50-year-old San Diego Opera finds new life

What began as a finale for San Diego Opera ended with a successful 50th anniversary season propelling the company to a new life.

Assisted by a dedicated staff and led by a slimmed-down, reconstituted board of directors, the company successfully raised enough money to continue the scheduled 2015 season with some cost-cutting modifications to the repertory.

Additional support came from leaders and members of the service organization OPERA America and an interim artistic director called out of retirement from Lyric Opera of Chicago to guide the operation while the search committee looks for a new general director.

David Bennett came aboard as general director June 15 to roll out the new era for San Diego Opera.

Last June’s dark shadow was lifted with incredible support from the community — contributions and response to a petition to keep the company going.

The renewed enthusiasm began with a preseason kickoff recital in November by Stephen Costello and Ailyn Pérez at the Balboa Theatre.

The full-house response was genuinely exciting as the two young singers, so popular in previous San Diego Opera productions, praised the staff, board and community for keeping the company alive and giving an opportunity to young singers such as themselves who have attained international careers.

Addressing their fans from the stage, they closed the program with “There’s a Place for Us,” a popular duet from “West Side Story.”

Another preseason recital followed; Met Opera star Stephanie Blythe’s acclaimed program of popular songs made famous by Kate Smith was a smash hit.

This program is typical of the new popularity for crossover singing by opera stars to a more popular genre. There is an audience for this programming, demonstrated by the enthusiastic response at the first two programs.

The traditional opera season opened in January with the signature opera “La Bohème,” the 11th production in the 50 years since the company began with this sure bet in 1965.

A unique, all-purpose set updated the Parisian Left Bank of the 19th century into the 1930s. The same carefree bohemians were represented by young American singers living the same life as the original Puccini production that opened in Turin, Italy, in 1896 and conducted by a young Arturo Toscanini.

Notorious womanizer Don Giovanni returned with the three women who loved to hate him in a provocative second production that bordered on the X-rated. The handsome Italian bass-baritone, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo was the definitive Don Juan with Ashraf Sewailam as his partner in crime, Leporello.

The colorful and creative staging moved smoothly from scene to scene without pause by sliding set pieces and screens.

“Nixon in China” by John Adams is a definitive contemporary opera of a significant historic event that needs to be available to a modern audience. The third production was cast with powerful singing actors representing the leaders of the world in 1972 caught in a diplomatic standoff that changed the world.

Opera fans who suspect contemporary operatic scores should not reject Adam’s minimalist harmonic style reflecting a shift from the previous atonal operas.

The two lead characters, Dick and Pat Nixon, were sung by artists who have performed these roles many times and created perfect characterizations as we recall their public images.

The windup of the season featured two special events in April, only a week apart.

The Gala Celebration Concert replaced a production of “Tannhauser” but retained the principal Wagner artists under contract.

Another enthusiastic audience responded to the opera arias, duets, choruses and orchestral overtures featuring seven principal singers, San Diego Opera chorus and San Diego Symphony.

Mariachi opera returned the next weekend with a new composition by the same team as the 2013 successful premier of this art form.

The new opera, “El Pasada Nunca Se Termina,” (The Past Never Ends) tells of conflicts between landed gentry and peasants in the 1910 Mexican Revolution with a fast-forward to present time.

A Mexican-American congressman brings his son to his ancestral land to find the graves of those early rebels and gentry from whom he descended. The message makes a strong case for the concept that the past never ends.

The drama is set to rousing mariachi rhythms, arias and recitative performed by a large Latino cast and the oldest musician group that performs internationally.

An important goal for the revitalized opera company is to reach a new audience, such as the Latino community and young people not schooled in the tradition of opera.

A variety of musical dramas employing trained singing actors for musicals and contemporary chamber operas as supplements to a traditional opera season is a good formula for rebranding a new San Diego Opera.

Bennett’s vision for the revitalized company will be unveiled Monday at the annual membership meeting.

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

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