory work and stage direction. The singers are soprano Ann Moss, alto Celeste Winant, tenor Eric Maggay Tuan, and bass-baritone Eugene Brancoveanu.
A new member of the Lyric leadership is Dean Shibuya, managing director and scenic designer. An architect by profession, he has designed sets for theater and opera companies in San Francisco, Honolulu, and elsewhere.
Based on the Hans Christian Andersen story and influenced by Bach, Pulitzer Prize-winning the little match girl passion is the vehicle for the Lyric's return to life.
Anastazia Louise of Bad Unkl Sista creates costumes and choreography for the production, the first West Coast production to include movement. She is known for combining Butoh-style and Western modern dance.
Lang's original production used only four voices and a few percussion instruments, played by the singers. They sing Andersen's story of a little girl who freezes to death selling matches on the street during a cold winter's night. (Hear an excerpt here.)
"The girl's bitter present is locked together with the sweetness of her past memories," Lang says. "Her poverty is always suffused with her hopefulness. There's a kind of naïve equilibrium between suffering and hope."
Lang saw a religious allegory in the story, finding inspiration in Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Music critic Tim Page, a Pulitzer juror, says he was deeply moved by Lang's work, "which is unlike any music I know."
One source of the idea for the production was American Conservatory Theater's 2002 production of Lang's Difficulty in Crossing the Field, directed by Carey Perloff in Theater Artaud. Shibuya says:
I was mesmerized and it stuck in my memory. Fast forward to late 2010, when I listened to it online and couldn't sleep that night. The music was so fresh and complex that I couldn't get it out of my mind. I mentioned this to Barnaby and suggested that perhaps we could put it on somewhere. Again, fast forward, I ended up taking the helm as managing director at the Lyric Opera to see if we could revive the company.
Barnaby and I decided to revise the mission statement of SFLO to focus on chamber opera and new works, performing them in more intimate settings than past productions. Matchgirl seemed like the perfect choice to launch that new direction. I wanted to reach out to other arts organizations to merge our respective audience pools and expose them to other art forms.
I reached out to ODC and they were very receptive to the idea. We are just renting the space but are using their website for ticketing so it's kind of a virtual relationship. Pairing dance with this piece seemed to be the right thing to do, and Anastazia's spare Butoh-influenced style also seemed to fit well with this particular piece of music, and this became very evident after reviewing 10 other submissions from other choreographers.
- Wed May 29, 2013 8:00pm
- Sat June 1, 2013 8:00pm
- Wed June 5, 2013 (All day)