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.

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