Two Women Event Turns Into Call For Substance Over Style in New Opera

Janos Gereben on May 27, 2015
Producing a world premiere: conductor Nicola Luisotti, composer Marco Tutino, stage director Francesca Zambello, SFO General Director David Gockley (Photo by Scott Wall/San Francisco Opera)
Producing a world premiere: conductor Nicola Luisotti, composer Marco Tutino, stage director Francesca Zambello, SFO General Director David Gockley (Photo by Scott Wall/San Francisco Opera)

An informational/promotional event about San Francisco Opera's upcoming world premiere of Marco Tutino's Two Women turned into a more wide-ranging discussion and a joint call for a return to opera that is  "understandable for the audience" as opposed to "modernism" and "music torture."

The press conference last week in the War Memorial featured an illustrious panel: S.F. Opera General Director David Gockley; Music Director Nicola Luisotti; director Francesca Zambello; Tutino; soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci (playing the role of Cesira), and S.F. Opera dramaturg Kip Cranna as moderator.

The panel included artists and administrators who have played a prominent role in pioneering and innovation in opera. Gockley has commissioned and presented more than 40 new operas; Zambello has directed some 25 world premieres.

And yet, when Luisotti — who initiated the Two Women project, persuading Gockley to commission a not-yet-well-known Italian composer — spoke passionately of "lush and powerful music, which communicates directly to audiences," both Gockley and Zambello joined in agreement, opining against the excesses of new operas that are "new and different" for their own sake.

Zambello spoke of some premieres she directed that were "just clunkers, some of them were music torture." She acknowledged the need to revitalize the art form. “There’s only so many ways you can go and do another production of Rigoletto. Part of what audiences crave is something that is new," but — and this is a world-renowned stage director speaking — "Let’s try and do things that have great stories, great characters, great music… The production should not cover up the work. In some of those clunkers, I feel like we overproduced a lot of them."

Pressed for examples of "clunkers," Zambello said in Santa Fe in the 1990s, under the direction of John Crosby —  "a wonderful general director and very committed to new music" — she staged some German world premieres that "just about sent the audience running."

Gockley offered his “clunkers” without hesitation: Adams' Nixon in China and Bernstein's A Quiet Place, creating first a surprised silence, then laughter in the audience of writers, who have certainly embraced Nixon in recent years. Both received negative reviews when Gockley first produced them.

Zambello jumped in to say: "You just don't know what's going to last," and Gockley confirmed: "That's the point."

Gockley, a godfather in Houston and San Francisco for John Adams' modern operas, spoke of "the great tradition of Italian opera... work that's got to be personal, you must not be afraid of what people will say," and he made clear that by "people" he means critics. Lack of communication with the audience in operas, he said, is "the failure of modernism."

To a question about the "relative crisis in opera ... with the collapse of the New York City Opera and the fact that the Metropolitan Opera is throwing out storm signals like hurricane flags," Zambello retorted: "They shouldn't be doing that.”

“If (Met general director) Peter Gelb wants to go around and say so many negative things about an artform that we love, cherish, and manage to sell tickets for, then he should learn to keep his mouth shut," Zambello added.

Gockley summed up what he thinks is needed: "It’s got to be fresh looks at the great works, and it’s got to be new works ... with great productions, ensemble values, exciting new visions, and new works that grab the audience right from the start."

How Two Women aims to fit into that framework will be the subject of another report, well before the opera's premiere on June 13.