Catch this news item: “Crazed coloratura carelessly cavorting capsizes collapsible kayak near Ketchikan; catches cold, clap, and claustrophobia. Clan commiserates concomitantly in comfy catatonia. Crisis cancels contract.” Now some might still believe that the life of an opera singer consists merely of endorsing fat paychecks while lying in bed munching on chocolate-covered garlic cloves. Not true. In fact, the fringe benefits of today’s highest-paid stars tend to center more around jet lag and cholesterol.
However, young opera singers learn the ropes best by participating in the educational outreach programs conducted by major companies. Houston Grand Opera has an extensive program and San Francisco Opera is probably the pioneer in this field. Western Opera Theater, now into its second decade, is the most adventurous group of young singers around. They have traveled into the wilds of Alaska via tiny planes and dogsleds. They have played up and down the San Joaquin Valley, in snowbound Eskimo communities where plans were sent ahead for children to crayon in scenery, and in schools throughout the West. On the road they conduct workshops to acquaint people with opera, present full studio performances in English, and bring a vital form of art into communities that could never afford to mount their own productions.
Don’t look down your nose saying that if there isn’t a cast of thousands with international superstars that it just isn’t opera. The singers in WOT are thoroughly trained professionals with talent to spare. Their standards are as high as those of any major company and the demands made on the singers are often far more strenuous. Depending on how far from civilization they are, singers may end up using sleeping bags on a bare floor for the night. Constantly performing in repertory keeps the voice, body, and mind on sharp edge, quickly breaking down excessive ego trips. Most of all is the excitement and enjoyment of turning on new audiences to opera. WOT is not the opera that you hear over the Saturday Met broadcasts – but live, intimate, fun performances in understandable language.
In the past few years I have attended a half dozen performances by WOT and been half knocked out of my seat each time. There were nights that were far better than some evenings I remember at the Met during the Bing regime. WOT does a rollicking production of Cenerentola and a delightful Hansel and Gretel, with one of the best witches ever. Their Barber of Seville is a joy; an updated La Traviata several years ago was electric theater. This year I attended Don Pasquale and Susannah and was again bowled over by the professionalism and talent onstage.
Don Pasquale often seems to be a meal of leftovers by Donizetti. But as stage farce it can’t be beat. WOT’s production is like a cross between children’s theater adenomatous an intimate opera performed in your lap. Vocally the performances were solid, particularly the singing and clowning of Stanley Wexler in the title role. Jane Bane was a tease as Norina. Richard Estes as Dr. Malatesta performed with a sparkle that could not be missed. The infectiousness of the production was apparent – the audience had a blast, laughing heartily all the time, rocking back and forth in enjoyment. As is often done at WOT performances, scenery was changed in full view of the audience.
However, Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah was what really undid me. When I was growing up in New York this work was being performed by Phyllis Curtin and Norman Treigle with the New York City Opera; how I wish I had seen it then! Never having heard the music, I was stunned by the lyric beauty of the score, particularly Susannah’s two arias. The story is timely to gays. It concerns the spread of hatred by religious zealots and how their intolerance destroys lives.
In these days of hate crusades by the Florida Orange Lady, the opera becomes a striking musical statement of “Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.” Susannah is a young backwoods girl, raised by a drunken brother but basically innocent. Her beauty incites jealousy in the town among several of the older religious biddies. During the course of the action, Susannah is spied bathing in the creek by the town elders, adding fire to the rumors that she is possessed by the devil. She is soon ostracized by the community. When they cannot get a public confession from her, she is raped by the evangelist minister, the Reverend Olin Blitch, who, despite any godly pretenses, is more of a man of the flesh than of the cloth and easily overpowered by Susannah’s beauty.
Susannah is an evening of intense theater; musically the sounds are ravishing. In the title role Pamela Myers sang radiantly, proving to be a most sensitive actress. Michael Burgess as her brother Sam provided a foil to her innocence. Sharon Sherrard, who alternates with Ms. Myers as Susannah, did a splendid bit turn as Mrs. McLean, the old bitch who starts all the trouble (the local Anita Bryant) warning townsfolk at the picnic “Ah wouldn’t touch them peas of her’n,” with bile dripping from her mouth. Christopher Smith was most effective as her son, little Bat McLean, the town idiot who has a crush on Susannah. The conducting by William Huckaby was superb, producing an evening of throbbing drama.
WOT tours for approximately six months and plays the Palace of Fine Arts in May as one of its final stops. In many towns it is the only live entertainment to show up during the year. The audiences are always appreciative. I think they’re damned lucky to get such good opera from such enthusiastic performers.
If your car breaks down in Death Valley and you start having hallucinations of Dr. Bartolo, Figaro, and Count Almaviva coming to your rescue, better think twice. It might just turn out to be the members of Western Opera Theater arriving by bus, snowmobile or seaplane. Who knows, maybe next year in the Holy Land – on camels!
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 9, 1977.