Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Alert & Oriented Medical Transcription Services

Back in 1992, my business partner (Tom Richards) and I launched Alert & Oriented Medical Transcription Services. Throughout the sturm and drang of running a small business we've only had one argument -- because I liked a font that Tom didn't.

Here we are during Thanksgiving weekend (than 15 years later), trying to act professional!

Monday, November 26, 2007

1988 Index for Tales of Tessi Tura

The following links will take you to Tales of Tessi Tura columns that appeared in San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter in 1988.

Accursed Strangers

A Renaissance Along Route 5

Blurred Vision

British Bangers

Can't Get It Up

Capricious Hearts

Charismatic Women

Classics Illustrated

Corn-Fed Opera

Desperately Seeking Dramatic Excitement

Diagnosis: Acute Scenic Edema

Die! Die! My Darling!

Glassy Eyed

Going Batty

In Pursuit of Excellence

Mostly Mozart

Nights of Fear and Loathing

No Way Out

Ocean, Thou Mighty Monster

Opposite Extremes

Picking Pockets

Pleasing The Audience

Professional Fluffers

Proper Care For Aging Hookers

Rare Than Hen's Teeth

Redemption Stickers

Rethinking Wagner

Savoyard Specialty Acts

Scotch On The Rocks

Sex On The Run

Sex Rears Its Ugly Head

Short But Sweet

Taking Care of Business

Taking Title

The Abuse of Dramatic License

The Annual Report

The Follies of Love

The Hit Tunes of S&M

The Plight of the Bumbrina

The Right Stuff

Too Many Notes

Toujours L'Amour

Trials of Fire and Water

Trying To Relate To Art

Unlikely Lovers

Uphill Struggles

Verdi Big Trouble

Working Girls

Teutonic Splendor

Everyone has his favorite operas. This fall, the San Francisco Opera performed two of mine. Lohengrin offers the listener four solid hours of musical foreplay as Wagner's score keeps building toward a climax. Then, just when it is on the brink of ecstatic release, the music falls back and starts building its momentum anew. One of the all-time lung-busters of the German repertoire, Die Frau Ohne Schatten heaps the kind of lush, orgasmic musical sensations upon its audience that only Richard Strauss could articulate and share with the world. The final twenty minutes of the score are pure jack-off material.

Back in college, I once researched and wrote a term paper about the myth of the swan knight. After moving to San Francisco, I encountered a young man with a Lohengrin complex who took me to his room, strapped on some home-made armor which he had fashioned out of aluminum foil, lifted his shiny make-believe sword into the air, and proceeded to mime Lohengrin's entrance aria while the music played on his stereo. Having found someone who believed as intensely as I did in the legend of the swan knight, I had trouble deciding whether to let the young man continue performing his fantasy in innocent bliss or to direct the energy in the room toward a kinkier and more sexual resolution. Believe it or not, the purity of his emotions won out and that night I kept my hands to myself!

Since then, I've often wondered what might have happened had I taken an earthier approach to the situation but, during the debauchery of the 1970s, innocence was a novelty item in San Francisco. That evening the two of us shared an intense passion for Wagner's music and the purity of the soul which it embodies. The image which remains in my mind to this day is not that of a mystical swan knight bathed in gleaming light as he makes his stage entrance, but of a handsome young man miming Lohengrin's entrance with the ingenuousness of an adolescent who still believes in Santa Claus.


Enough blubbering about the man who got away. What was this fall's revival of Lohengrin like? For the most part, quite splendid. Under Wolfgang Weber's direction, Beni Montresor's pastel-hued production has aged remarkably well and, with Sir Charles Mackerras on the podium, Wagner's score got the royal treatment it deserved. Although illness plagued some of the principals during the run, the cast was in relatively good vocal condition at the performances I attended.

As fate would have it, I was present when Meredith Mizell (who was covering the role of Elsa) made an unexpected San Francisco Opera debut after soprano MariAnne Haggander took ill. Considering the circumstances, Mizell acquitted herself handsomely. When Haggander returned to the role several nights later, the popular Scandinavian artist with her brought a much deeper characterization backed by some solid singing. A major disappointment, however, was Eva Randova's Ortrud, which lacked volume, stage presence and seemed downright anemic. Compared to such wonderfully evil Ortruds as Leonie Rysanek and Eva Marton, Miss Randova was a rather wimpy villainess.

Tenor Paul Frey's Lohengrin boasted a heroic, fairy-tale appeal while managing to negotiate the difficult tessitura of Wagner's protagonist; bass Siegfried Vogel gave a sonorous performance as King Henry. Theodore Baerg boomed his way through most of the Herald's music, leaving top honors for musicianship among the male principals to Sergei Leiferkus, whose portrayal of the misguided Freidrich von Telramund was one of the finest I've encountered in my life.


Without any doubt, a high point of the recent San Francisco season was the revival of Die Frau Ohne Schatten in which a potent combination of Thomas J. Munn's acutely sensitive lighting and Jorg Zimmermann's magical sets catapulted Strauss's opera into a fantasy kingdom rivalling the best in the science fiction literature. I was less thrilled with Jan Skalicky's new costumes, which made the final scene look as if the Emperor, Empress, Barak and the Dyer's wife could only afford to walk through Strauss's realm of phantasmagoria in their nightgowns. And I should confess that, after hiding behind the fantasy of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto for two decades, it was a shock to be brought down to earth by the forcefulness of Christopher Bergen's Supertitles (which stress the Nurse's intentions to protect the purity of an Aryan race from being corrupted with the blood of ape-like mortals).

With the exception of William Johns's throaty Emperor and Mary Jane Johnson's tentatively-sung Kaiserin (which will grow and mature with repeated performances), this revival of Die Frau Ohne Schatten had one of the strongest casts in recent history. Anja Silja's nurse proved to be a powerhouse of a sorceress, delivering a performance of incredible conviction and lucidity. Gwyneth Jones's portrayal of the Dyer's wife revealed a major artist who, having conquered some severe vocal problems, seemed miraculously reborn. The sudden strength and surety of the Welsh soprano's singing were astonishing to those who, only two years ago, fastened their seatbelts and held on for dear life as they went tobogganing through her vibrato.

Making an auspicious American debut, baritone Albert Muff was an intensely compassionate Barak who revealed a powerful voice and stage presence. Smaller contributions came from Monte Pederson as the Spirit Messenger, Patricia Racette as the Voice of the Falcon, and Patricia Spence as a solo alto voice.

A great conductor can inspire solid playing from an ensemble and, from start to finish, Christoph von Dohnanyi shaped the performance with a rare passion, intelligence and drive. With Maestros Mackerras and von Dohnanyi dominating the German repertoire this fall, the San Francisco Opera took several giant steps toward improving the overall quality of its artistic product. And it's about time, too!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 28, 1989.

Styles Change

The style of entertainment which satisfied an audience 250 years ago is not the style of entertainment which will keep a modern audience happy. Nevertheless, some people become so wrapped up in paying homage to the so-called "masterpieces" of the operatic repertoire that they forget a very important point: opera was created, above and beyond all else, as a form of entertainment. Times change, styles change and, unless it is determined to die like a dinosaur, the operatic art form must change, too.

This fall, when two widely-acclaimed masterpieces of the repertoire received new productions from West Coast opera companies, it was fascinating to monitor the audience's reaction to each production. One, a baroque opera featuring a renowned superstar, had people fleeing the theater. The other (a Mozart standard which, due to a sudden change of directors, received an unexpected boost in theatrical energy) had the audience rolling in its seats with laughter.

To be sure, each production had its strengths and weaknesses. What was amazing was the difference in the audience's energy! In one theater, Supertitles helped the audience follow the action all the way through a complicated comic plot. In the other, not even Supertitles could conquer the inanities of a baroque libretto or the lethargy inherent in the opera's score.


All too often, The Marriage of Figaro receives such reverential treatment that people forget Mozart's opera was meant to be an extremely political and entertaining piece of music theater. Instead of focusing in on the social commentary to be found in Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto, they worry about whether or not the soprano singing the role of the Countess is producing sufficiently pear-shaped tones to match what they heard on Madame X's recording of "Dove sono" or "Porgi Amor." Instead of focusing in on the dramatic vitality of the cast in front of them, they worry about whether anything can possibly hold a candle to past performances of record.

If a performance of The Marriage of Figaro requires immediate attention, that's because the life force of the opera is about what's happening onstage in a highly-charged dramatic situation. The Seattle Opera's recent production was blessed with a cast of extremely talented American artists who, above all else, are creatures of the stage. Thus, even if Diane Kesling's Cherubino seemed too breathy -- or if Sheri Greenawald's performance as the Countess evidenced some strained tones -- the dramatic insights these performers brought to their characters were nothing less than staggering.

With Erich Parce's porcelain pretty Count Almaviva, Dale Duesing's highly-animated Figaro and Cynthia Haymon's seductive Susanna on hand, the Seattle Opera's ensemble of singers went about their work with great gusto. Under Andrew Sinclair's fluid direction, especially strong cameos came from comprimario artists Judith Christin and Darren Keith Woods (who got to sing the Act IV solo arias written for Marcellina and Don Basilio which are usually excised from Mozart's opera under current performance practices).

Thanks to Sonya Friedman's Supratitles, the audience was solidly with the cast throughout the evening -- enjoying this opera for its genuine dramatic strengths much more than audiences at most performances of The Marriage of Figaro. Aided by Peter Kaczorowski's sensitive lighting, Michael Olich's cost-conscious unit set served its purpose well. My one complaint, and it is a strong one, lies with conductor Gerard Schwarz's dangerously lagging tempos, which put an inexcusable burden on the artists and an unfortunate weight on the proceedings at hand.


I've always felt that honesty is the best policy. That's why, when asked how I was enjoying a performance of Orlando Furioso during intermission, I confessed that I was bored shitless and would rather go for a pizza. With all due respect to the demands of history and musicology, I found Vivaldi's opera to be an incredibly futile waste of time and money.

The biggest problem was the star around whose talents this new production was built. Ten years ago, Marilyn Horne was an invincible mezzo-soprano who could fearlessly negotiate the hurdles of any Handel, Rossini or Vivaldi score knowing that she hadn't an equal in the world. Today, Horne's voice is a shadow of its former self. The world-famous singer (who sits on the San Francisco Opera's Board of Directors) has to work much harder to produce her notes and, as evidenced in recent productions of Handel's Orlando, Rossini's Tancredi and Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso, the results are far from pretty.

In short, the old gray mezzo ain't what she used to be.

Although many San Franciscans cheered vociferously at curtain calls for this elegant new production (which was designed by Pier Luigi Pizzi and staged by Ugo Tessitore), I was not among them. But since I believe in giving credit where credit is due, my hat goes off to conductor Randy Behr (who stepped onto the podium to replace the dying Sir John Pritchard), to countertenor Jeffrey Gall for his performance as Ruggiero and to the mimes who added a greatly needed dash of wit and grace to the production. Soprano Susan Patterson delivered some outstanding vocalism as Angelica. As the sorceress Alcina, Kathleen Kuhlmann nearly walked off with the show (her talents could have been showcased to much better advantage in another opera). Sandra Walker's Bradamante, Kevin Langan's Astolfo and William Matteuzzi's Medoro all showed dangerous signs of developing bad operatic habits.

For archival purposes, I'm happy to report that Home Vision is videotaping the San Francisco Opera's production of Orlando Furioso for future release. What's more, I'm convinced that extensive editing through a camera's lens will transform the video version of Vivaldi's opera into a much livelier product than the stage performance.

However, given a choice of videos, I'd opt for a private showing of Earth Girls Are Easy. Wanna know why? Because as far as Orlando Furioso is concerned: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 21, 1989.

Turkey Trot

Recently, while participating in a symposium focused on the future of opera in America, the discussion turned toward the tiny number of really great new operas which are produced. Martin Bernheimer, senior critic for The Los Angeles Times quickly brought a reality check to the proceedings by reminding people that, in good times, one really great opera may surface for every hundred that are composed. His point is an important one which needs to be addressed.

During the 19th century, when opera was a popular form of entertainment in Europe, a new work could succeed or fail at its opening in the same way a Broadway musical could in the 1930s. Our society, however, has changed and, in today's America, the pressure to produce a winner often stifles creativity. The cost of producing a new musical on Broadway has become so outrageous that it is almost impossible to do a simple show. As a result, most commercial ventures are severely overproduced. Movie and television scripts are frequently written by committee (a losing proposition). And, even though new operas are premiered within the non-profit sector, the American fetish for producing "a hit," often gets in the way of producing art.

Successfully marrying craftsmen from today's popular culture to an art form whose greatest moments occurred in another time and place is an extremely difficult challenge. The recent world premieres of two operas which tried to incorporate very tired religious themes into their librettos proved just how difficult that challenge can be.


What do you get when you take a Hollywood scriptwriter like Judith Fein (who's attempting to rewrite the Bible from a feminist standpoint) and match her up with a composer like Henry Mollicone, whose strongest works have been a pop opera (The Face On The Barroom Floor) and a children's opera (Starbird)? You get Hotel Eden, which received its world premiere last month from Opera San Jose and which makes one's nightmares of what might happen if Love Boat docked at the opera seem frighteningly real.

With a libretto modeled after Neil Simon's Plaza Suite, (three modern couples whose stories parallel those in the Bible use the same room at a tacky place called Hotel Eden), Act I reworked the story of Adam and Eve to show Adam as a wife-abuser, Lilith as his disillusioned ex-lover, and Eve running away from her husband to avoid becoming a battered wife. Act II portrayed Noah as a retired Navy admiral with a drinking problem, whose wife is desperately trying to patch up their marriage. Act III attempted to deal with the legend of Sarah giving birth at 90 years of age after having convinced her husband to leave their wealth to his illegitimate son. However, unlike the original version, in Hotel Eden Sarah's labor pains were accompanied by nurses waving cheerleader pom-poms as they sang "Push! Push! Push it through!" between rhyming verses which suggested that Sarah "Think of nice and lovely distractions, while you're having all your contractions."

It was that kind of show.

Considering the limited space offered by the Montgomery Theater's tiny stage, special credit goes to Ken Holamon for his delightfully tacky unit set, director Daniel Helfgot and choreographer Kathryn Roszak for their work with the performers and Maestra Barbara Day Turner, for her solid musical preparation of a decidedly less than momentous score.

Particularly strong performances came from Susan Gundunas (doubling as Mrs. Noah and one of the obstetrical cheerleaders), Ron Gerard as Abraham, Ross Halper as the chef at Hotel Eden, and David Cox-Cresswell in a variety of bit roles. Elsewhere in the cast, Julia Wade's Eve, Dan Montez's Adam and D'Anna Fortunato's Sarah evidenced sincere work. What I found most interesting about Hotel Eden was the skill with which every one of Mollicone's musical love themes mimicked the music from today's popular soap operas. And I'm convinced that, in addition to their civic pride in producing a world premiere, the latent familiarity of the sounds coming from the pit (combined with the soap-opera bathos of Ms. Fein's libretto) had a lot to do with the San Jose audience's enthusiasm for Hotel Eden.


Without any doubt, the most publicized musical event of the past few months was the Cleveland Opera's world premiere of rock drummer Stewart Copeland's first attempt at writing an opera: Holy Blood and Crescent Moon. Copeland (whose former Police-man friend Sting is now starring on Broadway in Threepenny Opera) admits that he wrote the first act of this piece at a point in life when he still hated opera and composed the second half when he was just beginning to get into it. By the time intermission rolled around on opening night, that much was clear. However, when the nicest things you can say about a new opera are that the costumes were pretty and the fight scenes especially well-managed, something is obviously missing from the overall package.

Could that something be music?

Artistic merit?


While Copeland's opera received a luxurious, million- dollar production, from a musical and dramatic (rather than public relations) standpoint it gives Gian-Carlo Menotti's Goya stiff competition as one of the biggest and most intensely-hyped pieces of operatic shit I've experienced in years. Although its orchestrations are quite fascinating (and successfully capture the musical flavor of the Middle East) Copeland's score, which is written in rapidly shifting tempos, frequently reveals that the composer -- who works primarily on computers and may not even be able to read music -- is unable to articulate his musical thoughts in anything but the briefest of creative arcs.

In an attempt to examine the tragic ramifications of mixing heroic love with differing religious ideologies during the time of the Crusades, Susan Shirwen's libretto occasionally rose to the level of a bad Adventures Comics sequence. Imre Pallo conducted while David Bamberger directed a cast featuring Edward Crafts as the Grand Wazir, Gloria Parker as his daughter, Dahlia, Tom Emlyn Williams as the Imam, Charles Karel as King Tancred, Jon Garrison as Edmund, Prince of the Franks, and Marla Berg as his fiancee, Eleanor. Special credit goes to B. H. Barry for his fight scenes.

Holy Blood and Crescent Moon, which was recently broadcast over the National Public Radio network, accomplished everything Cleveland Opera's General Director, David Bamberger, could have hoped for in terms of focusing a national spotlight on his company. For that, I congratulate Bamberger and his company. But as Andy Warhol once warned, everyone is famous for 15 minutes.

Then what?

The tragedy behind Holy Blood and Crescent Moon is that the money spent on Copeland's artistic mishmash (knowing that his participation would attract national media attention) could have underwritten the creation of ten new operas of substantially greater artistic merit. For that there is no excuse.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 14, 1989.

Sacrifices Must Be Made

We've all heard the standard cliches.

"No pain, no gain."

"You only get out of this as much as you put into it."

"No doubt, this tragedy is a blessing in disguise."

In their own ways, such greeting card sentiments address a crucial element in our lives: change. Change is the catalyst which empowers the needy. Because it means relinquishing control and possibly even relinquishing power, change is also a direct threat to complacency. Change means accepting new definitions and embracing new leadership. Above all, change means taking risks.

Just think what a difference a day of change makes for the haves and the have-nots! One need only examine the blind prejudice, dread fear, emotional constipation, and moral cowardice shared by Jesse Helms, William Dannemeyer and Dan White and compare it to the daring actions of gay men who fought back against New York's finest during the Stonewall Riots to realize what a fiercely liberating catalyst change can be.

When all is said and done, change terrifies those who have gotten too cozy with their surroundings; people who are heavily invested in preserving the status quo. And yet, due to the extreme polarity with which wealth is distributed in most societies, change can also be invigorating -- an intoxicating windfall for those who have nothing further to lose.

Change. It's quite a miraculous force in the world.


Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, shows what can happen when an angry, wounded and bitter man suddenly takes the law into his own hands as a means of effecting change in an unjust society. When it first premiered on Broadway, Sweeney Todd was framed by a monstrous set which emphasized the uglier effects of the Industrial Revolution on the lives of London's poor. By staging the work in an arena setting, a recent production transferred from the York Theater to New York's Circle in the Square, reduced Sweeney Todd to an intimate chamber opera whose human anguish became infinitely more palpable to the audience.

The process of scaling down Sondheim's masterpiece from the epic proportions of Harold Prince's original concept to the surprising intimacy inherent in Susan Schulman's approach wrought some curious changes on this groundbreaking piece of musical theater. While I enjoyed James Morgan's highly atmospheric sets -- which gave one the feeling of being alive and struggling to survive on the dimly-lit streets of Victorian London -- I found myself extremely uncomfortable with the use of four synthesizers in lieu of an orchestra (a cost- and space-saving move which robbed Sondheim's score of much of its sweep and vitality).

Other changes, however, proved to be fascinating.

With such close proximity to Circle in the Square's wrap-around audience, the actors had to develop characters rather than caricatures. As a result, Grand Guignol was transformed into grim and grisly determination. In becoming more feminine, Beth Fowler's portrayal of Mrs. Lovett lost some of the character's monstrousness while Bob Gunton's vengeful barber gained in sympathy and masculine strength. Ultimately, however, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett became more pathetic than anarchic in that, no matter how hard the pair struggled to enact their vengeance upon society, they were doomed to be crushed by its weight.

Others in the hard-working cast included Jim Walton as Anthony, Gretchen Kingsley as Johanna, Eddie Korbich as Tobias and SuEllen Estey as the Beggar Woman. David Barron was the evil Judge Turpin, Michael McCarty his corrupt Beadle Bamford and Bill Nabel the Italian barber, Pirelli.


If most of the people sacrificed to Sweeney Todd's razor might never be missed by the residents of London, the sacrifice demanded by the gods of Idomeneo, King of Crete, weighs much heavier on the ruler's soul. Mozart's opera seria (fondly nicknamed "Eat-A-Tomato") received a new production from the San Francisco Opera this fall and, although handsomely mounted (with sets by John Conklin and costumes by Michael Stennett) and nobly sung by a fine international cast, I found it to be dreadfully dull.

I will readily confess that Idomeneo has never exactly been my cup of tea. And, even though I look forward to the day when my personal feelings toward this particular opera undergo a positive change, I ain't holding my breath. Despite my respect for the San Francisco Opera's new production of Idomeneo -- which was physically quite beautiful to look at and boasted superior music-making -- repeated exposures to this work often make me wonder if (to paraphrase W. C. Fields) "Opera seria should be heard and not seen."

With life-long Idomeneo expert Sir John Pritchard on the podium, the five principals went at their music with as much style and professionalism as possible. In their San Francisco Opera debuts, soprano Karita Mattila (Ilia) and tenor Hans Peter Blochwitz (Idamante) made strong impressions with the beauty of their singing and the effectiveness of their acting. Aided by William Lewis's sympathetic Arbace, tenor Wieslaw Ochman delivered a stunningly effective portrayal of Mozart's protagonist -- singing with grave conviction and managing to capture the anguish of a man who is asked, by a curious twist of fate, to sacrifice his most beloved son as a gesture of thanks to the gods for having spared his own life.

Although director John Copley tried to infuse as much vitality into the proceedings as possible, he only succeeded when Nancy Gustafson's fiercely animated Elettra took center stage and started to chew the scenery with a vengeance. Cameo contributions came from Kenneth Cox as the Voice of the Oracle and Randall Outland as the High Priest of Neptune. Much of the performance, however, met with stultifying yawns from the audience.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 7, 1989.

Lingering Deaths

It's just not fair. One enters the theater with one's hopes raised that, somehow, somewhere, sometime after the curtain goes up, something wonderful will happen. That's what the crap-shoot called live theater is all about: taking the risk that a curious mixture of words, lighting, music, drama, scenery and acting can produce the rare spark of theatrical electricity that will ignite a performance and transform it into a meaningful event.

If only it happened more often.

These days, one has to wade through nearly 100 performances (ranging from the mediocre to those which are downright appalling) in order to earn the privilege of sampling the sublime. It's a task which discourages many critics and makes them appear burnt-out and cynical to a public which only attends the prescribed "hits." Alas, sitting through the other 100 turkeys is less invigorating than spending five hours in the Detroit airport!

I stress this because the ability to retain one's honesty and objectivity means being able to accurately report what one sees and hears. Frequently, the people working on a show become so emotionally invested in its success that it becomes impossible for them to stand back and examine what is actually happening on the stage. All too often, the variety of excuses proffered to compensate for the fact that the final product is painfully substandard, does nothing to make it any better.


A perfect example of this would be the San Francisco Opera's recent revival of Puccini's Madama Butterfly which, carefully placed in saran wrap and microwaved by stage director Matthew Farruggio, croaked its way across the stage of the War Memorial Opera House before dying an unjust and extremely tedious death. Even John Fiore's animated conducting could do little to lift the stage proceedings out of their total lethargy.

It's bad enough to get nuked in Nagasaki. But should an audience have to pay full fare for this? No. This Butterfly was the kind of throw-away production planned by Terry McEwen (and inherited by Lotfi Mansouri) which has the word "amortization" written all over it. It is an inexpensive revival of a much- loved opera mounted by a house conductor, house director and cast with as many young artists as possible so that it can sell plenty of tickets at the box office while keeping expenses down to a minimum.

The bottom line is that you get what you pay for. The last time I experienced Nikki Li Hartliep's Cio-Cio-San, I felt like the only non-believer in a crowd of worshippers who had adoringly followed the soprano's progress since she first entered the Merola program. Like Gertrude Stein, I left the theater convinced that "there was no there there." Little has happened to change my opinion: Hartliep's geisha girl remains as mechanical and monotonous as they come; hampered, no doubt, by Farruggio's uninspired blocking (which is a far cry from stage direction). The fact that Hartliep's vocal and dramatic efforts could have been so totally overwhelmed by Robynne Redmon's nurturing and subtly-sung Suzuki makes one seriously question the soprano's strengths as an artist.

Thankfully, the men in this revival fared better. Vyacheslav Polozov was an appealingly macho Pinkerton while Gaetan Laperriere made an impressive debut as the American consul, Sharpless. Strong cameos came from Philip Skinner's Bonze, LeRoy Villaneuva's Prince Yamadori, and Doug Perry's Goro.


If San Francisco's Madama Butterfly suffered from the curse of artistic and financial stinginess, one of the most expensive musicals ever to open on Broadway suffers from too much of everything all at once. Budgeted and conceived as a major extravaganza, Meet Me In St. Louis is a lavish rip-off of the movie (starring Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien) which has all the physical trappings of an old-fashioned Broadway musical but, alas, the coldheartedness of an industrial show. None of the soul which elevated so many shows into the realm of art is to be found on the stage of the Gershwin Theater.

The problems are obvious: Meet Me In St. Louis is frighteningly overproduced, overdirected and overly energetic. Its plastic-romantic principals (Donna Kane, Julie Lambert, Jason Workman and Peter Reardon) have little if any charisma. The mature folk (old hands like Betty Garrett, Milo O'Shea and George Hearn) are little more than atmospheric props and the youngest member of the cast, Courtney Peldon, is dangerously precocious as Tootie. Louis Burke's direction and Joan Brickhill's choreography, which seem to have raided a theatrical database for every guaranteed stage effect ever used, give a sense of inventory rather than inspiration. Their desperate pandering to the audience they hope to attract reaches a nadir when the chorus, dressed in band uniforms, parades down the theater's aisles for a final, blood-chilling tribute to John Philip Sousa.

This calculatingly patriotic kind of artistic bankruptcy may be fine in a high school production but falls flat on its face in a more sophisticated theatrical arena. The Act II song describing how friendly the people in New York all are (circa 1903) drew mean-spirited guffaws from the audience at the preview I attended. Diabetics in the audience should be especially warned about the show's Halloween production number.

The saddest thing about Meet Me In St. Louis is how it symbolizes one of the most perverse aspects of our society: an unhealthy desire to cling to an image of the nuclear family despite the fact that that concept imploded under the weight of multiple modern realities long ago. Meet Me In St. Louis is aimed at the tourist trade that comes to New York seeking a show, like Annie, which will let their children experience a Broadway musical that measures up to the New Right's prescribed "traditional family values." Despite its lavish production values, it's also a show that could make anyone with half a brain want to puke his guts out.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 30, 1989.

Star Turns

Audiences love a star turn. Few, however, witness the mind-bending moment of exhilaration in which a performer genuinely stretches himself and breaks new ground. Because the glory of a genuine star turn usually occurs under strained circumstances, there's no guarantee when it will happen, where it will happen or how it will happen. You just have to be on hand when that extra flow of adrenaline shoots through a performer's body and the planets are in alignment.

Unfortunately, what may once have been a star turn is often transformed into a mechanical trick and, in shows which have settled into a long run, the star turn deteriorates into a show-biz ritual as an actor's performance falls back on acute mannerisms and a tendency to paint the moment by numbers. When that happens, the spontaneity of the moment is lost and gets replaced with cold-blooded efficiency as the event gets recreated ad nauseam. Such has often been the sorry case with performances by superstars like Ethel Merman, Placido Domingo, Zero Mostel, Carol Channing, Luciano Pavarotti and Barbra Streisand.

If two recent star turns took me completely by surprise, it was because I was caught off guard. My expectations (along with those of most people in the audience) lay elsewhere and, as a result, I was pleasantly shocked. How I wish such surprises would happen more often! Here's why:


The advance word of mouth on Durante (the new musical which was recently on view at the Golden Gate Theater) was abysmal. People were quick to dismiss it as a stillborn show with little more than hype to recommend it. And, to be honest, the way Durante starts out made this viewer cringe in anticipation of the evening going steadily downhill.

Then something magical happened. Thanks to Ernest O. Flatt's honest direction, Toni Kaye's rapid-fire choreography and Lonny Price's amazing performance in the title role, the show won me over. That doesn't happen too often and it's all the more surprising when one considers that Durante is lean on musical material, has a weak book and lacks great visuals.

In many ways Durante resembles an bizarrely anemic version of George M. in which the protagonist (whose gigantic nose makes him seem uglier than sin) possesses such a big heart and outrageous talent that the audience, like his public, can't help loving him. While Durante can't hold a candle to other "show biz" musicals like Gypsy, Funny Girl, George M. and Applause, it does a sterling job of capturing the energy and drive which propelled one of America's most unlikely performers to stardom. What the show does have is an amazing sense of propulsion which, after the first 20 minutes, kicks into gear and never lets up. Act I builds to a climax of astonishing choreographic heat. Act II rarely loses the pace.

Even though this was a pre-Broadway tryout, Lonny Price's portrayal of the great Schnozzola had the unmistakable aura of a Tony award-winning performance. Mr. Price (who did an astounding job of re-creating Durante's vocal, linguistic and physical eccentricities) delivered as intense a performance as the young Barbra Streisand did 25 years ago in Funny Girl. Throughout the evening he received strong support from Joel Blum's tap-dancing portrayal of Lou Clayton and Even Pappas' ingenuous characterization of the "dumb hoofer" pal, Eddie Jackson.

What made Price's star turn so exciting to audiences in San Francisco? There was never any doubt that the actor, the company and the show were still trying to find their rhythm and prove themselves to the public. The unexpectedly warm response from the audience was so gratifying to the performers that one could palpably sense the excitement felt by Price and his cohorts during the curtain calls for Durante. That's the kind of electricity which can only be felt in a live theatrical performance.


A similar thrill coursed through the vast reaches of the Metropolitan Opera House when Diana Soviero stepped in to replace an ailing Teresa Stratas as Suor Angelica in a performance of Puccini's Il Trittico. The dynamics of this particular event were quite different from the pre-Broadway tryout of Durante. The Met's audience was eager to experience one of Stratas's rare and highly-acclaimed performances. And, because Suor Angelica has only a nun's habit with which to make a visual impression on the audience, the strength of any soprano's performance in the title role of Puccini's one-act tearjerker must rely on her ability to act with the voice.

That particular gift been Diana Soviero's calling card for much of her career and, on the evening of October 19, she came through in spades. It was Soviero's show all the way in a performance marked by more dramatic intensity on an acutely personal level than one is likely to find in most performances at the Met. Or, for that matter, anywhere else.

With an absolute minimum of gesticulation, Soviero drew the audience into her private world, inviting them to share in Angelica's emotional anguish until, caught up in the hallucinatory after-effects of taking poison, the soprano began to emit girlish, almost infantile, groans of orgasmic ecstasy in the poignant moments before Angelica's death.

Soviero's performance was one of those great moments of operatic catharsis on the stage of the Met. During the thunderous curtain calls, the soprano stepped over the footlights to touch fingertips with James Levine, who had conducted with an astounding sensitivity to Puccini's score. The dramatic impact of the performance and the soprano's final contact with the Maestro was intensely felt by the audience (a remarkably intimate moment to witness considering the vast reaches of the Met's 4,000-seat auditorium).

Others in the cast included Betsy Norden as Sister Genovieffa, Gweneth Bean as the Mistress of Novices, Wendy Hillhouse as the Abbess and Florence Quivar as the Princess.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 16, 1989.

The Emperor's New Clothes

Several weeks ago I tallied up a list of North American opera companies which, for solid box office reasons, were opening their 1989-'90 seasons with operas composed by Giuseppe Verdi. While the artistic line-up looks fine on paper, a hidden problem is the severe shortage of top quality Verdian singers available and the painful lack of good productions in which they can work. As a result, too many performances of Verdi's operas range from lame and lackluster stagings to scandalous shit. And, unfortunately, there are times when that's all it is: Shit. The most expensive type, to be sure, but nonetheless shit.

The situation reached an all-time low in October when two of the nation's leading opera companies offered performances of Verdi's greatest works which were, at their best, execrable. In spite of the international reputations of the creative forces behind each production, the artistic product unveiled before audiences could not brighten the contents of a hospital bedpan. Where does one place the blame for such artistic crises? On the stage directors? On the conductors? On the singers? Or on the folks who hired them? Sad to say, all of the above.

Artistic setbacks may be one thing, but the loss of an audience's emotional and financial support is quite another. The bottom line is that well-intentioned operagoers who are exposed to this slothful kind of drek (and told that it is the best the opera world has to offer) don't need to come back for more. With so much competition for the leisure dollar, they can spend their money elsewhere. Assuming opera's administrators are even aware of the problem, some will be asked to recoup increasing losses as more and more audience members vote with their feet.


I would not blame Lotfi Mansouri for the creative team which Terry McEwen assembled for the San Francisco Opera's recent revival of Otello. However, the painfully pathetic state of this 15-year-old Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production is a sure sign that something is as dangerously wrong in the state of Cyprus as it was with Oakland's Cypress Street overpass when a major earthquake struck the Bay area on October 17.

The first, and most obvious problem with this revival is that tenor Ermanno Mauro is not and may never become a great Otello. His dramatic skills rarely surpass the semaphore school of acting; his lack of physical grace often produces titters from audiences. Never noted for his subtlety, the Canadian tenor alternated between soporific crooning and brazenly honking out those notes he could deliver with excessive volume. When singing opposite the Desdemona of Katia Ricciarelli (a soprano whose physical beauty far outshines her current vocal condition) the artistic gulf between the two leads began to widen like the Red Sea parting before Moses.

Add in the coarsely-sung Iago of Brent Ellis (a once- promising baritone whose work has deteriorated into stock mannerisms in recent years) and you have an Otello which is coming apart at the seams. The good news about this recent revival is that several graduates of the San Francisco Opera's Merola program (John David De Haan as Cassio and Catherine Keen as Emilia) were used to good advantage. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger's Lodovico offered the best work of the evening. The sad news is that Lodovico is a walk-on role with only a few lines of music.

A dead horse does not deserve excessive beating. But when the conductor (Kazimierz Kord) seems grossly insensitive to the beauty of one of Verdi's greatest scores and the director, Grischa Asagaroff, is another one Ponnelle's former assistants (who can tidily resurrect a production's blocking without ever inspiring the artists) the audience is up shit's creek without a paddle. This lame and limp-dicked shadow of an Otello demonstrates what happens when an aging production is reheated in an artistic microwave oven too many times. At today's ticket prices, that's hardly fair to an audience which is expecting a gourmet meal.


While the San Francisco Opera's revival of Otello offered a sad reminder of what can happen when a tired production is cast with tired singers, no such excuse could be offered for the Metropolitan Opera's horrendous new staging of La Traviata. This Franco Zeffirelli production is one of the worst examples of the Met squandering its money on inane starfucking with precious little return on the donor dollar. At its second performance, this Traviata had me dumbstruck by its near-lethal combination of musical sloppiness, artistic bankruptcy and financial irresponsibility.

Let's tackle a few sacred cows. Due to the presence of the revered Carlos Kleiber in the pit, scalpers in front of the Met were asking $150 per seat. But for what? Kleiber conducted this Traviata with such steely coldheartedness -- and at such a lightning pace -- that one wondered if he had to catch a train or was merely afraid of becoming incontinent on the podium. The soloists were obviously uncomfortable with Kleiber's tempos and, with the exception of one dramatically indulgent ritard in the final scene (which was not worth sacrificing the rest of the evening) this production sounded as rough and ragged as a provincial Traviata which had been thrown together with only three days of rehearsal time.

As the elder Germont, baritone Wolfgang Brendel growled, bleated and barked while searching for new ways to undermine his reputation as an artist of international caliber. Stepping in for the ailing Neil Shicoff, tenor Walter MacNeil was unable to deliver an acceptable performance as Alfredo. As Violetta, soprano Edita Gruberova looked bland, acted in the worst of the lurch-and-stagger tradition, and missed a lot of notes while making it abundantly clear to the audience that she is not going to become one of the opera world's great Violettas. Of all the singers onstage in this scandalous production, the finest work came from Sondra Kelly as Violetta's companion, Annina.

If I accuse the Met of being financially irresponsible in mounting this production of Traviata, that's because it must have cost the company a pretty penny to cast veteran Renato Capecchi as the Baron Douphol and engage ABT's Fernando Bujones and Cynthia Harvey as principal dancers. Though handsomely paid, these three major artists were completely wasted while director/designer Zeffirelli (whose overblown and overindulgent productions of Tosca, Turandot and La Boheme are audience favorites at the Met) made another feeble attempt at jerking off with the Met's stage machinery. Zeffirelli's strongest contributions to the evening consisted of inflicting several set changes on Act I, flying scenery in and out of Flora's party, and making a total shambles out of one of the greatest operas ever written.

Watching this horror show transpire (while remembering that this new production was meant to replace the Met's 1982 Traviata -- also considered a turkey) only reinforces one's anger at the way the Met continues to pawn itself off as the official voice of the art form while duping its audiences into believing that what they're seeing and hearing is great opera. When I asked a world-renowned opera director what would happen if he presented such drek in his theater, before fleeing the Met during intermission he answered "I would lose my job the next morning!"
Despite all the pre-opening hoopla about Carlos Kleiber and Franco Zeffirelli, the Met's new Traviata turned out to be an appalling example of overpriced designer-label shit. But a free marketplace tolerates whatever the traffic will bear and it should be noted that the Met audience applauded the production quite enthusiastically.

Alas, that doesn't say a whole heck of a lot for their standards!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 9, 1989.

Up A Lazy River

"Camping it up" is one thing. "Camping out" is quite another. For those of us who consider "roughing it" to mean spending the night in a suburban hotel where the closest thing to room service is the neighboring Denny's, the thought of erecting one's own tent (instead of the usual equipment) can be a bit intimidating. While traveling to Egypt with the Houston Grand Opera's production of Show Boat earlier this year, I kept wondering what kinky kind of theatrical experience could possibly top my Mideastern musical adventure.

It didn't take long to find out.

Shortly after returning from Cairo, I was invited by the folks at Tag-A-Long Tours to join them on a whitewater raft trip down 100 miles of the Colorado River which would become the second installment of Grand Opera in the Canyonlands. A joint project by Portland Opera's General Director, Bob Bailey, and Tag-A-Long's owner, Paul Niskanen, Grand Opera in the Canyonlands was initially conceived as a one-time event for supporters of the Portland Opera who like the outdoors. However, the first operatic concert in Canyonlands National Park was such a hit that it now looks as if Grand Opera in the Canyonlands will become an annual event.

It's easy to see why. In addition to being one of the most intriguing educational outreach programs devised by anyone in the operatic community, this four-day whitewater raft trip offers music lovers a chance to enjoy some of the West's most incredible geology with friends of a similar cultural persuasion. And since Tag-a-Long's 1989 program included operatic excerpts sung by Merola graduate Pamela South (the former rodeo queen who has since been dubbed "First Lady of Canyonlands Opera"), it was hard for me to resist the group's invitation to join in the fun. Packing my trusty Dumbo pillowcases for good luck, I flew to Grand Junction, Colorado shortly after Labor Day to embark on a bizarre but wonderful adventure shared with a group of Dutch travel agents, German tourists and fans of the Portland Opera.

As a frequent flyer, I should stress that the meals on this trip (which included everything from hot bagels in the morning to 1-1/2 lb. salmon steaks, garlic-steamed clams and chicken cordon bleu at night) were better than what I get served in many restaurants. And, having once helped run a YMCA sailing camp, I can honestly say that the teamwork of Tag-A-Long's guides (Stu, Bill and Mara) rates top honors.


Contrary to the formal etiquette espoused at most operatic events, Grand Opera in the Canyonlands is a decidedly down-home affair. Of course, for those who insist, there is some dressing up. But it's strictly done by the artists who, at the first (and most formal) concert in Canyonlands National Park, performed in evening gowns and tuxedos. Despite the interruption of a brief rainstorm, the afternoon's concert (which was accompanied by Portland Opera's David McDade on a brand new $25,000 Steinway Grand) featured a pleasant program of selections from grand opera and Broadway. Staged in a sandstone grotto (whose acoustics add the ring of a singer's voice to the music as it bounces off the canyon wall on the opposite side of the river), this event was blessed with a charming ambience. With performances by soprano Pamela South, mezzo-soprano Gloria Parker, tenor Bob Bailey and basso Jerome Hines, the concert was followed by a catered reception featuring champagne and hors d'oeuvres. After that, it was back to the campsite for dinner under the stars, lots of bad jokes, and ghost stories told around the campfire.

The next day was spent floating down Cataract Canyon at a leisurely pace while the two sopranos, beer cans in hand, tested the echoes of the canyon walls with their voices. A second concert had to be aborted after the wind picked up and got sand in the piano, sand in the singers' faces and sand in the accompanist's contact lenses. As the artists huddled in a tiny boat beside the piano and waited for the wind to subside (while dreaming up a concert program featuring such classics as "Sand Enchanted Evening," "Sand Gets In Your Eyes," "I've Got You Under My Sand" and "Sand Day My Prince Will Come") the wind-swept audience, which had patiently been waiting on the rafts, took over the musical responsibilities by entertaining the professional singers with a series of Dutch and German drinking songs.

Upon returning to the campsite (where several tents had almost blown away) the group gathered around a campfire as Pamela South, Bob Bailey and Gloria Parker sang folk songs like "Oh, Danny Boy" and selections from West Side Story. The highlight of the evening came when, under a full moon and starlit sky, Miss South (who used to sing country western songs in a bar in Salmon, Idaho) performed "The Ballad of Hobo Bill" a cappella with country-style yodeling between each verse. It was one of those magical moments in music when the beauty of the human voice captures the spirituality of the text and communicates it, as simply as possible, to an audience with spine-tingling effectiveness.

As people emerged from their tents at approximately 7:00 a.m. the next morning, many were startled to discover David McDade floating down the river while playing wake-up selections (Debussy, etc.,) on a Steinway grand piano. What can I say? It was that kind of a trip.


By the second day on the river people had gotten to know each other fairly well. Among those on my raft were a 72-year-old former Olympics swimmer, a man who owns a tire franchise in Utah, a woman who helps organize "pro-choice" fundraisers in Salt Lake City and a delightful lady who does hospice work with AIDS patients in Portland. Although, throughout the raft trip, the scenery in Canyonlands National Park was breathtaking, due to the low water at the end of the season, the 25 sets of rapids in Cataract Canyon were fairly easy for our guides to negotiate. My favorite moment came immediately after we hit the first set of rapids and got soaked by the icy waters of the Colorado River. Mezzo-soprano Gloria Parker turned to me and screamed "Good God! I won't have to buy douche for a year!"

The raft segment of the trip finished up at Lake Powell's Hite Marina and, during the scenic flight (in a fleet of tiny Cessnas) from Hite, Colorado to Moab, Utah, it became obvious that Cataract Canyon is situated at the bottom of a prehistoric ocean floor. Upon returning to my hotel room in Grand Junction, I wasted no time throwing my mud-caked shoes and socks into the garbage and washing my feet in the toilet bowl.

Tag-A-Long plans to market Grand Opera in the Canyonlands to regional opera companies as a fundraising idea. But I really think that this tour would also have strong appeal to those who enjoy the cruises offered by RSVP Tours. What makes these trips so special are the intimate moments one is allowed to share with one's fellow rafters and the artists who perform. Those wishing to receive information about 1990's Grand Opera in the Canyonlands whitewater raft trips can contact Tag-A-Long, toll-free, by calling (800) 453-3292.

This happy camper heartily recommends the experience to one and all.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 2, 1989.

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.

Verdi Truly Yours

No operagoer in his right mind would debate the ability of Verdi's music to sell tickets. During the 1970s, when Tito Capobianco inaugurated the San Diego Opera's Verdi Festival, he didn't hesitate to stress the fact that Verdi boasted the best track record at the box office. A quick survey of opening night productions in North America reveals that the Calgary Opera and Whitewater Opera will open their 1989-'90 seasons with Rigoletto; Opera San Jose, The Pennsylvania Opera Theater and Opera Pacific will inaugurate their seasons with La Traviata and both the Palm Beach Opera and Manitoba Opera will raise their opening night curtains on Verdi's Macbeth.

As locals already know, the San Francisco Opera has opened its season with a revival of the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's Falstaff production. Opera companies in Miami, Seattle, Orlando and Norfolk, Virginia will begin their seasons with productions of Il Trovatore while Opera Hamilton kicks off its season with the Canadian premiere of I Due Foscari. The Canadian Opera Company goes into production with Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera while, elsewhere around North America, the Metropolitan Opera, New Orleans Opera and Portland Opera open their seasons with Aida.


Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of Falstaff (a joint venture between the San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera which was unveiled here in 1985) was the last project which France's master of stagecraft designed and directed in the Bay area. The revival which opened the San Francisco Opera's current season included three of the production's original merry Windsor women: Pilar Lorengar as Alice, Ruth Ann Swenson as Nannetta and Marilyn Horne as Dame Quickly. Added to the cast of principals were Kathryn Cowdrick's Meg Page, John David De Haan's Fenton, J. Patrick Raftery's Ford and Thomas Stewart's Falstaff.

Although most of Ponnelle's productions have been faithfully remounted in opera houses around the world by people like Grischa Asagaroff and Vera Lucia Calabria (who directed this Falstaff), these people lack the unique combination of intelligence, style and charisma that was Ponnelle's trump card. Thus, while Ponnelle's Falstaff held up relatively well (the evening was a handsomely-sung and functionally-staged rendition of Verdi's opera) it lacked that extra measure of dramatic elegance which was always a sure sign of Ponnelle's genius. All of the blocking and pieces of stage business were soundly in place and, although Kazimierz Kord's conducting may have been less than exciting, there was a decent ensemble at work. What was missing was the genuine spark which accompanies a great evening of musical theater. Its absence was sorely felt.

Thomas Stewart's characterization of Sir John Falstaff warmed up over the course of the evening until, by the final scene by Herne's Oak, it was a truly touching Shakespearean buffoon. J. Patrick Raftery was an agitated Ford while, as the young lovers, Ruth Ann Swenson and John David De Haan were in particularly pleasing voice. Animated cameos came from Joseph Frank's Bardolfo, David Pittsinger's Pistola, Michel Senechal's Dr. Caius and Jonathan Kaplan's page, Robin. The rest was pretty much as in 1985.


Despite the popularity of Verdi's Il Trovatore, there are few, if any productions currently worth looking at. Although a new approach to Verdi's classic designed by John Conklin and directed by Nicholas Muni was originally planned for the Kentucky Opera, circumstances caused that company's General Director, Thomson Smillie, to withdraw from the project. After Conklin & Muni managed to secure financial backing from the Seattle Opera's Speight Jenkins and Houston Grand Opera's David Gockley, their controversial new production was unveiled in Seattle last month.

This is quite unlike any production of Il Trovatore seen in the past. A dark and heavily symbolic staging which is totally devoid of the standard historical sets and costumes, the opera is performed in two acts instead of the traditional four. Thanks to Conklin's design, scene changes are swiftly executed, thus allowing the audience to concentrate, first and foremost, on the singing. Every time the spirit of Azucena's mother hovers above the libretto, flames erupt from a corner of the stage.

While most of Conklin's scenery (which achieves a striking effect by using plastic garbage bags that have been crumpled up and stapled to flats) reeks of symbolism, the final scene takes place in a blood-spattered, white-tiled antechamber which, oddly enough, resembles the men's room at Penn Central. Unlike the Met's recent fiasco, this version of Il Trovatore is never boring.

Above all else, Muni's concept tries to focus attention on the obsessive behavior which propels each of the opera's main characters toward the libretto's tragic climax. Once the audience adjusts to the fact that this is not your standard, story-book approach to Il Trovatore, the first reaction is to focus in, quite acutely, on the emotional aspects of Verdi's music. This is also the first production I can recall in which Manrico and the Count di Luna are made up to look like brothers so that there can actually be some confusion about just who is serenading who.

If, on opening night, tenor Hans Gregory Ashbaker was a rather mediocre Manrico, others in the cast rode the crest of Verdi's passionate score. Guatemalan baritone Luis Giron-May sang impressively as the evil Count di Luna, with basso Jose Garcia bellowing his way through much of Ferrando's music. Although the Seattle Opera Chorus made a strong contribution to the evening's music-making, it was the two female leads who walked off with the show. Leslie Richards delivered an interpretation of Azucena far from the standard portrayal of Verdi's fiery gypsy. Although somewhat dramatically restrained, the mezzo's performance had strong overtones of bel canto style.

Singing the first Leonora of her career, soprano Carol Vaness tackled a role perfectly tailored to the deep richness of her voice; one which allows her to use all of the luxurious coloring and intonation at her disposal while giving Leonora's music a glorious outing in sense-surround. Ms. Vaness is scheduled to sing Leonora at Covent Garden quite soon and it looks certain that this role (like Mozart's Fiordiligi and Donna Anna) will become one of her professional meal tickets. As well it should.

Richard Bradshaw conducted with great verve.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 19, 1989.

Female Trouble

Whenever opera's leading ladies are threatened, their standard reaction is to desperately wave their arms in the air and sink into spasms of acute diva-itis. Long before the heroine jumps off a cliff or balustrade, reality flies out the window and is replaced with heavily-mannered operatic shtick. As a result, what could have become an extremely dramatic moment disintegrates into a futile exercise in ridiculously stagy histrionics.

That's why it's such a blessed relief when opera's most desperate women begin to act in some sort of believable fashion. It's a rare phenomenon, to be sure, but when it does happen, it forces a whole new perspective on the opera in question. Lightning struck twice this year (on opposite coasts) and the results were nothing short of astonishing. In each case, a classic came to life as the standard habits associated with its performance practice were tossed out the window and replaced with a new, and carefully thought out interpretation.


The Los Angeles Music Center Opera opened its 1989-'90 season with a new production of Tosca directed with tremendous psychological insight and dramatic acuity by Ian Judge. Although John Gunter's evocative sets (deliciously skewed to avoid the standard look) helped to create a great sense of dramatic urgency, there were moments when the angling of the walls in Scarpia's chamber prevented a good deal of the audience from witnessing crucial bits of stage action. Updating Tosca to the period in which it was written, costume designer Liz da Costa gave Scarpia a much more dapper look than usual. By putting a softer edge on the heroine, she made Tosca appear a lot more feminine than when clad in the standard "Here is my Empire gown, now I stab you to death" costume. The only problem with da Costa's costume designs is that they make Scarpia's henchmen look like a bunch of sweetly benign art students. Which they certainly are not.

LAMCO scored strongly with its Scarpia (the seductively evil and eternally malevolent Justino Diaz), Cavaradossi (tenor Neil Shicoff singing like an angel with high notes to spare) and conductor (Placido Domingo shaping the music as sympathetically as possible around his soloists). But there could be no doubt that this Tosca was Maria Ewing's show from start to finish.

In her first attempt at performing Tosca, Miss Ewing (who has developed into a phenomenal singing actress) reached down deep into levels of the diva's psyche which are rarely explored by her peers. Her body language never became an hysterical exercise in semaphore techniques. Instead, by keeping her arms close in to her body, Ewing acted with her eyes, face, shoulders and mind so that the audience become aware of and sympathetic to this extremely jealous woman's most terrifying fears and petty insecurities. Whether teasing Cavaradossi, recoiling in horror at his shrieks of tortured pain, or begging the sadistic Scarpia for her lover's release, Ewing held the stage with a magnificent sense of poise and theatricality.

The greatest compliment I could give the soprano is not to say that she sang the role well, but to stress that she made me believe -- completely and uncompromisingly -- in Tosca's seething passions, complex persona and appalling predicament. This was one of the few operatic performances I have ever wanted to see again, from start to finish, as soon as the final curtain came down. Next time Ewing sings this role in America, don't miss it. She's putting the stamp of greatness on Floria Tosca.


If LAMCO's Tosca offered fresh insights into Puccini's "shabby little shocker," just imagine what it was like to see Mozart's Don Giovanni set in Spanish Harlem! In its final season, PepsiCo Summerfare presented all three of the Peter Sellars Mozart stagings, with Don Giovanni the most cynical interpretation by far. In Sellars' production, Donna Anna is hiding out in the slums in order to conceal a nasty little drug habit from her upscale father and policeman boyfriend. Donna Elvira is the punked-out loser who can't hold onto a man and (when all else fails) discovers God, becomes "born again" and tries to convert a rather dubious Don Giovanni.

The action in this Don Giovanni, which takes place on the street in front of designer George Tsypin's decrepit tenement, is hardly the kind of stage picture seen in most productions of Mozart's masterpiece. Don Giovanni, Leporello, and Masetto all move with the agility of kids who grew up on the streets and had to fight for their lives while the policeman (Don Ottavio) is seen as a rigid prig whose off-duty casual clothing reeks of polyester.

The women seem to lack control of their bodies which, in a male-dominated street society can, at best, be used to curry favor. Donna Elvira's hormones are shooting off in all directions, Zerlina is well on her way to becoming an abused wife and Donna Anna desperately craves a fix. The clash in body language styles comes to a head in a hilariously ironic moment as the cop and his two women friends join Don Giovanni's party and try to "dance cool" while the Don is snorting coke and prancing around in his underwear. When a friend of mine complained that he just couldn't imagine Leontyne Price appearing in a production like this, I suggested that he leave Leontyne outside the theater and pay closer attention to the fact that Eugene Perry's Don Giovanni boasts magnificent thighs and a dynamite ass.

In casting this revival, Peter Sellars chose to use identical twins Herbert and Eugene Perry as Leporello and Don Giovanni. Their physical similarity made one wonder what hold Don Giovanni could possibly have had over Leporello (other than supplying him with drugs) that could keep the man enslaved as his go-fer. Ultimately, this casting gimmick (which sounded great on paper) became secondary to the fact that both baritones are superb performers.

Musically, this was another one of those great evenings of ensemble singing under the baton of Craig Smith. While some might complain about the roughness with which some music was sung, the sounds produced were always theatrically motivated and dramatically justified. The Perry twins scored strongly as the Don and his manservant, while tenor Carroll Freeman was appropriately priggish and uptight as the cop who is horrified to learn of his girlfriend's drug dependency. Elmore James offered a strikingly brutal interpretation of Masetto.

As the women, Ai-Lan Zhu offered a touching Zerlina, while Lorraine Hunt raged helplessly as Donna Elvira. I was most fascinated, however, with Dominique Labelle's pathetic portrayal of Donna Anna (which packed bundles of rage and sadness into the soprano's short and stocky body). Her characterization was so startlingly different from the standard operatic shtick that, like Miss Ewing's Tosca, it left one with a great deal to think about after the curtain came down.

If only we could anticipate more performances like this on a regular basis!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 12, 1989.

Corrupting Men's Souls

Believe it or not, some people shrink from pleasure. Rather than admit to what makes them feel good, they stand back, mutter cliches like "Lead me not into temptation," and spend most of their lives in a constant state of denial. Perhaps, in their minds, this constitutes the essence of virtue. But as Auntie Mame astutely warned us, "Life's a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death."

Pleasure is often gained by indulging one's self in satisfying desire. However, the sampling of life's pleasures need not mean succumbing to absolute hedonism. The ease with which pleasure is available has a great deal to do with its power to corrupt men's souls. Whether one's need to be satisfied remains at a moderate level or provokes compulsive patterns of behavior (alcoholism, drug abuse, bulemia, sexaholism) depends on the individual in question.

During the 1970s, the basic rule of thumb in San Francisco's gay community was "If it feels good, do it." Today, more caution is exercised in matters of sexual and chemical experimentation. Nevertheless, the seductive lure of easy sex or drugs like crack, heroin and ice (combined with the effective distribution networks established by various drug cartels) has had a profound effect on our society. Today, the country which offers such shining hopes to immigrants from Third World nations must cope with a population in which one out of every five adults is functionally illiterate and in which addiction, alcoholism and homelessness have become increasingly rampant and destructive realities.


A cynical piece of music theatre if ever there was one, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (first performed in Leipzig in 1930) was originally set in a mythical Alaskan miner's town where anything could be bought and the only crime was one's inability to pay the bill when it arrived. Brecht intended his piece as a moral lesson about what happens to men's souls in times of "prosperity, awareness of the flesh and arrogance."

Last month, the Los Angeles Music Center Opera (in a joint effort with the Geneva Opera and the Kentucky Opera) unveiled a new production of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny designed by Robert Israel and directed by England's Dr. Jonathan Miller. Updated to take place in Hollywood during the 1920s (a period of untold prosperity and arrogance in California's history) Weill's opera ended up much more being elegantly sung than one would expect and a lot less gritty than it should feel. Although I find The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny's dramatic intent admirable, its execution usually becomes a fairly tedious exercise in intellectual masturbation. Miller's cold and astringent production was no exception. The fact that I was severely discomforted by an oppressive smog system in Los Angeles did not add to my enjoyment of the work at all.

That having been said, credit goes to conductor Kent Nagano for his work on the podium. Anna Steiger's Jenny, Marvelee Cariaga's lusty Widow Begbick and Gary Bachlund's intense portrayal of Jimmy all offered ripe characterizations. However, for my money, the best performance of the evening came from Greg Fedderly's portrayal of Fatty the Bookkeeper. An animated performer with the sweetest tenorino voice, one longs to hear Mr. Fedderly in Mozart or Donizetti in the near future.


If LAMCO's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny proved to be a disappointingly dreary affair (in which the most jaded whore looked like a proper Victorian lady), then quite the opposite must be said for the San Francisco Opera's new production of Boito's Mefistofele. A co-production with the Grand Theatre de Geneve and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, this event offered a shining example of what good opera production is and should be all about: entertainment. A great deal of the credit goes to director Robert Carsen's fertile imagination. A young Canadian who has recently been doing some very interesting work, Carsen staged Boito's opera in the devil's own deliciously baroque theater. A totally decadent affair which brooked made no compromises, Carsen's artistic vision was magnificently framed by Michael Levine's stunning theatrical sets and highly erotic costumes (based on the undergarments he designed for Mefistofele, Mr. Levine could market a line of kinky underwear to rival anything in the Frederick's of Hollywood catalog).

If anything, this Mefistofele was a grand excuse to wallow in theatrical excess. But if you're going to be excessive, you've got to deliver the goods. This is where the San Francisco Opera came through in devilish spades. Under Ian Robertson's direction, the chorus did a superlative job with Boito's music while conductor Maurizio Arena coaxed more life out of the San Francisco Opera orchestra than has been heard in quite some time.

From top to bottom, this production glowed with theatrical energy: in the sets, costumes, and the performances by principal singers. As Faust, tenor Dennis O'Neill's voice rang true with brilliant eclat while Gabriela Benackova's Margherita/Elena offered the kind of full-throated female vocalism which seems to be becoming extinct. While Daniel Harper's Wagner, Judith Christin's Marta, Douglas Wunsch's Nereo and Emily Manhart's Pantalis contributed strong cameos to the proceedings, from start to finish the show belonged to Samuel Ramey who, in the title role, gave a sound demonstration of what operatic greatness is all about.

Ever since his New York City Opera debut, Ramey has made a career of portraying devilish seducers like Mozart's libidinous Don Giovanni, Floyd's slimy Reverend Olin Blitch and Gounod's scheming Mephisto. But it is Boito's iconoclastic Mefistofele (which Ramey took over from the late Norman Treigle) which has become one of the bass-baritone's signature roles. Unlike many artists, this amazing performer has the voice, body, agility and seductiveness with which to give the devil his full measure of sensual vice and deliciously pleasurable corruption.

Ramey's performance in the title role of the San Francisco Opera's new production of Mefistofele (which was taped for subsequent release on PBS) will, no doubt, be seen as the highlight of the 1989 Fall season. The hard truth is that it wouldn't take much for this performance to be the highlight of any season.


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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 5, 1989.

Working With Raw Material

"Music is not about objects or owning things," explains director Peter Sellars, "and the beauty and profundity of music is that you can't touch it with the human hand. Although it takes a lot of human hands to make music, you can't own it. That's why music has this overwhelming spiritual dimension and is completely, metaphysically immaculate. Human fingerprints can't really touch it the way they can touch your CD box and, if you reduce music to your collection of records -- or to a material object that you own -- then you have betrayed its essence. Nobody owns music. But it takes a long time to figure that out when you've spent years with recordings of the best performances saying that 'So-and-so is better than this or that.' That's all irrelevant. It's not why those artists made those performances!"

One of the strangest aspects of music criticism is that, while most critics are required to review a tremendous amount of product (performances, recordings, books and videotapes) few are given the time or access to learn about the more important process of creating art. While an awful lot of back-seat driving goes on as people debate who should or should not have made a certain recording, been cast in a certain role or changed the phrasing in a particular bar of music, most of this criticism is analysis after the fact. As Brunnehilde remarks in the final scene of Wagner's Gotterdammerung, "All this is like children crying after spilled milk. I hear no cries of true lamentation."

Over the years I have slowly but steadily become more interested in learning and writing about the artistic process rather than adding to the flow of encapsulized reviews of mass-produced products which are marketed with relentless hype to the public. What has made most of my work so personally rewarding is that, instead of seeking vicarious thrills from reading second or third-hand reports about the people who make opera, I've been lucky enough to interact on a first-hand basis with such talents while receiving a tremendous education about the art form I love. At various times I've been taken to task by people who are horrified that, in the act of allowing myself to talk to singers, conductors, directors and arts administrators I have (in their minds) jeopardized all hopes of objectivity. Yet the business of this art form fascinates me. And what better way could there be to learn what makes an artist tick than to go directly to the source?

Most performers will tell you that the most interesting part of their work is the rehearsal process, when they get to stretch, explore, investigate and really delve into the music, the script and their souls. Lately I've been able to sit in on more and more rehearsals (an invaluable experience for anyone who writes about live performances) and, in the past year, have monitored several rehearsals for Philip Glass's The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, Michael Korie & Stewart Wallace's Where's Dick? and Jerome Kern's Show Boat. Most of these sessions involved the final stages of the production process, after most of the experimental work has been done and the fine tuning is being worked on. But without some knowledge of the intensely detailed work and drudge repetition required to polish any production, one can hardly appreciate the finished product.


During the summer months apprentice programs for opera singers are in full swing at places like Aspen, Santa Fe, Lake George, Chautauqua, Wolf Trap, Des Moines and, of course, the San Francisco Opera's Merola program. This year, I was invited to check out the apprentice program supervised by Colin Graham at Canada's Banff Center. Like many other training programs, Banff Center's opera curriculum is aimed at polishing young talents, teaching them how to be good colleagues and working to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Unlike the Merola, Santa Fe or Wolf Trap programs (where singers are constantly aware of agents and other forces in the music business who are watching their progress) the Banff program takes place far from a major center of civilization amidst the isolated grandeur of the Canadian Rockies. As a result, the emphasis for the students is on working, coaching and learning as much about their craft as possible in a fishbowl environment which, for a precious period of time, has been removed from the pressures of the musical marketplace. And, since the Banff Center is located in one of Canada's most beautiful national parks, it is perfectly natural to see an elk wander out of the forest and start devouring the flowers off the potted plants which sit in front of the theatre.

While I was visiting Banff in late July, the apprentices were preparing productions of Auber's Fra Diavolo (under the direction of Elizabeth Bachman) and Massenet's Cendrillon (directed by Colin Graham) with Stephen Lord acting as music director. Most of the singers were young, in remarkably healthy voice, and obviously trying to get a handle on their craft. There was a heavy contingent of singers from the Yale University School of Music and I bumped into a singer I met last summer when he was an apprentice at the Des Moines Metro Opera.


My schedule allowed me to attend several Cendrillon rehearsals which, considering that this production had been triple-cast, proved to be quite fascinating. The curious thing about this Cendrillon was the multi-media approach being tested by designer Neil Peter Jampolis. Using a series of projections on angled screens (which could be reflected into mylar mirrors) Jampolis created an incredibly fluid atmosphere which could embrace the fantasy elements of the Cinderella story without demanding too many physical props onstage. Although the technique requires much less money than traditional approaches (Banff's Cendrillon cost a fraction of the production seen at the San Francisco Opera in 1981) it is infinitely more flexible in the number of effects that can be created and the way it can be moved from one theater to another.

Some of the special effects and visual bleeds created by Jampolis for this production were quite stunning. But, technical rehearsals being what they are, the sequence often had to be interrupted to correct a misplaced slide, check angles, or reposition singers. Being able to sit behind Messrs. Graham and Jampolis as they worked to fine-tune their artistic product offered a rare opportunity to monitor the intense detail work that goes into any opera production. I recommend such experiences as time well spent to any and all professional colleagues.

Needless to say, the culture shock experienced after leaving the purity of Banff's intellectual and physical atmosphere to travel to New York (where I found myself trapped in Sixth Avenue gridlock on a hot, muggy afternoon as various men cursed and urinated in the street) helped to reinforce certain personal priorities.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 28, 1989.

Aging Gracefully

Let's face facts: None of us are getting any younger. How well we deal with the aging process is a function of mental health. The irony, of course, is that the young are often so inebriated with their abilities that they can't appreciate what they have until their strength begins to wane. A time does come when, instead of staying up all night in search of adventure, one longs for a solid eight hours of sleep.

For those who have invested heavily in their looks, the business of growing older can be terrifying. Each new gray hair, stretch mark and facial wrinkle signals a decisive setback in the battle against time. While some embrace cosmetic surgery with a vengeance by rinsing, dying, nipping and tucking as much as their bank accounts and modern medical technology will allow, the fear of losing one's beauty never diminishes.

Yet, for those who embrace signs of encroaching age as a rite of passage, the ripening process brings a deep glow of maturation (similar to the inner strength and body one associates with a properly-aged wine or sharply-flavored cheese). In a society which worships youth, these are the ones who anticipate the future with the secure wisdom that, unless one is a suicidal fool, life does not end at the tender age of 30. If anything, the real fun is just about to start.

As an artist matures and gains experience, quality becomes more important than quantity. Instead of wanting to do as many roles as possible, his focus changes to wanting to do certain roles as best he can.

This summer's Santa Fe Opera season witnessed two fascinating sopranos stretching their talents. Once hailed as "rising young American artists," each of these women has reached a point in middle age where her craft is solid, her dramatic insight sharper than nails and her voice larger than ever before. Most importantly, each woman is growing in new and vital directions.


I may be one of the few people who enjoyed the Santa Fe Opera's 1989 production of La Traviata, which was handsomely framed by Robert Perdziola's highly evocative sets and Michael Stennett's lush costumes. But I think that was because I could separate the good elements from the bad and focus my attention on the good. The bad elements were obvious enough. Tenor Richard Drews was pathetically miscast as Alfredo (it didn't take long for the audience to become aware of his vocal limitations) and, although baritone Brent Ellis (who in recent years has taken on a wealth of bad vocal and dramatic habits) was having a relatively good night, his performance as the elder Germont left a great deal to be desired.

That left us with the Violetta of Sheri Greenawald, a singing actress whose dramatic strengths have always been much stronger than her vocal ones. What I found so amazing was that many of the same people who so readily make allowances for Maria Callas's shrill top notes while raving over the dramatic intensity of the legendary soprano's characterizations (most of which they never saw) could not deal with the very same phenomenon when it was right smack in front of them. There's no question that Greenawald's highest notes are less than pear-shaped tones. I anticipated that Greenawald's fourth act would be her strongest and, indeed, it proved well worth waiting for. Having gotten Act I's difficult coloratura out of the way, the soprano delivered a musicodramatic portrayal of astonishing power; a Violetta filled with the kind of dramatic urgency and theatrical nuance which one rarely encounters anymore.

John Copley directed with great dramatic strength; John Fiore conducted. Mention should be made of Susan Graham's Flora which, although extremely well sung, looked like an oversized wedding cake that had been decorated in madly hallucinatory colors.


More than a decade has elapsed since Ashley Putnam burst onto the opera scene with a healthy voice and astonishing physical beauty that greatly enhanced her portrayals of Donizetti's Lucia, Verdi's Violetta and Musgrave's Mary, Queen of Scots. Although Putnam has put her own personal stamp on such difficult roles as Mozart's Fiordiligi and Donizetti's Mary Stuart, as she has matured she has started to head in a new direction: the Slavic and Straussian repertoires. Recent triumphs have included the title roles in Janacek's Arabella, Katya Kabanova and Dvorak's Rusalka. This summer in Santa Fe Putnam tackled that holy of holies, Strauss's Marschallin, for the first time in her career.

Two of Putnam's strongest points have always been her musical intelligence and her uncanny ability to communicate a character's inner thoughts to the audience with astonishing dramatic clarity. The soprano's voice and languages are in fine shape. Her physical beauty remains a joy to behold, making Putnam's thirty-somethingish characterization of Strauss's Princess von Werdenberg glow with the promise of greatness.

With John Crosby on the podium and John Copley directing, there was much to admire in this production. Cheryl Parrish offered one of the angriest and most defiant portrayals of Sophie that I can recall; Peter Strummer was wonderfully crude as her bourgeois father, Herr von Faninal. Ragnar Ulfung and Susan Graham cavorted about the stage as the scheming Valzacchi and Annina while mezzo-soprano Jeanne Piland proved to be an ardent Octavian. The evening's true brilliance, however, came from Eric Halfvarson in one of his first appearances as the boorish Baron Ochs. Not only is Halfvarson's voice in particularly fine shape, his characterization of Ochs is destined to become a professional meal ticket.

Strong cameos came from Richard Drews as the Italian tenor, Darren Keith Woods as the animal vendor and Patrick Cea's excessively fey hairdresser. Although I am normally a big fan of designer John Conklin's work, his sets for Act II and III pushed some wrong buttons for me. I also found it quite strange that in a place like Santa Fe (where so much attention is given over to detail) the Marschallin's blackamoor page, Mohammed, could be sent onstage with a black face and white hands!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 21, 1989.