Historical Performances: Dorothy Kirsten Leads “Butterfly” Cast for San Francisco Opera’s New Production, November 13, 1966

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 eleventh of fourteen such observances of performances from the company’s 1966 Fall season. 

A few hours after attending a Saturday night performance of Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” I was back at the War Memorial Opera House for a new production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”. This was the fourth of five performances of the Puccini masterpiece, and the first performance in which Dorothy Kirsten assumed the title role and Janis Martin that of her servant and companion, Suzuki.

Dorothy Kirsten’s Cio-Cio San

Few mid-20th century sopranos had a greater association with the Italian verismo operatic repertory than Dorothy Kirsten, whose attractive spinto voice and superb acting ability were ideal for realizing the melodramatic power of the operas of Puccini and his contemporaries. Ten years earlier she had sung Butterfly in the first live performance of a Puccini opera I had ever experienced [Historical Performances: “Madama Butterfly” with Kirsten, Campora, Quilico, Roggero – San Francisco Opera in San Diego, November 1, 1956.]

Over the previous half-decade, Kirsten introduced me to the principal soprano roles of Minnie [Historical Performances: Dorothy Kirsten Rides High in “Girl of the Golden West” – San Francisco Opera, October 1, 1960] and Fiora [Historical Performances: Kirsten, Campora, Wolansky, Ghiuselev in San Francisco Opera’s Last 20th Century Performance of Montemezzi’s “L’Amore dei Tre Re” – October 15, 1966] and she was also in the subsequent San Francisco Opera season to be my first Manon Lescaut, in Puccini’s operatic version of the Abbé Prévost’s groundbreaking novel.

[Below: Dorothy Kirsten as Cio-Cio San; edited image of a publicity photograph.]

Except for a performance of an English language version of Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” [Historical Performances: “Queen of Spades” with McCracken, Kirsten, Resnik – San Francisco Opera, October 5, 1963] I had only seen Kirsten perform in verismo operas of Puccini and Montemezzi, although never as either Mimi or Tosca, two of the most famous Puccini principal soprano roles.

It turned out later to have been worth the wait for a Kirsten Mimi and Tosca. Three seasons later in “La Boheme”, I would see her perform Mimi to the Rodolfo of Luciano Pavarotti (not the performance in which an earthquake added to the excitement of the pairing of Pavarotti and Kirsten). The season after that I would see Kirsten perform the title role of “Tosca” to the Mario Cavaradossi of Placido Domingo in a performance conducted by Maestro James Levine. That “Tosca” performance was an especially momentous event, with the audience invited to remain for a ceremony in which Kirsten was awarded the first San Francisco Opera Medal, whose objective was to recognize artistry and service to the San Francisco Opera, created tobe the highest honor to be bestowed by the company.

I was fortunate to see Kirsten in live performances in the decades of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, opposite such distinguished tenors as Giuseppe Campora, Sandor Konya, James McCracken (and later) Robert Ilosfalvy, Pavarotti and Domingo.

Ottavio Garaventa’s B. F. Pinkerton Janis Martin’s Suzuki, Chester Ludgin’s Sharpless and Other Cast Members

Kirsten’s Pinkerton was Italian tenor Ottavio Garaventa, a physically handsome and dramatically persuasive Pinkerton, even though vocally, I would not rank Garaventa high on the list of the extraordinary tenors that I saw and heard perform with Kirsten. I reported on Garaventa’s Duke of Mantua the previous weekend [Historical Performances: A Pleasing “Rigoletto” From Chester Ludgin, Lee Venora, Ottavio Garaventa and Janis Martin, San Francisco Opera, November 5, 1966] and would see him as Fenton the next weekend.

[Below: Italian tenor Ottavio Garaventa; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]

The other two “Rigoletto” cast members also performing in “Butterfly” – California soprano Janis Martin as Suzuki and New York bass-baritone Chester Ludgin as Sharpless – were, with Kirsten, the standouts among the principal cast members.

Martin, emerging as one of the most significant graduates of the now nine-year old Merola Young Artists program, had several significant assignments that season, including Marina [Historical Performances: “Boris Godunov” – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 1966] and Venus [Historical Performances: Jess Thomas’ “Tannhäuser” with Régine Crespin, Janis Martin and Thomas Stewart – San Francisco Opera, October 22, 1966].

Martin’s career trajectory would continue to ascend (as did the upper range of her voice). Forty-three years after her Merola Young Artists summer, her San Francisco Opera career culminated in 1990 performances of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” in which Martin sang the role of Brünnhilde in “Die Walküre”, “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung “.

1966 proved to be the Ludgin’s most successful San Francisco Opera season, powered by stirring performances in leading roles as Boris Godounov and Rigoletto, a major comprimario assignment as the Grand Inquisitor in “Don Carlo” and (occuring the next weekend) the role of Baron Prus in the American premiere of Janacek’s “Vec Makropulos”. Ludgin was a beautifully sounding Sharpless, a character rewarded with some of Puccini’s wonderful music for baritone.

The remaining six members of the cast were drawn from the company artists who, over the years, were assigned the smaller and comprimario roles. Howard Fried was Goro and Robert Glover was Prince Yamadori. Adib Fazah was the Imperial Commissioner, Colin Harvey the Registrar and Clifford Grant the Bonze. Carol Kirkatrick was Kate Pinkerton.

Nathaniel Merrilll’s Production and Toni Businger’s Scenic Designs

San Francisco Opera’s General Director Kurt Herbert Adler persuaded 39 year old American director Nathaniel Merrill, himself engaged in important assignments for the New York Metropolitan Opera’s new opera house in Lincoln Center, to create a new production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” for the company.

[Below: Director Nathaniel Merrill; edited image of a production photograph.]

For the scenic design, Merrill engaged the Swiss designer Toni Businger. Although respected by this contributions to important Central European houses, Businger’s successes in San Francisco (in particular the 1967 season’s “Magic Flute”) were giant milestones for Businger’s international reputation. The Merrill-Businger “Madama Butterfly” would be revived by the company in its 1969, 1971 and 1976 seasons.

[Below: the entrance of Cio-cio San and her entourage into the wedding ceremony; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Maestro Francesco Molinari-Pradelli and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Throughout the first six San Francisco Opera seasons of the 1960’s, Maestro Francesco Molinari-Pradelli had been omnipresent in conducting the company’s Italian repertory. It was hard to imagine who would replace him should there come a time when he was no longer available. As it turned out there be only one more opera – after this “Butterfly” – that I would see him conduct: the next Sunday’s matinee performance of Verdi’s “Falstaff”.

I will pay tribute Molinari-Pradelli in my account of that performance. Between his “Butterfly” and “Falstaff”, I would revel in an entirely different experience, my first chance to hear a Janacek opera, in the American stage premiere of the Czech composer’s “Vec Makropulos”..