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IN Music News THIS WEEK:
January 28, 2003

Malan Named Head of SF Girls Chorus

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By Janos Gereben

Malan Named Head of SF Girls Chorus

Rachel Malan has been selected from among 80 candidates as new executive director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, according to Kay Bishop, board president of the organization.

In addition to her extensive experience in arts management, Malan also has the advantage of not requiring moving expenses: she comes to the all-girl organization from the neighboring all-male Chanticleer, where she was director of resource development, heading a successful annual fund campaign of close to $1 million. She has also served as administrator of the San Francisco Opera's Merola Program and in executive positions with Masterworks Chorale, Chamber Soloists of San Francisco and the late San Jose Symphony. During her 30-year-long career in the Bay Area, at one time, she was also married to violinist Roy Malan, whose name she still retains.

The new executive director started her administrative involvement with choral music very early. Born in Washington, DC, Malan soon moved from base to base as an Air Force fledgling (Army dependents may be "brats," she says, but flyer family members fly high). In Merced, CA, she not only sang second soprano in the high school chorus, but became its president as well.

Malan says her appointment is an exciting opportunity "at a pivotal point in the SFGC's development, especially with our upcoming 25th anniversary . . . with exciting events spotlighting the chorus' presence in the Bay Area and worldwide." She and artistic director Susan McMane will guide the organization as it's planning an anniversary gala in March and summer tours to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei.

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State of the Opera

At a time when "State of the . . . " reports abound, it may be instructive to look at the state of the San Francisco Opera. Lacking such a presentation from the Opera administration, SFCV has compiled information based on general director Pamela Rosenberg's letter to company members last week and interviews with sources close to the administration and artistic staff.

The joint memo from Rosenberg and Opera board president Karl Mills ignored specifics of the current situation, perhaps taking it for granted that there is general awareness of a large (and growing) deficit, declining attendance and contributions. Instead, Rosenberg focussed on the "benchmark year" of 2005-'06 season when "the cost . . . and the funds available . . . are in sustainable balance." It's not spelled out, but that statement is likely to mean a balanced budget, no deficit.

That, in turn, is a large order, against the stated deficit of $7.7 million for last year, and a rumored $9 million shortfall for each of the next two seasons, until reaching that "benchmark year." Paying for the worst-case scenario accumulated deficit of some $25 million will exhaust the unrestricted portion of the Opera's endowment fund. The entire fund is believed to be dropping rapidly, according to unconfirmed reports, from $45 million two years ago (before the worst part of the dip in stock prices), to $29 million today.

With an anticipated budget of $47 million for the fiscal year ending on July 31, 2006 (down from last year's 54 million), Rosenberg is planning a total of 65 performances of nine productions. That means, she wrote in the memo, "a San Francisco Opera . . . smaller in terms of budget and schedule while remaining firmly committed to the artistic quality and adventurous spirit for which our productions are known."

Those figures don't represent a significant change from the upcoming 2003-04 season, which will have 76 performances of nine productions, so it's likely to be a daunting task to go from a large deficit to a balanced budget, while "we continue to maintain the artistic quality of our productions." Rosenberg indicated her understanding of the problem by saying in the internal memo, if not yet in public, that the "transition period . . . will be characterized by hard decisions and hard work."

About those decisions, again, no specifics are offered by the administration, but SFCV sources bring up some troubling particulars that may continue to contribute to the fiscal crisis:

  • Rehearsal schedules have been extended significantly, an unusually large proportion taking place on the main stage, representing a much higher expense than the cost of other rehearsal facilities. As large-scale productions are scheduled close to one another, rehearsal schedules become complex and expensive.

  • Rosenberg has doubled rehearsal periods, from 3-4 weeks under the previous administration, to seven weeks. The upcoming Barber of Seville, for example, will have seven final rehearsals, with full crew, full cast, most with full orchestra as well. This situation is all the more noteworthy in light of the fact that the Rossini opera is a small-scale work and well-familiar to one and all.

  • Against the US tradition of directors arriving prepared to do a production in a timely fashion, Rosenberg's imported directors and production people expect more time and the freedom to make many time-consuming and expensive changes. Their engagement, the cost of their transportation and accommodation, plus renting and buying productions from European opera houses all up the ante.

  • Singers trained in this country say that they get the most benefit from the first 2-4 weeks of rehearsals, and then experience a diminishing rate of return, basically repeating what they have already mastered.

  • Arrangements for co-productions favor the other companies (including European ones), leaving the San Francisco costume and scene shop with less work and more layoffs. Shipping and insurance costs have gone sky-high in the past two years.

  • There is no evidence of direct and forceful input from directors of finance, development, etc., to let the general director know in advance (or at least, when the facts are at hand) what resources are available, what can be done to balance income and expenses. How can you know what officials don't do? From the woeful results of unchecked budgeting. However important "artistic vision" may be, American companies don't have the luxury of their European counterparts, which get rescued by the government when the need arises.

  • There have been numerous singers brought in from Europe, especially Stuttgart, and while most of them performed very well, they had neither the name recognition that brings in larger audiences nor the "economy" of being from the domestic or local crop. This happens at a time when there is no shortage of excellent singers on this continent — many freely and frequently imported by European houses. (It is true that Kurt Herbert Adler also brought in singers from Europe, but he found young, enormously talented artists, who later became great stars. At any rate, you can bet that Adler didn't contribute to the economic well-being of Lufthansa, a fine airline, but charging an arm and a leg for first class.)

  • Further along the lines of leadership: senior staff members are being advised that as part of the rescue plan, they may expect a salary cut of up to 15%. Not a great morale-booster for the leadership.

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A Correction of Sorts

A week ago, before reporting here that the SFO management gave notice of its intention to terminate the orchestra contract that is running through August 2003, I asked the Opera administration for comment. There was no comment, and now, a week later, there is still none.

On the other hand, using additional sources, more unofficial but apparently reliable information came forth from the silent War Memorial, and so the time has come for a correction. Here's what happened: the SFO management gave notice of its intention to terminate the orchestra contract that is running through August 2003 because the contract requires such action as a formality before negotiations for the new contract begin. Apparently, this procedural technicality had been ignored in the past.

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Lacey, SFO Center's Own, Honored

William Lacey, much praised for his conducting in appearances with the SF Opera Center, has just won the prestigious South Bank Show Award for best opera performance in the UK in 2002. Lacey's direction of the Birmingham Opera Company production of Fidelio prevailed over the English National Opera's Lulu, with Paul Daniel and the Covent Garden world premiere of Sophie's Choice, conducted by Simon Rattle. The awards were broadcast Sunday on ITV.

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'Our' 9/11-ish Troyens

Nick Palmer, a friend and veteran opera enthusiast, attended the London premiere Monday and sent this message:

Trojans, Part I, opened at the English National Opera tonight. Part II comes in during May, and the complete work as one entity will be given in 2004 after the theatre reopens following the major restoration and rebuild.

The most important thing first, Susan Bickley is a very good Cassandra, so that gets you off to a flying start. It is directed by Richard Jones, in a particularly iconoclastic mood, and it is a co-production with San Francisco. But I suspect that if anyone was in the audience tonight from SFO management, they will have been given something to think about.

The setting is America, from the 1960s through to the recent past. Chorus mostly in shorts, jeans and assorted tops, and a whole lot of related images. The designs are stark, simple, and doubtless worrying to some. Thus the curtain rises on the abandoned Greek camp in the Trojan plains. The stage is black and empty but for the smoking, flame-flickering remains of a crashed passenger jet in the far right corner.

The second scene is a kind of abandoned lecture room, with tiered virulently green plastic seating of the cheapest kind, a screen descends and we see projected images of the young and happy Kennedy family, later a Jackie Kennedy "look-alike" in deepest black-veiled mourning walks very slowly across the stage leading her small boy by the hand — we all know that image from the funeral. And for the suicide of the Trojan women at the end, they leap from the top of a skyscraper, many carrying bombs in their arms — suicide bombers indeed, in a setting deliberately reminiscent of 9/11 and the twin towers, the final curtain being a frontcloth of falling shattered glass and debris.

So, worrying but very powerful indeed. There was much raw emotion, probably as much in the audience as on stage. In this respect it cannot be denied that this kind of approach, for this kind of work, makes opera "matter" one way or another to a modern audience. It most certainly cannot be ignored. The audience reception at the end was predictable, but the cheers and bravos far outweighed the boos. One of the ladies in the chorus ran off-stage, returning to present Jones with a large bouquet on behalf of the chorus, and they applauded him hugely. Paul Daniel conducted, fluently and idiomatically, John Daszak sang Aeneas.

(Janos Gereben, a regular contributor to www.sfcv.org, is arts editor of the Post Newspaper Group. His e-mail address is [email protected])

©2003 Janos Gereben, all rights reserved