Monday, November 3, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part XIII

Dramatis Personae

Here in the millennial years, I continue to expand my opera life, thank to a few years spent in the Pacific Northwest and my new assignment as West Coast stringer for Michael Sinclair's excellent New Zealand-based I had quite a blast reviewing the Seattle Opera, where they let the critics hang out in the VIP lounge with the big donors, and where Speight Jenkins' company produces classic operas in radically updated settings. (A modernized Cosi fan tutti turned the traditional Albanian disguises of the men into Aerosmith-style rocker togs. "Where are these guys from?" went one supertitle. "Aberdeen?" Which was Kurt Cobain's hometown.) I also reviewed at Tacoma Opera, and at Portland, where they presented a Macbeth with an entire modern dance company.

Now back to my hometown of San Jose, I am once again enjoying the wondrous young singers at Opera San Jose, and am back at San Francisco Opera, also, where former Houston director David Gockley is up to his usual innovations. One of the most memorable was a live simulcast of Samson et Delilah on the high-def scoreboard at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. I sat in shallow left field as kids accompanied the performance with games of catch and fanciful re-creations of the dance scenes. I couldn't resist pocketing a handful of infield dirt (perhaps touched by my shortstop god, Omar Vizquel).

Perhaps the best way to summarize the past few years, however, would be to talk about some special people. So let's do that:

Kirsten C. Kunkle wandered into a bookstore in Columbus, Ohio one day and ran into my opera novel, Gabriella's Voice. Since the book seemed to be about her - a young opera singer trying to make it big - she read it, fell in love, and wrote an astoundingly lovely review at Imagine her surprise when she got a thank-you email from the author himself. We've enjoyed a running correspondence ever since. Kirsten wrote an expanded version of her review for, and meanwhile graduated from Michigan University with a master's in voice. She's now teaching - but I do hope she continues to find opportunities to bring that great dramatic soprano voice to the stage.

Kathy Derby is a dentist friend who studied classical piano. At the age of 50, on a lark, she signed up for some voice lessons, and was told that she had an opera-level instrument. She now sings regularly at a local church, but I always thought how intriguing it would have been had she pursued a later-years career.

I met Cordell Shewell in a karaoke bar in Tacoma. Turned out he was an operatic voice coach. We spent entire evenings discussing all our favorite moments and singers (he once saw Irene Dalis in performance, and can hardly describe it, what with all the sighing). We talked so much, in fact, that Cordell's boyfriend (the one that was doing all the karaoke) got jealous - despite the fact that I "play for the other team." Serves him right, anyway - a gay man who doesn't like opera? Come on!

Rochelle Bard is the only Opera San Jose soprano to ever approach Barbara Divis in my personal pantheon. Her tone, in fact, carries that same mesmerizing "spinning" quality as Barbara's. She is also a master of coloration; as Juliette, she sang the famed "Ah, je veux vivre" in a lively and light lyric coloratura, then performed the poisoning-scene "Amour, ranime mon courage" in such a darkly foreboding tone that you could have sworn they switched sopranos at intermission. In performing the mad scene from Lucia, Rochelle produced a Sybil-like quantity of facial expressions as she drifted in and out of lunacy, and, at the final curtain, received the first instantaneous standing O that I have ever seen from our usually laid-back California audiences. Rochelle was a classical pianist who accompanied many opera singers. Once, on a lark, she tried out for a local production of The Sound of Music, and played the Mother Superior. After the show one night, a civilian angel came backstage and asked, "Why aren't you singing opera?" (Whoever you are, sir, we thank you.) Rochelle recently married an excellent OSJ baritone, Kenneth Mattice, so perhaps someday we will see some finely voiced progeny.

Sandra Rubalcava and Christopher Bengochea both went through some amazing transformations. Sandra's voice nearly trebled in size and strength during her residency at Opera San Jose. Christopher, owner of a tenor voice blessed with that Pavarottian quality of "squillo" ("ringing"), lost so much weight one summer that I had to check my program several times to make sure that really was him up there playing the Duke of Mantua. Sandra and Christopher recently had their first child, adding to the reputation of Opera San Jose as an operatic breeding ground.

Chris Spielberger is the PR director at Opera San Jose, and my personal angel. She gives me tickets to everything, whether I'm reviewing or not, and frequently does things like seating me just behind Robert Ward, composer of The Crucible (giving me the opportunity to ask him questions between acts) and inviting me to OSJ's lavish 25th anniversary gala, where I got to pretend I was a big shot.

Henry Mollicone is a world-known composer who lives right in my backyard. His Face on the Ballroom Floor is the most oft-performed modern one-act in the world, and he's currently at work at finding a larger audience for his full-length Gabriel's Daughter, set amongst slaves during the American Civil War. I interview Henry regularly, and our conversations never fail to wander into some fascinating digressions, such as his sense of jazz standards as "the American art song," or the psycho-musical underpinnings behind Puccini's manipulation of audience emotion. It's always fun to talk with Henry.

Photo: Rochelle Bard as Lucia.


Patty said...

Whoa! You score better than anyone in the orchestra! I've never received comps to opera. You lucky guy!

Michael J. Vaughn said...

Aye, that's the whole juicy scandal to being a critic. You're exchanging free pub (delivered with widely varying levels of expertise) for free culture;-) And the more free culture you get, the better a critic you become, and the better your seats get!