COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Bringing new opera works to the stage

In observing the 50-year history of the San Diego Opera, it is interesting to consider the company's regional premieres and operas seldom performed.

Probably the most ambitious American premiere by a new company was "The Young Lord" in 1967, only the second year of San Diego Opera. Composed by the successful and popular contemporary German composer Hans Werner Henze, the elaborate production was staged in the 19th-century Biedermeier era in Europe.

The attractive young cast and the company's bold effort earned kudos from the opera world. Although frequently performed in Europe, the satire about a privileged young aristocrat who really was a trained ape never entered the American repertory.

A Mexican opera had its U.S. premiere in 1994 in a flamboyant production featuring giant floral designs representing the mysterious potion that influenced "Rappaccini's Daughter," composed by Daniel Catán.

The mostly Latino cast and conductor supported the company's venture into contemporary operas under the Voices of North America program. The composer's large repertory is performed widely in North America today, but San Diego had the honor to debut his work in the United States.

American composer Carlisle Floyd came to San Diego Opera in 1991 to conduct the West Coast premiere of his opera "The Passion of Jonathan Wade," about the Civil War. It was so popular that the production, including Floyd as conductor, returned in 1996. Floyd's popular opera "Susannah" was in the 1981 season repertory.

Another contemporary work by an American was Tobias Picker's "Thérèse Raquin" in 2003.

An experiment in chamber opera was tried in 1985 with "The Lighthouse," by Peter Maxwell Davies, at the Globe Theatre, with Jack O'Brien directing. The concept for operatic variety did not succeed with San Diego's tradition-bound audience, but the production was artistically acclaimed.

The company presented a U.S. premiere in 1982 of an obscure opera by a well-known French composer — Emmanuel Chabrier's "Gwendoline." A West Coast premiere by another French composer, Ambroise Thomas, was the seldom-performed "Hamlet" in 1978.

Neither production was memorable except for the local appearance of superstar baritone Sherrill Milnes in the title role of Hamlet.

During the regime of founding general director Walter Herbert, from 1965 to 1975, unusual operas by famous composers were in the repertory. In the comic zone were "Help, Help, the Globolinks!" by Gian Carlo Menotti in 1972 — yes, that really is an opera about the invasion of creatures from outer space — and "The Moon" by Carl Orff in 1969, a fairy tale with a moral.

Both were one-act comedies paired with one-act tragedies on a double bill. Herbert was a genius in balancing repertory to keep sports-loving husbands happy when their wives preferred the social glamour of opera.

More recently in 2013, San Diego Opera produced the first U.S.-staged opera, "Murder in the Cathedral," by Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti as a showcase for bass-baritone Ferruccio Furlanetto.

T.S. Eliot's tale of Thomas Becket's conflict with Henry II over control of the church won praise for its artistry and other American companies mounted revivals.

Three operas by established composers that are seldom performed were "A Village Romeo and Juliet" by Frederick Delius in 1975; "Oberto," Giuseppe Verdi's first opera in 1985; and "Ariodante" by Georg Friderich Handel in 2002.

May San Diego Opera's next 50 years continue to be as innovative under the leadership of new management.

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Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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