Conductors, who don’t always get top billing in opera houses where singers are the stars, will be very much in the news this summer when San Francisco Opera features an unusual lineup of four debuts on the War Memorial Opera House podium.
James Gaffigan leads the season-opening Carmen, June 5–29, yielding to Michelle Merrill on June 20 when he has a conflicting engagement. For Handel’s Orlando, June 9–27, the debuting conductor is Christopher Moulds; and Eun Sun Kim leads Dvořák’s Rusalka, June 16–28. In 2020, Gaffigan will return for Ernani, and Moulds will lead another Handel, Partenope.
SFO General Director Matthew Shilvock, who has engaged the conductors, says:
I am so looking forward to welcoming four maestros to the podium this summer, each of whom will be new to our mainstage audiences. Eun Sun Kim brings an expansive depth and will illuminate so much color and nuance in Rusalka.
James Gaffigan, formerly with the San Francisco Symphony and who conducted the Adler Concert for us in 2017, brings such an intensity of expression to bear, and I’m very excited for his emotionally propulsive Carmen.
Christopher Moulds is an incredibly respected baroque conductor and will bring a blend of vitality and poignancy to Handel’s Orlando. And we’re so happy to welcome Michelle Merrill, one of America’s most dynamic rising conductors, for a performance of Carmen.”
Responding to news of Kim’s engagement, composer/performer Rick Arnest from Cincinnati told SFCV: “She’s incredible. She stood in for James Levine on the opening concert of the 2018 May Festival. Her Verdi Requiem (a piece I’ve sung with them five times under James Conlon and others) knocked our socks off entirely.
“Her concept was deep, her technique flawless, her power immense ... and at the end she left the stage a demure young and somewhat shy Korean girl.
“Her rehearsal technique with a large chorus and orchestra was all direct, to the point, and given always with a gentle, smiling grace. The most impressive conductor I’ve worked with.”
Carmen, with Francesca Zambello as stage director, features J’Nai Bridges (Carmen), Anita Hartig (Micaëla), Matthew Polenzani (Don José), and Kyle Ketelsen (Escamillo).
Orlando is directed by the debuting Harry Fehr, as Christina Gansch (Dorinda) and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (Medoro) make their first mainstage appearances, joining Sasha Cooke in the title role, Heidi Stober (Angelica), and Christian Van Horn (Zoroastro).
Rusalka, in the David McVicar production, will have Rachel Willis-Sørensen in the title role, with Jamie Barton (Ježibaba), Brandon Jovanovich (The Prince), and Kristinn Sigmundsson (Water Gnome).
SFO publicist Jeffery McMillan points out some notable aspects of the summer season:
- All three operas have women making role debuts in title roles. All three productions are new to our stage and Rusalka and Orlando have been out of the repertory for many seasons — Rusalka was last heard here with Renée Fleming in 1995 and Orlando with Marilyn Horne in 1985).
- J’Nai Bridges has performed Carmen once before in a student performance for families at Glimmerglass where the director was Francesca Zambello. They will be reunited as J’Nai makes her professional debut in the role.
- After attaining prominence as one of the leading Mozart and Donizetti tenors of our time, Matthew Polenzani expands his foray into dramatic tenor terrain with his first ever Don José.
- Jamie Barton returns to us after last summer’s triumph in the Ring and her current Ring run at the Met. She sang Ježibaba at the Met in 2017 and absolutely loved the part.
- Brandon Jovanovich has been SFO’s “resident heldentenor” with appearances in Lohengrin, Meistersinger, Rheingold, and Walküre and now brings his acclaimed portrayal of one of the great Slavic heldentenor roles to the War Memorial stage.
- Award winners in the casts: Richard Tucker Award winners include Christian Van Horn (2018), Jamie Barton (2017), Brandon Jovanovich (2007) and Matthew Polenzani (2004), with Nadine Sierra (2017) opening the new season in September.
- Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen performed on a 2019 Grammy Award-winning disc. There are lots of other awards, of course, but suffice it to say that our casts are filled with winners.
- The diversity of styles and stories among these three operas is appealing — out-of-towners can book a terrific, varied opera visit to San Francisco.
- We have a popular French verismo title with an uncompromising, modern woman at its center; a baroque rarity with an especially rare instance (for opera) of male madness, all within a bold, updated setting; and a dark, romantic, 20th-century work based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and featuring a score by one of the greatest symphonists in history.”