Thursday, April 14 marks the opening night of Spring Opera Theatre’s 16th season. This offshoot of the San Francisco Opera is especially valuable to people new to opera who might be somewhat intimidated by what they hear coming from the mouths of hardcore opera buffs.
First of all, every performance is sung in English, which drops one of the most frightening barriers to the operatic newcomer. Productions are also aimed at a feeling of musical theater ranging from intense drama to hilarious farce. The main goal is for the audience to have a good time and to break down certain kinds of resistance peculiar to opera audiences.
Most of this centers around the fact that operas are performed in English. For many people this will ease the fear of not understanding a single word being sung onstage.
Don’t think that the regular opera addicts run to the Curran for Spring Opera either. Many staunchly refuse to go to an operatic performance unless it is sung in the original language. Frankly, they don’t know what they’re missing! This is where Spring Opera Theater serves an invaluable function. By emphasizing the dramatic nature of the work, it enables both old and new audiences to get fresh insights and, more importantly, to enjoy opera as total musical theater.
Now then, what are the pickings for this year? Pretty damned good – if you haven’t tickets, you’d better trot your buns down to the box office and get some fast.
Opening night is Bizet’s Carmen, one of the favorite operas of all time. Carmen is the story of that flashy cigarette girl who drives one soldier out of his mind and then drops him for a hotter trick in toreador drag. The opera includes many familiar pieces of music: the famous Toreador song, Carmen’s two gypsy dances – the Habanera and Seguidilla – both very sensuous numbers. The music captures the varying moods of Spain; the flash of the bull ring, the peacefulness of the mountains, and the poignant tenderness of Jose’s flower song.
Hot on the heels of Carmen comes a revival of Donizetti’s rollicking farce, Viva La Mamma, which spoofs all operatic conventions and stereotypes. If you hate opera, you’ll love this show. If you feel you’ve seen too much opera, then this is the one that will destroy you with laughter. Written way before Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother ever got backstage, it features the pushiest stage mother of all time, a lady who will stop at absolutely nothing for the sake of her children.
Performing as Mamma Agatha will be John Ferrante in what is probably the juiciest drag role in all of opera. Mr. Ferrante is famous for his recordings as a “bargain counter tenor” in the questionable works of P.D.Q. Bach and for his shameless mugging.
The opera contains many hilarious moments, including a ballet sequence that is probably the funniest ten minutes I have ever seen on a stage.
One word of warning before attending a performance of Viva La Mamma. Be sure to go to the bathroom before the curtain goes up. The last time it was performed in San Francisco most of the audience was helpelessly clutching their sides while doubled over in laugher. While we do want to flood the aisles with people, we don’t want to drown the musicians in the pit!
The third work featured is a rarely heard work by Mozart. Titus is the story of the Roman emperor who learns of an assassination plot aimed at his life and must plead with his people to find ways to solve things without depending on violence; certainly a topic relevant to today’s world. The last evening consists of an interesting triple bill: The Combat by Monteverdi, Savitri by Gustav Holst, and The Emperor of Atlantis by Ullmann. This last piece was written in one of the German concentration camps and banned because of its political satire. It created a great stir at the 1976 Spoleto Festival and will receive its American premiere in San Francisco.
Spring Opera Theater performs at the Curran Theater from April 14 through May 8. Spring Opera needs your support and you will find it most enjoyable. It’s a promising season.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 31, 1977.