Historical Performances: Leontyne Price, Sandor Konya in “Madama Butterfly”: San Francisco Opera, September 28, 1961

Note from William: This post continues my series of observances of historic performances that I attended at San Francisco Opera during the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler. This is the second of six such observances of performances from the company’s 1961 Fall season.

As a college Freshman, who had been hooked on opera since junior high school, I spent a portion of my college funds to obtain an Orchestra section subscription for the Thursday night series of the San Francisco Opera. My second subscription performance was Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” that I had already seen the San Francisco Opera perform, although five years earlier with Dorothy Kirsten, Giuseppe Campora, Margaret Roggero and Louis Quilico, at the Fox Theater in San Diego when the San Francisco Opera used to tour Southern California. (See Historical Performances: “Madama Butterfly” with Kirsten, Campora, Quilico, Roggero – San Francisco Opera in San Diego, November 1, 1956).

This was my first in what would be many opportunities to see Leontyne Price in live performance. I have previously described her as one of three sopranos (along with Leyla Gencer and Leonie Rysanek)  who stepped in famously to save San Francisco Opera’s 1957 season after Maria Callas was fired for failling to show up in the United States for the scheduled rehearsals for the Opera’s opening night. This proved to be a major stepping stone to Price’s international career (see Young Leontyne’s 1957 S. F. Opera Debut Season: A Supernova is Born.)

[Below: Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (Sandor Konya) is pleased finally to be alone with Cio Cio San (Leontyne Price); edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Had casting considerations worked out, I might have first seen Price four years earlier in the title role of Verdi’s “Aida” in San Diego. The reasons why this might have been demonstrates how different casting for opera performance at major opera houses is now than 54 years ago. Since one of Callas’ commitments was a performance of the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Fox Theater in San Diego, and since the unknown Gencer was scheduled to sing Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Fox the previous week, there was concern that having a “non-star” like Gencer sing both Violetta and Lucia for the only two performances in an important tour city would not go over well with San Diegans (nor sell enough tickets).

The solution was to replace “Lucia” with Verdi’s “Aida” (See Historical Performances: Callas Fired, An Opera Changed – San Francisco Opera’s “Aida” at San Diego’s Fox Theater, November 7, 1957). But of the two available Aidas on the tour, Leontyne Price was an unknown, whereas Herva Nelli was the soprano star of the Toscanini complete recordings of Verdi’s “Otello” and “Requiem”, so Nelli was given the San Diego assignment. In hindsight, of course, either the Gencer Violetta/Gencer Lucia or the Gencer Violetta/Price Aida would have given San Diego performances of historical significance back to back. (I saw Gencer in both her roles that season, by traveling to Los Angeles where the San Francisco Opera company tour performed all the season’s operas to see her Lucia.)

[Below: Leontyne Price as Cio Cio San at the Metropolitan Opera; resized image of a Louis Melancon photograph, from www.nytimes.com.]

That Thursday night “Butterfly” was the second of the only two performances of the opera at the War Memorial that season, and those two performances were the only times that Price sang the role of Cio-Cio San in San Francisco.

I found the performance riveting. Paradoxically, although the character is 16 years old, this is not a part for teenagers to perform. The soprano portraying her must have a large, mature voice and Price’s in the 1960s had achieved its full maturity.

However, this was not one of the roles on which her performance reputation is based. The San Francisco Opera a half century ago was one of the opera companies where singers and their recordings influenced the season’s repertory – sometimes to give an artist performance experience before the recording was made, but more usually to promote the artist’s new recordings in the San Francisco Bay Area (and of course, Los Angeles and the other tour cities). Price’s appearance in San Francisco’s “Butterfly” coincided with the RCA Victor recording of the opera, which provides a studio quality documentary of her vocal sound at the time I saw her.

Her Pinkerton, the Hungarian tenor Sandor Konya (who lived his life elsewhere in Europe, rather than behind the Iron Curtain in the country of his birth), himself had a major studio recording in the title role of “Lohengrin”, but, otherwise, he is regrettably under-recorded. His large spinto voice and luxurious legato fit nicely with the War Memorial Opera House acoustics.

[Below: Sandor Konya as Pinkerton; resized image of an historic photograph.]

I had seen Konya twice before – as Dick Johnson in Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West” (Historical Performances: Dorothy Kirsten Rides High in “Girl of the Golden West” – San Francisco Opera, October 1, 1960) and the title role of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” (Historical Performances: Sandor Konya, Irene Dalis in “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 27, 1960) – at the War Memorial Opera House the previous season, and was to see him several times since.

Konya was one of the most ubiquitous of San Francisco’s lead tenors in the first half of the 1960s, but then became a regular at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, and sang only one performnce in San Francisco afterwards. But that one performance  (in which he substituted for an indisposed tenor), was a 1974 Pinkerton to Pilar Lorengar’s Butterfly. I had the good fortune to see that performance, from the first row, sitting just to the left of the conductor, Kurt Herbert Adler, who was also the conductor for Price and Konya in 1962.

The other principals were Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Mildred Miller (Suzuki) and Croatian baritone Vladimir Ruzdak, the latter described by San Francisco Opera historian and this website’s guest contributor Arthur Bloomfield as possessing a “big, open, Italianate sound”. This was the only season that either artist sang with the San Francisco Opera. Although each sang three roles in the season, I saw each of them only this once.

By the end of the 20th century “Madama Butterfly” was the hands down most popular opera written in that century. With a tenth of the 21st behind us, the opera seems to be increasing in popularity – and, judging from such studies as Julian Budden’s authoritative analysis of all of Puccini’s operas, at last also in critical respect.

The changes between 1961 and 2011 in performance style for “Butterfly” were not as dramatic as for “Boris Godunov” which I had seen the week before. However, the 20th century preference for the three act verson of “Butterfly” has given way in all of the opera houses I have attended this century to a two act version. There are a couple of alternatives from the original and the three revisions that Puccini composed, as how to perform the opera in two acts. Either way, the two act version allows the audience to experience Butterfly’s all night vigil waiting for Pinkerton’s ship, without the interruption of a half-hour intermission midway.

Apres l’opera

I confess to not being an opera goer who looks forward to going backstage to greet the artists. It never really appealed to me, after an exhilirating performance, to just stand around in the backstage area for what can be a considerable time waiting for exhausted artists to get out of their costumes and take off their makeup, so they can exchange pleasantries with those few of their fans able to get past the stage door.

However, at the “Boris Godunov” performance the week before (see Historical Performances: An American “Boris Godunov” Starring Tozzi and Dalis – San Francisco Opera, September 21, 1961), I had gotten into a discussion with an elderly gentleman, a Mr Fisher, one of the War Memorial’s doormen, whose duties were confined to those allowing those people who had already entered the opera house, to leave momentarily for whatever purpose. Since there was little for him to do, he loved to talk to me about opera. He continued the conversations before and during the “Butterfly” performance intermissions. Then he said to me, “If you don’t have to get back to your dorm right away, I’ll take you backstage to meet Leontyne Price”.

So, this doorman, who seemed to have powers that exceeded all other such functionaries I have met since, at opera’s end took me through one of the doors from the opera house’s main lobby to the backstage area. We ran into conductor Francesco Molinari-Pradelli and Mr Fisher said to me, have Maestro sign your program. Molinari-Pradelli leafed through it until he found the notice that he was conducting the new production of Verdi’s “Nabucco” and signed with a flourish. Then Mr Fisher introduced me to Kurt Herbert Adler, who also signed the program.

Then a group of about eight of us waited at Miss Price’s dressing room door until she opened it and greeted us and autographed our programs. One of the party said, “Miss Price, I must commend you for your stoic performance”. She replied  in her charming Mississippi accent. “Oh, I save the crawling around for Scala” (pronouncing Scala with the short “a” as in “scalper”).

That’s my report about a performance of “Madama Butterfly”, that I attended as a college Freshman, 50  years ago. As I write this, I am looking at that 1961 “Butterfly” program with those autographs from Leontyne Price and the Maestri Adler and Molinari-Pradelli, and remember that this all came about simply from striking up a conversation about opera with Mr Fisher, who guarded the only door at the War Memorial Opera House that patrons in 1961 were allowed to exit and then re-enter.