Drama at the Opera House

The biggest, most passionately followed arts organization on the west coast has a new director, and opera buffs are already having anxiety attacks.

—San Francisco Magazine, September 2001

Like gladiator games and pyramid building, opera has always been a gloriously money-losing proposition. It is the most extravagant of arts, requiring the constant support of kings, dictators, plutocrats, and town councils. Box-office success is no solution. San Francisco Opera loses money at every sold-out performance. Sane business practices simply don’t suffice. Composer Richard Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, was the ideal operatic angel–very rich and certifiably insane. Mel Brooks’ shyster producer Max Bialystock need not have mounted Springtime for Hitler to score a surefire loss. Aida would have done just fine.

What perpetuates such madness? As with any addiction, the dangerous allure of opera remains puzzling to those who have never experienced its exquisite high. Opera’s appeal is not solely the extraordinary beauty of its music or the compelling nature of its stagecraft. One can find those particular qualities in the concert hall or theater. No, there is a special emotional alchemy that only opera offers. On the right night at the right performance, the operagoer is transported into the suffering or ecstatic soul of an imaginary character and fully, utterly, almost unbearably shares his or her emotions. This literally transcendental experience usually lasts for just ten or 15 minutes. But the listener never forgets–and craves it ever afterward.

Such men close small-town factories without scruple and joyously plunder union pension funds, but they sob in a darkened theater beside the deathbed of an imaginary seamstress.Go ahead and doubt me, but I speak from long experience in the teeming opium dens of opera. I have watched threadbare graduate students go without meals to afford a standing-room ticket to hear their favorite diva. I have seen iron-hearted industrialists lean forward in their seats at a performance of La Bohème and begin to weep. Such men close small-town factories without scruple and joyously plunder union pension funds, but they sob in a darkened theater beside the deathbed of an imaginary seamstress. Is it any wonder they write big checks to perpetuate their shameful vice? No addict wants the supply interrupted.

So nothing worries or excites opera fanatics more than a key change in company management. It is not an abstract event, but one that has a tangible emotional impact on their lives. Such a change has just occurred in San Francisco. Last month, Pamela Rosenberg replaced Lotfi Mansouri (who has retired), becoming the new general director of San Francisco Opera. And many aficionados are worried that the new regime will radically transform the city’s long-established opera culture.

In local terms, Rosenberg’s succession is a rare event. San Francisco Opera has been a bastion of steady management and artistic continuity. Rosenberg is only the fifth general director in nearly 80 years. The first two directors, Gaetano Merola and Kurt Adler, ruled for more than half a century. Rosenberg is not only the first woman to command the great institution; this Berkeley-educated impresario is also the first native-born American to do so. She has spent her entire career in Europe, however, mostly in Germany.

Rosenberg now finds herself in an extraordinarily privileged position. Internationally respected, musically distinguished, and financially sound, San Francisco Opera boasts the largest budget of any arts organization on the West Coast. It has presented world-class opera for 78 uninterrupted seasons–maintained through both the Great Depression and World War II, not to mention a major earthquake. Larger than any other opera company in North America except for New York’s Metropolitan, it has an additional advantage that few arts organizations anywhere can match: The city loves it.

San Francisco has cherished opera since the gold-rush days, when performances took place in beer gardens and dance halls. No sooner did Italian émigré conductor Merola officially create the San Francisco Opera in 1923 than it became the city’s preeminent institution, in both cultural and social terms. On any opening night, one can spot Silicon Valley moguls, famous winemakers, academic glitterati, and international music journalists rubbing shoulders with local politicians and the old-line San Francisco elite. No large American city has such a close and affectionate relationship with its opera company, and that is a tradition to cherish.

San Francisco Opera’s other notable tradition has been great singing. There are currently two basic ways of thinking about opera production. The first places musical values, especially singing, foremost. Most large American opera companies follow this approach, which generally pleases conservative, established audiences. The second puts innovative theatrical values foremost, especially in the direction and stage design. This approach, usually called “director’s opera,” is prominent in Europe, most notably in Germany, where it is considered almost mandatory for a new production to be interpretive and conceptual. The two philosophies are not necessarily opposed. An innovative production can be magnificently sung and conducted. But in practice, a management with limited time and resources tends to begin planning a production based on one approach or the other.

San Francisco Opera has long concentrated on magnificent singing. Both Merola and Adler were practicing musicians who were renowned judges of vocal work. San Francisco Opera became famous not only for booking the most notable stars of the day, but also for discovering new talent. Legendary international stars such as Birgit Nilsson and Leontyne Price made their American debuts here.

The singing was often less splendid during the Mansouri regime (1988—2001). The Iran-born Mansouri, whose background was in stage directing, brought to the institution more managerial professionalism than musical magic. A skilled caretaker rather than a visionary, he broadened the company’s repertory, oversaw the renovation of the War Memorial Opera House after the 1989 earthquake, and pioneered the use of supertitles. (This technical innovation finally allowed monolingual American audiences to understand what was happening onstage and helped turn opera into classical music’s only growth industry.) Mansouri’s productions were eclectic, lavishly staged, well conducted, and solidly sung.

Rosenberg was a bold choice to replace him. For the prior nine years, she directed the Stuttgart Opera, which Germany’s Opernwelt magazine named the best opera company of the year three times during her tenure. Stuttgart is a repertory company that produces a great many operas in numerous performances–a typical situation for a major German house. Under such circumstances, it is impossible to book (or afford) the most celebrated singers. Except for special gala evenings, the German solution has been to make the director and the production the stars, and Stuttgart is celebrated for its experimental productions of classic works.

A tradition like San Francisco’s is extraordinarily hard to build but all too easy to destroy.What worries local aficionados is that Rosenberg will try to turn San Francisco into a high-concept German opera house–long on postmodern pretension and short on traditional vocalism. Having seen some critically acclaimed and truly awful conceptual Eurotrash productions (one of which set Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen in outer space), I understand those worries. A tradition like San Francisco’s is extraordinarily hard to build but all too easy to destroy.

What comforts me is Rosenberg herself. She is smart, experienced, and pragmatic. She is also a genuine intellectual–probably the first ever to occupy her post. At times, her plans for the opera (which include thematic programming, such as operas devoted to “Women Outside of Society” and “The Faust Project”) appear more conceptual than musical, but she seems committed to opera as a musical medium and says she’s “passionate about musical values.” Her decision to keep conductor Donald Runnicles, a guiding force in the company’s high standards, as music director certainly supports her claim.

The new era has already begun. Although Mansouri planned this fall’s season, Rosenberg has been making casting changes. (Rumors are flying through the gossipy singers’ network of her canceling the contracts of two lavishly paid superstars–perhaps a smart economic move but a dubious artistic one.) She has hired Wolfgang Willaschek as the opera’s first dramaturg, or literary adviser, a role standard in Germany but rare in the United States–a sure sign of her European sensibility. Meanwhile, she has begun an ambitious project to mount all the operas of Hector Berlioz and Leos÷ Janác÷ek as well as the first U.S. staged production of Olivier Messiaen’s visionary modernist masterpiece Saint François d’Assise.

Sounds great to me, though I wish I had heard her talk with more enthusiasm about the core Italian repertory that has been the city’s pride and pleasure. It is nice to imagine that Rosenberg can cultivate both Teutonic insight and Italian ecstasy. But if we have to choose just one, give me ecstasy.