Review: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part I – Glass’ “Appomattox”, October 14, 2007

As a patron who has been attending performances of the San Francisco Opera for over half a century, and have been a subscriber for 48 consecutive seasons, I had expressed concern at the slow decline in the quality of performances at the War Memorial Opera House, beginning in the mid-1980s, which I felt accelerated in the 1990s and was especially noticeable in the first half-decade of the 21st century.

By the time I began this website in November, 2005, new leadership had been announced for the S. F. Opera, and I was cautiously optimistic about the stated mission of new General Director Designate David Gockley to return the Opera to what seemed its Golden Age, during the General Directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler (1957-1981).

Although I have been critical of some of the productions in the transitional period between Gockley’s immediate predecessor, the somewhat demonized Pamela Rosenberg, and Gockley’s second full (2007-08) season, I have noted an unexpectedly sharp turnaround in what I would regard as the quality of performances, evident in the Summer and Fall seasons of 2007.

Some of the credit for the new level of success has to be shared with the departing Musical Director Donald Runnicles, an obvious favorite of this website (as is his announced successor, Nicola Luisotti), and Rosenberg herself, who had to approve some of the productions and to have contracted for some of the casts that this website has praised.

But Gockley has demonstrated his determination to jettison whole productions that failed to meet his standards, and certainly to signal – with appropriate grace, but without much ambiguity – which productions he would not have brought to San Francisco.

However, with Rosenberg’s missteps part of the opera company’s recent past, he understood that a withdrawal from firm obligations can often create problems much more vexing than presenting a work he would just as soon not be doing or presenting a desirable work in a production he found to be suboptimal.

(I think if Rosenberg had not been so disdainful of her predecessor Lotfi Mansouri’s French repertoire choices for seasons when she was at the helm, her grace period in San Francisco would have been longer.)

[Below: General Ulysses Grant (Andrew Shore, left) accepts the surrender of General Robert E. Lee (Duane Croft, right); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Readers who follow my reviews of productions may have noticed that, although I provided “snap reviews” of a paragraph of so in length for all of San Francisco Opera’s 2007 productions, that, contrary to my custom, I have not yet posted longer reviews of the four Fall, 2007 productions that I rated “A+”: Glass’ “Appomattox”, Puccini’s “La Rondine” and “Madama Butterfly” and Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”.

Over the next few weeks, I will do so as the four parts of a series “The Remaking of San Francisco Opera”, and will offer the hypothesis that these four examples may be an indication of an emerging higher standard for performances at this important world center for opera.

The San Francisco Opera – of course, as part of its strategy to produce web-accessible documentary evidence of the quality of its production values – has been of great assistance to my arguments by reconstructing their website – – so as to produce performance excerpts of the operas to which my reviews relate.

The Emergence of the “Docu-Opera”

Although I posted a fairly extensive snap review of “Appomattox” on this website, and my colleague Tom followed with his own review (to the best of my knowledge the earliest review in time, either in print or on the web, that likened the opera to Prokofiev’s “War and Peace”), I have let a few weeks pass before I completed my longer essay on the opera.

Tom’s review uses the term “docu-opera” – surely an inevitable addition to our vocabulary, once the term docu-drama had made its way into the vernacular. I myself used the term to discuss operas about historic personages in 19th century operas in my recent review of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” at San Diego Opera, some of whose thoughts are reprised below. See  Jaho, Aldrich Triumph in San Diego “Maria Stuarda” – February 16, 2008.

For reasons not obvious, at least to me, there has been a remarkable interest in composing late 20th and early 21st century operas whose subject matter almost could be categorized as “current events”. Many of these operas seem to invite the docu-opera designation.

Some, such as Wallace’s “Harvey Milk” and Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” are stylizations of actual events, and to these the “docu-drama” label might easily stick. On the other hand, such works by Adams as “Nixon in China”, even though encompassing some historical source material, tend to portray actual historical figures in surreal and imaginary situations. Adams’ work might be considered part of the fantasy genre of Thomson’s “The Mother of Us All” (or to go back over a century earlier, the portrayal of Vasco da Gama in Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine”) than what I believe could fairly be called a docu-opera.

Most of the world’s operas, and certainly those that are performed often, are based on works of fiction. A very few could be considered as based on non-fictional subject matter, although opera being drama, in almost every case of an opera based on a non-fiction subject, the desirability of dramatic impact trumps historical accuracy.

I suspect Donizetti is the closest to a docu-opera composer that existed before the 20th century. The so-called Tudor Trilogy of “Anna Bolena” (1830), “Roberto Devereux” (1833) and “Maria Stuarda” (1835) abound in representations of historical figures. Their actions in the story line may not always be based on facts authenticated by the most rigorous of historical scholarship, but they are not wholly figments of imagination either.

Glass’ “Appomattox” as Documentary Opera

We will return to the theme of historical figures portrayed in opera in later postings on this website.  But there are obvious differences between Glass’ “Appomattox” and the 19th, 20th and 21st century operas mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, whether they are intended as somewhat realistic portraits or as historical fantasies.

Unlike the docu-operas by Donizetti, Verdi, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky (and the contemporary composers referenced above), Philip Glass and his librettist, Christopher Hampton, have organized “Appomattox” around the letters and other documentary evidence of the actual words spoken by each of the opera’s protagonists. One might compare it with the work of Ken Burns, the popular contemporary documentarian, whose films use the technique of having letters and writings from the past read by actors, while images are displayed to carefully selected music.

[Below: the Arkansas Brigade of black soldiers enters the defeated City of Richmond; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]

Glass’ and Hampton’s approach obviously differs fundamentally from Burns’ by having the words sung and acted in live performance and accompanied by a full orchestra, and the images staged as a panorama in a large theatre, but there are obvious, important parallels between how Burns’ “Civil War” and Glass’ “Appomattox” use source material. What emerges is an artistic endeavor that transcends the idea of historical drama.

“Appomattox” as “Documentary Message Opera”

Since I am attuned to the Aristotelian tradition of categorizing things, I have no problem in creating a new category of something that does not quite fit any existing category known to me.  For “Appomattox” I offer the term “documentary message opera”.

Below: General Robert E. Lee (Dwayne Croft), right, surrenders the Army of Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant (Andrew Shore); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Earlier, I alluded to the reason for the adjective “documentary”.  The words of the libretto are based on the contemporary correspondence and meeting notes of the Union and Confederacy leaders (President Lincoln, General Grant, General Lee), the written sentiments of their wives (Mrs Lincoln, Mrs Grant, Mrs Lee), and the press accounts of the capitulation of Richmond, Virginia to the Union.  It also moves forward in time with the written words of perpetrators and vicitims of violence through the agency of the Ku Klux Klan, and related events of the mid-20th century Civil Rights movement.

The assassination of Lincoln, and the emergence and domination in former Confederate states of such social forces as the Ku Klux Klan, delayed the chances for the reconciliation that Lincoln, Grant and Lee envisioned for a century. In a chilling epilogue to the opera, an unreconstructed racist, as of this date imprisoned but still alive, demonstrates that there are some people who would like to continue on a fight for revenge for the Confederacy’s defeat.

Much of Glass’ operatic output has been associated with the appreciation of the lives of “Great Men” – Einstein, Gandhi, Aknetan. Glass was raised in Baltimore, a city that lay just outside of the Old Confederacy.  He related to the impact that reading the proceedings on the surrender of General Lee’s Army of Virginia had on him personally.  He decided to use the medium in which he expresses his ideas – opera – about what happened in 1865 in the town of Appomattox Court House. The opera would highlight the grace and honor with which Generals Lee and Grant and President Lincoln dealt with one another, as they approached the subject of how to put a war-torn nation back together. It would also deal with the destructive consequences that began with the assassination of Lincoln.

As with Burns’ documentary films, we are introduced to people, their emotions and their ideas. Once introduced, references to them recur throughout the opera.

The curtain rises on a black seamstress, whom we learn is Elizabeth Keckley (played by Kendall Gladen) a companion of the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln,  in a black dress against an orange background.  Carts containing severed limbs and other body parts of dead soldiers are emptied into open graves.  A chorus of widows in mourning clothes carry framed portraits of their deceased husbands and sons.

[Below: Kendall Gladen (left) is Elizabeth Keckley and Heidi Melton (right) is Mary Todd Lincoln; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Mrs Grant relates her husband’s biography, as the General, seen by us through a window inset in a wall, works at his desk.  Soon we become aware of the image of defeated Richmond, where dead horses are hung from heights above the stage, and refugee men and women carry their remaining possessions up or down a gangplank.

[Below: the defeated Richmond.  Note the horse carcasses hanging.  Edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Freed slaves express their joy at the arrival of President Lincoln; the First Arkansas Battalion of colored soldiers stands at present arms on the gangplank.  A spiritual is sung as a black reporter, T. Morris Chester (played by Noah Stewart) enthusiastically takes notes.

The flood of images continue. The citizens of Richmond, who have destroyed the town themselves to prevent it from falling into the Union’s hands, sing softly as the town continues to be shelled.  In a corner there are twisted objects of metal.  A running boy is shot.  A woman in mourning is carrying a confederate flag.  Pictures of servicemen are attached to a wall, above which is written “Sic Semper Tyrannis”.

Then a small house in the town of Appomattox Court House, which was chosen as the site for General Lee to surrender to General Grant, is at center stage.  General Grant writes out his required terms for the surrender, which he modifies to accommodate the persuasive suggestions of General Lee. The civility between the two Generals is impressive, but that civility is juxtaposed with the funeral cortege of President Lincoln, assassinated just five days later.  Souvenir hunters ransack the house where the surrender was signed. A modern day segregationist in a wheelchair, named Edgar Ray Killen, gives a chilling and unrelentingly defiant speech.

[Below: Philip Skinner as Edgar Ray Killen; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The large cast performed impressively.  In addition to the Generals, played by Shore and Croft, the reporter Chester, played by Stewart, and the racist Killen, played by Phillip Skinner, starring performances must be cited by Rhoslyn Jones (Julia Dent Grant), Elza van den Heever (Mary Custis Lee) and Heidi Melton (Mary Todd Lincoln).  Jeremy Galyon was excellent as Abraham Lincoln.  Chad Shelton was Brigadier General Edward Alexander.

Although I was raised in California from the primary grades on, I was born in a hospital 26 miles from the little town of Appomattox Court House, and am a descendent of the generations of my family who lived in areas that border Appomattox County. So I am a person with whom the opera’s message resonates. Forces committed to revenge were in the ascendancy for decades, but the Civil Rights movement and its consequences brought sufficient change to begin again to address the subject of reconciliation.

As disturbing as Killen’s racist monologue near the opera’s final curtain, I have the sense that sentiments that less than 50 years ago would have had a measure of support in some communities, are pretty well discredited in this new millenium. I do not think that there are many communities in the states of the Old Confederacy, where recalcitrants would not find themselves in a great deal of trouble if they tried to express something like Killen’s racist ideas publicly, much less do anything to act upon them.

I am sure there are readers who might disagree with these observations, but even they may concede that if you look at the American South from the longer perspective of history, the forces of revenge  around whom Glass and Hampton constructed their opera, are becoming less and less powerful.

I rather think the creators of the “message” in this opera would be satisfied if we reach a point (hopefully quite soon) at which the subject of the opera is regarded as pure “history” with no element whatsoever of “current events”.

At such a point, there may be some who want to revisit details of the “message”. I know many people, including those in casts and crews producing the opera, wince at the raw, racist language that you normally have to go to rap concerts, rather than opera houses, to hear sung.

I am not one to promote the bowdlerization of libretti, particularly for an opera whose performance I rated an “A+”, but I cannot doubt that it has crossed the mind of some would-be producers of the opera to nip and tuck here and there at this or that phrase.

Having commented on the adjectives “documentary” and “message” in my newly named category for this piece, let me comment on “Appomattox” as an opera.  I wrote in my snap review that there were some elements of it that I could characterize as Wagnerian in scope.  Glass, of course, does not approach the construction of the opera in the same way as does Wagner, but there are some similarities that I noted before that should be repeated.

To me the most obvious parallel to Wagner’s operas is the use of a much larger orchestra than is associated with many 20th and 21st century works, which results at times in a “wall of sound” – to borrow a term from the history of rock. Add to this a full chorus, and the required use of the War Memorial Opera House’s vast stage, and you are approaching an opera of the size and complexity of one of Wagner’s or Richard Strauss’. Additionally, in an opera based on written documents, the incorporation from time to time of actual contemporary musical phrases, lends additional authenticity to the endeavor.

What is to be the future of this opera? The San Francisco Opera production obviously will tour various companies over the next several years. I think that history will judge it to be an impressive piece, and, that, even if it does not become part of the core repertory of contemporary works (and it may very well hold its own among 21st century operas), it will be deemed revivable periodically.  I do think it points the way to new techniques in opera composition, and that Glass and Hampton will inspire masterpieces to come.  (One notes that Verdi was older than Glass is now, when he wrote “Otello” and “Falstaff”, so it is not inconceivable that Glass may yet write the Great American Opera.)

I also believe that it might be regarded as a watershed event in the San Francisco Opera’s efforts to promote the composition of contemporary operas of lasting importance.  There have been operatic world premieres in San Francisco, but, in my opinion, this “Appomattox” is arguably a cut above anything else from the 20th or 21st centuries whose first performances occurred there.

The complexity and size of the piece is one that possibly could have been successfully launched by only the greatest of opera companies – those that have invested in a full-sized standing professional orchestra and chorus, that have depth of musical and artistic staff and the technical capacity to stage such a work.  San Francisco Opera did so with spectacular success.

Last June, I suggested that San Francisco Opera should be recognized as a Center of Excellence for performances of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”.  I believe it deserves that distinction for “Appomattox” as well. Clearly, the generally quite positive reception to the new opera has cheered David Gockley and his administration. The opera has been included in the list of some quite spectacular 2007 San Francisco Opera performances that were recorded for later cinemacasts in movie theaters and, one would expect, eventually for commercial DVDs.

More than anything else “Appomattox” has proved that the San Francisco Opera, under the leadership of David Gockley, now has the capacity to produce a new operatic master work in a production of world significance, and in late career, Philip Glass, whose earlier works appear to be withstanding the test of time, seems to be at the top of his game.