An Opera Director’s Historical Perspective: A Conversation with Grischa Asagaroff, Part 2

This is the second part of a series of conversations with German director Grischa Asagaroff [See An Opera Director’s Historical Perspective: A Conversation with Grischa Asagaroff, Part 1]. It continues with a discussion of his work at the San Francisco Opera between the company’s 1980 and 1983 seasons and his close association with the productions of the late directors Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and Nikolaus Lehnhoff:

Wm: You returned to the San Francisco Opera for the Fall 1980 and Summer 1981 seasons,  when Kurt Herbert Adler was still its General Director. Your Fall 1980 assignment was as revival director for Nikolaus Lehnhoff’ss production of Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” with its impressive sets by Jörg Zimmermann,

[Below: Jörg Zimmermann’ sets for the Dyer’s Abode in Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s San Francisco Opera production of Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten”.]

The 1980 revival had a spectacular cast that included Leonie Rysanek’s Empress, James King’s Emperor, Ruth Hesse’s Nurse and Gerd Feldhoff’s Barak the Dyer. The biggest news of that revival was Birgit Nilsson as the Dyer’s Wife (a recent addition to her repertory). What was it like directing the revival of Lehnhoff’s “Frau” and working with Rysanek, King and Nilsson?

[Below: the Emperor (James King, left) and Empress (Leonie Rysanek, second from left) stand with the Dyer’s Wife (Birgit Nilsson, second from right) and the Dyer, Barak (Gerd Feldhoff, right); edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

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GA: Although I didn’t assist Nikolaus Lehnhoff for his first “Frau” in San Francisco in 1976, we did a new similar production in Düsseldorf together with Hildegard Behrens, Ursula Schröder-Feinen , Elizabeth Connell and Matti Kastu. Lehnhoff told me that I should direct the revival in San Francisco for him, because he had another new production elsewhere at the same time.

I was very excited and a bit nervous to work with these two amazing ladies, Rysanek and Nilsson, whom I admired since I started to watch operas. Rysanek had sung this production very often, as had King and Hesse, but Nilsson had performed this part only once before in Stockholm.

All the singers knew each other very well. It was a wonderful rehearsal time with no problems at all and great collaboration. This production was so unique and so right and the singers felt very comfortable from the first day. Our great conductor, Maestro Berislav Klobucar, was a fantastic help.

[Below: Leonie Rysanek as the Empress, attended by the Nurse (Ruth Hesse, behind, slightly right); edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

We had only one problem: the dressing room locations! Since in “Frau” the Empress and the Dyer’s Wife have several costume changes, the dressing rooms should be close to the stage! In the War Memorial Opera House’s onstage level there was only one dressing room on each side: stage right for the ladies and stage left for the men. Since we needed two stage level rooms for Rysanek and Nilsson, I had to ask Jimmy King to please use a dressing room on a different floor and to give his dressing room to Nilsson. He agreed immediately and the problem was solved.

[Below: the Dyer’s Wife (Birgit Nilsson, left) dons finery as the Empress (Leonie Rysanek, right) watches: edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Nilsson had brought her Stockholm costume with her, but it didn’t fit so well to our production. I persuaded her just to try on our costume once for the piano dress rehearsal. Our costume was so much sexier than hers that she loved it and bought it after the last performance for herself! Once again, I found out that to work with such great and most professional singers is so much easier than to work with less great ones who consider themselves big stars! This revival of “Frau” was one of the most successful and fascinating performances in my career and I never will forget it.

Wm: In June 1981, you were the Director for the first revival of Jean-Pierre Ponnellle’s celebrated 1973 production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”. Garbis Boyagian sang the title role for opening night, but Matteo Manuguerra performed the role for the remaining five performances. Peter Dvorsky was the Duca and Patricia Wise the Gilda. You had worked with Ponnelle previously. What was it like taking over a production that was so specifically Ponnelle’s vision of Verdi’s masterpiece?

GA: The cast was excellent and Manuguerra, especially, was an outstanding Rigoletto. Ponnelle had liked him a lot after he has worked with him as Tonio in “Pagliacci”

[Below: French baritone Matteo Manuguerra, here as Barnaba in a 1983 performance of Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda:; edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

GA: I had done Ponnelle’s new “Rigoletto” version with him in Düsseldorf in April 1976 with Guillermo Sarabia, Krisztina Láki and Maestro Alberto Erede, where it was a tremendous success. It was not difficult for me to do this revival in San Francisco, because I loved this production so much and had worked each year on it since 1976. In San Francisco, there have been only a few things done differently, which I easily could adjust.

[Below: Peter Dvorsky as the Duke of Mantua; edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Ponnelle’s concept was very clear. I kept it basically intact, with only very few discussions with singers about positions.

[Below: Patricia Wise as Gilda in the tree house apartment where she lived with her father; edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

One such example is the fact that Maddalena pushes Gilda into the dagger of Sparafucile. Another was the matter of the bed in Act II Scene II.

Wm: Ponnelle’s moving that scene from an antechamber in the Duke’s palace to his actual bedroom was one of his production’s most striking features. The Duke and Gilda are behind a curtain in a four-poster bed while Rigoletto and the courtiers wander through the bedroom.

[Below: the four-poster bed (below, center) in the Duke of Mantua’s erotically decorated bedroom er) into which the Duke’s courtiers deliver the kidnapped Gilda; edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Two years after the 1981 San Francisco performances we worked on a “Rigoletto” film on fantastic locations in Italy with Ingvar Wixell, Edita Gruberova and Luciano Pavarotti. I was co-director. It was one of my most exciting experiences ever. 

[Below: the Deutsche Grammophon DVD of the “Rigoletto” film of which Ponnelle was director and Asagaroff co-director.]

Wm: Although Ponnelle’s “Rigoletto”emphasizes the “fantastic locations” to which you refer, rather than those that are limited by the size of the opera house stage, the film’s action incorporates such Ponnelle innovations as Maddalena’s role in Gilda’s death and the scene of Rigoletto and the cortigiani taking place in the Duke’s bedroom that you referred to above.

In Fall 1982, in the first fall season of the new General Director, Terrence McEwen, you were chosen to direct the second revival of another Ponnelle production,  that of his “Cenerentola”. Ponnelle had personally directed the San Francisco Opera premiere starring Teresa Berganza, and the first revival with Federica von Stade. 

Your Cenerentola was Marilyn Horne and your Ramiro was Mexican tenor Francisco Araiza in his United States debut. Paolo Montarsolo, who, to date, had sung Don Magnifico in all the previous San Francisco performances,  returned in that role, with Sesto Bruscantini as Dandini. What were your thoughts on that revival?

[Below: Franciscso Araiza as the Prince, Don Ramiro; edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

GA: I had done “Cenerentola” with Ponnelle in Düsseldorf 1973 and loved this production from the first moment on. I had several new casts in Düsseldorf in all those years and had done it alone 1978 in Zurich with Agnes Baltsa, Araiza and Marius Rintzler with Maestro Ralf Weikert conducting. It was my first work in Zurich and the beginning of my love affair with the Zurich Opera.

This role was not easy for Horne because the tessitura is far higher than Isabella in “L’Italiana”, but she managed it well and all had a great success together. Horne didn’t sing Cenerentola again afterward.

[Below: Marilyn Horne as Cenerentola; edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Wm: You had one other assignment that fall – stage director for Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”, with Mirella Freni and Ermanno Mauro, conducted by Maestro Maurizio Arena. This was one of my all-time favorite performances of that wonderful opera.

GA: I am still very thankful Terry McEwen gave me this fantastic opportunity for my own production of “Manon Lescaut” with Mirella Freni, one of the greatest singers, who would make her debut as Manon in my production! I was very nervous, because I had only seen Mirella in “Boheme” and “L’Elisir d”Amore”, but had never worked with her before. Ponnelle told me I should not worry, because Mirella is a wonderful woman and colleague, and that he had told her that she could trust me and my stage direction.

[Below: Mirella Freni in the title role of the 1983 San Francisco Opera production of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”; edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.

It was great that I knew the wonderful San Francisco Opera chorus after lot of productions and could prepare all chorus staging at home, because I had to complete the chorus and lighting rehearsals months before I would start with the soloist.

The chorus rehearsal was fantastic. We had all such fun with the stories I invented for them and I was very happy. The lighting rehearsals included Allen Charles Klein, the designer of the sets which came from the Florida Grand Opera. I only had seen the photos , but never had seen the Miami production on stage. With Allen’s assistance, I adjusted the sets for my production.

[Below: the sets, originally designed for the Florida Grand Opera by Allen Charles Klein, used for the Grischa Asagaroff production of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”; edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

I only had seen Manon Lescaut once in my life in Verona with Magda Olivero and Placido Domingo and fell in love with this opera . Now McEwen gave me an outstanding cast with Freni, Mauro, Sardinero and Capecchi and a wonderful conductor, Maurizio Arena.

The rehearsal time was incredibly fantastic, because we all worked together without any arguments and created a great production in a short time. The pre-rehearsed chorus staging fitted perfectly in. Maestro Arena scheduled many musical rehearsals and I was overwhelmed how he worked with those famous singers and got so many new colors out of the music.

I hardly have ever seen such musical rehearsals again. It was wonderful how Mirella played the young girl in Act 1 , the femme fatale in Act 2 and the broken woman in despair in the last Act .

[Below: Geronte (Renato Capecchi, right) enlists the Innkeeper (Roger Andrews, left) in his abduction plans; edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photographm courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

I knew from Ponnelle what fantastic actor was Capecchi and he was so right. I never saw a better Geronte. Also, Sardinero was the perfect sleazy brother of Manon.

Mauro was a singer with a fantastic strong voice. He was such a great guy and had such admiration for his colleagues. He did all to keep up with them also as actor and he survived perfectly. All gave their ever best in the parts and the audience felt this and was enthusiastic.

[Below: Ermanno Mauro as the Chevalier des Grieux; edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Wm: I was at the final performance on a Saturday night at which the audience ovation was one of the loudest and most sustained of any I experienced in my decades of attending the company’s performances. It included very loud foot-stomping, a rarity with San Francisco audiences

GA: The entire production gave us so much fun and the enormous success paid off for our work. Freni sung Manon very often afterwards in different productions, but she told me that mainly she kept our staging and ideas from San Francisco Opera. We became close friends and worked a lot together afterwards until she retired from performing. To have worked with her was always a highlight in my career.