Note from William: This post continues my series of observances of the 50 year anniversaries of the historic performances that I attended at San Francisco Opera during the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler. This is the observance of a performance from the company’s 1963 Spring Opera Theater season.
The origins of San Francisco Opera’s SPOT (Spring Opera Theater)
When I first started attending opera in San Francisco, another San Francisco Opera company, the Cosmopolitan, existed, funded almost in total by a single philanthropist. The existence of another opera company, especially one that would initiate bidding wars for the major opera stars, created stress for S. F. Opera’s General Director Kurt Herbert Adler.
Thus, when that single philanthropist, apparently on the advice of a mystic, suddenly withdrew his support for the Cosmo, the San Francisco Opera at last was unrivalled on its own turf. (My colleague, Arthur Bloomfield, in The San Francisco Opera 1922-1978, provides an instructive history of the Cosmopolitan Opera and its rivarly with the San Francisco Opera.)
Soon, surely in part to meet the Bay Area’s demand for opera, but just as surely to expand its presence before the forces behind the Cosmopolitan company regrouped, the San Francisco Opera created the Spring Opera Theater. Called by it acronym, SPOT, it was to perform a half dozen operas one or two times in April and May.
SPOT provided an opportunity for the performance of operas beyond the core repertory of the Fall season, with young American singers, a San Francisco equivalent of the Vienna Volksoper, although many Viennese might find the idea of a Volksoper-type company performing in the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House, to be a mind-stretching concept.
In fact, SPOT performed all of its operas at the War Memorial from 1961 through 1969.
[Below: the front curtain (the grand drape) of the War Memorial Opera House, in which the Spring Opera Theater performed during the 1960s; resized image of a promotional photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]
SPOT’s first season was in 1961. Although originally it had been thought it could use old productions from the San Francisco Opera warehouse, SPOT soon established a reputation for clever, light, often hip, productions, by the likes of Vincent Porcaro, whose “Magic Flute” and “Abduction from the Seraglio” were hits of the first season.
I first attended SPOT in 1963, at the War Memorial Opera House, for my first performance ever of Jacques Offenbach’s posthumous “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”, presented in the Ruth and Thomas Martin translation as “The Tales of Hoffmann”. This was Porcaro’s third production for SPOT, with Thomas L. Colangelo Jr as his production collaborator. Maestro Karl Kritz conducted.
This was my 25th opera and my 28th San Francisco Opera performance. Unlike most of the previous 27 performances, all by the main company, the cast was comprised of American artists, none of whom, at that time, had the reputation of being major label recording artists.
Robert Moulson’s Hoffman, Beverly Wolff’s Giulietta, Carol Toscano’s Olympia, Carol Todd’s Antonia and other Cast Members
The Hoffmann, Robert Moulson, who had achieved a European reputation (and was referred to by Bloomfield as “a Hoffmann of more than promise”), was an effective Hoffmann. Seven years later (at Seattle Opera) created the role of Lenny Small in Carlisle Floyd’s opera, “Of Mice and Men”.
[Below: A scene from Carlisle Floyd’s “Of Mice and Men” with Robert Moulson, left, as Lenny Small, with Julian Patrick, center, and Archie Drake, right; resized image of a 1970 Des Gates photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]
Perhaps the most familiar name in the cast was the Giulietta, Beverly Wolff, who had appeared in NBC Opera Theater productions of Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti” in 1952 and Menotti’s “Labyrinth” in 1962. She would record several important complete albums that starred Beverly Sills, and also recorded an album of Ned Rorem songs.
[Below: Mezzo-soprano Beverly Wolff as Sesto in the New York City Opera production of Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito; edited image of a production photograph for the New York City Opera.]
My most vivid memories of Wolff in a SPOT performance would be from three years later when she sang the title role of Douglas Moore’s opera “Carry Nation”. [See Historical Performances: Douglas Moore’s “Carry Nation” with Wolff, Faull, Smith and Fredricks – San Francisco Spring Opera, June 13, 1966.]
Two young sopranos, Pennsylvania’s Carol Toscano and California’s Carol Todd, whose SPOT debuts took place soon after the beginnings of their operatic career, were respectively Olympia and Antonia. The four Villains were played by bass-baritone Roderick Ristow. An artist who appeared with several regional opera companies, the two SPOT “Hoffmann” performances were Ristow’s only on stage experiences with the San Francisco Opera.
The performance, in the Martins translation, gave me a good introduction to the traditional way that “Hoffmann” was produced up until more recent times, when musicological scholarship has created editions that are much closer to the composer’s intentions.
After a season’s absence in 1970, SPOT moved its performances to the 1664 seat Curran Theater, a little over a mile away from the War Memorial near Union Square, and performed most of its opera productions there from 1971 to 1981. Since the Curran Theater itself is larger than many important European opera houses, even smaller venues were used for a few SPOT performances in the late 1970s.
All in all, SPOT, over the years, provided me my “firsts” for a sizable number of operas in the French and Italian repertory that, at that time, simply were not expected to be performed in the San Francisco Opera’s “main” season, even including Thomas’ “Mignon”.
Yet, the main 1963 San Francisco Opera season would have some Italian and French opera rarities as well, as I will discuss as this series continues.
For my review of a more recent performance in an edition closer to what Offenbach intended, see: Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010.