Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dr. Sun Yat-sen Triumphs in American Premiere

by Rodney Punt
Dr. Sun Yat-sen Joseph Dennis and Corinne Winters
Photos by Ken Howard in Santa Fe Opera premiere
Lightning struck through the arid skies of New Mexico at the exact downbeat of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a new opera by composer Huang Ruo and librettist Candace Mui-ngam Chong, which received its American premiere last Saturday at the Santa Fe Opera. Maybe that heavenly statement was trying to tell us something about this work. Or about what has happened in China over the past century.
In subject and impact, the story of the man who liberated China from feudalism a century ago could well serve as a prequel to John Adams’ Nixon in China. Both works deal with propelling the historically hermetic country into the modern world. What sets them apart is the new work has a sensibility that is the product of two ethnic Chinese creators and is sung in the Chinese languages of Mandarin and Cantonese.
The ephemeral Sun Yat-sen may have faded from memory in the English-speaking world, but he remains iconic to his own people. His role has been compared to that of George Washington, but a better choice might be pamphleteer Thomas Paine. Neither a battlefield general nor a populist firebrand, Sun was a bookish medical doctor who gathered words to inspire people while others built armies to conquer them. Working mainly in exile, often in the United States, his return as provisional president of the new Republic of China was short-lived. Yet Chinese of all political persuasions still claim him as the father of modern China.
For full review, see San Francisco Classical Voice

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 e[email protected]

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 e[email protected]

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 e[email protected]

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 e[email protected]