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Category: opera

Die Walküre: Once Upon A Time In America

Last Sunday I attended a performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre by the San Francisco Opera. In many respects, it’s a minor miracle that any grand opera is produced at all— given the high cost, the super-specialized talents required and the deep coordination of the music, singing, drama, light, costume and stagecraft. To complicate things further, Die Walküre is the second opera in a cycle of four operas called The Ring of the Nibelung. The Ring Cycle is one of the more ambitious projects an opera company can undertake. The Ring takes years of planning, signing the right talents, finding the right concept and assembling considerable financing. Given the difficulty, one would think it was a rare event. But instead we find ourselves with one Ring after another. This year the Los Angeles Opera presented its science fiction ring. In 2012, the Metropolitan Opera in New York will present a Ring that features integrated computer and video technology designed by Robert Lapage. San Francisco Opera’s offering of Die Walküre is a prelude to their presentation of the full ring cycle in 2011.

The Ring tells the story of the Twilight of the Gods and the beginning of the age of men. It’s been told in many ways over the years. The San Francisco Opera production (a co-production with the Washington National Opera) brings the story to America. The Gods are transformed into the titans of industry, inhabiting the skyscrapers of a giant metropolis; the Valkyries are women aviators parachuting on to the stage, the mythology of the opera is seamlessly fused to the mythology of America.

Director Francesca Zambello has created an American Ring full of raw power, deep psychology and strong resonances with our national story. In Die Walküre, it is the sense of touch that expresses these big themes in terms of personal moments. In the scenes between Hunding and Sieglinde in a rural shack, their entire relationship can be understood by watching their body language and how they touch each other. Zambello manages to infuse the entire dramatic level of the opera with this kind of specificity and emotion. Donald Runnicles, SF Opera’s former music director, is one of the foremost interpreters of Wagner’s music. He recently conducted two full Ring Cycles with the Deutsche Oper Berlin for their 2007/2008 season. His work on Die Walküre is detailed and passionate. The singers, Stemme, Delavan, Westbroek, Ventris, Baechle and Aceto are outstanding in both voice and their dramatic work. From the opening notes, all the way through the four and half hour opera, the audience is riveted. While I’ve seen the opera many times before, I was on the edge of my seat wondering what these characters would do next.

This may be one of the Rings that people talk about years from now. There’s something about the mythology of the Ring, the Twilight of the Gods, and this time in American history that creates very strong connections— where new meanings well up from leitmotifs of the music and the unstinting drama unfolding on the stage. This Ring sheds a great deal of light on the story of America, from the very personal to the highest levels of our politics. Even a God is bound by treaties, contracts and obligations— seemingly unlimited power is always limited by the power of the world. It’s a drama where the Gods are human, all too human.


Salome: An Ultra-Dissonant Biblical Spectacle


Tonight I’ll be attending a performance of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome at the San Francisco Opera. Despite the sacrilegious themes and radical music, I doubt there will be any protests. Somehow, opera –in the United States at least– has the ability to present some of the most radical art in the guise of the most conservative. Alex Ross, in his excellent book The Rest is Noise, recounts the circumstances surrounding the second performance of the opera which Strauss himself conducted on May 16, 1906 in Graz, Austria:

…word had got out that Strauss had created something beyond the pale–an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle, based on a play by a British degenerate whose name was not to be mentioned in polite company, a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna.

The British degenerate they were referring to was a fellow named Oscar Wilde. The opera is based on his play, written in French, called Salomé. In attendance at that performance were Giacomo Puccini, Gustav Mahler, Alban Berg, the fictional character Adrian Leverhkühn from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and very possibly a 17 year old Adolf Hitler. The performance was one of the defining moments at the dawn of modern 20th century music.

One hundred and three years later, the work still has the power to shock and disturb people. While the dance of the seven veils may get most of the press, the moment where Salome declares her love for the severed head of John the Baptist is complex blend of power, lust, religion and madness. So dust off your tux, opera, as we all know, is a civilized affair.

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Aria: O mio babbino caro


Next week I’m going to see Puccini’s Il Trittico (The Triptych) at San Francisco Opera. It’s comprised of three short operas: Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. Soprano, Patricia Racette will be performing the lead role in each story. It’s rare for a single performer to take on all three roles. Puccini started with the idea of three short operas about Dante’s Divine Comedy, but in the end only Gianni Schicchi maintained a connection.

Even if you don’t know opera, you may be familiar with an aria from Gianni Schicci, it’s called O mio babbino caro. Courtesy of YouTube, here are some renditions of that song.

Maria Callas

Renee Fleming

Anna Netrebko

And here’s a preview of the San Francisco Opera production of Il Trittico:

Il Trittico premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on December 14th, 1918.

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High And Low Culture: The Price of a Ticket


I’m a fan of the opera. And generally when I bring it up in normal conversation, I can see a barrier form. Opera is high art, high culture, expensive— it’s for rich people, old money preferred. There’s a very thick wall between most people and attending an opera. When examined from a monetary perspective, the results are quite interesting. Buying a single ticket (without a season’s subscription) to see an opera at the San Francisco Opera will cost you between $15 and $210. If you’d like to sit in a box seat, it’ll cost $275.

If you wanted to see the band U2 in a stadium this summer, a single ticket will set you back between $30 and $250. A Bruce Springsteen ticket will cost you between $29 and $89. Rock and Roll was originally considered low art, low culture— something on the fringe of popular culture. Through the 60s and 70s, it slowly moved to the mainstream of popular culture. Pop culture is abundantly distributed in multiple distribution formats, it’s on the radio and television. You can buy it on CD and MP3 download, and you can preview it on or The price of a ticket is related to the phenomena of scarcity. There are only so many performances, and a fixed number of seats available for each performance.

Of course, opera was popular entertainment and part of popular culture for many years. However now, more often than not, it’s used as a signal of class differential.

The barrier that some feel when approaching opera isn’t related to the ticket price. For a medium priced seat there’s no difference between grand opera and any other popular entertainment. It has to do with the distribution of the free part of opera. Popular music is sampled widely to create a demand for performances and sales of recordings. There’s a dynamic feedback loop between exposure to an art form and interest in an art form.

Many people find baseball boring because they don’t understand the nuances of the game. It seems like nothing happens for inning after inning. And then, there’s a quick flurry of activity, and then back to nothing. A single ticket to a baseball game falls into the same range as an opera or rock concert ticket. To see the Giants (for a premium game), your ticket will cost you between $25 and $135.

Baseball, rock music and opera all depend on their stars to draw and audience. For the San Francisco Giants, I might prefer going to a game where I know that Tim Lincecum is pitching and that Pablo Sandoval will be in the line up.

If I get to see these players, I know that my chances of seeing something spectacular are much higher. It’s that possibility of excitement combined with the scarcity of the performance and the limited number of seats that defines the value/price of the event.

Opera also depends on its stars to draw an audience, in particular, its divas. On Wednesday night, I attended a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore (The Troubador) at San Francisco Opera. Looking at the line up card, I could see that there was the possibility of seeing something spectacular. Nicola Luisotti at Conductor, Burak Bilgili as Ferrando, Sondra Radvanosvsky as Leonora, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the Count di Luna and the great Stephanie Blythe as Azucena. The team delivered, as the last note faded the crowd leapt to its feet shouting bravo and brava.

The grand opera is often thought of as a refined entertainment, an art form that considers the higher values of our culture. But Verdi’s Il Trovatore is nothing more than animal passion unleashed. A Count orders an old Gypsy woman to be burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft. The gypsy’s daughter steals the infant son of the Count and throws it into a fire. A revolutionary war revolves around the passion two men feel about the beautiful Leonora. The Count di Luna obsessed with Leonora will commit any war crime to possess her. The gypsy Azucena will do anything to exact revenge for the death of her mother. These forces are unleashed without limit within the narrative of the opera. It’s the women that drive the story forward: Leonora and the men who lust after her; and the gypsy Azucena and her single-minded obsession with revenge.

Performances not to missed: Sondra Radvanosksy as Leonora. Here she is singing an aria from Il Trovatore:

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe also delivers as Azucena. Here she is in concert, singing an aria from Bizet’s Carmen:

This evening baseball and opera will intersect at AT&T park. In cooperation with the San Francisco Giants, San Francisco Opera will present a free HD simulcast of Il Trovatore at the ballpark. High culture and low culture mix and intermingle. Arias and hot dogs with plenty of mustard. Families spreading out a blanket on the infield and enjoying the high passion of Verdi’s opera. The gigantic emotions and passions of Il Trovatore will expand to fill the ballpark.

Here’s a preview of San Francisco Opera’s Il Trovatore:

Earlier this year, the Giants and SF Opera presented Puccini’s Tosca at the Ballpark. About 30,000 people showed up to enjoy the show. I expect to see a similar turn out for Il Trovatore. After Tosca was over, and the crowd began to leave, I noticed a young girl turn to her mother and say, “that was a great opera Mom.”

See you at the show.