Chung-Wai Soong
Chung-Wai Soong is making his Pocket Opera debut as Alidoro in La Cenerentola | Credit: Vero Kherian

When Donald Pippin founded Pocket Opera in 1977, he overcame enormous challenges. He and his supporters spent the decades that followed maintaining and building the organization, launching hundreds of young singers on their careers, and bringing opera into the lives of many who were strangers to the genre.

Today, Pippin’s successor, General Director Nicolas Aliaga Garcia, continues that legacy, at times facing similarly difficult circumstances. The company was born in North Beach cabaret halls and in its early days performed without costumes or sets, the singers reading scores held in hand. All that changed long ago, Pocket Opera having transformed into an accomplished professional company — one still dealing with manifold challenges, however.

And yet, Garcia brims with optimism as he announces Pocket’s 2024 season, which begins with “a well-known opener sandwiching two rarities, followed by a famous crowd-pleaser. Something for everyone!”

Garcia elaborates: “I’m thrilled to be presenting several of my favorite operas this season. La Cenerentola is some of Donald Pippin’s finest work in libretto translation. There are brilliant rhymes and wordplay, and the score shimmers with the themes of forgiveness and love.”

La Cenerentola
Kindra Scharich as Angelina, William O’Neill as Don Magnifico, and William Lee Bryan as Dandini in La Cenerentola | Credit: Pocket Opera

Kindra Scharich returns to sing the title role; also in the cast are William Lee Bryan (Dandini), William O’Neill (Magnifico), Sidney Ragland (Ramiro), Marlaina Owens (Clorinda), Sonia Gariaeff (Tisbe), and making his Pocket Opera debut, Chung-Wai Soong (Alidoro). The Pocket Philharmonic is led by Paul Dab, and the stage direction is by Bethanie Baeyen, who trained at the Dell’Arte School of Physical Comedy.

“Imagine my surprise to find out,” Garcia continues, “that Pocket Opera had an opera in our rep that had never actually been performed on our stage. When I asked Jonathan Khuner to name a few operas he might want to conduct, he asked, ‘When’s the last time you did your Cunning Little Vixen?’ I knew we had the libretto for the gorgeous, lush [Leoš] Janáček opera, but as I looked back at the last 47 years of performing history, I didn’t see it anywhere.

“Apparently another company commissioned Donald to create an English setting of Vixen, but Pocket never performed it itself. Now, with a new 13-piece orchestral reduction that was created by Jonathan Lyness of Mid Wales Opera, we will be able to capture the full essence of the score with our own Pocket Philharmonic.

“Amy Foote, Spencer Dodd, and Hope Nelson take the three lead roles, with an extraordinary supporting cast featuring contralto Sara Couden singing the normally baritone role of the Parson/Badger.”

Three footmen
The three footmen for La Cenerentola: Maxwell Ary, Marcus Timpane, and Justin Baptista | Credit: Pocket Opera

Garcia outlines the rest of the season: “Everyone seems to love Verdi’s Falstaff, but my first exposure to an operatic rendition of that story was the Otto Nicolai version, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Filled with lilting melodies and a more folksy spirit, this is a funny and tuneful work for which we have world-class singers in the lead roles — Rena Harms as Alice Ford, Falstaff is Kenneth Kellogg, known for his appearances with SF Opera.

“We’ll end the season with our co-production of La bohème, presented with our friends at Cinnabar Theater. [Merola Opera Program alum] Nicholas Huff makes his Pocket debut as Rodolfo, along with newcomer Diana Skavronskaya as Mimi. Melissa Sondhi, who is currently a resident artist as Opera San Jose, will return to Pocket Opera in the role of Musetta.”

Pocket’s four-opera season — one down from the five the company had maintained since the pandemic — reflects a scaled-down version of what big companies are going through, from the Metropolitan Opera to Los Angeles Opera to San Francisco Opera’s upcoming season of six productions. Garcia’s response to this:

“It is just the best way to make use of our limited budget. The new labor laws of AB5 have changed the structure of a lot of how we pay our talent. Also, we have ventured into new territory, with digital media like our animated film, diversifying what it means to present opera.”

California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) was signed into law in September 2019 and went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, just as COVID approached. It required companies that hire independent contractors to reclassify them as employees, with a few exceptions.

Garcia says, “All singers are now paid as employees, as are directors, music directors, and almost every other job that it takes to put together an opera.

“At first, I thought this would be the end of smaller theater companies like Pocket Opera. The payroll fees alone are a staggering increase in our costs. However, everyone involved in the creation of art should feel equally valued as professionals, so if it means we do four operas the right way, rather than six the old way, we are going to make it work.”