Thursday, November 22, 2007

Confession Time

At exactly this time 25 years ago, I became a junkie. It happened painlessly and with the best of intentions. Nevertheless, I became a junkie. Here's how.

In September 1966, when the Metropolitan Opera moved to its new home in Lincoln Center, my closest friend and theatre-going buddy wanted to attend a performance. Mind you, I could have been perfectly content with the sounds of Jerry Herman, Cy Coleman, Bock & Harnick and Rodgers & Hammerstein.

But, no. Mark wanted to go to the opera.

Therefore, since I had always assumed responsibility for getting our theater tickets, I made my debut on the Metropolitan Opera's standee line. Within weeks I had entered the dark and shadowy world of opera junkies -- deranged men and women whose passion for the human voice overruled the call of common sense. Although seemingly intelligent people, these folks would hold their breath in anticipation of a high note. They'd forego paying their phone bill in order to get a new Callas recording.

These people were crazy.

I was crazy.

Opera seemed pretty crazy.

It was a perfect match.

In the youthful ardor with which one greets any new addiction, I could never have imagined that opera would become a lifelong and very expensive habit.

I was hooked. Years later Mark would joke about the monster he had created.

I was extremely fortunate to have been introduced to the art form at that particular moment in time. Without my knowing it, I had plopped myself down in a golden era of voice. Even though, during the mid-1960s, opera was struggling to gain a foothold in America's arts scene, within a matter of weeks I would attend performances featuring Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, Richard Tucker, Anna Moffo, Robert Merrill, Franco Corelli, Mirella Freni, Norman Treigle, Beverly Sills, Gabriella Tucci, Jon Vickers, Joan Sutherland, Patricia Brooks and many other wonderfully talented artists.

Since then, as opera has grown and flourished in our land, I've been fortunate to chronicle some of its progress. A lot has changed. No longer regarded as a clandestine cult (akin to the ubiquitous "Friends of Dorothy") operagoers have become a highly affluent target market.
No longer restricted to international cultural capitals, the operatic art form is flourishing on a grass roots basis throughout the United States.

Whereas most American singers once flocked to Europe in search of training and job opportunities, the training programs of America's opera companies now play host to more and more foreign artists (singers from around the world vie for a chance to participate in Philadelphia's annual Pavarotti Voice Competition).

No longer a company which merely imports foreign "superstars," the San Francisco Opera has had to redefine its fame as an "international opera company." Western Opera Theatre has aggressively toured the Pacific Rim. Last month's Merola Finals witnessed an evening dominated by talent from China, Japan, Iceland, Australia and Venezuela.

Christine Bullin, Executive Director of the San Francisco Opera Center, insists that just as the world has changed, opera people must change with it by becoming citizens of the world. Under her guidance, the San Francisco Opera Center is starting to mine new talent from Asia while allowing American artists to come into close contact with foreign singers who have not always enjoyed as much freedom of expression. As a result, both sides have learned how precious the freedom to interpret music can be.

Even the most devout opera junkies have learned that opera can no longer exist in a vacuum. And, thanks to the power of satellite communications, such operatic fields as politics, business and the arts have become inextricably tied together. Their command bond? The humanity of the people working in each field.

Because the people who inhabit the opera world have such complex personalities, this art form never fails to deliver a surprise. Formerly priggish opera publicists have evolved into full-fledged media whores. Conductor Stephen Lord tells me how once, prior to a 1989 performance in St. Louis, he shocked an opera fan who asked him if he wasn't intimidated about conducting the American premiere of Purcell's King Arthur. "I just looked at this man in amazement and said 'For God's sake, 200 people just got mowed down in Tiananmen Square. This is only an opera!'"

Part of opera's perverse appeal may be that just when you think you've got it all figured out, someone opens his mouth and produces the kind of sound which makes your knees buckle. It happened again last month when I was in a decidedly sour mood. Whether my grumpiness was due to world politics, the sagging economy or a variety of personal concerns, I was less than enthusiastic about attending the Merola Grand Finals.

The forces of fate were working overtime that night. During the first half of the program, I was pleasantly impressed by the number of tenors in this year's crop of singers. I listened in awe as Chinese soprano Man-Hua Gao sang the bejeesus out of Norma's "Ma di' ... la'mato giovane" with an emotional depth rarely encountered. Displaying a formidable coloratura talent, Japanese mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu shared the stage in what can only be described as "a Nova Thomas ballgown."

Just before intermission, I was transfixed by the freakish contrast in body language between baritone Edward Albert and Australia's towering basso, Daniel Sumegi (who holds the stage as if he spent years in the heavyweight wrestling arena) during the "Suoni la Tromba" duet from Bellini's I Puritani.

And then it happened -- that magical high that every opera fan keeps seeking. Late in the program, a countertenor destined for greatness sang ""Cara Sposa" from Handel's Rinaldo in a voice category rarely heard by Americans. Young Brian Asawa strode to center stage and delivered his aria with the kind of style, musical intelligence and professionalism that makes one's jaw drop to the floor.

For a few brief moments during the collapse of the Soviet empire, time stood still for a very lucky group of people in San Francisco who were able to enjoy several precious moments of unbelievable musical beauty.

When I got home from the performance, I turned on the radio and learned about the coup in Moscow. As I wondered what emotions the Russian singers in the cast of War and Peace must have been experiencing, I couldn't help but chuckle at the fact that, after 25 years of operagoing, I was still an opera junkie, looking for a fix.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 19, 1991.

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