Friday, October 31, 2008

San Francisco Opera's Elixir of Love

October 29, 2008

Toward the end of a season packed with ambition but also heavy with tragedy, SFO has landed on a welcome respite, a vivacious production of Donizett's L'Elisir, recast in 1914 Napa Valley and featuring the opera world's newest superstar, tenor Ramon Vargas.

Vargas announced his presence the moment he opened his mouth, revealing a strong, gorgeous lyric tone constructed of honey and an overriding tangerine warmth (forgive me if I wax poetic). He is Nemorino, of course, the sad pursuer of the popular girl, Adina, and this first introduction comes courtesy of his cavatina, "Quanto e bella!" in which he describes his sad plight.

Our Adina is Albanian soprano Inva Mula, who possesses the notable ability (and control) to take her lines to a crystalline lightness and grow them back out, fetchingly revealed in her first duet with Nemorino, "Chiedi, all'aura lusinghiera."

The supporting roles are no less stocked with talent. Italian baritone Giorgio Cauduro is all self-involvement and pomp as sergeant Belcore, determined to whisk away the charming Adina; in the second-act military duet with Nemorino, "Venti scudi," Cauduro demonstrates remarkable breath control and separation. Italian bass-baritone Allessandro Corbelli, meanwhile, flies through the rapid-fire patters of the potion-maker Dulcamara, and lends his character a finely tuned weasely presence. Korean soprano Ji Young Yang continues to make her bid as Next Adler Fellow to Make it Big, performing the town gossip, Giannetta, with beautifully direct lines and an assured stage presence.

Director James Robinson takes the Napa Valley setting and has loads of fun with it. The opening scene is a harvest festival, Adina wearing the witty title of "Crush Queen." The local youths enter as a hyped-up football squad, tossing balls around the stage, working on a statue-of-liberty play with Belcore and burying Nemorino under a dogpile tackle. The chorus is as lively as ever, painting little Norman Rockwell vignettes in the production's backgrounds, and the vehicular cast is just as colorful, Dulcamara rolling in on a motorcycle with sidecar, Nemorino entering in an ice cream truck.

Speaking of ice cream, what a pleasure to see SFO using genuine substances onstage. Nemorino doles out a dozen actual ice cream cones during the first act, Belcore smokes cigarettes that actually smoke, and they even have the thoroughness to switch the actual identity of the "elixir" from a cheap bordeaux to a cheap cabernet - much more suited to Napa.

But let's get back to Vargas, who doubles his value by adding a fine comic sense to that God-blessed throat. Vargas's face is immensely expressive, he has a lovely sense for slapstick, and mostly (as my companion put it), he just seems extremely comfortable in his own skin. At one point, he had Nemorino slicing up an apple and tossing the chunks into the air, attempting to catch them in his mouth, all during a rather involved aria - sometimes mid-note! Never mind that he missed every chunk, that only added to the gag.

When Vargas came out for the final scene, suitcase in hand, and the bassoon started into the melody of "Una furtive lagrima," I couldn't quite believe it. I had completely forgotten the context of this famed aria (hey, critics can't remember everything), and realized that Donizetti and Vargas were going to interrupt all this fine farce to offer up a gorgeous aria full of pathos. It just seemed ridiculously generous, and the results were almost predictable: one of the most stirring, rapturous moments of the season, the kind of moment that builds legends.

Through Nov. 26, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, $15-$290, 415/864-3330,

Photo: Ramon Vargas. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov

San Francisco Opera, October 22

One of the more popular debates in opera circles is that of music vs. theater, and I have always been unwilling to give up the latter for the former. Sadly, this is not a problem for the Russian composers, and my first-ever viewing of Boris Godunov was no exception.

Mussorgsky's score is majestic and innovative, but he manages to take a terribly exciting plot (culled from the historical tragedy by Pushkin) and turn it into mush, pushing all the action offstage while those onstage spend their time philosophizing and psychologizing. In short, the title character is involved in a plot to murder the heir to the Tsar's throne, Tsarevitch Dimitri. Dimitri's death eventually opens the way for Godunov to become Tsar, but rumors circulate that perhaps young Dimitri was not actually killed. A monk, Grigory, approximately the same age that Dimitri would be, escapes to Poland and pretends to be the Tsarevitch, raising an army for an attack on Godunov. You've got to go a pretty long way to make this kind of a plot boring, but Mussorgsky, acting as his own librettist, does the job only too well.

The highlight of the opera is Grigory, especially as sung by the forceful tenor Vsevolod Grivnov. He is aided by the comic relief of his traveling companions, two vagabond monks played by Matthew O'Neill and Vladimir Ognovenko, and by some exciting pistol-play at an inn near the Lithuanian border.

Then, halfway through, Grigory disappears, leaving it up to our Boris, the legendary bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, to fill in the details, notably in a long soliloquy at the beginning of the second act. At 66, Ramey admits that he is near the end of his singing career, but proves himself still capable (after a little warm-up) of delivering that lovely dark-lacquer tone, along with enough acting chops to instill his performance with the Hamlet-like torments that occupy the remainder of the opera. He is helped greatly by the town simpleton, played by SFO Adler Fellow Andrew Bidlack, who applies his lovely lyric tenor to the accusatory, haunting Simpleton Song, "Weep, Russian people, starving people." The Tsar's peril is also represented by the forbidding presence of his advisor Prince Shuisky (tenor John Uhlenhopp) and young Jack Gorlin, who gives an impressive performance as the Tsar's son, Fyodor.

Goran Wassberg's set designs are grand and inventive, particularly an enormous wooden ramp full of trap doors that unfurl brilliant, humongous icon banners. Ian Robertson's chorus carries the many hoi polloi scenes with aplomb, and Vassily Sinaisky's orchestra reveals the full range of Mussorgsky's score, particularly in the foreboding voicings of brass

Through Nov. 15, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., $15-$290,, 415/864-3330.
Photo: Samuel Ramey as Boris Godunov, John Uhlenhopp as Prince Shuisky. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Mozart's Idomeneo

San Francisco Opera, Oct. 15, 2008

One might consider Idomeneo a "connoisseur's opera." Giambattista Varesco's libretto is pretty much a slapped-together mess, and the dramatic pace crawls in comparison to Mozart's later works, but it's fascinating to see the progress the 25-year-old had made in reworking the conventions of opera seria (much influenced by the reforms of Gluck), and also how far he had come in developing his musical faculties.

The plot is an odd little amalgam. Take a Greek warrior mentioned briefly in the Iliad (Idomeneo), insert a command from Neptune to sacrifice a child (see Abraham and Isaac, Iphigenie), then sign a free agent, Electra, from the Sophocles United tragedy footballers club, just to add a little juice. Voila! A sort-of-Greek-tragic-opera.

Not that I'm complaining about that last addition. Spurned by the sacrificial son, Idamante, Electra goes on a rampage, and if her "storm aria," "Tutte nel cor vi sento," doesn't remind you of the Queen of the Night's "Der Holle Rache," you really should get out more often. The piece is delivered with all due fury by Georgian soprano Iano Tamar.

But the musical mix is also intriguing for the things we're not used to hearing from Mozart, especially the A-B-A aria form that brings the action to lengthy, albeit gorgeously musical, halts. You might even hear a few old-fashioned Handelian runs. But even within these confines, you can see the true Mozart developing, working on the concept that would centuries later be called "through-composing" - tying Electra's aria, for instance, into the following scene, a storm that wrecks Idomeneo's ship. (Afterwards, he vows to Neptune that he will kill the first person he sees on the beach as thanks for allowing him to survive - that's perfectly rational, right? - and who should be out beachcombing but his very own son, Idamante?)

San Francisco does a yeoman's job of providing the opera with every advantage enjoyed by more popular offerings - including some stellar voices. Tenor Kurt Streit lends power and presence to the title figure, endowing his passages with a superb sense of legato and portamento, particularly in the opera's best-known aria, "Fuor del mar." Performing the captive Trojan princess Ilia (another smuggled character, her name drawn from Troy's alternate designation, Ilium), Austrian soprano Genia Kuhmeier at first seems too understated, but the captivating sweetness of her tone draws the listener in, especially in her Act III aria, "Zeffiretti lusinghieri." (I keep mentally casting her as Figaro's Susanna, a role she has apparently not yet played.)

In the trouser role of Idamante, mezzo Alice Coote is pleasingly powerful, particularly in her opening aria, "Non ho colpa." Her strength compensates for her movements, which are not quite up to modern standards of manly verisimilitude (perhaps some chewing tobacco? Boxers?) SFO Adler Fellow Alek Shrader, meanwhile, exhibits a driving lyric tenor as the king's advisor, Arbace, notably in the Act II Allegro, "Se il tuo duol." The aria seems a bit much for an older supporting character, a quirk that derived from the tremendous ego of the role's originator, Domenico de Panzacchi. Shrader takes full advantage.

The production design of John Copley does a beautiful job of acknowleding the fragmented nature of the opera, beginning with the fragments of classical ruins that fly about John Conklin's sets. Costumer Michael Stennett joins the dialogue with classic Greek drapes and robes that feature foofy Enlightenment accessories, as if Mozart and the denizens of Crete were having a fashion war. Interesting to note that Ilia and Idamante, two characters much less given to Crete's religious superstitions, walk around in costumes completely contemporary to the composer. Idamante's golden waistcoat is particularly majestic.

As for Donald Runnicles and orchestra, I keep going back to the strings, which do a superb job of exhibiting the young composer's innovations, especially the soft rain of pizzicato in the final scene as Idomeneo invokes the presence of Neptune. Ian Robertson's chorus is also superb, especially in the sumblime Act II chorus "Placido e il mar, andiamo," a prayer for calm seas. The opera's ensemble pieces in general give a profound indication of things to come, notably the famed quartet "Andro, ramingo e solo," which travels in captivating sequences among Ilia, Idamante, Idomeneo and Electra.

Through Oct. 31, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, $15-$290, 415/864-3330,

Photo: Soprano Genia Kuhmeier as Ilia. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part XII

The School of Barbie, Part Two

As my friendship/fanship with Barbara Divis grew, I inevitably began to draw comparisons with my first soprano-pal, Jennifer der Torossian. The main thing is, Barbara is much more instinctual. Not that she's some kind of "natural" who doesn't have to work at it - she works tirelessly - but she doesn't analyze things as deeply as Jennifer. Both approaches have their pluses and minuses.

Comparisons came to an uncomfortable head as I approached the book release for my opera novel, Gabriella's Voice. As a natural-born ham, I have never approved of the basic bookstore-reading format (author stands at podium, reads from book zzzzzzzz), and Gabriella cried out for some live performance. When I approached Jennifer about this, she was stumped as to how to go about this. The idea of pulling in a keyboard player was too cumbersome, and she was a little nervous about performing in such an odd space. I completely understood, but I realized that I had to think about my own career now, and so I went to Barbara. Barbara had just the thing. She had found some wonderful orchestra-only CDs of famous arias, and made plentiful use of them in the past. "All we need is a good stereo," she said. I set up a reading at Borders Books in Los Gatos (located in a lovely former theater), and did a few rehearsals with Barbara. (In addition to the arias, she proved to be excellent at the "half-acting" style of reading dialogues from the page.) The reading drew 200 people - a ridiculous number for a relatively unknown author. The evening was astounding; we performed scenes from the novel, and then Barbara sang arias - "Mi chiamano Mimi," "Un bel di" - that related to the scenes.

(I once tried out the karaoke-opera thing myself. A mezzo friend had a collection at her home, and I learned, of all things, "Stride la vampa" from Il Trovatore - an octave down, natch. When I tried it out at my local karaoke bar, my singer friends were astounded - largely by this vastly different choirboy voice I was using, a far cry from the one I use for Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra tunes.)

One would think that I had already gotten all I deserved from my friendship with Barbara, but a few years later she did something that pretty much saved my soul. In 2002, I went to New York to propose to my long-time girlfriend, Ginevra. Barbie had left Opera San Jose and moved to Long Island, mere miles from Ginevra's house, to pursue her career. Ginevra decided to arrange some readings for Gabriella's Voice, and Barbara agreed to perform them with me. The first two readings on Long Island were disastrous. The stores had done no publicity, and had recently changed their policy on in-store CD sales. Barbara had a collection - absolutely the most amazing self-published aria collection I've ever heard - and depended on their sales for both publicity and a little help with the rent money. She showed up, regardless, and one night sang her heart out for five people (three of them me, Ginevra and the store publicist). I have never seen such an act of "troupership" and generosity in my life, and this act of fulfilling one's promises, no matter what, will always color my thoughts when people ask about Barbara's character.

I managed to repay her a little bit a week later, when we appeared at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble, a mere stone's throw from The Met. We had a decent gathering there, and I took some time, as Barbara filled up the joint with "Un bel di," to wander to the window and gaze down on New York. I imprinted the moment with this thought: "You are looking down on Broadway as Barbara sings Butterfly - remember this." It was quite an evening.

The proposal was a bit of a disaster, also (and later a novel, Rhyming Pittsburgh). As for the CD, you can get that at

Since that time, Barbara has assembled a fruitful career singing at regional companies - Austin, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Hawaii - but has never quite cracked that glass ceiling into the Houstons, Seattles and New Yorks. She does, however, get glowing reviews on a regular basis (last year, a lovely review of her Butterfly in Arizona), and regular calls from me reminding her that she is making a living singing opera, which is pretty darned impressive, and that she should never do anything to deprive the world of that fabulous voice.
Photo: Barbara Divis as Nedda in Opera Santa Barbara's 2008 Pagliacci. Photo by David Bazemore.

Next: Barbara makes her debut in the world of fiction.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part XI

The School of Barbie

The late '90s was, for me, a cornucopia of opera: trips to SFO, Jennifer der Torossian and the Bay Shore Lyric, and the research and development of my opera novel, Gabriella's Voice. My perceptive and critical skills had come to an absolute peak - just in time for Barbara Divis to come in a and blow them all away.

Barbara began her four-year residency at Opera San Jose in 1996. It didn't take me long to realize that this was a special singer.

(This, by the way, is a little game we play at Opera San Jose. Since the company's specialty is developing young singers, the patrons spend a lot of intermission time guessing who will "make the bigs." One night, a baritone named Mel Ulrich was playing Don Giovanni, and I told my companion, "What the hell is he doing here?" Within three years, Mel was playing leads with the New York City Opera.)

My reviews for Barbara began to take on ridiculously poetic tones. Granted, I actually am a poet, but that flavor of writing rarely invades my journalism. Thanks to Barbara's website (, I will now quote myself:

"(The) cast was one of the strongest in recent Opera San Jose history. Divis returns with a stunning new shimmer in her vibrato, evident especially in the haunting Vilja."

"The all-important principals, Divis and tenor Robert McPherson, sing this stuff like they were born to it. If last season's Lucia weren't proof enough, this Juliet removes any doubt about Divis' remarkable range and agility. One minute she's tossing off poofy florist-shop cadenzas in the sprightly waltz, the next she's unfurling streams of triple­-F agony at the news of Romeo's poisoning. And her top notes are downright captivating."

"Divis was divine, endowing the opera's most empathetic character with an appealingly gentle strength. To picture her lush descending tones at the finish of 'Bei Mannern,' please visualize a silk burgundy scarf wafting down from a third-story window."

Note that last line: when does an opera critic go to such lengths to draw an analogy like that? But her great care in crafting her lines, her ability with dynamics, demanded such illustrations. And the sheer power of her voice! She is perhaps the only singer I have personally heard that I have dared to mention in the same sentence as Tebaldi, because she shares that quality of a huge yet supernaturally agile tone. And, as I watched, it began to improve, taking on a lyric shimmer, a sense of the tone spinning out through the air, that I have rarely seen duplicated.

I am generally pretty careful about hanging out with performers. There's always the chance that I may, someday, have to write something unpleasant about them. But then one night I saw Barbara in Eugene Onegin, and added tremendous acting ability to my already high regard for her talents. I had always considered Tchaikovsky's famed Letter Scene as problematic. Despite the remarkable beauty of its orchestral sweeps, dramatically the scene is basically an infatuated teenage girl saying, "Oh, I don't know - should I like send the letter? Should I like not? Am I being like totally a dweeb? Oh. My. Gawd. I am in like one of those die-lemma things!" Twenty freakin' minutes of this nonsense.

Barbara, however, managed to take these silly adolescent back-and-forths and give to each a distinct emotional character. She actually made it interesting. And of course, her singing - more relentless gushing from me. That was enough. I was never, ever going to write a bad word about Barbara Divis, so I introduced myself after the show. Naturally, she was delighted (and don't try to tell me that sopranos don't read reviews), but fairly quickly the subject turned to tennis.

Barbara and I share that lovely trait of low metabolism, and she is constantly concerned about "fitting into those gorgeous gowns that they give me." Thus, we began to meet for tennis, and it was my job to ruthlessly run her from one side of the court to the other. I was perfectly happy just to rally - she's a good player, so we can sometimes run it up to a couple dozen shots - but Barbara insisted on sets. She figured that the competition would make us play even harder, and she was right. The terribly comic part was that, even though I have a foot of height, a gender-based muscle advantage and a few more years of competitive play on her, she fully expects herself to beat me, and gets terribly upset when she doesn't. I can still hear her self-abasing cries of "Oh, Barbie!"
Next: Barbie and the Gabriella's Voice reading

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part X

The Opera Wars

When my soprano pal Jennifer der Torossian and her family founded Bay Shore Lyric Opera in Capitola, they were savvy enough to know that an essential element for building an opera audience in a region that previously had none was to encourage coverage and critique from the local press. But the local editors all told them, "We don't have someone who knows enough about opera to actually critique you." So, they got proactive. They introduced me to an editor at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and, after a perusal of my clips, he took me on.

In the oft-discussed ethical problem known as conflict of interest, there are many, many shades of gray, especially in a community arts scene. Veteran arts writers tend to befriend local directors and performers - especially the good ones. There's really no avoiding it. That said, reviewing would seem to be rife with potential conflict.

Not so with me. I am absolutely incapable of writing a good review of a bad performance - even if the star were my grandmother, on her birthday. But I am well aware of impressions, so here's what I told my new editor: I was friends with Jenny, but the friendship originated with her exceptional talent and taste. However, if she had a bad night, I forewarned her that I would write it up exactly as I saw it. Jenny, in fact, often told me that I scared the hell out of her mother-producer Claire, because I was the one writer in town who really knew what good opera was.

Things went swimmingly for a couple of years. Not much need to criticize Jenny, who was superb as always, but I did find a few needed improvements in production quality and tenor vocals. Then another company sprouted up in town, led by a lyric soprano and her tenor husband. They were doing Carmen, and pestered my editor until he agreed to send a reviewer. It was a memorable performance. Basically because it was the most godawful thing I've ever seen on a stage, an unintentional farce in which the Carmen could neither sing (this being a mezzo role, after all), dance or approximate any level of onstage sexuality. The so-called seductive dancing scene between Carmen and Don Jose was downright painful, and the orchestra was more like a polka band, with the conductor trying to fill in missing parts on an organ. The chorus wore that deer-in-the-headlights look of first-graders playing pieces of fruit in a skit on nutrition.

In critical circles, in small communities, there's an unwritten policy about shows like this. We simply don't print the review. It would be too harsh on the performers, and anything less than an honest review would be too harsh on those who might purchase tickets for it. Given a choice between a vicious review and an inaccurate one, you print nothing. So I called up my editor, assuming that we would be taking this option.

"Are you kidding me?" he asked. "If I don't at least run a review, I'll never hear the end of it."

I wrote a review full of charitable euphemisms, attesting to the difficulties of putting on opera as a form, and suggesting that this group was not yet up for the job. The Sentinel printed it, and the following week I got a call from my editor.

He said he had to take me off the opera beat. Our lovely Carmen said that I was friends with the other opera company in town, and that this bias clearly showd in the horrible review I wrote about her company. I reminded my editor that he knew about this conflict ahead of time, that he knew I was right about the performance, and that a viewing of said production would remove all doubt. But he was having none of it. Clearly, he was going to be a wuss. Clearly, he just wanted to get this annoying woman out of his hair.

"I really like your writing, though. Would you be interested in covering theater for us?"

"I don't think so," I said. I hope that my tone carried the proper connotation of Fuck you.

A month later, that same editor saw a production at Jennifer's theater, fell in love, and wrote up a three-page feature on them to erase any misgivings from The Opera Wars. A lot of good it did me, but at least he was admitting, in a sideways fashion, that he was wrong.

Amazingly, a few years later, I got a gig reviewing Bay Shore Lyric Opera for another paper in town, the Santa Cruz branch of San Jose's Metro, for whom I'd written theater and opera stories for some 15 years. The moment my first review hit the stands, however, my editor got a call from the same Godawful Carmen, and I was once again summarily dismissed from the assignment. This time I didn't make too much complaint (desiring to keep my assignments in San Jose), but I certainly enjoyed myself a few years later when I got a better offer from a rival paper and told Editor Chickenshit Number Two that I was no longer writing for him.
Photo: A Much Preferable Alternative, Liliane Cromer, Jorge Gomez in Bay Shore's 2000 Carmen.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part IX

The Birth of Gabriella's Voice

The result of all my research and backstage spywork (along with two years of writing) was Gabriella's Voice, which takes place in one of my favorite places on Earth: Bainbridge Island, across the Sound from Seattle. I transplanted the entire Bay Shore Lyric Opera there, under the name of the State Ferry Opera Company. Interestingly, although Gabriella Compton has the voice, training and opinions of Jennifer der Torossian, my muse, she is very much not Jenny. I was after someone with a more blue-collar background, someone who works as a barista in Seattle just so she can take the ferry across the water and sing.

Into the State Ferry's Barber of Seville wanders Bill Harness, a mysterious middle-aged man who watches the show, astounded at Gabriella's talent, and then leaves a thousand-dollar check in the raffle jar. He intends to leave it at that, but he is in love with that voice, and eventually, breaking through much skepticism, wins the friendship of its owner. The pivotal theme of the novel is that, while Bill loves Gabriella's voice, Gabriella loves Bill's tragedy, the three dark stories of his musical family that have driven him to this strange cross-country quest.

For me, it was easy to connect with the tragic, because my mother passed away from cancer in 1993. This always-present sense of grief propelled the book, and gave Gabriella and Bill's relationship a beautiful depth that I may never duplicate. Interestingly, the novel was rejected as "too plot-driven" by an academic press, and then as "too intellectual" by a commercial press, before finding its home with John Rutledge's Dead End Street Press, based in Hoquiam, Washington, a mere hour's drive from the novel's locale. The book was released in March 2001.

Following, an excerpt from the novel. See for more.

There was only one appropriate response to this larceny of memory, and that was caffeine. I showered and headed east for Cafe Trademark. Along the way I spotted a hair salon, reminding me of other recent profound events, and found myself whistling bits of the “Barber” overture as I entered the cafe. A tall girl at the counter gave me the side of her eyes, then faced front with a full customer-service smile.

“Buongiorno, signore. What’ll ya have?”

“Un espresso con panna,” I half-sang, raising a handful of backward fingers to get just the right inflection.

“Little cioccolata on top?”

“Mille grazie.” I clinked my change into the tip jar and retired to a far corner, then realized immediately that the heat produced by the coffee machines had settled there like an inversion layer. I moved to a spot near the front windows instead and opened a copy of The Stranger to the personals, amusing myself with the many exotic variations and acronyms, feeling all the while like I was forgetting something. Or something was forgetting me. Or that the strips of pockmarked hardwood at my feet were sending me coded signals and I had left my decryption device in the car. A couple of gloriously gay Broadway Avenue boys came in just then, attacking the girl at the counter with a ballet of hightoned repartee and loose-limbed gestures. She laughed, shaking the ring of shoulder-length red hair that framed her face. I realized I was staring and shook myself out of it, checking the astrology page under Capricorn. “I don’t know about you, Cap….”

V-shaped chin, slightly upturned nose…

“You’ve been getting signals as big as the Goodyear….”

Large, expressive mouth, high cheekbones…

“Blimp and yet you keep cruising down the interstate like

Wide, ripe lips, a slight crease in the top…

“trucker on intravenous No-Doz. You’d better.…”

Cat-like face... and...

“Pull into the next station for some nachos before you….”

I checked the whipped cream on my espresso and found a sprinkling of chocolate like... freckles! Then looked to the counter and found my final confirmation. The tall girl glanced at
something in my direction with eyes the color of walnut shells, then one of the Broadway boys told her a joke and she rolled them upward in the universal expression of teenage girldom. With my eyes I played a little game of dress-up, taking away her shock of red and replacing it with a mane of long, thick umber, and there she was, my diva. The mere sight of her brought back
entire passages of music.

The grasp of her identity made me suddenly wary of looking her way at all. I forced my eyes out the window and found myself staring at a zaftig woman in a blue plaid shirt reading an Isaac
Asimov novel. When she, in turn, found me looking at her and smiled back, I locked my gaze instead on the paper I was no longer reading. My innocent instruments of sight had suddenly become politically charged projectiles, and after two minutes and a few fully comprehended words, I decided that this was getting really ridiculous. Clearly, I would have to face the idea that keeping my sweet little Italian ward a non-speaking, ever-singing fantasy stage figure was something no longer in the realm of possibilities. I gave myself a mental slap on the cheek and headed toward the counter, where she stood fully prepared to continue our previous conversation.

“Buongiorno, signore! You’ve come back.”

“Si, signorina. I wish to...”

“You want seconds?”

“Er, no, I...”

“You want a muffin, perhaps. Or a peanut butter cookie.”

“Please, no, really, I...”

I found myself completely abandoned by the English language, and as my stammering silence drew itself out I could see a fringe of suspicion working its way over Gabriella’s shoulder like a shadow. I picked up a napkin from the counter, folded it in half and said, “Una voce poco fa, qui nel cor mi risuonò.”

Gabriella looked at me with all the glowing affection of an IRS auditor. “Uh-huh,” she said.

“You are... Rosina?”


“Of course,” I said. “Gabriella. I’m Bill, Bill Harness.” I extended a hand over the counter; she shook it insincerely.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t mean to bother you, but I saw you perform the other night, and you have an incredible voice.”

“Mille grazie,” she said, then squinted her eyes as if she were developing a headache. “Look. Bill. I’m sorry if I seem less than delighted at the recognition, but I have sort of a Clark Kent complex around here. Otherwise I tend to attract middle-aged men with diva fantasies.”

“Could I talk to you later? I want to talk about your voice.” Her squint got narrower. “You didn’t hear me, did you, Bill?”


“What I said before. Just now.”

We were interrupted by a young Indian couple who ordered a couple of iced cappuccinos. I slipped a dollar in the express refill bucket and poured myself a house decaf as I decided whether to be offended by Gabriella’s last comment. I came to the conclusion that Gabriella Compton could be the meanest, evilest she-bitch in the Northern Hemisphere and I couldn’t care less. As long as she was the gatekeeper to that glorious instrument of hers, I would tear my way through any abuse she could dish out. She handed the Indian couple their drinks and turned to the back sink, pretending to wash something as she avoided my gaze. Finally she turned back around and looked me over with folded arms and pursed lips.

“Still here, huh?”


“Need anything? Carrot juice? Double mocha? Almond biscotti?”

I saluted her with my decaf and smiled. “Nope. I’m fine.”

She leaned over the counter and clicked her nails across the surface like horse’s hooves. “So. You want to talk. What about?”

“Your voice, as I said. Your acting. And opera. About the second ‘ma’ you threw into ‘Io sono docile.’ About those bell-like staccatos you throw around like ping-pong balls, and the way your
mezzo voce reminds me of Montserrat Caballe with its clean, easy grace, and that three-pulse trill you stole from Tebaldi.” Gabriella was working hard to maintain her untrusting squint, but I could tell I had at least caught her attention. She waved a dismissing hand in front of her face.

“I’m sure you could have picked all that up from books, or album sleeves, or maybe one of the regulars at the opera.”


Her eyes went to the door. “Oh. Hold on a minute.” She walked to the end of the counter and motioned the dairy delivery guy to the swinging doors of the kitchen. He pulled in a crateful of
Half ‘n’ Half and set it down next to the cooler. Then she came back to me. Her eyes were a little more open now, but she was still running up the numbers in her head. She took a sourdough
bagel from a pile on the counter and loaded it into a small steel cylinder. Then she took a smaller cylinder, this one armed at one end with a sharp triangular blade, and positioned it inside the larger cylinder. And then she looked at me.

“Name a French opera that takes place in Seville.”

“Carmen,” I said. Gabriella slammed down on the cylinder, and out the other end popped the bagel, neatly sliced in two. She loaded up another.

“Name the tenor smuggler from that opera.”

“Le Remendado.”

Again she slammed the cylinder. Again the bagel came out the other end, neatly bisected. She loaded in another.

“A singer’s primary range is known as a...”


Slam! This time, a poppyseed.

“The original name of Rigoletto was...”


Slam! Oat bran.

“Cast me in a major role.”

“Lucia di Lammermoor.”


“Susanna in ‘Figaro.’ Maybe Gilda.”

“How about Cio-cio-san?”

“You’re not ready.”

Slam! French onion.

“The trouser role in ‘Der Rosenkavalier.’”



“You’re writing a new opera. Where do you take it?”



“Pronounce ‘Eugene Onegin’ in Russian.”

“Yev-GHEN-nee Oh-NYAY-ghin.”


Gabriella paused, a bit winded, to study her remaining bagels.

“God, you’re tough,” she mumbled, then loaded in a cinnamon raisin. “Okay, how about this. ‘Die Zauberflöte’ and ‘Fidelio’ are both examples of...”


“Which are?”

“Austro-German operas in which musical scenes are divided by passages of spoken dialogue.”


“Okay. You’re casting for a studio recording of ‘Tosca.’ Callas or Tebaldi?”



By now it was clear that I had already passed Gabriella’s test. Down to one last blueberry bagel, however, she was determined to stump me at least once. She flipped her final victim ring-toss-style onto her index finger, slid it into the cylinder, leveled her eyes at me like she had me for sure and said, “The name... of Tebaldi’s... poodle!”

I took the last sip from my decaf and set it on the counter.

“New First,” I answered.

Gabriella meant to welcome her blueberry bagel to the guillotine with a frustrated sotto voce gasp of “Shit!” but instead the word took on concert wings and flew from her larynx on a bright A-sharp, fluttering around the room and alarming the customers before it escaped out the front door. Its owner flashed me an embarrassed grin.

“Whuh-oops! Don’t you hate it when that happens?”

“Never happens to me.”

“Didn’t think so. Look. I’m convinced. You are really into this shit. Tell you what. I’ve got a meeting with the music director this afternoon on Bainbridge. There’s a coffeehouse called
Pegasus, on the waterfront, two blocks down from the theater. Meet me there at six, and we’ll talk about my voice.” She aimed a finger at my nose. “Just don’t turn into a creep, okay?”

“Wouldn’t think of it.”

“Good. Now get outta here, wouldja? I’m liable to let out another note and scare all these fine folks away.”

I was already on my heels, turning for the door. “Addio, Gabriella,” I said, and made my way to Broadway for a sandwich.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part VIII

Critics Gone Wild!

The humor and absurdity of opera that I explored in my SFO reviews found its way into my novel, Gabriella's Voice, but also drifted into my reviews for Metro - which was, after all, an alternative newspaper, affording the perfect venue for a little attitude. Once, when the female leads lacked the power to penetrate either the orchestra or the the abysmally sound-sucking Montgomery Theater, I referred to it as "a new Anthony Hopkins/James Gandolfini production, 'The Silence of the Sopranos.'" Later, fed up with the preposterous Masonic plotlines of The Magic Flute, I wrote, "if master dramatists Verdi and Puccini were transported back in time to witness this thing, they would probably feel obliged to kick Mozart's ass." (And yes, even though the music is divine, I still feel that way). My favorite, however, was when an OSJ mezzo found a new, innovative way to play Carmen, one of the most often-overacted characters in opera. It read simply, "That Layna Chianakas is such a slut." The story inspired a phone call from Layna herself, who told me that my review had everyone backstage laughing hysterically.

Photo: Thomas Truhitte and that slutty Layna Chianakas from Opera San Jose's 2000 production of Carmen. Photo by Daniel Herron.

See original Carmen review:

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part VII

The Case of the Missing Musetta

One Sunday, I was walking around Capitola after working on a chapter of Gabriella's Voice, when I spotted a big crowd outside the Bayshore Lyric Opera Theater. I ran into one of Jennifer's sisters, who told me that the San Francisco-based soprano playing Musetta in their La Boheme had gone missing, and that they were trying to figure out how to present the cafe scene without her. I asked if I could spy on the attempt, and found a nice place to stand in the back of the theater. What I witnessed was a little crazy, rather astounding and undoubtedly courageous.

Liliane Cromer, the company's principal mezzo, walked her way through the scene, score in hand, pantomiming Musetta's actions and even managing to get through Musetta's famed Waltz in reasonable form (she had never performed it, but like any singer had heard it dozens of times). Soon afterwards, as her character went comically back and forth between her sugar daddy and the jealous painter Marcello, she wasn't actually singing her lines, just acting out her motions - but a soprano voice was coming from somewhere to fill in her parts. It was then that I spotted my soprano friend Jenny, playing Mimi, sitting at a table with her Rodolfo. She was hiding her face in a menu as she filled in Musetta's parts (from memory) then popping back up whenever Mimi needed to provide a comment. The cast got through the scene relatively unscathed, received an uproarious ovation from the audience (opera audiences love this kind of thing), and then finished the opera with their actual Musetta (who, poor thing, had forgotten that the Sunday show was a matinee, and probably broke soprano speed records driving there). But those who were there that day had much better than an opera, they had a story to tell their friends - and I had another bit of testimony as to the musical prowess of my friend Jenny, who, in fact, could sing two roles at once.

Next: Opera reviews for the alternative lifestyle
Photo: The courageous Liliane Cromer.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part VI

Visions of SFO

Along with the Academy of Jennifer, I felt I needed some "big-picture" background for my opera novel, which in my neck of the woods means the San Francisco Opera. Only (common writer problem) no money for tickets. Fortunately, my opportunity arrived as if I had placed a psychic order. An old colleague of mine had just started as an editor with a small paper in Santa Clara, California - the Vision, and she wanted me to write for her. Anything.

"I can only pay you twenty bucks a story," she said. "But you can write whatever you want."

"How about the San Francisco Opera?" I asked.

"Um. Sure?"

So that's how I snuck into the big leagues. Despite the smallness of the paper, I had twelve years' experience of brazenly requesting comp tickets, so the blessed folks at SFO bought my act and granted me a whole season's worth of world-class opera, with some of the world's best singers: Ruth Ann Swenson in Rigoletto, James Morris and Carol Vaness in Tosca, Patricia Racette in Guglielmo Tell, Frederica von Stade in Pelleas et Melisande, Richard Margison in Turandot, Renee Fleming in Streetcar Named Desire. I also arrived just in time for the re-opening of the War Memorial Opera House, finally repaired and retrofitted from the '89 earthquake - along with the accompanying gala, for which I received a single ticket, face value $500. Yikes! The night featured speeches from Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, and performances from Deborah Voight and Placido Domingo.

Reviewing a world-class company, I had the luxury of taking the gloves off, because rather too often there arrived what I call Emperor's-New-Clothes moments. I refer to the "barking dog of a tenor" in Guglielmo Tell and the wobbly-voiced, needed-to-retire soprano playing the teenage ice princess in Turandot. I was not nice at all - but I was right.

Granted much freedom by my paper's tininess (imagine my opera reviews next to city council minutes and sheriff's reports), I began to apply some of the tools of fiction to my columns, creating fanciful nicknames for my companions and giving them little chances to express their opinions. My sister, whose married name is Carla Vaughn Breunling, went by The Baroness. I found it interesting that, at her very first opera, her appraisal of the tenor was dead-on (I find that laypeople, in general, can tell a good voice from a bad, even when they can't tell you why). I also had fun with little sis Linda, whose very first opera, the David Hockney production of Turandot, featured a total of 500 people onstage in the very first scene. I leaned over to whisper, "It's like this every night."

I also encountered the dangers of the Soprano Opinion. Quick! How many sopranos does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three. One to screw it in, one to say, "I could have done it better," and a third to kick out the chair. Jennifer was merciless, raking on Carol Vaness's breathing techniques and vocal style so ruthlessly that I included it as a rather comic scene in my novel. I told her that a critic can't go so deep as to go around reviewing breathing techniques, that he had to focus on results (besides, I thought Vaness was fine). Regardless, Jennifer was my mentor, the whetstone for my critical faculties, so I respected her opinion.

Next: The Case of the Missing Musetta
Photo: War Memorial Opera House. Photo by MJV.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part V

The Academy of Jennifer, Part Two

My real opera education began when I invited Jennifer der Torossian to a Mexican restaurant, parked a tape recorder in front of her, and peppered her with questions as we ate. Jennifer is anything but a shrinking violet, so my part of the job was easy. She began by telling me about her childhood, how she was so fond of recreational screaming that the neighbors reported her parents to the police, assuming that somebody must be abusing that poor child. (And there was the opening of my novel.)

I also learned that her voice teacher, Maestro Salvatore d'Aura, used to work for Puccini. Maestro was a teenage tenor, singing "Che gelida manina" at the Santa Cecilia Festival in Rome, when the composer himself came up, tears in his eyes, and asked, "How did you learn to sing my music so beautifully?" Puccini was dying of throat cancer - a result of his fondness for cigars - and could no longer demonstrate his vocal lines to singers, so he hired the young tenor to do it for him.

Jenny gave me that big-eyed stare, the one that I would learn as one of her trademarks - a signal that she was about to say something impressive. "I have scores," she said, "with Puccini's handwritten notes in the margins!"

Maestro thus became my novel's most implausible character: Maestro Giuseppe Umbra, 93-year-old voice teacher and raconteur. I didn't realize until much later that I had offered up an Italian pun: "aura" meaning light, "umbra" meaning dark.

Jennifer's father, Papken, was a big-time Silicon Valley developer who owned a seaside filmhouse in Capitola. The family decided to turn the theater into an opera house, with mother Claire acting as producer and Jennifer as prima donna. I attended the first production, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and was simply astounded at the voice that emanated from the balcony at Jenny's first entrance. I soon came to understand that this was the result of bel canto training, a Jedi-like discipline with breathing techniques and phrasing that produced an effervescent tone seemingly freed from the physical body of its owner. This became the central theme of my novel, Gabriella's Voice - the idea that someone could fall in love with a voice separate from its creator.

I also took great delight in the quirks of the Bay Shore Lyric Opera - the way the water in the Seville fountain would rise and fall depending on the flushing of toilets in the restrooms, the way the cafe wall in a production of La Boheme collapsed one night, nearly taking out Rodolfo. With Jennifer's permission, I set up an unofficial residency and began taking mental notes.

The company's breakout production was The Marriage of Figaro. The opera is much too challenging for most companies, but with Maestro's ear, BSLO managed to assemble a divinely inspired combination of voices, including a Susanna and Cherubino flown in from New York (with Jenny playing the Contessa). Through my spywork at auditions, rehearsals, performances and cast parties, I learned more about that opera than any I had seen, and assembled a richly complex and humorous supporting cast for my novel.

One day, Jenny mentioned someone named Tebaldi. My plea of ignorance inspired another of her wide-eyed stares. "You haven't heard Tebaldi?" She immediately put on a CD, and my ears were met with the most perfect soprano voice I would ever hear: a broad tone, smooth as butter but alarmingly agile, like an aircraft carrier that navigates like a speedboat. My adoration of Tebaldi would grow so much over the years that I became an evangelist, and upon her death in 2004 received more than a half-dozen notes of condolence. You would have thought that I had lost a close relative.

Next: SF Opera and the big picture
Photo: Maestro Salvatore d'Aura with Met great Licia Albanese. Photo by Robert Sheaffer.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part IV

The Academy of Jennifer

One day in the mid-nineties, my editor at Metro, Michael Gant, called with a rather odd assignment.

"There's this soprano who's giving a recital at San Jose State. I keep telling her father that we don't cover recitals, but he keeps hounding me. Tell ya what, it's a free concert, so why don't you check it out for me? If it turns into nothing, I'll give you ten bucks for your time."

I wasn't expecting much, but it was nice to see the old concert hall, to take in that familiar musty smell along the hallways. I took a program and a seat, feeling like a spy, and listened to the opening act, a rather run-of-the-mill mezzo. Then came Jennifer der Torossian, the soprano in question.

Jennifer radiated a professionalism and panache far beyond her bachelor's degree, and her voice was astounding. It carried a buoyant lyricism that I would soon learn to seek out. She was also quite atttractive, a petite brunette with long, dark hair and large, expressive eyes. It was hard to believe that a voice of that size was emanating from such a small frame.

The details of the program are hard to recall, but the clincher was Ophelia's Mad Scene from Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet, a work notorious for its pyrotechnics (operaphiles say you've got to be already half-insane just to attempt it). As delivered by Jennifer, it brought the house down.

I slunk out of the joint like a private dick in a Raymond Chandler novel, gave my glowing report to Mr. Gant, and got my assignment. I would write a piece on Jennifer and my old choir-mate Stephen Guggenheim for the Saratoga News, a community paper owned by Metro. Both singers were Saratoga natives, and Stephen had just made his debut at San Francisco Opera. I also decided to do the photos for the piece, and a couple weeks later had a handsome cover story all my own, with a photo of Stephen on the steps of Villa Montalvo, plus a shot of Jennifer in the Villa's Greek garden.

Interviewing Stephen felt like cheating, but talking with Jennifer sparked something deeper. She had an infectious passion for opera, complemented by an encyclopedic knowledge of its history and musical pathways. I had to stop her several times during the interview to ask for definitions of terms like "spinto," "squillo" and "mezza voce," and the same puzzle I had with Irene Dalis, role names that I couldn't connect with operas.

What I began to realize was that I wanted to use the opera as a setting for a novel - but before I did so, I had to get much further into the subject. And I decided that Jennifer could be my gatekeeper. Several events fell into place to provide me with one hell of an education.
Photo: Jennifer der Torossian