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Remembering Kurt Herbert Adler

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By Patricia Kristof Moy

On the morning of April 2, I awoke with thoughts of Kurt Herbert Adler dancing in my head on this one-hundredth anniversary of his birth. He would have enjoyed being feted today by the usual shower of calls and greetings from family, friends, colleagues, disciples, rivals and enemies.

Each April 2nd of the years I worked on his staff and especially in all the years after, until his passing in 1988 I looked forward to the smile that followed the hug, or the genuine warmth that greeted the phone call, as he took evident pleasure in being remembered and congratulated on the date that marked his birth.

It was quite remarkable to see this formidable man, whose not-so-infrequent outbursts of displeasure were said to shake the very walls of the Opera House, break into moments of child-like delight. And for me, it was even more extraordinary, when with his impeccable Viennese politesse and respect for returning a kindness bestowed, he would pick up his telephone four days later to wish me a happy birthday. He never failed to remember it or that of dozens or maybe hundreds of his devotees, although there was only one of him and so many of us.

How many careers did he launch, and how many of us are still living and working in the wake of his influence today? How many still recall the day when it was possible and necessary to achieve the highest levels of artistic success under the uncompromising integrity of a single and absolute dictator?

It was an era that died with his generation, and it was a time when there was no doubt about who was in full charge, or what the standard of quality was (“never good enough”). But he always held himself to the highest standard of all. His all-knowing, all-controlling, “my way or no way” brand of leadership vanished when he retired from the company he had made one of the finest in the world.

He could expertly coax, cajole or charm even the most capricious diva into seeing things from his point of view. No tempestuous stage director or cranky maestro could prevail or get his way in Kurt Adler's house. No detail escaped his notice. He seemed to have eyes and ears everywhere. Pity the sloppy scene painter who might have missed a spot in the corner of a set, or the dresser who may have inadvertently failed to button the glove of a chorus lady in the farthest row upstage. Even scene changes were repeated until the stage crew could execute them quietly no loud banging or hammering was to be heard behind the great gold curtain between acts of an opera performance.

His department heads buzzed around nervously day and night, dreading the moment when they would hear their name hissed loudly in the familiar Viennese accent, followed immediately by the equally familiar, all-purpose expression of his exasperation: “Zees eez eem-POSS-eeble!!!”

He was blunt, even sometimes brutal. But pretense was not in his repertoire, and you always knew where you stood with him. While a plate of home-baked Viennese cookies could indeed get you past legions of secretary-body guards into the inner-sanctum of his private office, it didn't buy you any favor you might not otherwise have earned. He despised flatterers and sycophants, and could smell them at a great distance. They were quickly neutralized with glacial dismissals.

Those who agreed with him too often or too readily were unceremoniously written off as unworthy. He loved a good fight, and didn't differentiate between high-ranking adversaries and low-level ones, when it came to enjoying the fireworks. There was no greater gratification than winning one of these spectacular rows, which was permitted from time to time, if the opponent had proved him/herself to have sufficient integrity.

To earn your place in his constellation, you had to amass a few battle scars along the way. It was a rite of passage with Mr. Adler. Not unlike the fate of many an operatic character, those who failed to engage in the requisite trials ended up with broken egos, broken careers, or both. If, like Calaf or Tamino, you successfully met the challenge and emerged with your head still attached, you were rewarded with the prize his lifelong respect. While it did not guarantee his approval, it brought a deeper gift: his loyalty.

Our leader may have been irascible and difficult to please, but he loved his flock and was proud of their work. All around town at other arts organizations, no such camaraderie existed in those days, and our esprit de corps elicited the envy of many a colleague. At those other places, staff morale fluctuated with the daily box office receipts, while in Kurt's house, we supported and enjoyed each other as a huge, extended family.

We shared great ritualistic celebrations that took on legendary status: the annual pre-season Picnic and Oyster Barbecue atop the Mill Valley hills, the annual Holiday Turkey Luncheon in the conference room of the Opera House, the highly prized Stagehands' Crab Feed and Post-Season Roast on the Opera House stage, the annual Swimming Pool Party in Sonoma, and innumerable other festivities of every description. At the center of each of these, Kurt Adler laughed, joked and lavishly displayed the characteristic Viennese sense of humor that always lurked close beneath the stern façade.

In 1981, the year Kurt Herbert Adler retired as General Director of the San Francisco Opera at the age of 76, a small cluster of young redwood saplings was planted in his honor at Sigmund Stern Grove, home of San Francisco's popular Midsummer Music Festival. Mr. Adler had frequently conducted free outdoor concerts in this beautiful natural amphitheater and had served many years on the Festival's Board of Directors.

The place held a special significance for him. It had been his very first stop in California, when, one summer Sunday in 1943, he had reported for his new job as Opera Chorus Director and was whisked straight from the train station to the Grove where an Opera concert was in progress. It was also there that his predecessor and mentor, Gaetano Merola, founding General Director of the San Francisco Opera, was to meet his own operatic end a decade later, leaving the company in Adler's charge.

Merola had suffered a fatal heart attack while conducting ”Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly at the Stern Grove Festival on August 30, 1953. As soprano Brunetta Mazzolini began the aria accompanied by the Opera Orchestra, Maestro Merola dropped his baton and collapsed backward with his feet up on the podium pointing heavenward, in keeping with the old Italian superstition that a man should not die with his feet on the ground.

Over the next three decades, Kurt Herbert Adler was to build a world-class opera company and set an artistic standard that few before or since have matched in any field. Great leaders are most often complex and colorful characters. They are not universally revered. They are not always easy to serve. Though his charm could melt the iciest diva, impresario, labor union boss, or millionaire patron, I've no doubt that Mr. Adler would not care to be remembered as a nice guy, but rather as a great opera director.

On the warm and sunny spring afternoon of Kurt Herbert Adler's one hundredth birthday, nearly a quarter century after he helped heave shovels of dirt over the roots of four small and fragile trees in celebration of his life's work, a majestic stand of redwoods towers proudly over the San Francisco soil he loved a testament to his lasting legacy of excellence a bold and perpetual challenge to each new generation of artists.

(Patricia Kristof Moy is the French Language and Diction Coach of the San Francisco Opera. She served as Assistant Company Administrator of the San Francisco Opera from 1977 to 1981, and as Executive Director and Producer of the Stern Grove Misdummer Music Festival from 1984 to 1998.)

©2005 Patricia Kristof Moy, all rights reserved