It’s about a month till the premiere of Gordon Getty’s newest opera, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and the composer and philanthropist, who is a major donor to SFCV, has gathered key members of his production team and an inquiring reporter to talk about what’s been done and is still to come.
“We’d been working towards a 2020 premiere,” notes Lisa Delan, who heads up Getty’s Rork Music and the Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation and serves as Chips’s executive producer. “Festival Napa Valley,” she recounts, “was to have had the live premiere in July of last year.”
“And we’d been working on it for at least a year-and-a-half before that,” adds Brian Staufenbiel, who’d been tapped to direct the expected staged production. “Thank god it was delayed,” proclaims Getty, “because now, it’s much better.”
And it turned out to require much more work, a bigger budget, and considerable inventive enterprise. As the COVID-19 pandemic prompted ever tighter restrictions in the spring of 2020, Staufenbiel suggested to Delan that the opera be made as a movie. At first skeptical, she conferred with the composer, and the project was greenlighted, with Staufenbiel as the film’s director and Nicole Paiement, his wife, as the opera’s conductor. Staufenbiel had previously created films for the Seattle Opera and for Paiement’s Opera Parallèle.
An Oscar-winning dramatic, non-musical movie of Goodbye, Mr. Chips was released in 1939, five years after the publication of the novella and several subsequent stories by English author James Hilton on which that film, several later films, and Getty’s opera are all based. Getty saw the first film as a young man, although he didn’t read Hilton’s book until recently. “I knew I had to set it,” he says, “because it moved me to tears of joy, tears that somebody has beaten this game.”
Hilton’s novella and stories tell the tale of a long-time beloved teacher, Arthur Chipping, at Brookfield, a modest English boarding school for boys, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The author is said to have been inspired by his father, himself a teacher and headmaster. Getty, as with all four of his operas, created his own story line and lyrics. In his adaptation, Chipping (sung by tenor Nathan Granner), near the end of his career and his life, recounts his life’s story to his doctor, Merrivale (baritone Lester Lynch). Among the highlights are his romance with and marriage to a younger woman, Kathie, a lively surprise to both his school and the teacher himself.
“Chips” is the affectionate nickname given Chipping by his students and colleagues and picked up by Kathie (portrayed by soprano Marnie Breckenridge in the opera). As a pedagogue teaching Latin, Chips is something of a throwback, but he’s also kind, generous, and hospitable. After Kathie dies in childbirth, he manages to regain his composure and strengthen his attention to the succeeding generations of young scholars. He also survives intimidation from a tyrannical headmaster, Ralston, who pressures him to retire before his time.
“Chips is what I want to be,” says Getty about his titular character. “Talk about a moral compass!” Another of Getty’s reworkings builds on Ralston becoming a ruthless industrialist who sells stocks in Ralston Industries to his old school. His company fails, after which Ralston, in a moral reversal, buys them back from his former employer.
“He does this to spare Brookfield,” notes Getty, “so it turns out there was good in him all along. There is such a thing as unqualified goodness in the world, and all my music tries to remind the world of that.” The composer goes on to describe the scene of Chips, on his deathbed, accepting a visit from Ralston, who implores his former colleague for forgiveness and for help in admitting his grandson to Brookfield. “Ralston asks, ‘Is there a god, Mr. Chipping?’ And Chips says, ‘There’s one inside.” Getty, an acknowledged “agnostic,” says he shares Chips’s conception of deity.
“This redemption scene is so beautiful, musically and emotionally,” says director Staufenbiel. “It’s all about intimacy. And there’s a fluidity to the dialogue that makes it feel like conversation, it’s really exceptional. I’m a musician as well [he’s performed as a tenor] and I have to say that Mr. Getty’s music is tonal, but very distinct. He works in a tradition of motifs that still works today. And there’s some amount of dissonance and foreshadowing that he uses, especially with Kathie’s death; you can feel it coming.”
Bass Kevin Short was cast in the dual roles of the overbearing Ralston and the kind and gentle Sir John Rivers, head of the school’s board of governors, who names Chips headmaster after Ralston’s departure. Short previously sang Primus Usher in a 2014 production by the Welsh National Opera of Getty’s Usher House, and Lester Lynch portrayed John Falstaff in the 2010 Pentatone recording of Getty’s first opera, Plump Jack.
“Organizing the actual recording [of Chips] was done in the heart of COVID [lockdown],” says Staufenbiel. “We knew we were going to have people lip sync, so the recording [of voices] had to be done first,” at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Bowes Center. “We thought we were recording a two-hour opera, but we were actually recording an eight-hour opera, because we had four principals, and we essentially had to record each of their versions of the opera separately” in accord with COVID safety, Delan points out. The orchestra underwent its own COVID challenges. Paiement, conducting the strings in the Conservatory’s spacious Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall during recording sessions, was visible via video feed to wind, brass, and percussion players isolated in individual rooms elsewhere in the facility. All elements were acoustically connected and recorded through the state-of-the-art Dante Audio Networking System, installed by the Conservatory last fall.
The diverse musical ingredients were mixed at Skywalker Sound, in Marin County, by Grammy-winning producer Leslie Ann Jones. As recording proceeded, physical design and production began. “I didn’t want to make a straight-up film, because this is a theater piece,” says Staufenbiel, who oversaw the design. “It became a hybrid of making a full-length film and at the same time breaking the fourth wall, so that we could be having distinct scenes that are all in the same place.” In an affecting mode of storytelling, Doctor Merrivale begins the opera in conversation with Chips and then mutates into a narrator, addressing the audience directly, as Chips flashes back to the joys and sorrows of a long and loving life.
“I’ve gone through my mental database, between the Met broadcasts and the Zeffirelli films, and you don’t find this sort of hybrid there,” says Delan. “I think this is new to opera films. Challenge breeds the greatest ingenuity, and this has given everyone a chance to show in a light that otherwise we may not have gotten, had it been a stage production.”
In terms of where to realize their vision, “we landed on Treasure Island, relatively late in the game,” says Staufenbiel. “Things were starting to open up, and their buildings were starting to be rented.” The hangar in which the Chips setting was created and filmed had originally housed part of a world’s fair in 1939, the year that Hilton’s book first appeared on screen.
Producer Nicolle Foland, attests Staufenbiel, “ran our set like a small city. It was amazing. Most of the crew had never done anything like this.” “For those of us on the music side,” says Delan, “it was really moving to hear that this film crew, who may not have been opera-oriented, was so moved by what they were hearing and seeing, the score and the approach we were taking. When our bass, Kevin Short, was doing camera tests, he started singing ‘Old Man River,’ which he’d done at the Met, and 45 people shouted, ‘Great!’”
The boys of Brookfield School were collectively represented by members of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Just before the pandemic shutdown, Getty had been designated that ensemble’s artist in residence for the 2020-21 season by artistic director Francisco Nuñez. These boys, recorded and filmed during two East Coast sessions during the COVID lockdown, appear in the film as projections on the walls of the set. Individual boy actors in the film were cast in the Bay Area, although the character of Linford, a student newly arrived at Brookfield who visits Chips in a key scene, was voiced by soprano Breckenridge.
“Hilton had a beautiful sense of drama, and he has Linford go to see Chips because ‘a lady’ asked him to,” notes Getty. “Well, you know who that lady is: it’s Kathie! My impression is that this boy, for the moment, is being inhabited by Kathie.” In another scene, Chips prays to the departed spirit of “Kathie, beautiful Kathie” to intercede on behalf of another student, Grayson, whose father is imperiled on the Titanic.
Getty has maintained a hands-on relationship with all of his operatic productions — “they’re all my children,” he says — but Delan, who has partnered him on the recording and/or live production of all these projects, describes her employer’s work on Chips as singularly “laser-focused on orchestration, not unrelated to the year of isolation that surrounded its finalization. And he’s been closely involved with every other aspect of the creative process, from casting, recording, and editing through filming and post-production.” The composer’s involvement continued through what Delan describes as the “unspeakable time pressure” of the last few weeks preceding the premiere, tweaking tones and balances with recording producer Leslie Ann Jones and the rest of the crew.
“Maybe I am Chips!” Getty declares, laughing. He points out that, “Chips dies a month before I was born [in December of 1933], and in that same month, Hilton wrote the first installment of the novella. Also, Chips is a traditionalist, and Chips marries Kathie, and Kathie is sort of lib, like a suffragette. And Chips comes to appreciate that point of view.” Getty describes himself as traditional in his approach to key aspects of his life, including his composition, but he notes that, “I married a relatively liberal person in Ann, and I became more liberal as she became more conservative. So there are those parallels with Chips.”
Delan reports than when she was watching a rough cut of the opera film with Alexandra Armantrading, Getty’s artistic coordinator, “we realized that Nathan [Granner], as Chips, had adopted some of Mr. G’s mannerisms. For example, at the point where Chips is praying, he does this thing with his hands that Mr. G does.”
Staufenbiel makes a teasing allusion to “a Gordon Getty Hitchcock moment” to watch for in the film, which premieres at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael on November 14, in a joint presentation by the Mill Valley Film Festival and Festival Napa Valley. After the originally scheduled 4 p.m. premiere screening sold out, an additional 1 p.m. screening was added. Audience size will be somewhat reduced for social distancing. Virtual screenings will follow soon “It’s remarkable,” says Delan, “that with this film we have a permanent record, in accord with the vision of the composer, that will be able to reach so many more people than we would have with the stage production.”
“We designed and built and worked so hard on this,” says Staufenbiel, “so that 10 or 20 years from now, you will not know that COVID was the instigator” of the hybrid experiment and achievement. “But as for absolute goodness,” responds Delan about Chips’s takeaway theme, “if anybody were to place this film historically, this is when we’ve needed that goodness, desperately.”