Thursday, November 22, 2007

'Tis The Season

"So, Blanche! It's opening night again. What are you wearing to the opera?"

An old question. Often met with the same old answer.

This year, however, things are different. Very different! Those who have been monitoring the artistic and administrative changes taking place at the San Francisco Opera since Lotfi Mansouri became General Director are aware that the company has been getting a corporate facelift in an attempt to drag it -- kicking and screaming -- into the 20th century before the decade ends.

The Houston Grand Opera was the first major American opera company to realign its marketing efforts toward multiple audiences (those who are solid opera aficionados, those who only like Mozart, those who like Broadway musicals, those who are Baroque fiends, those who support new music, etc). That company's willingness to diversify its marketing and fundraising efforts to match the diversity of its audience paid off in spades several years ago when Texas suffered a recession due to the drop in oil prices.

With California now caught in the grip of a recession, the San Francisco Opera has finally acknowledged that its efforts can no longer be directed solely toward the Pacific Heights crowd. Although the San Francisco Opera's core of supporters remains a conservative, elderly and very wealthy subsection, the recent mass marketing of opera via video, television, the CD revolution -- and commercials which use operatic music -- has opened up an entirely new audience that does not fit the old textbook rules.

As a result, the company has taken an aggressive tack toward repositioning itself within the community. Many of the old rules have gone right out the window.

Under Mansouri's aggressively populist leadership, the San Francisco Opera has become much more accommodating to any and all media (a far cry from the antagonistic approach of the Adler and McEwen administrations). Corporate communications have become more sophisticated. Fund-raising efforts are now headed in the direction of creating a San Francisco Opera "family."

In a cost-cutting measure, Mansouri has trimmed the 1991 fall season from 10 to 9 mainstage productions so that more rehearsal time can be allotted to each production. Casting is much stronger and more evenly balanced. This could be a welcome sign that more money is being directed toward improving the basic product which goes onstage.

Special events, such as this weekend's "Opera Walk" are not just fundraising affairs: they are intended to show San Franciscans that opera is for everyone. Later this month, a special performance of La Traviata will be interpreted in sign language for the hearing impaired by Stefan Lazar (a familiar face from gay community concerts). And, with a new Development Director on board, there is a strong possibility that the San Francisco Opera will finally get a gay chapter of its guild up and running.

What has prompted so much change? Times are hard and money is tight. A wide variety of financial, artistic and political pressures are at play within the War Memorial Opera House.

These days, the buzz words in arts circles are "multi-cultural" and "diversification." In order to survive, the leadership of the San Francisco Opera understands that it needs to take a more vital role in this city's cultural life.

Unfortunately, opera is the most labor intensive of all art forms. In recent years, the San Francisco Opera has come under fire for some pretty sloppy performances with substandard casts. Can the San Francisco Opera stand and deliver? The next few weeks will tell.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: From now on it's Lotfi Mansouri's show all the way. No more holdovers from Terry McEwen's repertoire. No more artist's contracts that need to be honored. No more major administrators pulling in the opposite direction.

From the standpoint of the press and the audience, that means no more excuses. No more looking the other way. No more "waiting" until everything is in place.

During the past year, the local press has been ferociously bloodthirsty (almost taking an "I dare you to show me you can produce opera" approach) with regard to Mansouri's administration. However, this season hardly lacks for novelty. If anything, it promises more than most (nearly half the repertoire being performed is new to the San Francisco Opera).

The blockbuster of the season will obviously be Prokofiev's War and Peace, (which features Merola graduates Barry McCauley and Ann Panagulias in pivotal roles). Of equal interest will be the American premiere of Hans Werner Henze's Das Verratene Meer, starring Ashley Putnam and directed by the controversial Christopher Alden. Bellini's treatment of the Romeo and Juliet tragedy, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, is being presented in the production which, several years ago, was the runaway hit of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's season. The production of Verdi's Attila which has been shared by the San Diego Opera, New York City Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and several other companies features Sam Ramey in one of his greatest roles.

Other productions new to Bay area audiences will include a staging (by Mansouri) of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde borrowed from the Cologne Opera and Andrei Serban's controversial production of Strauss's Elektra from the Grand Theatre de Geneve with a knockout cast featuring Gwyneth Jones, Nadine Secunde, Helga Dernesch, Tom Fox and Monte Pederson.

Of the "old" productions which are up for revival, Verdi's La Traviata features the long-awaited return of Carol Vaness (Merola graduate turned international star) opposite tenor Marcello Giordani, one of the new and very hot matinee idol tenors on the circuit. Mozart's Don Giovanni features the very sexy Gino Quilico backed by such talented American artists as Marilyn Mims, Kallen Esperian, Harolyn Blackwell and Frank Lopardo.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's Carmen is being restaged by Paula Williams (the talented woman who did such an exciting job with this summer's revival of The Magic Flute) and conducted by Vyacheslav Sutej: one of the few conductors I've ever heard who can make audiences and singers scream for more. What makes this revival particularly interesting is that it is scheduled to star Marilyn Horne (who sang the title role with Spring Opera Theater at the start of her career) and four Merola graduates (Barry McCauley, Patricia Racette, Maria Fortuna and Yanyu Guo) in major roles.

Although I'm happy to go on record saying that I have higher hopes for this fall's repertoire than for any San Francisco Opera season in the past ten years, my opinion doesn't matter half so much as what happens onstage. Why? The final verdict rests with the audience.

The curtain's going up. You be the judge.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 5, 1991.

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