Conversation with Dr. Peter Lee on the origin of the Term “Opera Warhorse”

The following conversation. discussing the new “operawarhorses.com” website took place between myself and Peter V. Lee, MD of the University of Southern California.

November, 2005

PVL: “Bill, It’s a great start. . . .  Did you realize that “warhorse” in this sense [an often-performed opera] was first used only in 1947, by Alfred Einstein, in Music in the Romantic Era?

We’ll be at the SFO this weekend for the Sunday afternoon “Norma”, unfortunately no longer first row, center, but there with my daughter & son-in-law, nonetheless. . . Best wishes, Peter”

[Below: Musicologist Alfred Einstein (1880-1952), to whom is attributed the earliest use of the term “warhorse” to describe the most often performed operas in the operatic “standard repertory”; edited image of an historical photograph.]

Wm: Peter, it is my plan to comment on the quality of singers and all of the other factors of an operatic production, both retrospectively and contemporaneously. In fact, I plan to post my comments on the production of San Francisco opera’s “Norma” to which you refer.

PVL: Bill, The quote: from Alfred Einstein,, (W.W. Norton, 1947) p 209. “There is a whole series of operatic transcriptions — all pieces that are great technical war-horses.” According to the OED, the first (and literal) use of the term was in 1653; in 1837 the word first appeared in its figurative sense of an old soldier or veteran. Einstein was one of the dominant musicologists of his generation. Born in Germany in 1880 he left in 1933, when Hitler’s came to power, first to London, then to Italy. In 1939 he came to the US, where he taught at Smith College, from which he retired in 1950. His best known work was on Mozart; his 1945 (Translated by Mendel & Broder, Oxford UP,) is still considered authoritative – at least the musical part (he seems to have been rather misogynistic, as far as Mozart’s women were concerned.) He made many contributions to Mozart scholarship, including updating and improving the standard Kochel numbering system. He was particularly fond of “Idomeneo”, by the way – considered it a work of genius. You mentioned the Bay Area “-stein”, who I assume was Alfred Frankenstein, the revered music critic for the during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Non-San Franciscans remember Frankenstein primarily for his in describing the voice of Eileen Farrell: “Miss Farrell has a voice like some unparalleled phenomenon of nature. She is to singers what Niagara is to waterfalls.” But you knew this already. It is an interesting geographical coincidence that Einstein died in El Cerrito in 1952, and his daughter (I think) donated his library and his papers to the UC Berkeley Music Library.

Thanks for alerting me to your new site, Peter”

Thanks, Peter, for following up on an off-page communication from me, in which I asked for further information about your citation of Alfred Einstein’s reference to operatic “war-horses”. I had momentarily wondered if he was responsible for another quote, but then noticed that his date of death was too early. You are absolutely correct that the quotation I had in mind was one of Alfred Frankenstein’s.

By the way, I did an Internet search of Alfred Einstein and was amazed to find a reference to him among some factoids relating to the 1989 movie “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”, a teen-oriented movie that was supposed to take place in the San Dimas Mall (although actually filmed in Phoenix). A close student of that film noticed that reference was made to the scientist Alfred Einstein, and wondered if there was a hidden meaning in the substitution of the name of a musicologist for the great theoretical physicist. I will go with a slip of the tongue, or careless writing, unless additional furtive clues in the Excellent Adventure are disclosed.

Review: Two “Forza del Destinos”, Part 2 – San Francisco Opera, November 20, 2005

This is the second of two reviews of performances I attended a month apart of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino”, the first of which took place at the Zurich Oper [Reviews of Two “Forza del Destinos”, Part 1: Zurich Oper October 19, 2005]. In both cases I sat in the row behind the conductor, which in Zurich was Maestro Nello Santi and in San Francisco was Maestro Nicola Luisotti, the latter making his San Francisco Opera debut. Both of these Italian conductors have received glowing praise by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

[Below: Maestro Nicola Luisotti; resized image of a promotional photograph.]

That orchestra can be very demonstrative when they appreciate a conductor and feel that they have been led in a masterful performance. At the performance’s end (and sometimes at the end of an act), each instrumentalist who so desires expresses approbation using their instruments in a characteristic manner, such as the strings gesturing with their bows.

The entire orchestra can also politely sit as still as stones when a conductor has not been to their fancy. Rarely has their expressed enthusiasm appeared to be more nearly unanimous than with Santi (who has not performed in San Francisco for a few years) and Luisotti.

Previously, I reported on Zurich Oper’s director Nicolas Joel staging of Verdi’s “Forza del Destino”, whose sets were by designer Ezio Frigerio, conducted by Maestro Nello Santi. Even though the Zurich stage is smaller than San Francisco’s, I think Zurich Oper’s physical production would have been much better received in San Francisco than the last of the Euro-trickster productions (this one by Roland Aeschlimann) to be personally supervised by the departing General Manager Pamela Rosenberg. The strength of this “Forza” was the musical performance, led by debuting Maestro Nicola Luisotti.

Staging “Forza”, a la Aeschlimann

I suspect that in San Francisco everyone’s most vivid memory of Aeschlimann’s production will be the Hornachuelos scene. The curtain opened on a very long table, diagonally positioned and a group of persons at the inn in dark clothes, seeming to represent the appropriate time and place sitting around the table. Ah hah, I thought, they are going to play the scene straight to keep us off our guard.

No way! Who should appear than the pilgrims? (They, indeed, are called for by the libretto.) These, however, are not your typical pilgrims doing homage to Saint James, but rows and rows of crimson-hooded Inquisitor types, carrying Luke Skywalker-type light sabers, who arrive from downstage left, walk on top of the long table and leave upstage right.

Among the hooded guys are another group of pilgrims who are performing an over-the-top passion ritual, carrying crosses and flagellating themselves, exactly like we saw in Ponnelle’s 1976 San Francisco Opera production of “Cavalleria Rusticana”. But “Cav”, according to its libretto, does take place during a Sicilian Eastertide. Ponnelle’s concept can be reconciled and even defended there, but the idea need not be stolen and transported to the Hornachuelos inn.

[Below Left: Jill Grove as Preziosilla with camp followers.  Below Right: The final trio, from top to bottom, Orlin Anastassov (Guardiano), Vladimir Kuzmenko (Don Alvaro) and Andrea Gruber (Leonora). Edited images, based on Terrence McCarthy photographs, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Just when I thought the core idea of the production was some kind of muddled indictment of the excesses of Counter-Reformation Catholicism, in dances Preziosilla with a shocking reddish pink fright wig and patent leather raincoat, and sporting a bawdy, breasty bodice (in the words of my wife, a costume designed to offend all of the women in the audience).

This punk-rock time traveler incongruously falls to her knees, crosses herself, folds her hands in prayer, and joins the assembled 17th century citizens of the Spanish town in a hymn.

You will recall that Forza has an Italian war scene, and, of course, all of the soldiers had to be dressed in 21st century desert camouflage with gas masks, I suppose with the purpose of reminding us that Italy is one of those countries that begins with the letter “I”.

The cast was far better than the production. The major new voice was that of Vladimir Kuzmenko, the Don Alvaro, a true dramatic tenor with the vocal capacity that matches the War Memorial Opera House’s size. Andrea Gruber was a creditable Leonora, and Zeljko Lucic and Orlin Anastassov were interesting as Don Carlo and Guardiano.

Jill Grove, the Preziosilla, likely feels it is too early in her career path to permit herself to withdraw from a new production in an important house, rather than appear in a demeaning costume. Yet she showed she would be a vocally excellent Preziosilla in a friendlier production.

For the record, the costume designer, Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, admits to having designed the costumes for two other offbeat productions – the San Francisco Opera’s “Parsifal” of 2000 and “Der Fliegende Holländer” of 2004. California needs a “three strikes you are out” law that applies to costume design.

[Below: Fra Melitone (Lucas Meachem) tosses the remaining purple glitter in his stew-pot onto the ground; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera. ]

Lucas Meachem (whose star appears to be rising) played Fra Melitone entirely differently than tradition dictates. Renato Capecchi exemplified that tradition – a misanthropic Melitone with a short fuse. Meachem played him as he might a college fraternity president, whose chapter has some important role in an upcoming homecoming, whose college authorities are annoying him with bureaucratic expectations, and whose frat-boy workers fail to take his lectures on their obligations seriously, but this frat prez will never, at any cost, allow himself to seem uncool.

On balance, Aeschlimann is far kinder to the monks than to the other personae in the drama. His preposterous presentation of the pilgrims suggests that any restraint towards monks is not because of any sensibility to their station or their glorious music, but because the ceremony where the awakened monks assemble to induct Leonora into the monastery is just a lot of fun – with the monks on the march – to stage.

(I also have considered his playing the scene straight was simply the default position; whatever Aeschlimann may have intended originally – say, the arrival of Martians – proving to be too complex with so many choristers having to be moved around the stage.)

Since I was sitting in front row Orchestra, I was able to note a stage direction probably not visible in the back rows. There is a backstory in “Forza”, referred to only obliquely, that involves Father Cleto, the person whom we are told has sent Leonora to Padre Guardiano’s monastery. We learn from the libretto that there has been another woman sheltered by that monastery, who also had been disguised as a hermit.

[Below: Leonora (Andrea Gruber) in her hermitage at the crossbeam. Edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]

After Guardiano consents to allow Leonora in by the same means, she falls in supplication to him. When she is near him, he closes his eyes, tightly grabs the staff he has been holding and trembles. Is this the exemplification of a Guardiano weakness for women, with his efforts to keep himself in control physically visible? This is an interesting implication, and adds a bit of fascination to the hints that there is more to the Leonora-Cleto-Guardiano-Other Hermit Woman interrelationships than has been revealed to us.

Trashing Verdi: Carl Jung Made us Do It

But no need to worry about Guardiano and any issues he might have. This is San Francisco Opera doing Verdi in the Pamela Rosenberg era.

In the 2002-03 season, we were treated to Recorded Time’s worst production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, designed by John Conklin and staged by Brad Dalton, who inferred that if a libretto appears to be incongruous (which means they have agreed to the assignment of doing a production of a story they do not like), that the writings of Carl Jung suggest that the interconnectedness of all human experience transcends any individual story line, which means the production designer and stage director can ignore every part of the story and do whatever they wish.

In the 2005-06 season, we were treated to Recorded Time’s worst production of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino”, whose production designer (Aeschlimann) explained that if a libretto appears to be incongruous (which means that he has agreed to the assignment of doing a production of a story he does not like), that the writings of Carl Jung suggest that the interconnectedness of all human experience transcends any story line, which means the production designer and stage director can ignore every part of the story and do whatever they wish.

Pamela Rosenberg describes this as “Animating Opera”.

So, let’s create the final scene for “Forza”. Remember the grade school game “jacks” where girls and others would throw down these metal objects and pick them up while bouncing a ball? Why not have a giant stylized jack, shorn of a couple of its spikes, be Leonora’s hermitage? This would allow her to ascend or descend to or from the highest spike of the jack depending on the circumstances – singing her anthem “Pace pace mio dio” or getting stabbed offstage by Don Carlo or showing up for the final trio with Don Alvaro and Guardiano.

[Below: Participants in the final trio of “Forza del Destino are Leonora (Andrea Gruber), Don Alvaro (Vladimir Kuzmenko) and Padre Guardiano (Orlin Anasstasov);edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

(Earlier in the Act, Melitone has tossed the contents, represented by confetti, of the soup-pot from which he was feeding the hungry crowd, onto the ground. Leonora in the final scene falls prostrate on the glittering confetti, which we recall symbolizes food waste, so that it becomes encrusted onto her habit.)

I suspect that the “Forza” production designer would be very smug in his expectations that a resurrected Jung would be delighted with a production that focuses on the interconnected concepts of hooded pilgrims, desert-camouflaged soldiers in gas masks, a sexually-obsessed celibate, and a cross-dressing Spanish lady who lives alone in earth’s most avant-garde domicile? What force! What destiny!

As to whether Verdi would have liked the staging of “Forza del Destino”, the final new production supervised by Pamela Rosenberg, I believe that Verdi’s friends would have done everything possible to shield him from even hearing it described.

There may be some hope. The “Trovatore” production appears still to be owned by the Seattle Opera, so our interconnectedness with that chaotic experience presumably ceased two and a half years ago. As far as “Forza” goes, it is a bit wasteful to scrap a production after only one season, but San Francisco has done it before, and perhaps it can be sold to a European house.

Expanding 1955’s Standard Repertory

Fifty years ago, the Standard Opera Repertory was narrower than it is today. In the United States, impresarios such as Sir Rudolph Bing at the Metropolitan Opera and the newly empowered Kurt Herbert Adler at the San Francisco Opera set out to increase the number of operas that could be considered standard fare. And they succeeded.

[Below: Sir Rudolph Bing, on the January 15, 1951 cover of Time Magazine.]

At least one opera that was on the fringes of the repertory – Puccini’s “Turandot” – now firmly holds its place in the repertory’s center, and in many opera houses probably has more performances than “Aida” and “Faust”. Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” was virtually unknown in the United States, and now is performed often. A couple of older operas that had been performed reasonably often almost until the 1950s – Flotow’s “Martha” and Delibes’ “Lakmé” – appear to have faded into obscurity, and new productions of a couple of verismo operas – particularly Montemezzi’s “L’Amore dei Tre Re” – are almost non-existent.

The enrichment of the repertory has been of great advantage to partisans of Verdi’s operas. “Ballo in Maschera” and “Otello”, never in danger of being forgotten, are secure in the Repertory, as is “Simon Boccanegra”, “Forza del Destino”, Don Carlo” and “Falstaff”. Early Verdi is less a novelty than before. “Nabucco”, “Ernani”, “Luisa Miller” and “I Vespri Siciliani” rarely stay out of a major opera house’s repertory for an entire generation.

I recall a music teacher pronouncing in the 1950s that Wagner was “old hat”. In 2005 any opera house that announces they will perform a Wagnerian opera is almost certain of waiting lists for tickets. In 1955, it was still unusual for most opera houses to perform all four operas of “the Ring”, so that even confirmed Wagnerians had only sketchy ideas of all that was in “Götterdämmerung”. Yet, in the ensuing decades, all ten operas composed by Wagner from “Der fliegende Holländer” to “Parsifal” appear to achieved the eternity that Wotan had hoped for Valhalla. No other composer of multiple operas has their entire mature output secure in the Standard Repertory – not Mozart, not Verdi, not Puccini, not Richard Strauss.

[Below: San Francisco Opera’s General Director Kurt Herbert Adler; edited image of a publicity photograph.]

In 1955, it was still debated whether opera should be presented in the vernacular of the country. We would always get Russian opera translated into English. When Kurt H. Adler decided it was time for San Francisco to be introduced to Janacek’s operas we had “The Makropoulos Case” in English. Since this was the Cold War, and we did not have access to the stars of the Bolshoi and Kirov operas, nor to the Eastern European opera houses, this seemed logical at the time. So did the idea of native Italian speakers performing Italian operas and native German speakers performing German operas.

Of course, in World War II and the early postwar period, the political leanings of this or that German or Italian singer were scrutinized by opera house managements. (The existence of Vichy France also impacted the supply of French speaking singers.) San Francisco apparently forgave alleged trespasses or determined that certain singers were unfairly blamed for their war activities at an earlier date than the Met, and they did have some major international stars before New York did.

The big change from 1955 and earlier was the disconnect between native speakers and operas in their language. This was first noticed among the French speakers. Listen to how words are pronounced in French opera recordings with French casts from the first part of the 20th century, as opposed to recordings from the 1950s on. (As an extreme example, one can compare them with Joan Sutherland’s performance of Marguerite in “Faust”. She was able to achieve her extraordinary vocal techniques in part by simply dropping most of the consonants, so a cynic could say that it hardly matters what language she is singing.)

[Below: Soprano Joan Sutherland; resized image of a promotional photograph from about.com.]

One of the ways the Standard Repertory has expanded is the inclusion of more Russian and Eastern European works. Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godounoff” has had a hold on American audiences throughout the 20th century (even if performed in English or Italian), but Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and especially “Pikovaia Dama” (Queen of Spades) are now entrenched also. The biggest surprise of all is the addition of operas of Janacek, particularly “Katya Kabanova” and “Jenufa” to the group of operas that are performed often enough that they need not be called “novelties”.

Equally surprising is the expectation that young opera singers that wish to achieve world-class status should include Russian and Czech, in addition to Italian, German, French and English (the latter for Benjamin Britten’s operas and some others), as languages in which they are prepared to perform. Thus, a superior voice (especially if accompanied by superior acting abilities) trumps native proficiency in a language in deciding who should be cast as what.

The advent of vinyl, far easier to handle than 78 records, led to the long-play record, affectionately called the LP. And what is more long play than opera? Also, many of the record companies regarded their opera catalogues as prestigious, and often very profitable. Among the very earliest of RCA Victor’s “million selling” records, was Enrico Caruso’s Vesti la giubba from Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci”.

[Below: Opera patron Elvis Presley, whose rock hit records helped fund the classical music division of RCA Victor; edited image, based on a historical photograph, from glendaivey.com.]

I suspect, to a degree that few in the world of culture would agree with, that the disconnect between singers who are native speakers of a language and operas in that language, was accelerated by the profitability of Rock and Roll. RCA Victor, of course, had Elvis Presley and others, and the major companies that competed with RCA signed pacts with other rockers. As the rock money gushed in, the classical divisions benefited. Operatic divas and divos have captured the public imagination throughout the history of the Standard Repertory and earlier.

However, the 1950s also brought simultaneously television and the LP It also brought operatic voices to the attention of consumers of television and records. The phenomenon of Maria Callas, her supposed rivalry with Renata Tebaldi, the ascendency of Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland to stardom in the early 1960s, followed almost immediately by the emergence of Luciano Pavarotti and then Placido Domingo, were media events. The rockers churned out extreme profits for the record companies. Their classical labels signed each of these superstars and Sills, Caballe and Corelli and so on.

[Below: Soprano Maria Callas; resized image of a promotional photograph, from about.com.]

Callas explored the less familiar territory of such bel canto wonders as Bellini’s “I Puritani” and Tebaldi recorded Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur”, Catalani’s “La Wally” and Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West”. By the 1960s record companies were beginning to explore the lesser known works of the major operatic composers. One can now own at least one major studio production of the two dozen plus Verdi operas, and almost all of Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti.

Another major expansion of the repertory was the opening of all of the traditional cuts in the Standard Repertory operas, that stage directors, impresarios and probably also some of the singers themselves had established as conventions. (I never heard a tenor in live performance sing the repeat in “Di Quella Pira” from “Il Trovatore” until the 21st century.) Suddenly, we were treated in our LPs to parts of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” we had not heard performed before. It became prestigious for opera companies to restore the cuts.

It became the goal of recording companies to assemble “festival casts” – the most famous (and presumably the best) international stars for each role in their recordings, constrained, of course, by the exclusive recording contracts that most of the superstars signed. If Domingo, a native Spanish speaker, and Price, an English speaker from America’s South, were the leading dramatic tenor and dramatic soprano available to you, who would sell more records (and more tickets) than anyone else you can think of, what then would be the point of seeking a lesser known person for an Italian opera, simply on the criterion that they are native Italian speakers and have been trained in the nuances of the Italianate style?

[Below: Opera patrons Keith Richards, left, and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, whose rock hit records helped fund the classical music division of British Decca Records; edited mage, based on a historical photograph.]

This led to another factor not present in the 1940s – the development of an opera company’s schedule to accommodate the recent releases of a recording company. If Record Company A was promoting their recording of “Opera B” with Soprano C, Tenor D and Baritone E, why not coordinate availability of the stars (now wildly more popular than ever before due to their LPs and television appearances) to their newest recordings? You as an impresario were hoping to produce Operas F, G, and H with Soprano C and Tenor J, whom you regard as the very best casts imaginable for these three works. Soprano C, crucial to the project, informs you that she will only be singing Opera B (preferably with Tenor D and Baritone E) that year throughout the world, in cross-promotion with her record company. She will consent to Opera G two years hence, because she is scheduled to record it then. And Tenor J has his own ideas of what should be mounted for him.

Unquestionably, these factors described above, all have contributed to making the World of Opera in 2005, different in many ways from the World of Opera in 1955. The Standard Repertory is larger, to be sure. But a striking fact of the enlargement is that most of the expansion has been within the time period bracketed by “Le Nozze di Figaro” and “Turandot”. Everyone who talked about repertory expansion in 1955, assumed this meant new works that would catch the public’s attention and a growth of appreciation of post-Turandot (not a term anyone has ever used) fare.

My own guess is that Britten’s “Billy Budd” will continue to grow in popularity and is almost at a point where one can begin to predict that it will take its place in the Standard Repertory. There will be some productions of operas from the 1930s on that will sell out the small European opera theaters and perhaps even the large houses in the U. S. and elsewhere, if the number of performances is constrained. Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and “Death in Venice”, Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”, Berg’s “Wozzeck” and “Lulu”, Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress”, and operas of Prokofiev and Shostakovich have shown the ability to sustain some interest, and there are others that could and should be included in this list.

“Turandot” and “Lulu” were almost contemporaneous compositions, yet I forsee the popularity of “Turandot” accelerating and “Lulu” never catching up any ground on it. If anything, I would suspect that fewer people leaving a performance of “Turandot” utter the words “never again” than those leaving “Lulu”. My prediction is not meant to denigrate “Lulu” nor Berg’s music, but is my perception of the reaction of sizable parts of the opera-going public.

More later, William.

Historical Performances: Peerce, Albanese, Siepi and MacNeil in “Faust”, San Francisco Opera Fall Tour, San Diego, November 3, 1955

This is the first of ten observances of historic performances of the San Francisco Opera that I attended during the company’s annual tours of Southern California

On November 3, 1955, the San Francisco Opera performed Gounod’s “Faust” at the Fox Theater in San Diego.

[Below: New York tenor Jan Peerce in 1953; edited image, based on an historical photograph.]

The performance was no second-string pick-up cast, but included four of the most important operatic recording artists of the mid-20th century. Licia Albanese and Jan Peerce were international stars, both of whom recorded together with Arturo Toscanini.

[Below: Licia Albanese as Marguerite in the New York Metropolitan Opera’s 1943 production of Gounod’s “Faust”; edited image of an historical photograph.]

It was early in Cesare Siepi’s career and at the beginning of Cornell McNeil’s. But what I did not realize at the time is that the performance in San Diego brought together a cast that did not perform in this opera together in the either the San Francisco or Los Angeles portions of the San Francisco Opera’s 1955 season, and I think it was the only time ever that these stars performed together in the same opera.

[Below: Cesare Siepi and Licia Albanese at a Roma di Notte dinner; edited image, based on a photograph from www.richardmohr.com.]

It now is commonplace for the same cast to stay together for half a dozen to a dozen or more performances of a particular opera. But that was not the case in San Francisco in 1955. Consider the 1955 season schedules of the five principals that came together in the San Diego “Faust”:

Licia Albanese (Marguerite) performed in San Francisco September 30 and October 6 (Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni”), October 11 and 16 (Nedda in “I Pagliacci”) She participated in a San Francisco Opera gala performance in Pasadena on October 27 (Violetta in the second act of “La Traviata”), sang Marguerite in San Diego November 3 and then reprised Donna Anna in Los Angeles on November 5.

Jan Peerce (Faust) was with Albanese on September 30 and October 6 (Don Ottavio in “Don Giovanni”), then appeared in Southern California October 27 for the Pasadena gala (Duke of Mantua in Act II of “Rigoletto”), the single “Faust” on November 3 in San Diego and the November 5 Don Ottavio in Los Angeles.

[Below: Jan Peerce and Licia Albanese listed to a playback of their recording of Bizet’s “Carmen” for RCA Victor; edited image, based on a historical photograph, from www.richardmohr.com.]

Cesare Siepi (Mephistopheles) was Don Giovanni in San Francisco on September 30 and October 6, then joined the San Francisco Opera sojourn to Sacramento to perform his first Mephistopheles with the company October 9, singing it in San Francisco October 18, in Los Angeles, October 29 and in San Diego November 3. He reprised Don Giovanni in Los Angeles on November 5.

Cornell MacNeil (Valentine) debuted with the company September 17 as Escamillo in “Carmen”. He was Valentine October 8 in Sacramento, returning to San Francisco for Silvio in “I Pagliacci” on October 11 and Valentine on October 18, then to Los Angeles for Valentine on October 29 and Escamillo on November 2, to San Diego for Valentine the next day, and back in Los Angeles for Sharpless in “Madama Butterfly” on November 6, with a November 7 performance of Escamillo in Fresno.

Margaret Roggero (Siebel) did not appear in San Francisco at all that season, but arrived in San Diego for the “Faust” performance on November 3, followed by a single Suzuki in “Madama Butterfly” on November 6 in Los Angeles.

Although San Francisco audiences did see MacNeil’s Valentine and Siepi’s Mephistopheles, San Diego was the only city to see Albanese, Peerce and Roggero in a San Francisco Opera production of “Faust ” in 1955.

In today’s operatic world, for worse or better, the great voices do not show up at a single company to perform one or two performances each of several works. But from the standpoint of a novice opera-goer, this provided a wonderful opportunity to see world class singers in a variety of roles.

Let’s review the month of San Francisco Opera activities from the very special vantage point of my introduction to live performances of great singers in major roles.

Licia Albanese, then in her early 40s, was performing in her 13th season at the San Francisco Opera, and was to sing four more seasons with the opera company, but only three of them in San Francisco. She had performed on September 30 and October 6, 1955 in San Francisco as Donna Anna in a new production of “Don Giovanni” with Siepi as Don Giovanni and Peerce as Don Ottavio.

Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (who was to be my first Fiordiligi in “Cosi Fan Tutte” and Marschallin in “Der Rosenkavalier” as well as my first Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni”), performed the latter role. Rosanna Carteri and Lorenzo Alvary (my first Don Alfonso in “Cosi Fan Tutte”, Hunding in “Die Walkure”, Raimondo in “Lucia di Lammermoor” and One-Armed Man in “Die Frau ohne Schatten”) were respectively Zerlina and Leporello.

On October 11, Albanese performed Nedda in “I Pagliacci” with Robert Turrini (my first Gabriele Adorno in “Simon Boccanegra”) as Canio and Leonard Warren (my first Simon Boccanegra) as Tonio and MacNeil as Silvio. Albanese performed again October 16, but without either Warren or MacNeil.

Then the San Francisco Opera travelled to Southern California. Albanese, Peerce and MacNeil perfomed in a gala evening in Pasadena on October 27, where Albanese performed in a stand-alone second act of “La Traviata” and the two men likewise for the second act of “Rigoletto”. All three were next heard in the San Diego “Faust”.

MacNeil had debuted earlier in San Francisco (September 17) as Escamillo in “Carmen” with Nell Rankin (my first Dorabella in “Cosi Fan Tutte” and Fricka in “Die Walkure”) as Carmen and Richard Lewis (my first Ferrando in “Cosi Fan Tutte, Bacchus in “Ariadne auf Naxos”, Don Ottavio, Captain in “Wozzeck” and Captain Vere in “Billy Budd”) as Don Jose.

Jean Morel conducted both Carmen and Faust (including the San Diego performances). The night before the San Diego “Faust”, Morel was conducting “Carmen” in Los Angeles with MacNeil as Escamillo.

Siepi and MacNeil performed, respectively, their first Mephistopheles and Valentine in “Faust” as the San Francisco Opera traveled to Sacramento for the first “Faust” of the season, October 9 (without Albanese, Peerce or Roggero) and repeated those roles in San Francisco October 18 and in Los Angeles October 29.

Review: Opéra National de Paris: Très Magnifique “La Boheme” at the Bastille, October 21, 2005

We were in Paris for eight days, during every day of which the Opéra Bastille performed “La Boheme” with alternating casts. Although all the performances were sold out, the concierge at our hotel (the Park Hyatt – Paris Vendôme) was able to secure us very nice orchestra seats for the cast headed by the Rodolfo of Rolando Villazon. We had seen Villazon in October, 2004 as Alfredo in “La Traviata” at San Francisco Opera and I had seen him as Romeo with Anna Netrebko in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” in Los Angeles in February, 2005.

Obviously, Villazon and Netrebko, apart and together, are being heavily promoted. Their pictures were all over downtown Zurich heralding a joint scheduled concert performance there, and a new studio recording of “La Traviata” has been released starring the two of them.

Of the two tenors sharing the Paris “Bohemes”, Villazon had the premiere night and nine of the scheduled 17 performances. His Mimi for the night we attended was the Chilean soprano Angela Marambio. Franck Ferrari was the Marcello, Elena Semenova the Musetta, Jose Fardilha the Schaunard and Alexander Vinogradov the Colline.

[Below: Mimi (Angela Marambio) meets Rodolfo (Rolando Villazon); edited image, based on a photograph from a Metropolitan Opera production of “La Boheme”.]

I had felt Villazon’s voice was too light for the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, and, though it seemed just fine at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, I believed that the Opera Bastille’s size also challenged his voice. But he is an exciting actor, almost manic in the physicality he puts into expressing his ardor and pathos.

His supporting cast (it is Pavarotti who seems to have persuaded us that the tenor is the center of this opera) was uniformly good, although all were unknown to me before that evening. It would have been a pleasant evening musically, even if it were accompanied by one of the bizarre productions one now expects in much of Europe.

But the production, by Jonathan Miller, assisted by the “decors” of Dante Ferreti and the costumes of Gabriella Pescucci, was spectacular.

[Below: the Act I garret, inhabited by the Bohemians (here from a later year performance with Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolfo and Nicole Cabell as Mimi; edited image of a production photograph for the Opéra National de Paris.]

It was time-shifted, of course, to the 1930s, so that the apartment of the Bohemians could show a giant poster extolling a Jean Harlow movie and so that Musetta’s prewar outfit in the third act could be exhibited as a Jean Harlow character with shorter skirts and a more buxom top than we often see. But nothing that was done diminished the effectiveness of the story and the opera’s theatrical viability.

[Below: the Cafe Momus in Jonathan Miller’s production of “La Boheme”; resized image from an Opéra National de Paris photograph.]

What astonished us about the production was Act II, in the Cafe de Momus. In all previous productions I had seen, we see the cafe’s patrons from the outside point of view, observing those that choose to have their drinks and dinner in the sidewalk tables.

[Below: the Act III sets for Jonathan Miller’s production of “La Boheme”; edited image from an Opéra National de Paris photograph.]

 In the Paris production, we are inside the cafe.We can see activities occurring outside through the many window panes that constitute the cafe mid-stage, but most of the action takes place inside, even including Parpingnol’s hustling for the school-kids’ coins to buy his cheap toys.

No one doubts that La Boheme is an Italian opera, rather likely the most popular of all time. But it is about Parisians in Paris. The production of the Opera Bastille, even granting Miller’s non-Parisian roots, gives more of a feel of Parisian Bohemians, than anything I have ever experienced in an opera house.