Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Empress's New Clothes

There's an old saying that you can fool some of the people all of the time and you can fool all of the people some of the time. But you can't fool all of the people all of the time. While much has been written about the recent demise of the San Francisco Opera's summer seasons, some important points still need to be made. The hard truth is that, having been burned too many times, a very loyal opera public is no longer in any great rush to buy Terry McEwen's product. And, as opera companies in Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Chicago, Washington and Toronto continue to expand their seasons, I can think of no American opera company which has suffered such a consistent lack of leadership, been so flagrantly mismanaged or demonstrated as much contempt for its audience as the San Francisco Opera has during the past five years.

Terry McEwen's theories that the San Francisco Opera "might have been presenting too much opera" or that "previous summer seasons might have hurt ticket sales for the fall" strike me as the biggest bunch of bullshit I've heard in a long time. No, there hasn't been too much opera in San Francisco during Terry McEwen's administration. There's simply been too much shitty opera produced by shitty management.

Not only has the San Francisco Opera grown top-heavy with executive staff during McEwen's regime, the revolving door in its marketing function seems to have accelerated its speed. If company morale reached an all-time low during last summer's abominable season, it was hardly helped when McEwen (who heads a corporation with an annual budget of $23 million) did not think enough of his senior staff to inform them of the cancellation of future summer seasons before they could read about it in local newspapers.

In the past year I have heard repeated complaints about McEwen's "absentee landlord" style of management from staff members who are appalled by his ability to alienate donors and his failure to attend rehearsals on a regular basis. As things stand now, the company seems to be headed by a General Director who lacks credibility with his audience, lacks the confidence of much of his staff, is not very highly regarded by the press or professional opera community and -- as a result of being forced by his Executive Committee to cancel his upcoming summer seasons -- would also seem to lack the confidence of his Board of Directors.


Has anyone tried to identify the mysterious force which has transformed the San Francisco Opera's once avid and loyal audience into such reluctant arts consumers? It's not the "inconsistency" politely cited by the San Francisco Chronicle's music critic, Robert Commanday. Instead, it's the growing rage over having been repeatedly ripped off by intolerably poor productions (La Forza del Destino, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, Ernani, The Medium, Il Trovatore and Il Turco in Italia quickly come to mind). Furthermore, although McEwen's administration seems to have attached varying levels of importance to the company's Spring Showcase, Summer Opera and International Fall seasons, the public, quite rightly, has perceived any and all performances presented by the San Francisco Opera as coming from the same producer. After stomaching a string of artistic bombs while listening to a nauseating amount of hype, donors and audiences have simply lost faith in the San Francisco Opera's ability to give them their money's worth.

Certainly, in the beginning of his tenure as General Director, McEwen promised audiences that they would get all the operatic superstars they wanted. And, to prove his point, he plastered Luciano Pavarotti's face all over town in order to stimulate ticket sales. Unfortunately, when Pavarotti, Domingo, Caballe and even the eternally reliable Joan Sutherland were forced to cancel major appearances, McEwen was left with egg on his face.

Meanwhile, Terry's tireless and tiresome efforts to turn the San Francisco Opera into a rest home for aging and over-the-hill sopranos didn't get the public very enthused about the artistry of his two pet divas, Pilar Lorengar and Regine Crespin. Nor could his blind devotion to personal friends convince audiences that Andrew Meltzer was a major conducting talent or that Sir John Pritchard was the cure-all for the San Francisco Opera's artistic woes.

McEwen's repeated failure to develop the funding necessary for continued live broadcasts of the San Francisco Opera has also caused the loss of a major source of civic pride for residents of the Bay area. Although Americans can hear the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Canadian Opera Company's live broadcasts on the radio these days, they can no longer hear performances by the San Francisco Opera.


To be sure, there have been some artistic successes. But, with the 1985 RING cycle behind us, the local audience's growing lack of faith in Terry McEwen becomes particularly alarming when one realizes how much the situation resembles the tale about the little boy who cried "Wolf!" Now that the San Francisco Opera is finally starting to produce some decent evenings of music theatre (this fall's Le Nozze di Figaro, Jenufa, Macbeth, and Eugene Onegin were superbly crafted productions) the public doesn't seem to be too enthused about buying tickets. The ill-fated l987 summer season (which was to have included Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten and Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage) had strong enough musical potential to attract Central Opera Service's annual conference to San Francisco. There can be little doubt that ticket orders from the conference's attendees would have helped to boost box office sales.

Minus the summer "festival," what does the future hold in store? At present, the 1987 fall season is scheduled to open on September 11 with Gwyneth Jones as Salome. Other German operas include Beethoven's Fidelio (featuring Thomas Stewart and Jeanine Altmeyer) and a sorely-needed new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. A new production of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann will star Alfredo Kraus opposite Susan Quittmeyer's Nicklausse (Placido Domingo will only sing in ONE performance) while a new production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette will be headed up by Luis Lima and Ruth Ann Swenson.

Verdi will be represented by revivals of La Traviata (starring Nelly Miricioiu and Alberto Cupido) and Nabucco (with Piero Cappucilli and Ghena Dimitrova). Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia stars Leo Nucci as Figaro; Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame features Wieslaw Ochman and the omnipresent Regine Crespin. Puccini's Manon Lescaut stars the inevitable Pilar Lorengar.

One of my more astute friends recently pointed out that, like Ronald Reagan, Terry McEwen, has the uncanny ability -- on a repeat basis -- to dive into a pile of shit and come out smelling like a rose. Whether or not McEwen will do so again in 1987 has yet to be seen. But one thing is for certain. The coming year will be a critical one for the San Francisco Opera.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 31, 1986.

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