Monday, September 8, 2014

The Persians of Aeschylus Premieres at Getty Villa

Gian-Murray Gianino as Xerxes
Review by Rodney Punt

Despite the attempts of sane minds to stem the destructiveness of war, its eons-long sway, arising from human greed or grievance, seems to be eternal.

The oldest surviving play in western civilization, Aeschylus’ The Persians, clocking in at just shy of 2,500 years, has been trotted out each recent decade as a cautionary tale against hubris whenever the USA goes to war. It relates the disastrous campaign by the superior forces of Persia against the seemingly outnumbered Greeks in the naval battle of Salamis, where the Persian armada was routed at great loss of life.

Aeschylus, who had participated as a combatant in the wars he wrote about, was both generous and shrewd when he set his version of the story from the perspective of the defeated Persians, not the triumphant Greeks. Generous in that the grief and humiliation of an enemy was humanized; shrewd in that references in the play by Persians to Greek battle prowess come across as the grudging admiration of a foe, not the jingoistic bragging of a victor.

(The Greek city-states, by the way, were by no means all on speaking terms with each other; many were in fact allied with Persia.)

In the 1993 aftermath of the first Gulf War, Peter Sellars mounted a blaring, glaring, and unsparing production of the play for Edinburgh and Los Angeles (the latter at the Mark Taper Forum), where the shade of dead King Darius screamed his regrets over a loudspeaker. Later stagings in the style of 24-hour news-cycles shook up Edinburgh and New York after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. This month, as the American response to the rise of ISIS draws our country into another campaign in Iraq to bomb fanatics into obedience, the Getty Villa in California’s peaceful Pacific Palisades, hosts the New York-based SITI Company for the latest version of The Persians.

The company as the Chorus
Refreshingly retro under company co-artistic director Anne Bogart’s direction at its premiere last Wednesday, its stylized choreography, elegiac tone, and professional elocution emphasized reflection over gimmick, pathos over bombast, and precision over pretension. Forgoing the attention grabbing but ultimately ephemeral stage effects of recent outings, this one left an afterglow of emotive substance to ponder.

It wasn't perfect, but it was mighty good. The story unfolds more as an ensemble piece than as individual tours de force, though there were some of the latter. Principal players emerge from within the Chorus and then blend back into the ensemble when their moment is over.

With nine transparent orange curtains draped as backdrop between the columns of the Villa’s northwest façade, the actors emerged one by one from its entrance door and assumed sculpted positions, sometimes as if they were statues speaking. The highly disciplined SITI Company’s declamatory speech (in Aaron Poochigian’s skillful new translation of the play) combined with dance and music to evoke the feel of ancient ritualistic theater as it delivered its timely message.

The stage area was the tiled exterior floor space between the Villa’s wall and the theater’s semi-circular seating. Bogart choreographed her nine actors in geometric dances -- sometimes individualized, often in unison imitation -- to achieve drama and action around and within the dialogue. The quirky movements recalled those associated with primitive Asian peoples who over the millennia populated vast areas from Asia Minor eastward all the way to North America.

The Chorus of Persian Elders initially attempts to calm Queen Attossa of Persia’s apprehensions of disaster, and throughout the play comments on the eventual disaster’s significance. ("The Greeks serve no king.") The Queen fears for her son, Xerxes, who has led the Persians on the campaign against the Greeks that only the death of her late husband, King Darius, had prevented from his leading.

Will Bond (Messenger) & Ellen Lauren (Queen)
A threadbare Persian messenger (the willowy, bare-chested Will Bond, tied to an oar for an impossibly long interval) is the first to report the news to the Persian court. Returning General Xerxes (an emotionally wounded, nuanced Gian-Murray Gianino) then arrives in brocaded tatters and chronicles to his mother the armada’s disastrous defeat by the wily Greeks. ("Athens has killed our sons.") Having lost his initial encounter, the rash Xerxes ("popped up with pride," according to his mother, and as history suggests trying to outdo his father) had doubled down his forces in an attempt to gain victory, but only found further defeat and the near destruction of all his charges.

The Queen (in a powerful performance of human distress by Ellen Lauren) wails in her grief at the news ("So much for the odds"), but engages in damage control at court for fear that Xerxes could lose standing in the empire. ("The people will be free to speak what they want.") She is hardly consoled by further woeful regrets of her ghostly late husband, Darius (a sepulchral Stephen Duff Webber), who curses his reckless son and laments the destruction of all he had built during his lifetime.

The Persians is not so much drama – there is no real confrontation or conflict – as an extended ode of lamentation. In its unfolding in this production, the burden of forward momentum fell on the Chorus, whose songs and dances (the latter sometimes almost painterly abstractions) energetically interpret the sad revelations. Their sweep was not always in perfect sync with details of the narrative, but that is only to quibble with what was throughout always an engaging larger picture.

Ring and Chorus around Queen Attossa
In that regard, the costumes of Nephelie Andonyadis (modern men’s suits with the ladies in floor length dresses) created a feel of kindred time zones between the ancient world and today. An arresting flourish was the long gold train behind the Queen's dress, which configured later as an encircling corral of protection. Darron L. West’s sound-design of percussive noises, rattles, and bells reinforced the action with punch and a feel of timeless profundity. Composer Victor Zupanc’s minor-mode songs were less successful, seeming a tad too comfy Elizabethan England for a tragedy set in an exotic ancient Persia.

Xerxes couldn't have known it then, but his hubristic rush to war at Salamis may just have saved what we refer to today as western civilization. Now it's our turn to think twice before we act in wars heading the other way.


Incidental grouse: While the seating duration on the nicely cushioned cement bleachers was no Greek marathon, it was uncomfortable without a backrest for an intermission-challenged 90-minutes.

Photo credits:
1. Gian-Murray Gianino as Xerxes (center) in "Persians" by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa. © 2014 Craig Schwartz. 
2. The Chorus in "Persians" by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa. © 2014 Craig Schwartz. 
3. Will Bond as the Messenger in "Persians" by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa. © 2014 Craig Schwartz. 
4. SITI Company cast in "Persians" by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa. © 2014 Craig Schwartz. 

Review of Premiere on Wednesday, September 3, 2014, Getty Villa, Pacifica Palisades, California
Rodney Punt can be contacted at

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Pérez and Costello Heat Up San Diego Opera’s Stage

By Erica Miner

The “red hot” Ailyn Pérez-Stephen Costello duo, having been likened to rock star couples, rarely perform together, each having his or her own separate career in opera houses worldwide. That makes their first appearance here since 2011, in recital to inaugurate the “New” San Diego Opera at the Balboa Theatre, a rare thrill. 

Both singers have won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award (2009 for Costello and 2012 for Pérez), and their joint performance at the Tucker Gala in 2012 was broadcast nationwide. They each enjoy international careers in multiple roles at renowned opera houses in San Francisco, Munich, Vienna, London, La Scala, Salzburg, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York. At SDO, The real-life married couple debuted together in the 2010 production of Romeo and Juliet, and returned in Faust in 2011. Costello then revisited during that season in Der Rosenkavalier and again in 2013’s Daughter of the Regiment. Pérez is slated to star in the much-anticipated Jake Heggie opera that will premiere in 2016.

The duo’s performance here on Sept. 5, which kicked off their fall US recital tour to Washington, D.C., Dallas and Philadelphia, included highlights from their recently completed Love Duets CD. It also marked the first time SDO has presented a performance event at the Balboa Theatre. 

From their first meeting at Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts to their many stage appearances in the ensuing years, Pérez and Costello have been recapturing their love in the most beloved romantic opera repertoire. Both voices are, in a word, gorgeous, and together and separately filled every inch of the hall. Add to this the singers’ versatility, dramatic and comic flair, and clear affection for opera and for each other, and the result was a breathtaking performance from start to finish. 

Given the couple’s extensive background in musical theatre, it was not surprising that they included beloved popular Broadway show hits in the program, which ended with the goose bump-producing “One Hand, One Heart” and “Tonight” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and an exquisite rendering of “If I Loved You” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel as an encore. 

The singers’ operatic fare encompassed both standard and unusual repertoire, much of which is found on their recently released album. In a vocally stunning rendering of the impassioned duet from Verdi’s La Traviata, the heat sizzled between them at every touch and gaze. The delightful “Cherry Duet” from Mascagni’s charming but rarely heard L’Amico Fritz provided both singers an opportunity to make the most of their vocal beauty as well as their scintillating dramatic give and take. Their comic jousting, with suggestions of improvisation, in the popular Caro Elisir duet from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore was hilarious, and the epitome of entertainment for the delighted audience. 

Each artist also performed art songs and arias from great moments in operatic literature. Pérez sparkled in Je Suis Encore from Massenet’s Manon, charmingly portraying the coquettishness of the young heroine. In songs by Reynaldo Hahn, her shimmering voice and subtlety of tone kept the audience mesmerized. The highlight of her solo excerpts came with a panoply of de Falla songs, which ranged from glittering to smoky, spirited to introspective. Here she utilized the full spectrum of her dramatic talents, displaying vivacious Spanish temperament with every turn of phrase.

Costello’s vocal gifts were evident in each of his solo pieces. He expertly handled the complexities of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s brilliant, witty “Songs in Homage to Poulenc.” The range of emotion and high tessitura of Paolo Tosti’s three songs, which could defeat the most resolute tenor, proved to be no contest for Costello’s crystal clear, powerful tones. And Salut, Demeure from Gounod’s Faust, perhaps the most demanding tenor aria in all of French opera with its fiendish, almost sadistic high “C,” came off without a hitch. 

Pianist Danielle Orlando’s impressive resume includes coaching at major musical institutions in the US and abroad, accompanying many of the world’s best-loved opera stars, and contributing her expertise to young artist programs. She has been featured on some of the most prominent TV shows in the US. Her experience was evident in her sensitive, solid accompaniment in this performance, displaying her remarkable technique without undermining the captivating performances of the soloists. She was the next best thing to an orchestra, in fact, providing much more than support to her singers. Her roulades in the difficult de Falla songs leapt off the keyboard; she evoked the sublime violin solo in the Gounod as effectively as any pianist could do; and she knew exactly which voices to emphasize in the Bernstein excerpts. 

It is easy to see why Pérez and Costello are equally at home as the ill fated couple in a full production of La Traviata or singing love duets on a recital stage. Their chemistry is palpable, their commitment to their art is inspiring, and the sheer intensity of their vocal virtuosity is mind-blowing. Having professed their admiration for the determination and grit shown in SDO’s journey from near-closing to resurrection and a brand-new 50th anniversary season, their willingness to add their outstanding talent and shining presence to celebrate SDO’s entry into a new chapter with this remarkable event bodes well for the company’s future. 

The rescue of SDO has inspired awe and admiration from opera aficionados nationwide. Opera America president Mark Scorca has praised the company’s example of cutting costs, simplifying operations and leadership in bringing the company into the twenty-first century. As SDO Director of Education Nic Reveles and board president Carol Lazier pointed out in their brief speech to open the proceedings, other companies have tried and failed to accomplish what SDO has done with such passion and commitment in a few short months. 

This stunning performance in the company’s season-opening recital, in a more intimate and manageable venue than the Civic Theatre, shows great promise for the remainder of the season, and hopefully for the seasons to come. The audience left the theatre with strains of “If I Loved You” still hovering in the air. Clearly there is no “if” in the love that the city San Diego feels for our Opera. 

Subscriptions and single tickets for the rest of the 2014-15 SDO season performances can be purchased by calling (619) 533-7000 or online at

Photos by Molina used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

National Youth Orchestra in Spectacular Triumph at Disney Hall

National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, Carnegie Hall, New York
By Douglas Neslund

 “Ensemble” is a term used to describe a group of people performing together, but its more intimate meaning was made manifest courtesy of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute in the form of the 120-member National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America in their debut performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Ensemble, in French, means “together” and in the more original Latin, “all at the same time.” NYO brought new meaning to the term as they concluded an eight-concert, transcontinental tour. This ensemble could contrast favorably with more than a few professional orchestras.

David Robertson rehearsing with soloist Gil Shaham
Their conductor is (or was) David Robertson of Santa Monica, now in his ninth season as music director of the St. Louis Symphony and who recently added the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to his responsibilities. NYO and Maestro Robertson were a perfect paring. His enthusiasm for both the music and the kids required that he wear white running shoes (as did they) to sprint across the stage to the podium and once to take leave of his post to saunter away in dance. But lest that sound trite or “Hollywood” let it quickly be a metaphor for a man living in ecstasy, one shared with the large, grateful Disney Hall audience.

Maestro Robertson also created a repertoire that was a perfect rainbow from start to finish, designed probably to showcase the prodigious talents of his 16-19 year old high school players, but forming an arc beginning with Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and ending with the first encore of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

In the middle was one of the greater lesser-known gems of Benjamin Britten’s oeuvre, his Violin Concerto, Op. 15, with world-class soloist Gil Shaham taking partnering with orchestra to an even higher level, an absolute joy to experience. His music making through the extended cadenza was breath-stopping. 

Phrase-shaped deliciously delicate dynamics paired with precise attacks and releases were the rule throughout the evening.

Samuel Adams (b. 1985)
After intermission, a new work of only four minutes’ duration, commissioned for this AYO tour and dedicated to them by the composer, Samuel Carl Adams, who was in attendance and is the son of John Adams. Entitled “Radial Play,” the work’s foundation is texture, sound choirs competing with other sound choirs, instrumental intervals expanding and contracting within a scope of dynamics that explored the entire sonic range. This piece should form the kernel for a future major work. The 30-year old Oakland resident is obviously a composer to be noticed and followed.

The final piece in the two-hour-plus concert was Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The degree of achievement of this ensemble was revealed in exquisite detail and precision, as small orchestral elements are given their opportunities throughout, often in great exposure. Woodwinds only slightly bettered the brass choir in finesse with some fantastic solo playing. One can name just one, as soloists were not credited in the programme, but since Chad Lilley of Maryland was the only alto saxophonist, it was he who "sang" the bewitching Mussorgsky solo with gorgeous tone that easily filled Disney Hall.

One would have to guess the name of players performing exquisite trumpet and flute solos– flawlessly and utterly musically.

There are places in the several scores that would challenge the world’s most professional players, but no worries with the NYO/USA.

The impression deepens when one realizes this group gathered for just two weeks to prepare the tour! Los Angeles may have benefitted from being the final concert on the tour. As such, the concert was also the “grand finale” for seniors, as graduates are not permitted to continue the following summer. Half the orchestra stood when asked if this was their denouement. Most of the seniors played in the AYO’s inaugural season featuring a tour to Russia. Sixteen of the 2014 orchestra are Californians. Seventeen professional orchestra principals formed the faculty training these young people, including two from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra: Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet, and Whitney Crockett, principal bassoon. Extensive auditions are predicate to finding the very best talent. Competition to wear the red peg-leg jeans, white sneakers and blue jackets must be excruciatingly tough.

San Gabriel's own Nathan Kirchhoff and his bassoon
Next year’s ensemble will tour China under the baton of Charles Dutoit. One could wish for another Los Angeles appearance next summer as a jump-off performance. Word of mouth would certainly help to pack Disney Hall.


Photos courtesy of AYO and internet sources

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Thomas Hampson: An American Hero at Tanglewood

By Erica Miner 

 As an opera singer and interpreter of the lied repertoire, American native son Thomas Hampson has reached the pinnacle of accomplishment. However, few vocal performers of our day are as closely identified with American classical music as this renowned artist. On Friday, July 18, with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood under the baton of British conductor Edward Gardner, he demonstrated this affinity with great expertise in his performance of selections from Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs.

 Despite Copland’s urban upbringing, he brilliantly depicted the decidedly non-urban character of the American folk persona in many of his works. This much-loved set of songs is no exception. Originally written for voice and piano and ultimately rescored for voice and orchestra, Songs premiered in stages during the 1950s, and was performed by such vocal luminaries as Peter Pears and William Warfield. Hampson has reemphasized his commitment to Copland’s music, and especially this particular work, in his comprehensive list of the individual song texts on his Hampsong Foundation website (

From the first to last of the six chosen pieces, which varied from campaign song to ballad, lullaby to minstrel melody, Hampson held the audience in thrall with his vocal ease and agility and deep understanding of Copland’s distinctly American style. With grand gestures, canny emphasis on the folk elements of each song with carefully crafted pronunciation, and a plethora of facial expressions that captured the subtleties of the form, he created an atmosphere entirely American in character that only a true devotee of the great composers of our heritage could carry off. Alternately charming and commanding, Hampson acted out the text without overplaying, displayed his virtuosity with the confidence and authority of one who could almost channel the composer, and as if that weren’t already deeply satisfying, treated the delighted audience to two captivating encores. In his rendition of this music, which he clearly loves and comprehends fully, he came across as an American musical hero for our time.

The Copland songs were bookended by two orchestral tours de force led by Maestro Gardner, in his BSO debut, replacing Christoph von Dohnányi. With this legendary virtuoso Boston ensemble as his instrument, Gardner made an impressive showing. His background as an opera conductor at world-renowned houses from the UK to New York and Paris served him well in Richard Strauss’s technically demanding Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. With operatic flair, Gardner showed an outstanding ability to control the widely varied dynamics, from the subtle opening in the strings to the bombastic portrayals of the title character’s outrageous antics in the winds and brass; and his energy and enthusiasm kept the audience rapt until the final “Perhaps it was all a joke after all” ending.

A good conductor should most of all be a great communicator, and in the case of an orchestra of the BSO’s greatness, also should be able to guide the ensemble in such a way that the players are free to express their talents to the maximum. In the Strauss, Gardner allowed the individual “star” players, notably the principal French horn and oboist, to display their striking abilities to stunning effect, while allowing for the entire ensemble to support their colleagues’ exceptional solo playing with the outstanding team effort for which the BSO is so renowned.

The maestro’s rendition of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony was less effective. This work, performed by the BSO since their second year of existence (1882), has become almost an anthem for the orchestra, beloved by and familiar to Boston audiences. Gardner’s approach to the Poco Sostenuto introduction to the first movement Vivace was pleasingly lyrical, almost lilting, and the tempo moved along swiftly without feeling hurried. One hoped for a bit more of that lyricism, and also more depth of feeling, in the profoundly moving Allegretto, but it still flowed nicely. However, the Presto third movement felt rushed, and the final Allegro con brio was taken at such a rapid clip that the notes flew by precipitously without properly being heard. There’s no question that the BSO’s brilliant violin section can play these passages without breaking a sweat. A slightly less rushed tempo would have allowed the audience the luxury of hearing every single note impeccably played in the context of the exquisite whole of Beethoven’s masterwork: in other words, to quote a well-worn orchestra players’ phrase, “every note a jewel.”

Nonetheless, Maestro Gardner gave the overall impression of a remarkably gifted and already accomplished musician who will have much to offer as his career progresses.


Photos used by permission of Hilary Scott
Erica Miner can be contacted at

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Trumpet Shall Sound: Hardenberger at Tanglewood

By Erica Miner

The Baltic Sea region was well represented in The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Saturday, July 19 offering at the Koussevitzky Music Shed, as Latvian-born Music Director designate Andris Nelsons helmed Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson’s Bridge, Trumpet Concerto No. 1, with Swedish trumpet soloist Håkan Hardenberger winning over the audience with his dynamic virtuosity.

The program opened with a rousing rendition of the Brahms Third Symphony. Written in 1883, the year of Wagner’s death, this vibrant work, alternately cheerful and reflective, was branded Brahms’s Eroïca by conductor Hans Richter, and came six years after the second symphony, during the year of the composer’s fiftieth birthday celebration. Schumann said of Brahms at age twenty that the youthful composer represented the future of German music. Wagner aficionados took issue with that assessment.

Despite rabid Wagner fans’ efforts to disrupt the premiere, the piece was well received. “The Third strikes me as being artistically the most nearly perfect,” wrote famed critic and Brahms advocate Eduard Hanslick. Indeed, the flow of the Rhine River, which Brahms associated with his beloved mentor Schumann, is felt as deeply in this symphony as in Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony. The aggressive zeal and lyricism of the first movement, the hymn-like meditative calm of the second, the pain and joy expressed in the third, and the initial anguish of the fourth movement ultimately harken back to the lyricism of the first, ending cyclically with Schumannesque tranquility, all of these melding together to give proof to Hanslick’s claim.

Nelsons’ interpretation began by emphasizing the ebullient aspects of the first theme with generous sweeping and soaring gestures, contrasting with the subtle yet precise motions of his baton-less right hand indicating the subtlety needed for the more lyrical second theme. His remarkable ability to show such contrasts continued in the following movements, where he found the exact balance between the work’s many multifaceted characteristics.

A collaboration with internationally recognized trumpet soloist Hardenberger starting in the late 1990s helped pave the way for Martinsson’s works to feature prominently in the international contemporary music scene from New York to Vienna and London to Tokyo. The premiere of Bridge, Trumpet Concerto No. 1, commissioned for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, was an instant success; subsequently Hardenberger has performed the work more than forty times with famed orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic.

Divided into three larger parts joined by two solo trumpet cadenzas, one lyric and one dramatic, Bridge opens with mysterious rumblings from the percussion and harp, continuing with semi-improvisatory orchestral trumpet chorales. The lively tempi throughout are interspersed with brief lyrical passages, evoking Britten’s Sea Interludes taken to an extreme, highlighted with bits of Elgar and Bernstein as well as avant garde 20th century composers’ works. The virtuosic pyrotechnics of the third movement are reminiscent of some of the most complex, dissonant moments of Strauss’s Frau Ohne Schatten.

Hardenberger, called the “the cleanest, subtlest trumpeter on earth,” undoubtedly is the most virtuosic. His dazzling technique, crystal clear high notes, and piercing tone capable of cutting through the enormous orchestration, reflect his background studying with famed trumpet pedagogue and international soloist Pierre Thibaud at the Paris Conservatoire, who famously championed the music of Pierre Boulez. The work so brilliantly displays Hardenberger’s abilities that it is easy to understand why it was written for him. If Wagner pushed the limits of 19th century tonality, Hardenberger pushes the limits of 21st century trumpet playing. The question is how does he do it? Whatever the answer, Hardenberger impressed the audience mightily as they leapt to their feet in a demonstration of their approval.

Nelsons showed a keen and constant sense of oneness with the soloist. Their close, intuitive connection was absolutely de rigueur for the meticulous cohesion required of Martinsson’s complex orchestration. Nelsons adroitly handled the challenging pyrotechnics required to keep the orchestra, with its full battery of percussion and brass, precisely together, and the magnificent BSO violin section proved up to the challenge of the many soaring high notes required of them.

To match the excitement building around his imminent inauguration as the BSO’s fifteenth music director this coming season, Nelsons programmed one of Tchaikovsky's most vivacious works, the Capriccio Italien, which Tchaikovsky penned during a visit to Rome. Despite its being written in one of the composer’s darkest periods of deep personal turmoil, this work remains one of the most upbeat in his oeuvre. Originally titled “Italian Fantasia,” the Capriccio belies Tchaikovsky’s anguish over the recent death of his father and the ever-present specter of his homosexuality, by evoking the joviality of the Roman Carnival taking place at the time.

This kind of repertoire is tailor made to capture the BSO’s own particular virtuosity. The brass fanfare, the Italian folk tunes and street songs, the lively tarantella or cicuzza, all sparkled under Nelsons’ baton and his musicians’ brilliant artistry. The match between the tried-and-true ensemble and their newly minted music director should prove to be prolific indeed.

Photos used by permission of Hilary Scott
Erica Miner can be contacted at

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Artistry and Prudence: William Mason, Part 2

By Erica Miner

EM: From what you’ve told me, Bill, clearly the people here at SDO can learn a lot from you, things they can come to you and ask, and you’ll always have something to draw upon. 

WM: I’ve had the good fortune to work with wonderful people at Chicago Lyric, Carol Fox and Ardis Krainik, Board members and senior staff. Then again I worked with Kurt Herbert Adler (San Francisco Opera) and saw how not to run an opera company. So, the experience side. My background was artistic and production, it was not marketing, fundraising and finance. The people in those positions I’ve worked with were wonderful, too, and bright. What I learned from them in those areas, with all that experience, that’s hopefully what I have to offer. That’s what we need, and it means a great deal to the company. 

EM: Everybody was in shock after the announcement about closing. I interviewed Ferruccio (Furlanetto) just after the announcement (link), during rehearsals for the Verdi Requiem and Don Quixote. He was just devastated. 

WM: He’s a lovely man. In San Francisco we opened with La Gioconda, Giorgio Tozzi had been around for a long time and finally we decided he wasn’t going to be able to continue. Ferruccio was a last minute replacement. It was the beginning of his career, 1979. Just before his debut at the Met in 1980. Right. When he came to the company he didn’t speak any English. I was one of the few people who spoke Italian, so he and I sort of bonded. All those years he never came to Chicago because we had Ghiaurov and Sam Ramey. I would see Ferruccio at various times in my travels. We were very cordial and would chat. Then I saw him in Vienna in Boris and it was simply, “We’ve got to.” So we brought him to Chicago for Boccanegra. And I knew he was going to have a future. When he heard I’d become Commendatore he said, “Sweet.” He was very touched. Lovely. 

EM: A great artist. I was lucky enough to interview him this season and last (link). I found him a delight. We’ve been lucky to have him here. I hope somehow we can bring him back. 

WM: I hope so, too. 

EM: Do you think, generally in US opera companies, is there a trend? Are they going to survive? 

WM: I think these are difficult times in general for classical western art and performing arts. There’s a demographic change, culture changes, education tends to go down the tubes. But everything changes. Companies have to change and adapt. Those companies that will find ways to do traditional opera and expand their community engagement and outreach will be the companies that survive. I think some of this music, Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Strauss, is all going to continue to be done. It may take a different shape. But some things may become expensive. Maybe Wagner will go the way of Meyerbeer. It would be a terrible thought, but they’re big, expensive things to produce. One can never tell the future, but I do feel the art form will continue. At least I hope. I’ve looked at the plans for next season. They are keeping three of the big operas and doing a Mariachi opera, the Gala concert. Is there anything you can reveal about the plans for that concert? Not so much at this time, because we’re still working on it. When you cancel Tannhauser you have a cast, as good as it is, that’s pretty much limited, by and large, to German opera. And as wonderful as that stuff is it’s not necessarily what makes up a gala concert. We’re working, getting some artists. There are not that many artists these days. You don’t have Pavarottis and Beverly Sills today. And those artists that have any kind of recognition are booked up pretty much by this point. So we’ve been going with some popular works for the concert, bread and butter stuff, with exciting young singers who, if the public doesn’t know them when they come in, I want them to go out feeling “Wow.” There are enough young singers around that they don’t know yet, and that’s going to be the tougher part, getting people to go, because perhaps they will not have heard of a lot of these singers. But I think when they come out of the theatre they’re going to say, “Wow.”

EM: Even Domingo and Pavarotti had to start somewhere. 

WM: There’s a young tenor named Barbera, from our Opera Center in Chicago, who said he would participate. Two or three years ago he won the Domingo Operalia. The only singer who’s ever won that, the Zarzuela prize and the audience prize. If you go on YouTube and search Rene Barbera and hear the Fille du Régiment aria - it’s not just that he knocks off the high Cs with ease, which a lot of tenors can do, it’s the beauty of the voice. When I played the YouTube here for some of the staff, you saw people smile, because the voice just has instant appeal. And a superb technique. 

EM: I think that’s a smart move, because more than anything that’s what people come for, especially in Italian opera. It’s all about glorifying the human voice. That’s something that makes people sit up and pay attention. Will you be participating in the search for a permanent General Director?

 WM: The first thing we’ve agreed needs to be done is to set a job description, and I think that process will start in the next day or two, there are some meetings going on. It has to be defined what they’re looking for exactly. The General Director reports to the boss, not the other way around. The board, with the staff, have to set some parameters of what they think this public wants and where they want to go. You don’t want to bring someone who is too traditional and conservative or be so cutting edge you’re going to alienate the audience. So setting some general artistic parameters without being stifling about it, and a little more discussion about what the job requires, what’s expected of the person, the artistic, the fundraising. Once you establish that, then you can put together a job description, and they’re going to want to do it fairly quickly. You need a search firm to assist you, to do the mundane things, because you’re going to get letters from people coming out of the woodwork. People with no qualifications for the job. So responses have to be written. There’s a lot of stuff the company doesn’t have the time or resources for. I will be happy to assist in the winnowing out of the candidates if they ask me to do so, but I certainly don’t think I should be, or there’s any intention that I be, on the search committee. The Board will put that together and with the assistance of a search firm I have great faith they’ll have great success in finding the right person. 

EM: So what you’re focusing on is just helping the company get back on its feet? 

WM: I’m not here to tell anybody what to do. I’m here to help them in any way I can. In many cases they know what they have to do. If I can provide assistance, make things easier, that’s fine. Make suggestions, then get the hell out of the way. 

EM: Like a good conductor. 

WM: Exactly. Don’t get in the way of the music, that’s what I’ve seen. Conductors fascinate me. Abbado to me is one. I watch him conduct and I never feel he’s posing himself, just lets the music flow through him. 

EM: A rare gift. Orchestra players have a love-hate relationship with conductors. Mostly the latter. 

WM: I’m sure. And I’ve noticed sometimes - not always - the conductors they hate get better music out of them than the ones they love. 

EM: Getting back to the types of operas. Putting Wagner aside, for the moment. 

WM: For the moment, I would like to think. 

EM: Are you planning on doing any Gilbert and Sullivan, operettas, things like Candide

WM: I’ve discussed and will mention these, but I’m not intending to do any planning for the future. I think they’ve got to give the new person the free hand to do this. If we get to the point we’ve got a season planned - 2016 is put in place, there’s one opera that’s been put into ’17 - I would hope the rest of that could be done by the new person in terms of the traditional operas. I have a couple of suggestions in terms of the outreach, If we get to the point where we have to start just for the sake of engaging artists cutting into ’17, then, yes, I think I’ll go in. But I’m really hopeful the new person with their artistic vision will be able to do that rather than have to live with what I’m putting together. 

EM: Or it could become a mutual admiration thing where you’re so in love with each other. 

WM: It’s possible and I really enjoy being out here. But as much as I’m enjoying it I see this as a short-term thing for me. I loved my job and, I gotta tell you, I love retirement. I would like to feel at a certain point they’ll say, “Bill, thanks a lot, we don’t need you anymore.” That’s the perfect setting. Because everybody’s got a shelf life. I’m not the person to be running this company in the future. They certainly will find someone to do a very good job. 

EM: Any details about future seasons? 

WM: One thing they did announce was a co-production of Jake Heggie with Dallas. Anything else, I could be remiss if I revealed. I know what it would have been like in Chicago. The PR lady would have just had my head if I’d said anything I shouldn’t. 

EM: Understood. Tell me more about community outreach. Can you describe what you did in Chicago, and how you think you might be able to implement it here in some way? 

WM: I wasn’t as involved with that in Chicago, just because of running with eight operas a year. The education department did more of that. But we headed out to the neighborhoods, opera in schools, we had a lot of lectures that went to various places, sometimes with singers, sometimes without. The thing about Chicago was, how many months a year can you perform outdoors. You get to summer it can be brutally hot, you get to winter and forget about it. But here you’ve got endless possibilities. Here, they know where the communities are, where the facilities are. I expect you’re going to see a lot more interesting ideas and much more community engagement, certainly more than has ever been here in the past. Right now the possibilities are endless. But it’s all about the money in many ways. 

EM: So initially the priority is to get everything back on track. 

WM: Right. Getting these next few seasons in line and everything that implies artistically and financially, getting leadership. Once you get that in place you can move forward, little by little. Piano, piano

EM: Certainly over the last two and a half months it’s been a “wild ride.” 

WM: I can only imagine how traumatic it’s been, especially for the staff. Not knowing if you’re going to have a job, then going through this period of, is it going to happen, is it not going to happen. The whole closing was a bad idea, badly handled. 

EM: From rock bottom to euphoria, and not overnight. The White Knights Committee, the outpouring of support, from here to New York. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was so impressed. 

WM: It’s been remarkable. It’s touched a lot of people and I can’t help but think in some ways this has been the best thing that could have ever happened to the company. Hopefully it will be a ripple effect for other arts organizations. Without this, if Ian had just retired quietly, the company might have hired somebody and not reexamined the whole thing. It’s forced the Board to take a look and see what they’ve got to do differently, the idea of getting out to the community. I’m convinced that unwittingly the past administration and board did this company a great service, even though it was pretty scary for those people that went through it. 

EM: A painful process. But sometimes you need those growing pains. 

WM: I think it will turn out to be a major turning point for the good. And we have Ian to thank for it (laughs). We’ll try to look at the bright side. It’s interesting that whatever I may have heard from various people, I’ve only heard good things about the product that was on the stage. It would be nice if that’s how people remember him. It would be lovely if ten years from now people will be talking about that part as his legacy. From what I hear when he took over, even if kicking and screaming, he brought the level up. In a similar way that Jimmy (Levine) did with the Met. 

EM: No question. 

WM: Andrew Davis, our Music Director in Chicago, what he’s done with that orchestra is great. For an orchestra, the music director is really what it’s all about. For the company, the General Director. You realize what you’ve got to provide. I learned from Ardis to create a harmonious atmosphere that allows people to do good work. Everyone wants to do a good job. You give them a chance to do it. That was the one thing about Adler that was just so hateful, the way he treated people. He could be enormously charming but I really just learned a lot about how not to run a company. I left after a year. Adler drove the singers crazy. The people Adler liked - the Jean Pierre Ponnelles, would fight him tooth and nail, wouldn’t take any of his guff. But there was a mutual respect, so people like that were treated well by Adler. 

EM: Was he more of a tyrant than Bing? 

WM: I never met Bing, I certainly don’t know much about him, I don’t know whether he did as much damage. I watched Adler conduct. A fine musician, but never a very good conductor. A smart board will not let anyone take a conductor who’s a General Director. A GD has got to be there - it’s not a part time job. You can’t run around the world conducting. If you’ve got a great orchestra, it can work, but I think they’re mutually exclusive. Even then, you can’t be running the company if you’re conducting rehearsals and performances. 

EM: Not to mention studying scores. 

WM: Julius (Rudel, who passed away last week) was unique in that he managed it at City Opera. It was chaotic, but he had something there, and also had some good people. 

EM: Like Beverly (Sills). Aside from superstardom, she had a great attitude. Those were the days. 

WM: It seems it. In 1971, there was Beverly and Maralin Niska, a wonderful performer. Patricia Brooks, Gilda Cruz-Romo. They did good stuff. It’s a tragedy what happened to that company. If it could have survived, who knows. But I’m afraid that board had a lot to answer for. 

EM: Thankfully, SDO now has a board that will bring us back better and stronger. Bill, this has been totally delightful. 

WM: It’s been a great pleasure, thank you so much.

Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at

Friday, July 4, 2014

William Mason Shares Wisdom with San Diego Opera

By Erica Miner

Former Lyric Opera of Chicago General Director and Commendatore dell’Ordine Della Stella Della Solidarietà William Mason learned the ropes of opera artistic administration from such luminaries as Carol Fox and Ardis Krainik. As the newly minted Artistic Advisor for a reborn San Diego Opera, the modest, unassuming Mason shares his considerable wisdom and talks artistry and prudence in his new role. 

EM: Welcome to San Diego, Bill. We are so excited to have you on board to help create the company’s future vision and keep it thriving. You’ve been called an “Opera hero,” and Carol (Lazier, President of the SD Opera Board) has praised your “reputation second to none.” Please tell us about your background. 

WM: I worked at NYCO (New York City Opera) for a season, fall and winter ’71, was in New York for a while as a tech and “fly man”, at San Francisco Opera in 1979 and 1980 and stage-managed around the country. In fact I stage managed three shows here in San Diego. But I’ve spent most of my opera career in Chicago. 

EM: I’m really curious about “Commendatore dell’Ordine Della Stella Della Solidarietà”. That’s quite an honor. 

WM: It really was because of Maestro Bruno Bartoletti. I sang with him when I was a kid, the Shepherd Boy in Tosca. He became like an older brother to me, then a colleague and close friend. Unbeknownst to me he started working on this for a couple of years in advance, because I speak Italian and I know Italian opera and love things Italian. At some point I got a letter telling me I’ve gotten this award, “Commendatore, ” etc. Nice little ceremony at the Italian Consulate there. But it’s nothing huge, you know (laughs). I got a little plaque and a button. It was very sweet. 

EM: When you sang as a kid, you worked with some of the greats, including Björling, Steber and Tebaldi. Do you remember much about that? 

WM: Before Lyric Opera of Chicago existed, New York City Opera used to come there on tour. My parents liked music and didn’t know much about opera, but in 1951 for my tenth birthday they took me to see Rigoletto, my first opera. In those days before television was around much, there were a number of smaller amateur opera companies. I joined one of them, the Children’s Grand Opera Company. In ’52-’53 we sang the Children’s Chorus when New York City Opera came on tour. When Chicago Lyric was formed in 1954 I auditioned for the role of the Shepherd, and got it. I became passionate about opera. From ages ten through seventeen or twenty I was just consumed with it, and learned a lot of Italian and French repertoire. In 1962 when I asked what I could do with the company, they put me to work with Maestro Pino Donati, who became my mentor and second father. He spoke very little English, so I had to learn Italian. In those days Lyric Opera was called “La Scala West.” Italian was almost the first language. I was Donati’s gofer and assistant with the scheduling for a number of seasons, then I became assistant stage manager, then I did some stuff as an assistant director. I was at City Opera, then Light Opera of Manhattan in 1972, then director of production at Lyric for a few years, then went to San Francisco as Artistic Administrator, then went back to Chicago. When Carol Fox died and Ardis Krainik took over I was head of artistic and production. When Ardis retired because of illness they made me General Director. 

EM: That’s quite a journey. 

WM: Somewhat early in my career I thought, “I sang in the first season. Wouldn’t it be nifty if I could be General Director in the fiftieth season?” And it happened. I’ve had the most wonderful life in opera, it’s been so good to me. Somebody once said, “It’s only work if you’d like to be doing something else.” I feel I’ve rarely worked. 

EM: You started on the stage, then came full circle.

WM: I’d thought I’d never work again, but I got a call from Mark Scorca of Opera America about SD Opera. I thought, “I’m so retired, I can’t get back to an office and working. A lot of people can give artistic advice.” But I saw what was going on here, so many members of the Board had resigned, and after a very gentle but persuasive email from Mark I thought my experience might be very useful. In Chicago we had a wonderful, dynamite Board. They provided leadership when they needed to and stayed out of things that didn’t need getting into. We didn’t do things the right way but we did them a right way. It was a great experience working with those ladies and gentlemen. And I thought that was something I could help pass on to the company here. What I see is that the remaining Board members are a terrific bunch - all of them bright, accomplished people, who know what they have to do. I sometimes refer to this as “San Diego Opera 2.” When someone has been here for thirty years as head of the company there’s a tendency for it to become somewhat of a rubber stamp operation. Fortunately Carol and others, after having thought about it, said, “Wait a second … we can’t let this die.” 

EM: Everybody, even Carol, was surprised at how the city just banded together. Do you think NYCO’s tragic demise affected the mindset in any way? 

WM: I really don’t know, but I think all of a sudden a lot of people, certainly those who have come to the opera, thought what it would mean to them if the opera weren’t here. Even people who didn’t come to the opera suddenly realized being without the company would be a loss to the city. I really can’t understand the thinking of those folks who thought it would be a good idea to shut it down. You’re talking about an organization that altogether probably pumped tens of millions of dollars into the city’s economy, so I think the imperative was to do everything possible to keep it afloat, and make the changes necessary to do so. That’s what I see here. I just came out of a wonderful meeting where this was all discussed. Hopefully people will realize how important our culture is. I don't know what’s the problem in America that people don’t believe that. 

EM: We’ve been very lucky in San Diego with the patronage of people who have generously contributed to help make our arts groups into wonderful organizations. 

WM: Yes. It’s somewhat strange, but this may be the best thing that ever happened for the company. I think there were a lot of people in the community who first of all probably didn’t even know there was a San Diego Opera. With all this publicity they were aware there was a company here, and realized it was an important thing. Now the company will get out there with more communication and engagement. I’m very positive about where this company is going. 

EM: So you don’t mind too much coming here one week a month. 

WM: Particularly in November and December (laughs). But no, I’m really enjoying working with the people. They’re a nice bunch, they’re committed, they’re bright. I came out for about ten days in June, and if I didn’t think they had the wherewithal to make this work I would have said, “Thank you very much.” But having seen that these people can make it happen, I’m delighted to work with them. 

EM: We’re very fortunate to have you. 

WM: Thank you. I don’t necessarily want to tell people what to do, just sort of enable them to find their path. Ultimately they will know what will work in the community and what won’t. I’m just there to provide some suggestions, however I can help. 

EM: It seems like you’re brimming with experience and information about things they can come to you and ask. 

WM: I hope so. I like to think they will (laughs). 

EM: Have you seen any changes in the past month since your first time here? 

WM: Things done to fill the gap. Not surprisingly, when the company announced the cancellation some of the artists went out to find other engagements and some were successful. So there have been those things to fill, production things to take care of and finalize, some looking at budgets. I’ve been on the phone a lot, emails back and forth. Trying to put together this fiftieth anniversary concert. Those things are ongoing, as will some strategic planning. I think changes will be a more gradual process as the synergy between the Board and staff starts to take hold, and will become more obvious as we proceed over the months. 

EM: Has the atmosphere improved since you were last here? 

WM: Excellent now. I can only imagine what it must have been like for these people. It must have come as a total shock, no idea it was coming. I was told the voting was not even on the agenda. People were taken by surprise, putting it mildly. But that was the past, something I only hear about anecdotally. What I’m concerned about is the present and future. I think there’s a wonderful atmosphere now, and a very grateful, optimistic attitude, certainly among the staff. People who thought they were not going to have jobs are delighted to have jobs. 

EM: We’re delighted to have an opera company. About financial issues. I know you helped keep the Lyric afloat, that while you were there you had a stunning record on audience attendance and being in the black. Supposedly SDO is not in the red. How do we stay clear of that? 

WM: It’s an interesting point. Fundraising was never my strongest point, but having been brought up by parents who had gone through the Depression, one thing that was always impressed upon me was you don’t spend money you don’t have. I’ve adhered to that in my personal life as well as in running Chicago Lyric Opera. You’ve lost some Board members who were substantial givers, some of them may come back, some may not - but it’s expanding now. There are some wonderful stories about people who came out of the woodwork, people sitting up in the balcony who came up with some very sizable donations. So it will be about getting out into the community, finding support where there’s not been support before. With what has happened here, the almost failure of the company, people had to take notice about how many people thought it was important to keep the company. You’ve got to go to people, and make them realize this. Ardis said it always boils down to money. That will be the large task that lies ahead for the company. They’ve got to build more, establish contacts, get out to people, talk to people, make them realize the importance of the arts to the community.

EM: What about cutting back expenses from previous seasons? 

WM: Obviously opera is not cheap, so you’ve got to find ways of doing it. Judiciously allocating your money. One of the things I’ve been doing is going through budgets and finding ways we can save money, or where you have to spend money. You’ve got to put on a first rate product. I’m a big believer in the word “balance” - you’ve got to balance the artistic and the financial. You can’t cut to the point where you’ll lose the artistic but you can’t spend so much money on the artistic that you’ll lose the financial. So what the company has to discover in the next couple of years - and it will be a couple of years’ process - is, what is that balance point. As they raise more money, what can they spend it on. I think prudence should dictate things in the next couple of seasons. It’s really a delicate act, because you’ve got to move forward. This is the time to strike out and do things that have not been done before. You have a city where you can perform outdoors twelve months a year. So you can be out in plazas or shopping malls with some good young voices, having a year round presence in the community. I would hope and trust that would start to engender some more fundraising. It’s all that combination of moving forward with the artistic part and the fundraising. 

EM: That’s a great point, because the outdoors may be what distinguishes this city from so many others, even L.A. There, you’ve got the Hollywood Bowl, and everything else is so far apart and hard to get to. But here everything is smaller and closer. 

WM: I don’t know the city yet, but I hear about places where things can be done. I understand they’ve got some sort of outdoor thing at the zoo. I don’t begin to know what the possibilities are. But the people here do, and they’re coming up with ideas as to how we maintain a twelve-month a year presence in the community. 

EM: That’s a wonderful concept. 

WM: I think it was something everybody here was aware needed to be done. Perhaps it wasn’t done for reasons I don’t pretend to understand, but I don’t think it was for lack of those thoughts being presented. So now it’s possible to move forward with those ideas. 

Next, Part 2: Bill Mason talks artistry and prudence

Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at