The founding general director of San Diego Opera, Walter Herbert, was an advocate of contemporary opera. This was risky for a new company attempting to build an audience normally addicted to the traditional operas of Verdi, Puccini and Rossini.
Because of his early music training in Vienna under the influence of Arnold Schoenberg, he was not hesitant to introduce worthy contemporary operas to San Diego.
His first entry was the U.S. premiere of “The Young Lord” produced in 1967. The media event captured the attention of the opera world. German composer Hans Werner Henze was popular in Europe but only slightly known in America. Herbert introduced another German composer, Carl Orff, in the 1969 season with “The Moon,” a one-act fairy tale paired with the traditional opera “Pagliacci.”
Taking a bigger leap into contemporary opera, Herbert commissioned a young San Francisco composer, Alva Henderson, for a production of “Medea” based on tapes of excerpts to demonstrate his artistic ability. This 1972 production was the first world premiere staged by SDO and attracted international attention from opera aficionados.
Why did Herbert show so much interest in the contemporary repertory? Most likely it’s because of his early musical training in Vienna in the early 20th century, where European composers were finding support in the avant-garde artistic world. This was an unusual opportunity for Herbert, scion of a prominent banking firm second only to the Rothschild family.
Born Walter Herbert Seiligman, he was expected to train for the family business, but he begged his father to let him study music in Vienna. At the young age of 16, Herbert began his studies with Schoenberg in a group also attended by Alban Berg, who became the enfant terrible of the opera world with his opera “Wozzeck” in 1925.
Berg never finished his final opera, “Lulu,” which languished for years after his death in 1935; his widow would not allow it to be performed incomplete.
San Diego Opera had a close opportunity to have the world premiere of “Lulu” because of Herbert’s close relationship with the composer’s widow. However, an arrangement was never reached, Frau Berg died and another composer finished the opera that made musical history.
Herbert was principal conductor at Vienna’s Volksoper where Kurt Herbert Adler, later long-time director of San Francisco Opera, was the chorus master. They both immigrated to America when the Nazis invaded Austria.
The maestro was an advocate of opera in the language of the country, so he formed a small opera company in San Francisco that performed in English. He later moved to reopen the New Orleans Opera, which was the first major opera company in America in the early 19th century. Later he began the Tulsa Opera Company and then the Houston Grand Opera.
During Herbert’s tenure at Houston, a group of San Diego Opera Guild women approached him to conduct an inaugural opera for the new Civic Theatre in 1965. The relationship for this venture proved to be the nucleus of San Diego Opera, which took over when San Francisco Opera concluded its tours to Southern California.
As they say, the rest is history. Herbert conducted all but three productions here in the first 10 years. His extensive experience in Vienna and having established four regional opera companies helped to make San Diego Opera a major American company. He had an uncanny ability to identify up-and-coming talent and engage them to perform in San Diego at bargain fees before they became famous.
As maestro supreme, he ruled the music and artistic planning elements with a firm hand and a strict eye on budget. Despite a few seasons of financial stress, Herbert was able to guide the company through an amazing repertory of traditional and contemporary opera.
His resistance to supplemental management was finally overcome when the company hired a business manager and later an artistic director, Tito Capobianco, who became general director in 1975, when Herbert died.
Because San Diego Opera performed in English, Herbert was able to attract Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle with their star power from New York City Opera. They became a team with Capobianco as director for several productions.
Herbert also introduced young opera stars to San Diego such as Placido Domingo, Tatiana Troyanos, Robert Hale, Gilda Cruz-Romo and Catherine Malfitano.
As San Diego Opera begins its next 50 years of high-quality operas and artists, the 2016 season will be managed by David Bennett, the company’s fourth general director, will provide more innovations, as the founding director did in 1965.