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IN Music News
Jan. 23, 2007

More From the
War Memorial

in the Works

Ferreting Out
San Jose Facts

Berkeley Symphony:
Home Alone?

Lang Lang,
Magyar Musician

Los Angeles
Opera Season

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S.F. Opera: The Road Ahead

By Janos Gereben

David Gockley is planning an ambitious 2007-2008 season for his second year as San Francisco Opera's general director. He has announced the world premiere of Philip Glass' Appomattox (commissioned by the company), and the first installment (Das Rheingold) of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung in Francesca Zambello's American setting. In addition, there will be nine other productions, eight of which are new here:

    * Wagner's Tannhäuser (S.F. production)

    * Handel's Ariodante (from Dallas)

    * Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (a coproduction with four European companies)

    * Puccini's La Rondine (from Toulouse and Covent Garden)

    * The West Coast premiere of Rachel Portman's The Little Prince (from Houston, coproduced with Cal Performances, in Zellerbach Hall)

    * Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (from the Metropolitan Opera)

    * Mozart's The Magic Flute (the Maurice Sendak production from Houston)

    * Verdi's Macbeth (from Zurich)

San Francisco Opera
Artistic Advisor Francesca Zambello
Photo by Ken Howard

The season (Sept. 7 – July 6, 2008) opens with Saint-SaŽns' Samson and Delilah, which is a revival of the 2001 production. It will feature Olga Borodina, once again. Complete information about the season is available at www.sfopera.com. (The summer portion of the current season, June 2-30, offers Mozart's Don Giovanni, Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, and Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride.)

Samson and Delilah
Photo by Larry Merkle

Some of the 21 principal singers making their San Francisco debut during the next season include: Veronica Cangemi (U.S. debut, as Dalinda in Ariodante), Natalie Dessay (Lucia title role), Angela Gheorghiu (Magda in La Rondine), Ewa Podles (Polinesso in Ariodante), Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser title role), and Clifton Forbis (Samson).

The San Francisco Opera Center will be well represented, with 11 current Adler Fellows performing during the season. Among those featured are such Merola/Adler veterans as sopranos Ruth Ann Swenson and Susan Graham; baritones Mark Delavan (in his role debut as Wotan), Richard Paul Fink, and Thomas Hampson; and conductor Patrick Summers (Samson and Delilah and Ariodante). Company music director Donald Runnicles will conduct four productions, and his successor, Nicola Luisotti, is yet to be scheduled.

Directorial house debuts include Cirque du Soleil's Robert Lepage (The Rake's Progress), Covent Garden's Graham Vick (Tannhäuser), New York Shakespeare Festival's George C. Wolfe (Appomattox), and playwright Mary Zimmerman (Lucia di Lammermoor).

After several years of severe budget problems, the Opera is once again in an expansion mode. But for Gockley, the first order of business is to build the company's endowment fund. He plans to keep the operating budget "in the mid-60s" (an increase from the current $60.4 million). Meanwhile, he will add to the endowment until it reaches the ideal figure of four times the operating budget. The endowment is now near $100 million, thanks to recent large contributions from Jeannik Méquet Littlefield and the Hewlett Foundation. Gockley said more income from a larger endowment will help to ease the upward spiral of ticket prices and "too aggressive" drives for annual contributions.

Even in the midst of new announcements, Gockley is tantalizing us with more to come. When asked about the possibility of broadcasts from the Opera House, he said he is only missing the deadline that he set for himself a year ago by a few weeks. "Stay tuned for a major announcement," he said. His comment on the Metropolitan Opera's high-definition simulcasts in theaters was that he is "impressed and thrilled by this huge shot in the arm for opera," (a compliment for the Met's Peter Gelb). As to his own live, free, open-air simulcasts, Gockley promised "more to come."

Beyond next season, Gockley is planning a world premiere: Stewart Wallace's The Bonesetter's Daughter, based on Amy Tan's novel. The entire Wagner Ring of the Nibelung will also be featured in the 2010-2011 season.

The good news from the Opera House is that between 2005 and 2006, ticket sales in the 3,000-seat auditorium went up from 82.2 percent of capacity to 88.9 percent.

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More From the War Memorial

Also from Monday's press conference:

* David Gockley says the new season is "all his" except for a few previously contracted singers and two productions. Samson and Delilah and Macbeth will be set by Gockley's predecessor, Pamela Rosenberg, "very much to my liking," he said.

* Philip Glass — whose birthday (on Jan. 31) was celebrated at the press conference with a professional chorus singing "Happy Birthday" and a cake large enough for 70 candles — spoke extensively about his Appomattox (Oct. 5-20), see item below.

Philip Glass and David Gockley

* Gockley pledged to keep amplification out of the Opera House, except when composers (such as John Adams) request it, and in the case of some spoken dialogue.

* Francesca Zambello said her "American Ring" (beginning here with Rheingold, June 3-22), "had a pre-San Francisco tryout in Washington, just don't tell P.D." (P.D. is Domingo, director of the coproducing company.) Gockley spoke sadly of the "dumping" of the previous San Francisco Ring set, one of the numerous sets that the previous administration disposed of.

Washington National Opera's Rheingold
Production photo by Karin Cooper

* Gockley reconfirmed that an announcement about broadcasts is coming soon. Expectations range from local — but not network — radio broadcasts to televised performances (but those are a big if).

& & &

Appomattox in the Works

Philip Glass warmly thanked Gockley for being among his earliest supporters going back some three decades. He said at the season-announcement press conference that he had started a new work while envisioning the Appomattox courthouse, where Lee surrendered to Grant. After a chorus of five women (including the two generals' wives and Mrs. Lincoln), the first act opens with the two men taking their seats at the two tables in the room. Lee is dressed formally and Grant is just off the field, unwashed.

Based on detailed reports of the event, Glass uses a recorded dialogue between Lee and Grant. They talk about where they might have met before and chat amicably before "getting down to the business of surrender." Lee, Glass says, was urged to switch to guerrilla tactics and Grant was under pressure to put Lee on trial.

Both men rejected continuing the war. Instead, they made peace to give the nation a chance to heal and come together again. "I cannot find anyone of similar moral and intellectual stature in public life today," Glass says, "no such examples of courage and honor."

Others might have questioned the use of an English playwright for the project. Yet Glass says he found that Christopher Hampton brought great knowledge and a fresh view to the subject. Besides, the composer adds, Hampton is flexible about changes, unlike writers, he says, "who couldn't add a syllable or drop two in order to make my work possible — you simply cannot set 'undoubtedly' to music."

Glass feels that he is on track with Appomattox even though his Waiting for the Barbarians is opening in Austin. He also has a half-dozen film scores in first-run houses, and he is working on The Book of Longing. To the visible relief of Gockley and the company music staff Glass said, and repeated for emphasis, "We're fine!"

He is researching the music of the period (1865), not to use it verbatim, but "as a flavor." He says his idea of music in general has been changing in a surprising turn from this consistent, ostinato-ruled composer. He is more concerned than ever about listeners being able to understand the text. And the fact that "as voices (in conversation) don't go that high — the tessitura of spoken voice being different from singing high notes — when the music goes above the staff, words get lost." Glass promises "more understandable" arias and choral mumbers.

& & &

Ferreting Out San Jose Facts

In a marked contrast to the big to-do by the San Francisco Opera, the small cousin to the south, Opera San José, has kept mum about the next season. But the shadow knows! Expect another Lucia di Lammermoor and The Magic Flute at the California Theatre, as well as Verdi's Rigoletto and Massenet's Werther.

& & &

Berkeley Symphony: Home Alone?

It was as if a neutron bomb went off at the Berkeley Symphony: In a single day last weekend the entire music staff disappeared. Not that it was a large one: Two people who held five positions.

No. 1 was Kent Nagano, who announced on Friday his phased withdrawal as music director when he reaches three decades with the orchestra in a couple of years.

No. 2 (and 3, 4, and 5 — all in one) was George Thomson, who quit those positions after Nagano's announcement, effective immediately. Thomson has been holding down the fort in Nagano's absence for 12 years, especially the past two. He was the orchestra's associate conductor, artistic coordinator, as well as the director of the music education program and the "Under Construction" series.

George Thomson

When asked about Thomson's work in the past, Nagano has said: "Maestro Thomson is an amazing person, an extraordinary musician, wonderful conductor, friend and colleague." But when the Friday announcement came around, there seemed to be neither a future role for Thomson in Berkeley nor an acknowledgment of his contributions.

Thomson took the none-too-subtle message of omission in Nagano's announcement and quit because "the Orchestra has made a plan for its upcoming seasons, which by necessity excludes me from the level of involvement I have enjoyed of late." On his Web site, he added: "I felt that my close relationship to the musicians might be an impediment to the 'international search' for a successor to Kent that the Orchestra has chosen to undertake."

When I interviewed Nagano on Friday, I asked if he could have gotten his start in Berkeley as the result of an "international search." He had no comment. On the administrative side, there was a similar complete turnover not long ago when the full-time staff of two left. Executive director Gary Ginstling left to become director of communications at the San Francisco Symphony. Operations manager Heli Roiha left "to get a life" after many years of being on duty 24/7. There was no mention of them at the Friday announcement, nor in subsequent telephone interviews with Nagano.

& & &

Lang Lang, Magyar Musician

Lang Lang's Davies Hall recital on Tuesday included an eventful, up-down-and-up-again Mozart Sonata in B-flat Major, a totally glorious Schumann Fantasy in C Major, a John Tesh worthy Six Traditional Chinese Works (including — so help me — a tango), a fair-to-middling Granados Goyescas excerpt, and an honest, heartfelt Liebestod, in the Liszt treatment. After the performance I had a chance to compliment him on the program-closing Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 — not for the breathtaking virtuoso performance, but for how truly idiomatic and authentic it was.

Lang Lang

I said that it ranks up there with György Cziffra's interpretation. Much to my surprise, Lang Lang said Cziffra (who died 13 years ago, his hands ruined from being forced to crush rocks in a forced-labor camp during the Stalin era) was his "idol." Lang Lang then trumped that by saying that he is going on tour with the Vienna Philharmonic to Budapest, where he'll play the Bartok Second Piano Concerto. He's a brave man, and a fine artist, even if some of his "Chinese" repertory can be no more authentic than portions of Tan Dun's Puccini-Chinese opera.

& & &

Los Angeles Opera Season

Plácido Domingo has announced the Los Angeles Opera's next season. There will be two new productions: Beethoven's Fidelio and Verdi's Otello. The rest are revivals — Janácek's Jenufa; Mozart's Don Giovanni; Puccini's La Bohème, Tosca, and La Rondine; and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The new music director, James Conlon, will begin his cycle of Nazi-suppressed work with the U.S. premiere of Viktor Ullmann's Der zerbrochene Krug and the Los Angeles premiere of Alexander Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg.

(Janos Gereben is a regular contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice. His e-mail address is [email protected])

©2007 Janos Gereben, all rights reserved