New operas have special demands

Editor’s Note: In celebration of San Diego Opera’s 50th year of bringing world-class performances to the community, a series of preseason and postseason stories about historical events from the company’s repertory will be added to the “Opera Scene” column, as well as previews of the 2015 season and each scheduled performance.

There are many risks in mounting an unfamiliar opera. San Diego audiences prefer the traditional, familiar works by famous composers, but presenting new operas is an artistic obligation to reach a broader audience.

The additional cost of presenting an opera premiere and reluctance by many patrons to try a new work often require special sponsor funding or a joint venture with other companies.

San Diego Opera has been successful in presenting 20 premiere or virtually unknown operas over its 50 years. Each will be described for its special place in the opera repertory.

There were five world premieres, which are the most challenging unless the living composer is already famous for another work.

San Diego Opera produced two by unknown opera composers, “Medea” composed by Alva Henderson in 1972 and “The Conquistador” by Myron Fink in 1997.

The other three premieres, “La Loca” by Gian Carlo Menotti in 1979, “Streetcar Named Desire” by André Previn in 2000 and “Moby Dick” by Jake Heggie in 2012 all had the credentials of a new opera by a known composer to lure opera fans.

Having a star in a leading role also helped.

San Diego Opera’s files on “The Conquistador” were recently transferred to the opera archive at San Diego State University. I was able to review the manuscript editions of the score and the correspondence with the composer during the development of the composition and its staging.

Fink was composer-in-residence for several years in San Diego, but never had another opera produced.

The focus of the story was a real Spanish conquistador, Luis de Carvajal, a Portuguese Jew who converted to Catholicism and served the Spanish conquerors of Central America. His status as governor of a northern province in Mexico and his long absence from Spain helped shield him from persecution by the Spanish Inquisition.

Although his family also converted to Catholicism, they secretly practiced their Jewish faith and were caught.

It was not unusual for Spanish Jews of the 16th century to migrate to America’s Southwest. They were beyond the long arm of the Inquisition when they settled in areas that are now New Mexico and Colorado.

It was Carvajal’s mandate from the king of Spain to colonize the North American frontier. He provided the opportunity for converted Spanish Jews whose descendants still are large landholders in northern New Mexico.

The opera scenario opens with the success of Don Carvajal (sung by Metropolitan Opera star Jerry Hadley) and suspicion that his niece Isabel and her family are secretly observing the Sabbath.

As the situation deteriorates, Carvajal is imprisoned and dies; his family is burned at the stake as heretics.

The other world premiere in 1979 was about a Spanish queen. “La Loca” was composed by Gian Carlo Menotti as a showcase for Beverly Sills’ vocal and acting skills.

The production was shared with New York City Opera and there were several performances. Although the production had the star quality of Sills, was directed by Tito Capobianco and had the famous composer in residence, its success was overestimated.

“La Loca” was also based on a historic figure, Juana, the Queen of Castile and Aragon in the 16th century.

She became known as Juana the Mad as she lost her mind after being betrayed by her father, husband and son. She was committed to a convent, where she ended her long life still a queen. Quite a dramatic opera role for Sills in the tradition of Lady Macbeth and Lucia di Lammermoor.

Critics rebuffed the Menotti score. It was revised for the Spoleto Festival in 1982, but failed to reach the repertory status of his other, successful operas.

The 7-year-old San Diego Opera attracted national attention with the world premiere of “Medea” by Alva Henderson. The young San Francisco composer crafted the historic Greek drama to feature international opera star Irene Dalis in the title role.

Judith Anderson, the actress who had great Broadway success with the play, provided some coaching for Dalis and was guest of honor on opening night.

The score was easy to absorb in a Richard Strauss style, reminiscent of his opera “Salomé.” The sets and costumes were striking, and the three performances were well received by a national press.

Unfortunately, Dalis became indisposed after opening night. Her understudy, Marvallee Cariaga, finished the series to great acclaim and even more national press coverage.

“Medea” was never produced again, despite interest by New York City Opera and San Francisco Opera, although San Diego Opera earned professional respect nationally for its enterprise.

Martin Bernheimer in the Los Angeles Times reported, “Our little operatic neighbor to the south has made Los Angeles look silly again. … San Diego thinks big and acts accordingly.”

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

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