Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen sings April 12 | Credit: Jiyang Chen

James Schwabacher had a rare combination of gifts. An operatic tenor of means, this “scion of a wealthy San Francisco family” was born with a great heart and a lifelong passion for opera and lieder, selflessly supporting hundreds of young singers over decades.

In a series of major, lasting accomplishments, Schwabacher championed and co-founded San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program (with Kurt Herbert Adler) in 1957, San Francisco Performances (with Ruth Felt) in 1980, and established the Schwabacher Recital Series in 1983.

Schwabacher (1920–2006), who sang 14 roles in his years with SF Opera and had a distinguished career as an oratorio and lieder singer, endowed the recital series in perpetuity.

Meigui Zhang
Meigui Zhang features in the first 2023 recital, March 1

Loyal fans and supporters of the recitals have followed them through the years, from upstairs in Muldoon Elder’s Vorpal Gallery (two wooden columns flanking/obscuring the singers) to Old First Church for Anna Netrebko’s debut. There were some at Herbst Theatre and several years in Temple Emanu-El, and now they’ve landed in the War Memorial Veterans Building’s somewhat claustrophobic Atrium Theater.

 “Debut” was dropped from the series’ title in recent years, and the recitals are now advertised as “presenting emerging and esteemed artists from around the globe,” potentially extending participation beyond the Merola Program.

In its 39-year history, the series has helped to launch the careers of Merola alumni who are now internationally acclaimed. Among them: sopranos Deborah Voigt and Tracy Dahl, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, tenor Michael Schade, baritone Thomas Hampson, bass John Relyea, and many more.

The coming season consists of recitals by soprano Meigui Zhang, with pianist John Churchwell (March 1); soprano Mikayla Sager, mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag, and tenors Victor Cardamone and Edward Graves, with pianist Marika Yasuda (March 22); countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, with pianist Carrie-Ann Matheson (April 12); and mezzo-soprano Erin Wagner, with pianist Shawn Chang (May 18).

Tickets (general seating) are $30; a series package for all four recitals is $100. Tickets can be purchased in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office (301 Van Ness Ave.), by phone at (415) 864-3330, and online.

The program for Merola alumni Zhang (2018) and Churchwell (1996) consists of German, French and Chinese songs, including those of Schubert, Reynaldo Hahn, Alban Berg, and Richard Strauss.

On March 22, the recital is curated by tenor Nicholas Phan, with songs by Brahms, Robert and Clara Schumann, Claudio Monteverdi, Pauline Viardot, Nora Holt, and Ruth Crawford Seeger. Phan has performed with the SF Symphony and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra; he is in the cast of the Symphony’s June performances of Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater.

Nicholas Phan
Nicholas Phan curates the March 22 recital | Credit: Henry Dombey

Phan told SF Classical Voice the following about the recital featuring five second-year SF Opera Adler Fellows and Merola alumni:

It’s such a special opportunity to work with these Adler Fellows in curating and preparing their Schwabacher recital program because it is an important opportunity to ensure a future for the art of the vocal recital.

While we are fortunate to have series in the Bay Area (like SF Performances and Cal Performances) that remain committed to presenting voice recitals, the art form is somewhat of an endangered species in our classical music ecosystem nationwide, with fewer and fewer recital stages willing to present singers.

Recitals are perhaps the most challenging type of performing that any opera singer will encounter, as it is the most exposed and vulnerable kind of singing that requires extremely sophisticated vocal technique in order to communicate the nuances of the repertoire and the poetry.

The most crucial thing the art form needs to ensure a future is performers with the interpretive skills and vocal chops who can continue to be compelling in the platform and breathe life into the repertoire. Having the chance to work on these skills with singers who are on the path to being leaders in the world of classical vocal music reassures me that the future is bright for vocal recitals.”

Countertenor Cohen is accompanied by SF Opera Center Artistic Director Carrie-Ann Matheson on April 12, in a program of songs by Max Janowski, Erroll Garner, Maurice Ravel, Handel, and others.

Carrie-Ann Matheson
SF Opera Center Artistic Director Carrie-Ann Matheson

The singer said of his recital: “I’ll be presenting a very wide-ranging program that showcases many of the styles and eras of music that I most enjoy singing. Though on the opera stage, my voice type means that I’m limited to Baroque and contemporary works, what I love about singing recitals is that it allows me to sing a broader variety of works.

“I'll be singing songs by [Roger] Quilter, Florence Price, H. Leslie Adams, Clara Schumann, Jewish hymns by Janowski and Ravel, [Henri] Duparc, arias by Handel, and some Great American Songbook-style selections as well. It promises to be a very varied and enjoyable evening.”

Cohen is “proud to call the Bay Area my artistic home, and my actual home as well. My career began because of the investment San Francisco Opera made in me as a Merolino and an Adler Fellow, and I’m overjoyed to return to these organizations for this special recital with Carrie-Ann.”

The final recital, on May 18, will be held at the SF Conservatory of Music’s Barbro Osher Recital Hall, at 200 Van Ness Ave. (The others will be at the Atrium Theater on the Veterans Building’s fourth floor, at 401 Van Ness Ave.)

Mezzo Erin Wagner and pianist Shawn Chang perform a program called “Everything Must Change,” presenting the music of Schubert, Stefania Turkewich, Viktor Ullmann, Radiohead, Bernard Ighner, and Chang himself.