Panel Discussion

SF Opera's Ring Panel Discussion

Das-rheingold-sfopera2011 Yesterday evening Kip Cranna moderated a panel discussion on Der Ring des Nibelungen (Das Rheingold Scene 1 pictured left, photo by Cory Weaver) which opens next today at San Francisco Opera. The panelists were mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop (Fricka), baritone Mark Delavan (Wotan, Wanderer), baritone Gordon Hawkins (Alberich), tenor Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund), soprano Heidi Melton (Sieglinde in Cycle 3, Third Norn), and tenor Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried in Siegfried).

The panelists were asked how they became Wagnerian singers, what other repertoire they sang, and the character development of their particular roles in the Ring. The tone was lively and amusing, clearly the cast members were having a lot of fun. Elizabeth Bishop defended Fricka. Gordon Hawkins asked the audience members if they thought Alberich really was the bad guy in the Ring, and even asked us why. Jay Hunter Morris told us he had no idea if he would have a voice left by the end of the Siegfried opening and was "tickled" that he did.

Since Bishop and Hawkins were in the Washington National Opera version of this production, they were asked about the differences from the present incarnation in San Francisco. Bishop mentioned the opening scene had a jungle gym, and Hawkins corrected her, saying it was a sluice. The costumes have evolved, as have the projections.

It was slightly surprising that neither director Francesca Zambello nor conductor Donald Runnicles were present. Zambello was out of town doing one of her many other jobs. Runnicles had gotten married earlier in the day, and was thus understandably unavailable.

Porgy and Bess Panel Discussion

Porgy-panel3 Yesterday evening chorus director Ian Robertson moderated a panel discussion on Porgy and Bess, which opens next Tuesday at San Francisco Opera. The panelists included choreographer Denni Sayers, soprano Angel Blue (Clara), soprano Karen Slack (Serena), baritone Kenneth Overton (Frazier), tenor Calvin Lee (Peter), baritone Eric Greene (Jake), tenor Chauncey Packer (Sportin' Life), bass-baritone Eric Owens (Porgy), and conductor John DeMain.

The panelists were asked to speak about the piece, their roles with in it, and the like. It was interesting to learn where the performers had sung before and how they felt about George Gershwin, authenticity, and the possible demeaning nature of the work. The cast seemed to have a strong commitment to this opera.

Maestro DeMain had much to say about Porgy and Bess, unsurprising given that he has been conducting the work for over thirty years. He compared this opera to Boris Godunov, as it too is a "folk opera," and Carmen, as both have dance rhythms throughout. DeMain also mentioned that Porgy and Bess is both a numbers opera and makes use of Leitmotivs.

The production was described by the choreographer, as she has worked on it since the beginning, with the Washington premiere. The stage director, Francesca Zambello, is concerned, once again, with making the work relevant to the contemporary audience. In this case, she has set the work in 1955, bringing us closer in time to the characters.

There were a few amusing moments during the evening. Chauncey Packer spoke about how after a performance someone told him "It's horrible what you did to that girl!" At another point Angel Blue explained that she could imagine singing Bess, as she had nothing in common with the character, to which someone on stage quipped "Not yet."

Die Tote Stadt Panel Discussion

Die-tote-stadt Yesterday evening Kip Cranna moderated a panel discussion on Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, which has a San Francisco premiere tonight. The panelists included baritone Lucas Meachem (Fritz, Frank), the revival director Meisje Hummel, and conductor Donald Runnicles. The discussion was one of the more informative, and it is too bad San Francisco Opera neglected to put the talk on their monthly calendar. As such, the audience had an even higher percentage of donors than usual, perhaps because as the talk was listed on the membership cards.

The panelists were asked how they each became involved in this co-production of the Vienna State Opera and the 2004 Salzburg Festival. Meachem is debuting his two roles in the opera this evening, but is engaged to sing in Die Tote Stadt again at Teatro Real in 2010. Ms. Hummel was the assistant to Willy Decker, the original director, and worked on the production at the Salzburg Festspiele, the Wiener Staatsoper, the Nederlandse Opera, and the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Runnicles conducted the work in Salzburg and Vienna, but had not known it previously, with the exceptions of "Mein sehnen, mein wähnen" and "Glück das mir verblieb."

Runnicles did get into the history of this opera, explaining that Korngold was the son of Julius Korngold, a vicious music critic who also happened to be an arch-conservative. It was Korngold's father that wrote the libretto, based on Georges Rodenbach's novella Bruges-la-Morte. The fiendishly difficult music is certainly late Romantic, influenced by Mahler and Strauss, both of whom agreed that Korngold was a genius. Strangely enough, the opera debuted simultaneously in Hamburg and Cologne, so great was the demand for this world premiere.

The production itself sounds vaguely Regie, despite all of the promises for no Eurotrash. Both Meachem and Runnicles adore it, saying it is both emotional and cerebral. Meachem mentioned it was his favorite except for the Pique Dame we had a few years ago, and I immediately thought of the oversized skeleton in that production and how much I had to stifle my laughter. Runnicles believes this production is in the top five of the ones he's been involved with for the last 20 years, and that the playing is better with this orchestra compared to Salzburg and Vienna. In any case, this is the only opera besides Idomeneo that I've been truly looking forward to, despite my disdain of Late Romanticism.

The Bonesetter's Daughter Panel Discussion

Bonesetters-daughter Kip Cranna moderated a panel discussion on the new opera The Bonesetter's Daughter yesterday evening at Herbst Theatre. The panelists included composer Stewart Wallace, bass Hao Jiang Tian (Chang the Coffin Maker), and suona-player/rock star Wu Tong (Chef, Taoist Priest). There is much excitement surrounding the impending world premiere of the work at San Francisco Opera, only the ninth in the company's history. The evening began with a bunch of plugs for the book the opera is based on, the memoir of the bass, and most interestingly, the book on the making of this opera, Fate! Luck! Chance! by Ken Smith. The latter includes the libretto.

Most of the discussion focused on Wallace, how the project started, how the musical idiom for this particular opera was found, and so forth. Wallace had an interesting quote about how an American audience might think the music sounds Chinese, but that a Chinese audience would find the music rather American. He insisted that the music is American without being Chinoiserie.

We also got to hear how the opera was cast, and how Hao Jiang Tian and Wu Tong were found. We heard a recording of one of Tian's arias, which was promising. There was also a live demonstration of the suona from Wu. The instrument is incredibly loud, piercing, and wobbly. It fit my intial impressions of being much like the zurna, though it was again compared to the oboe, of course.

Ariodante Panel Discussion

Ariodante-ken-howard Yesterday evening Kip Cranna moderated the last San Francisco Opera Insight Panel Discussion of the season. The three panelists were conductor and Houston Grand Opera's Music Director Patrick Summers, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham (Ariodante), and bass-baritone Eric Owens (King of Scotland). Kip Cranna began the evening by asking which opera this summer was in Italian, set in Scotland, and has a mad scene. Evidently Ariodante shares all these qualities with the much more famous Lucia di Lammermoor.

Each panelist was asked about his or her first exposure to the operas of Händel. Maestro Summers first Händel opera was Tamerlano at Indiana University, Ms. Graham's first was Alcina at Paris Opera with two other Händel virgins (Renée Fleming and Natalie Dessay), and Mr. Owen's first was Giulio Cesare at Wolf Trap.

Apparently, both Susan Graham and Eric Owens played piano, and sometimes visualize the keyboard when hitting notes with their voices. This came up when Graham was asked if she improvised ornamentation, which she does not, as she "knows [she] would take the wrong turn." This happened once to her, and she is quite grateful for prompters. The prompter for Ariodante is Jonathan Khuner, and he has learnt Graham's "sign language," which involves miming notes on a piano.

The John Copley production of Ariodante was first done in Santa Fe in 1987, and has since traveled to Dallas (1998), City Opera (1999), and San Diego (2002). Somehow, the ballet costumes for the end of Act II have been lost, so that scene has been cut. Interestingly, each of the acts has a ballet at the end, but none of these will be in the version we will see in San Francisco. Other cuts include two arias and part of a duet, Summers estimated it was about 30 minutes of music that was left out, so each performance will be 3 hours and 30 minutes long, with two intermissions.

Ariodante: Production at San Francisco Opera | Synopsis | Libretto | Arias | Score

Das Rheingold Panel Discussion

Rheingold Kip Cranna moderated a panel discussion on Das Rheingold yesterday evening at Herbst Theatre. The panelists included conductor Donald Runnicles, baritone Mark Delavan (Wotan), baritone Richard Paul Fink (Alberich), mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore (Fricka), and associate director Christian Räth. There was a fair amount of good natured teasing between the singers and conductor. Everyone was quite excited about the new production, the so-called "American Ring." In this production Das Rheingold starts off in the United States around 1900 and ends in the 1920s, though it sounds like the giants were modeled after a photograph of American construction workers from 1932. Räth was specifically asked about how Erda was to be portrayed, and he said she has been changed from being a Native American to being something "more general."

Figaro Page to Stage

* Notes *
Les Waters moderated a discussion between Dominique Serrand, Bradley Greenwald, and David Gockley as part of Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Page to Stage program. Dominique Serrand is the artistic director of Jeune Lune, and also directs and stars in the production of Figaro currently at Berkeley Rep. Bradley Greenwald is Count Almaviva in Figaro, and adapted the music used for the production. David Gockley is the general director of San Francisco Opera. Waters started off by asking each of them questions, starting off with the "crossover" nature of Figaro, as it involves Mozart's opera, Beaumarchais' trilogy, and Serrand's scenography and video. How the music was adapted for string quartet and piano was mentioned, as was audience response, as the actors greet the audience after the performance. Many jokes were made about the appearance of opera singers versus the characters in this particular production. Questions from the audience were taken about when Beaumarchais wrote La Mère coupable, why Cherubino is played by a female, the strain of opera singers voices, and new media in opera.

* Tattling *
The crowd was fairly sparse, despite the large amounts of free coffee on offer. Serrand's mobile phone went off during David Gockley's first response, in which he mentioned Claus Guth's production of Le Nozze di Figaro. Gockley explained that this production at the Salzburger Festspiele features a silent Cupid who "sticks it to those horny people." The best quote of the evening, however came from Serrand, who said "I don't understand pyschological plays, with people on couches discussing their innards."













Appomattox Panel Discussion

AppomattoxKip Cranna moderated a panel discussion on Appomattox yesterday evening. The panelists included composer Philip Glass, librettist Christopher Hampton, conductor Dennis Russell Davies, director Robert Woodruff, baritone Dwayne Croft (Robert E. Lee), and baritone Andrew Shore (Ulysses S. Grant). Each person was asked about how he became part of this world premiere. We learnt that Christopher Hampton knew little about the American Civil War; that Dennis Russell Davies sent Philip Glass a recording of the "Tenting Tonight," which was included in the opera; that there were two baritones as leads to make it easier for the words to be understood; and that the two baritones were distinguished by a major second.

Don Giovanni Panel Discussion

The stage director of the upcoming Don Giovanni at San Francisco Opera, Leah Hausman, moderated a panel discussion yesterday evening. The panelists included Twyla Robinson (Donna Elvira), Oren Gradus (Leporello), and Luca Pisaroni (Masetto). Though the discussion was somewhat disorganized, the panelists were all quite charming. We learnt that between the three singers they had been in over 20 productions of this opera, that European opera houses are small, and that all opera companies are different.

There were details revealed about the production, which is five years old and has been seen in Belgium, Japan, Luxembourg, and France. The stage is quite raked, the choreography is treacherous, and the lighting is dark. Apparently, the performances will be projected in the balcony so that the singers' faces are visible from there. They are calling this "OperaVision." We are living in the future, friends.

Manon Lescaut Panel Discussion

Insightmanon* Notes *
Despite having a subscription to San Francisco Opera for 3 seasons, I only managed to attend my first
Opera Insight Panel Discussion yesterday. The hour-long panel discussion on Puccini's third opera was moderated by music director Donald Runnicles and included soprano Karita Mattila, bass Eric Halfvarson, baritone John Hancock, and the stage director Olivier Tambosi.

Much was made of the fragmentation as far as plot goes in regards to Puccini's libretto. Apparently at least seven people worked on it, which seems rather excessive, no? Also, a rather lot of comparisons were made between Puccini's work and Massanet's, and both were compared to the source text by Abbé Prévost.

The production of Manon Lescaut from Lyric Opera of Chicago opens this Sunday at 2pm and it shows 6 more times until December 10th.

* Tattling *
This last opera panel discussion of the year did not seem particularly well-attended, but everyone was rather well-behaved. There was a bit of hilarity regarding Wagner, when Tambosi suggested he was a mountain to get around or through or to subsume.

A few words of German also reared their heads, der Anlauf (from Tambosi) and das Fach (from Mattila).