Late in 1987, when I visited a friend in New York who is a gifted psychic, he predicted that although 1988 would be a year of major upheaval, most of the changes destined to take place would be extremely healthy. In the ensuing months, the heads of the San Francisco Opera, Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Tulsa Opera, New York Philharmonic, Canadian Opera Company, Vancouver Opera, Opera Carolina, Opera/Columbus, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Anchorage Opera and Hawaiia Opera Theatre announced their resignations and Jay Holbrook, the young General Director of the Baltimore Opera, died of AIDS. Patrick O'Connor (the Brit who had been hired as Editor-in-Chief of Opera News magazine) was forced to return to England when his application for a green card was denied and Patrick J. Smith (who, in recent years, has headed the National Endowment's Opera/Musical Theatre program) was announced as his successor.
Meanwhile, I became the National Editor of a new opera magazine created by the folks who publish Christopher Street, New York Native and Theatre Week. Whereas the Metropolitan Opera Guild's publication, Opera News, tends to focus on the past (with a particular emphasis on Met history) I'm happy to report that Opera Monthly is aiming its sights on the present and future of opera throughout North America (to subscribe or give a fellow opera lover the perfect present, send $25 to Opera Monthly, P.O. Box 816, Madison Square Station, New York, New York 10159).
As this exciting new magazine has grown and begun to flourish, I have enjoyed the challenge of shaping a national publication devoted to covering both the American opera scene and the wealth of talented American artists who now dominate the international music business. I'm also delighted to inform readers of this column that, in 1989, I will begin to escort opera tours organized by Worldwind Travels to important, ground-breaking companies like the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Houston Grand Opera -- pioneering arts organizations which have some very exciting ideas about repertoire and casting.
Earlier this month, when OPERA America held its annual conference at the Fairmont Hotel, I was asked to appear on a panel addressing the topic of "Artistic Trends." Alas, the trend which has become most painfully obvious to anyone who travels around the nation reviewing opera is that the opera companies in the Midwest (Chicago, St. Louis, St. Paul and Houston) are now producing the best opera while the three arts organizations that have routinely been hailed as the flagships of the American opera scene (the Met, the New York City Opera and the San Francisco Opera) continue to deliver embarrassingly provincial performances while attempting to pawn off such low-level crap as top quality art. The last production of the San Francisco Opera's fall season that I attended -- a truly pathetic revival of Ponchielli's La Gioconda -- was a prime example of such artistic malfeasance. With most of OPERA America's membership looking on in horror, this production did little to reinforce the San Francisco Opera's once-proud reputation as an international opera company that espouses the highest artistic standards. For those who were too embarrassed to say so, this year's La Gioconda was operatic slop.
Despite such minor irritants as superstars Luciano Pavarotti and Eva Marton blowing town before their contracts had expired, the biggest topic of conversation during the local fall season was whether or not Lotfi Mansouri could pull the San Francisco Opera up from the despicable levels of artistic lethargy, administrative arrogance and musical mediocrity it had sunk to under Terry McEwen's questionable reign of power. Few of the artistic failures which occurred during the 1988 season can be blamed on SFO's new General Director and most locals are aware that, at crucial points in recent months, the company has been run on an absentee-landlord basis while an exhausted Mansouri commuted between San Francisco and Toronto with a torn ligament in one leg.
Nevertheless, several opera queens who possess the artistic acuity of nagging back-seat drivers, have argued that Mansouri's casting choices reflect a perverse fondness for mediocre and/or Canadian artists. I strongly disagree. What these people fail to take into account is that, in order to receive funding from the Canada Council (our northern neighbor's equivalent of the National Endowment for the Arts) Mansouri was frequently under pressure, while employed as General Director of the Canadian Opera Company, to hire a large number of Canadian artists. When faced with numerous artistic cancellations in San Francisco this fall, he was forced to act quickly to fill those slots.
Therefore, let me suggest that before certain people start to draw their critical knives, they might do well to remember that, while in Canada, Mansouri fought an uphill battle against a population more interested in sports than in opera. Moving to the San Francisco Opera (which has a much larger budget and a higher level of opera-consciousness in the local audience base) will allow him to drop several political boulders from his shoulders; a move which should enable him to go at his job with far more effectiveness than was possible in Toronto.
Meanwhile, Lotfi's eagerness to bring the Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Philip Glass's Satyagraha to San Francisco this June (as well as his coup in casting soprano Ann Panagulias in the title role of Berg's Lulu next fall) are strong indicators that San Franciscans can expect some exciting evenings of opera theatre in the future. Although most of the '89 and '90 seasons (especially the new productions) were planned by McEwen, things should really start to perk up in the Spring of 1991 when Mansouri hopes to produce a major Mozart festival here (possibly sharing productions of Mitridarte, Re di Ponto and Lucio Silla with the Canadian Opera Company).
Looking further into the future, soprano Carol Vaness is scheduled to return to town in the fall of 1991, singing her first Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni. There has also been talk of borrowing David Hockney's controversial production of Tristan und Isolde from the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Company in the fall of 1991 and mounting a new production of Bellini's I Capuletti ed I Montechhi that season for two very exciting young singers. Mansouri is talking about a possible Rossini festival in 1992, with a new production of either Otello or Il Viaggio a Rheims.
To my mind, the most interesting facet of Mansouri's artistic leadership will focus on the creation of new works. So far, Lotfi (who plans to inaugurate a composer-in-residence program similar to the one he established in Toronto) has indicated that, with only 20 pages of the score to Esther in his hands, he is not yet ready to decide the fate of the operatic spectacle which Terry McEwen commissioned from Hugo Weisgall for the 1991 season.
My personal feeling is that, if the San Francisco Opera plans to commission more new works than it has in the past, it should look to its own back yard for inspiration. When Mansouri and I met in Toronto this spring, I suggested that he consider commissioning an opera based on the life of Harvey Milk. When one considers that Milk was a rabid opera queen, that his funeral service was held on the stage of San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House and that, for development purposes, the San Francisco Opera needs to find an innovative way to strengthen its bonds with its large gay constituency, the commissioning of such a world premiere could be an extremely valuable and exciting project.
Anyone who has seen the film documentary entitled The Life and Times of Harvey Milk knows that there is an opera there just waiting to be written. If that sounds like the kind of new opera you'd like to see written (and might even support), then I'd suggest you communicate your sentiments to Lotfi Mansouri by writing to him c/o The San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, 300 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, California 94102.
* * * * * * * * * *
This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 29, 1988.