Monday, November 26, 2007

Young Voices On The Rise

In a society obsessed with youth, the media remains constantly on the lookout for potential stars. Ed McMahon's Star Search features seven-year-old male tap dancers and prepubescent female vocalists who aspire to become the next Madonna. Last spring, while visiting the Minnesota Opera, I found myself trapped in a frequent flyer's nightmare. After checking into a Holiday Inn in Minneapolis, I discovered that the hotel was hosting a regional dance competition for 7 to 15-year-olds. For a while, I watched in horror as these precocious toddlers tried to imitate Liza Minelli selling sex in Cabaret. I quickly fled the dance floor and, in a brief moment of sanity, ordered room service rather than face the challenge of eating in a hotel restaurant overflowing with stage mothers from suburbia.

The proliferation of brat-pack personalities which has dominated summer movie releases has had a peculiar impact on the opera world. Suddenly, young singers are being intensely scrutinized to see if they can be molded into the next Pavarotti, Callas or Domingo. What the media often forgets is that each artist is unique unto him- or herself and that, particularly with opera singers, the voice doesn't really start to mature until the mid to late thirties.

Nevertheless, young talent costs less, is grateful for the opportunity to prove itself and can, more often than not, deliver the goods with a heightened sense of energy. That's exactly what happened when two West Coast opera companies featured young sopranos in important roles as they opened their 1989-'90 seasons.


Berg's Lulu is quite different from the Little Lulu cartoon character of my youth. An infinitely more sexual, tempting and dangerous creature, she attracts men like moths to a light. When Lotfi Mansouri first cast the young Ann Panagulias in the title role of Berg's opera, many wondered if the 26-year-old graduate of the Merola program would be able to tackle the vocal challenges of Berg's difficult score. Meanwhile, the local press shot its fashion-conscious wad all over San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House as it tried to give sufficient coverage to designer Bob Mackie (who created the costumes for this new production). Although Mackie's costumes were, indeed, quite effective, they did not have to sing Berg's music. Miss Panagulias did. While quite dashing in Mackie's costumes, she acquitted herself handsomely on Berg's treacherous vocal frontier. The singer's upcoming engagements include more Mozart (Pamina in her native Pittsburgh) and Verdi (Violetta at Milwaukee's Skylight Opera Theater) -- a good way to protect her future.

Let me be the first to confess that I fall outside the ranks of devout Lulu fans. As a result, the ability of Miss Panagulias to sing the title role really seemed secondary to the dramatic impact of the production, which presented the complete three-act version of Lulu for the first time in the Bay area. Unfortunately, John Mauceri's lackluster conducting put a severe damper on the evening and, whatever singing could be enjoyed was often dwarfed by the dramatic proceedings. Special credit goes to Richard Cowan for his charismatic performances as the Animal Trainer and as a rather exhibitionistic Acrobat as well as to Victor Braun for his repressed and contemptuous characterizations of Dr. Schon and Jack the Ripper.

Former Merola student Barry McCauley made a long-overdue return to the Bay area as Schon's son, Alwa, while, in his company debut, tenor Michael Myers did nicely as the Painter and the Black man who visits Lulu when she has become a street prostitute. Veteran performer Hans Hotter (now 80 years old) scored strongly in his scenes as Lulu's derelict friend, Schigolch, while mezzo-soprano Hilda Harris offered effective cameos as a wardrobe mistress, schoolboy and groom.

Although I was quite impressed with Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's sets, I couldn't help feeling that the San Francisco Opera's production of Lulu had, to a large extent, fallen victim to its own hype. As soon as any of the production's visual gimmicks disappeared from view, much of Lotfi Mansouri's direction seemed fairly pedestrian. While Miss Panagulias was functional in the title role, her performance did not move me. With hardly any voice left, Evelyn Lear's portrayal of the lesbian Countess Geschwitz proved to be a major disappointment. The saving grace of the evening was Francis Rizzo's Supertitles, which helped move the production along faster than anything happening on the stage or in the pit.


One of my reasons for venturing up to the Pacific Northwest several weeks ago was to hear a young soprano named Nova Thomas. Ms. Thomas (who made a deep impression on me when I first heard her sing Rezia in the Opera Theater of St. Louis's production of Weber's Oberon) knocked my socks off last February with her Adalgisa in Opera Pacific's Norma. This time around, the soprano (known among friends as "The Dixie Diva") was headlining the silver cast of the Seattle Opera's new production of Verdi's Il Trovatore.

Her performance was a fascinating one. Although Thomas started with a slight rasp in her voice (and there were a few moments when her top notes seemed to pall) once the soprano warmed up, she made no bones about the fact that she was going for the gold. A highly effective actress, Ms. Thomas milked as much drama out of Verdi's Leonora as possible -- to the extent that I found myself yearning to experience her Violetta. The talent, as it stands now, is most impressive. Its potential for growth is nothing short of stupendous.

At the Sunday matinee I attended, it didn't take much for Ms. Thomas to walk off with the show. The Icelandic tenor singing Manrico (Gardar Cortes) and local mezzo singing Azucena (Shirley Lee Harned) were far from ideal in their roles and, of the men appearing onstage in Verdi's potboiler, only Peter Barcza's Count di Luna and Jose Garcia's Ferrando showed real promise.

This new and very strangely stylized production was designed by John Conklin and directed by Nicholas Muni as part of a joint effort with the Houston Grand Opera. On second viewing, its strengths emerge with greater clarity, although I still wonder why Leonora is dying in a blood-stained, white-tiled room that resembles the shower stalls at the YMCA.

Once again, Richard Bradshaw conducted.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 26, 1989.

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