Pocket Opera Is Up and At ’Em Again for Its 43rd Season

Janos Gereben on February 10, 2020
Pocket repeats a Wagner rarity, Das Liebesverbot, called “No Love Allowed” in its English version; Ellen Leslie as Isabella and Patrick Hagen as Luzio | Credit: Vero Kherian

Looking ahead to Pocket Opera’s 43rd season this year, it’s meaningful to look back first to a seminal event the “little company that could” confronted five years ago this month, as reported in San Francisco Classical Voice:

“Pocket Opera, Donald Pippin’s inimitable performing organization, has always lived on pennies, but now — thanks to clueless thieves the day before the Super Bowl — it has nothing ... except will and talent.

“Just before the Feb. 1 performance of Lucia di Lammermoor in the S.F. Legion of Honor, the company’s truck was burglarized and the idiots stole everything essential to Pocket and without any value for anyone else (except, maybe, another small opera company — that could be a clue). Gone were costumes, props, equipment, and music.”

Somehow “the show went on,” and it was a success, pride mixed with anger with the message “I hope the thief enjoys watching the Super Bowl in a bloody nightgown and kilt!”

Pocket Opera carries on its unique artistic mission created by Artistic Director Emeritus Donald Pippin | Credit: David Allen

Pocket has been overcoming odds ever since its birth in the Spaghetti Factory in 1978, where its founder, Donald Pippin, held a weekly chamber music series from 1960 on.

Pippin has been aided by a legion of supporters of this “small-scale, brave opera in English,” especially Dianna Shuster (executive director, 2005–2018) and Nicolas Aliaga Garcia, production manager since 2009, and currently artistic director, holding the fort now that Pippin, 94, is emeritus.

The company still operates on Pippin’s realistic, results-oriented aspiration for survival: “I never think about the future; it’s unknown territory. I don’t plan ahead; my main interest is in survival in a world where everything is becoming more expensive and more difficult for an opera company, regardless of its size.”

Garcia says Pocket’s 20/20 “vision for the future” season is “to continue the special connection Donald has created using his witty translations to charm the audiences of San Francisco and surrounding Bay Area communities.”

As in recent years, venues for the Pocket season are Berkeley’s Hillside Club and San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, with several productions also offered at Palo Alto’s Oshman Family JCC.

Deborah Rosengaus as Tisbe, Kindra Scharich as Angelina, and Autumn Allee as Clorinda in Rossini’s Cinderella | Credit: Vero Kherian

Into the current, temporary Wagner-dearth of Bay Area opera comes Pocket’s reprise of his seldom-performed Das Liebesverbot (the title in Pippin’s translation is “No Love Allowed”), conducted by Jonathan Khuner in his Pocket Opera debut; Ellen Leslie is Isabella, Patrick Hagen is Lucio. The production — on April 26 and May 5 — is sponsored in part by the Wagner Society of Northern California.

Jonathan Khuner — shown with Juyeon Song and Jeremy Knight at last year’s Nabucco production — will make his Pocket debut, conducting Wagner | Credit: Gordon Gladstone

Khuner explains the significance of Das Liebesverbot to the Pocket season:

People picture Richard Wagner as the originator of the modern super-serious, ultra-deep musical-dramatic “magnum opus.” His early comedic opera Das Liebesverbot, with the magic of Donald Pippin’s clever translation, is the more amazing [for] combining the charm of idealistic youth (Wagner was 23 when he composed it), the depth of Shakespeare (Wagner lifted the plot directly from Measure for Measure), the suffusion of Italian bel canto idiom (Wagner loved and imitated Bellini and Donizetti), and already complete control of vocal writing and orchestration (Wagner was always a genius).

The only non-surprising element is Wagner’s penchant for length, but Pocket Opera’s version will have plenty of cuts, and promises to be as delicious now as when Pippin first produced it in 1990.”

Among other highlights of the season:

* Mozart’s Don Giovanni (March 1, 8, and 15), with Anders Froehlich in the title role, Rabihah Davis Dunn as Donna Anna, Jaime Korkos as Donna Elvira, Sara LeMesh as Zerlina, Spencer Dodd as Leporello, and Kevin Gino as Don Ottavio. Current Adler Fellow César Cañón returns to conduct.

Chelsea Hollow in Offenbach’s The Cat Became a Woman | Credit: Vero Kherian

* An unusual pair of one-act operas: Jacques Offenbach’s The Cat Became a Woman (with Chelsea Hollow as Minette and Sam Faustine as Guido) is paired with Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (March 29 and April 5), conducted by David Drummond and directed by Garcia. In the cast: Marcelle Dronkers as Santuzza, David Gustafson as Turiddu, and Harlan Hays as Alfio.

* Georges Bizet’s Carmen (June 7, 14, and 21) is a good demonstration of the Pippin-Pocket tradition of showcasing young talent. When Silvie Jensen withdrew from singing the title role, Nikola Printz stepped in as Carmen, just before she starts participating in the SF Opera Merola Program. (Garcia writes: “Nika will actually be singing our last two Carmen performances on her first two  Sundays off of Merola.”) Frank Johnson conducts; the cast includes Gabriel Liboiron-Cohen, from Opera Southwest, as Don José, Lindsay Roush as Micaëla, and Ben Brady as Escamillo.

* Rossini’s Cinderella (July 12, 19, and 26) is a co-production with Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater and the Mendocino Music Festival. There will be 10 performances across Northern California, featuring Kindra Scharich in the title role and Igor Vieira as Dandini. Mary Chun conducts.