On Sunday at the War Memorial Opera House, we were riveted by a performance of Dialogues of the Carmelites that featured Michaela Schuster’s tour-de-force death scene as the old prioress (Madame de Croissy) and, of course, Heidi Stober’s masterly characterization of Blanche de la Force. But the large cast includes a number of parts that are crucial but not starring vehicles. No opera company could hope to put on this show without access to a roster of excellent comprimario singers, those who take the roles that don’t get top billing.
After the bows, General Manager Matthew Shilvock came onstage to present the company’s highest honor, the San Francisco Opera Medal, to three singers whose versatility and dedication to the art have helped elevate hundreds of performances from good to great: mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, bass-baritone Philip Skinner, and bass-baritone Dale Travis.
A pair of them, Cook and Travis, were onstage with the cast already, Cook singing the role of Mother Jeanne for the first time and Travis taking the important part of Blanche’s father, the Marquis de la Force. Skinner, of course, had not been long absent from the stage, having originated the role of Lepidus in Antony and Cleopatra to start the season.
It may seem a bit reductive, but in this case, numbers do tell the story: Cook’s Mother Jeanne was her 42nd role with the company and her 56th production for a total of 374 performances and counting. Her 31-year career began in 1991 with a role in the memorable SFO production of Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace and now includes 61 performances as Berta in The Barber of Seville and 39 as Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro, both of those company records. She’s also graced a number of SFO premieres. She was the first Jade Boucher in Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Dead Man Walking and took the title role in Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne. Of course, she’s also sung at other major American opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera and Houston Grand Opera, and is a professor of voice at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Not to be outdone, Skinner has 50 roles in 61 productions under his belt in a (so far) 37-year career. That’s 407 performances on the War Memorial stage, but the count will be increasing this month when he takes on Baron Douphol in La traviata. He too has pitched in with premieres, taking the role of Edgar Ray Killen in Philip Glass’s Appomattox and, like Cook, has sung at major national and international houses. And local companies continue to benefit from his artistry as well: He was superb as Dikój in West Edge Opera’s Katya Kabanová (August 2021), in Middlemarch in Spring by local composer Allen Shearer, and in the role of the Dutchman in Livermore Valley Opera’s The Flying Dutchman (2016).
Travis has not been slacking either: 33 roles, 43 productions, and 263 performances at SF Opera in a 34-year career. He has been Tosca’s Sacristan 43 times, “and we’re a company that knows how to do our Toscas,” bragged Shilvock. A memorable Dr. Kolenatý in The Makropulos Case, he has also held down mainstay roles such as Dr. Dulcamara in The Elixir of Love and Benoit/Alcindoro in La bohème.
In brief remarks after the awards, Cook thanked all the staff and artists of the company. Skinner acknowledged that two of the awardees had come up through the Merola and Adler Fellowship Programs. And Travis thanked the audience for their support and patronage, “without which none of this would be possible.”