To the Other Side: Opera and Beyond
Michael Santoro is a multi-instrumental musical polyglot, a native of Columbus, Ohio, who began playing the drums in his grade school band. In the course of migrating from saxophone to Chinese bamboo flute, he studied and taught Western classical music in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and moved to Taiwan where he spent seven years performing Cantonese opera.
During his ongoing quest, Santoro fell in love with the traditional operas of Taiwan, Southern India, Korea, Tibet, and Korea (for starters). Aware that all the art forms he holds dear need to evolve or perish, he has dedicated himself to bringing leading exponents of the divergent classical art forms together in the hope of developing a new, enduring opera for a fast-changing world. To that end, his Dog Door Productions company has arranged a feast of international opera traditions in San Francisco this weekend.
The Opera Project
This weekend, from Nov. 8 to 11 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, the 13th Annual San Francisco World Music Festival presents “The Opera Project: Voices From the Other Side ...” (see a sample here). In three musical “innovative evenings of transformation,” the festival’s global opera project will integrate live-streaming and live performances by distinguished masters of Azerbaijani Mugham Opera, Chinese Beijing Opera, Korean P’ansori Opera, South Indian Opera, Tibetan Opera. and Western Baroque opera. In addition to presenting three premieres and showcasing master musicians crossing national and cultural boundaries to play each other’s music for the first time, Santoro modestly hopes to forge a new operatic art form.
“If there’s not a strategy to help develop a new audience, the old forms will be completely gone in the same way that unprotected species in threatened rainforests become extinct.” – Michael Santoro, director of The Opera Project
“Music is shifting ground, and context is changing for all music around the world,” he said. “Part of the shift has to do with globalization. People are demanding invention and creativity in ways that these set regional forms around the world do not have. If we don’t come up with strategies to help these forms evolve — for taking the essence of a tradition or form and merging it with new influences — then [they] will die out, and whatever is coming in the future will not have it as part of its foundation.
“As audiences gray and interest in old traditions lessens,” he continued, “if there’s not a strategy to help develop a new audience, the old forms will be completely gone in the same way that unprotected species in threatened rainforests become extinct.”
Involving Classical Musicians in a Wider World
S.F. World Music Festival’s global music director, 37-year-old San Francisco resident Imamyar Hasanov, came to the U.S. from Azerbaijan in 1999 as a touring musician, and saw the opportunities that work in this country presented. A master of the kamancha, a four-string instrument from Central Asia that is an ancestor of the violin, he has spent the last few months working with a group of five Azeri Mugham opera musicians whom the festival is bringing here for The Opera Project.
“All these years, I’ve been traveling all around the world trying to collaborate with musicians from other cultures,” Hasanov explained. “I did a recording with a sitar player, and another with a Persian musician. Since 2005, I’ve worked with many international masters. What is unique about The Opera Project is that instead of foreign artists simply coming over and doing their thing, we Azeri musicians are collaborating with them! We are learning Chinese melodies and Chinese opera and playing their music with them, and vice versa. The same thing is true as regards practitioners of Tibetan and South Indian opera and Italian Baroque opera.”
One of Hasanov’s goals is to bring together the international members of the San Francisco World Music Festival’s Youth Orchestra with master musicians from other countries. “The younger generation is confused, because there’s a lot of bad music out there,” he said. “We are teaching them how to respect the masters, learn from them, and share space with them.” “What is unique about The Opera Project is that instead of foreign artists simply coming over and doing their thing, we Azeri musicians are collaborating with them!” – Imamyar Hasanov, San Francisco World Music Festival
On Saturday night, Nov. 10, the festival will present both China’s first opera, The Female General, and Leyli and Majnun, with musicians from different cultures playing each other’s instruments. Then, at Sunday night’s Finale, 48 musicians from many different cultures will collaborate to create a new music. By the time the next festival rolls around in 2013, Hasanov, Santoro, and the other directors of the SFWMF hope to present an entirely new opera whose sound is still in the making.
The Promise of Youth
At the helm of the International World Music Festival’s Youth Orchestra is master violinist and teacher Anuradha Sridhar. Founder of the Trinity Center for Music in Saratoga, she specializes in South Indian classical music, otherwise known as karnatic music. A fifth-generation musician from a renowned musical family, she is in charge of an orchestra composed of youth from many different cultures, which will play throughout the festival.
“The children definitely love the friendships they form,” she said, “and they love trying the new pieces in languages that are totally foreign to them. It’s the same for me. I get to play portions of Chinese opera, which I would have never had a chance to play in my life. We’ve all spent our lifetimes mastering our particular type of music, and it’s a great and rare opportunity to be able to explore something else.”
Even after hours of conducting interviews and watching scores of YouTube videos, it’s hard for me to imagine just what will take place at this year’s festival. Santoro assures me that it will be anything but a hodgepodge, with different musicians from various cultures simply joining together to play each other’s music on an international assortment of exotic instruments. But will it end up sounding something like the operatic equivalent of the strange 1989 recording of Terry Riley’s In C that was performed on Chinese instruments by the members of the Shanghai Film Orchestra? Or will the protectors of Orfeo, Leyli, Majnun, and the Female General actually come together and begin to create a new operatic form? Whatever does come down, it’s certain that the master musicians who give their all during the Festival will return home inspired to continue their explorations.
Jason Victor Serinus is a professional whistler and lecturer on opera and vocal recordings. He is editor of Psychoimmunity and the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity & AIDS, and he has written about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, AudioStream, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, and other publications.
The 13th Annual San Francisco World Music Festival, "The Opera Project: Voices from the Other Side..."
- Organization: Door Dog Music Productions/ San Francisco World Music Festival
- Venue: Kanbar Hall, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco
- City: San Francisco
- Date: Fri November 9, 2012 8:00pm
- Price Range: $12 to $89
- Tickets: 415.292.1200