Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Opera San Jose's "La Cenerentola"

November 14, 2009

In addition to fielding the best-looking cast ever, Opera San Jose supplied its opening night of Rossini's "La Cenerentola" with some remarkably deft coloratura singing. It was an evening that the composer himself would have enjoyed immensely.

For a Rossiniphile, there's no moment more suspenseful than the prima donna's opening aria, in which we discover if we're getting some authentic bel canto or a Verdi mezzo trying to stuff a whale through the neck of a bottle. Betany Coffland answered that question in about three seconds, embarking from Cenerentola's touching, folk-like theme song, "Una volta c'era un re" into a cadenza of lightness, agility and birdsong. Ah, relief. The rest of the evening was sheer enjoyment, all the way through the final and brilliant aria, "Non piu mesta."

Another great enjoyment is Daniel Cilli as Dandini, the squire who pretends to be the Prince so the real Prince might read the true natures of his bridal candidates. Although Dandini is a largely comic figure, his bel canto requirements are demanding, and Cilli makes the most of it, demonstrating that, yes, there is such a thing as baritone coloratura. I also enjoyed his "speed recitatives" as he mightily compressed the Prince's life story.

Vocally, our Prince, tenor Michael Dailey, remains a puzzlement. He retains a covered tone in his lower range that bugs the heck out of me, but this same technique produces absolutely gorgeous top notes. His best moment came with the initial "flirting" duet with Coffland, "Un soave non so che." The two characters cross the stage toward each other even as their voices mingle in mid-air.

Comically, the evening is a veritable buffet of goofiness. At the center is bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala, who plays the oafish father, Don Magnifico, with a wry cynicism, and possesses that rare ability to sing as if he is actually just conversing. This makes for a good contrast with the kinetic hysterics of his daughters, Clorinda and Tisbe (soprano Rebecca Schuessler and mezzo Tori Grayum), two good-looking women who show no fear in playing ugly, helped greatly by the corkscrew wigs and grotesque makeup jobs by Sara Beukers.

Sandra Bengochea continues to make her mark as a stage director, pulling a tremendous amount of energy from her players. She also finds an ingenious soluton to the second of Rossini's outmoded freeze-frame scenes, having the royal advisor Alidoro (bass Paul Murray) wander around engaging the robotic singers in gags, including a limbo contest and an Old West shootout. Brilliant.

Larry Hancock adds a nice layer of irony, both through his supertitles (my favorite: "Princikins!") and a final-act set design stolen from a Barbie Dream House, complete with thrones fashioned from butterfly wings (that's right - monarch butterflies). Anthony Quartuccio braved certain limb damage leading his orchestra through what must be the most quickly paced score ever created.

Through Nov. 29, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $51-$91, 408/437-4450,

Image: Bettany Coffland and Tori Grayum as Cenerentola and Tisbe. Photo by Pat Kirk.

Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," at

San Francisco Opera's "Otello"

November 13, 2009

In constructing Shakespeare's beautiful three-legged table, San Francisco Opera has provided two legs of world-champion talent. In the title role, South African tenor Johan Botha opens with the Moorish captain's ringing cry of "Esultate!" and continues in just that vein, using his mighty instrument to hurl Zeus-like bolts from the stage. Then, in the first-act love duet, he demonstrates that the lightning bolts can be tamed, producing impressively sweet passages of lyric singing. His second-act lament, "Ora e per sempre addio," is masterful.

For the second leg, Iago, Italian baritone Marco Vratogna uses subtler, craftier means. In fact, he doesn't stand out much at all in the opening act, but this makes the second-act soliloquy, "Credo in un Dio crudel, a showstopper of villainous singing. An inspiration of librettist Arrigo Boito, the Credo succeeds in spelling out Iago's motives much more directly than Shakespeare could do, and ends with a rumbling sotto voce that sends chills through the audience.

And now, for that third leg. It's not that soprano Zvetelina Vassileva doesn't possess a beautiful instrument, it's that she fails to craft her lines in a way that lines up with her character's emotions. This was most painfully apparent in the Willow Song, which fails to deliver its most necessary subtext: this is a woman who expects that her husband is going to come very soon and kill her. Dealing with a character who is, from the outset, threatening to disappear into victimhood (much like Hamlet's Ophelia), this is an opportunity that cannot be passed up. Not helping matters are the physical interactions between Vassileva and Botha. Botha is a large man whose onstage movements are problematic to begin with, but the awkward public assault of Act 3 and the comically pathetic suffocation (five seconds with a soft pillow) are inexcusable.

Nicola Luisotti was well at home with Verdi's awe-inspiring score, especially in drawing a fulsome, downright scary sound from his strings in the slashing passages of the opening thunderstorm. Peter Hall's set (from the Chicago Lyric production), makes an intriguing play on the Globe Theater. It's a pleasure to watch the machinations of the elder Verdi, who took 16 years off before composing this work, especially in his divine handling of Shakespearean dramatics. This is especialoly evident in the Act 3 Concertato, in which the entire cast expresses its amazement at Otello's behavior as Iago races around advancing several subplots in the background. The sheer efficiency is amazing.

Through Dec. 2 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," at

Photo by Terrence McCarthy

Saturday, October 31, 2009

San Francisco Opera's "Salome"

October 24, 2009

As a devotee of plot and character, I cannot entirely forgive Strauss's "Salome" for its cartoon figures. From its mythological origins through Oscar Wilde's play, the story's figures seem to be mere idea-messengers, human shells manipulated toward a greusome ending for purposes that verge on propaganda.

Fortunately, there are other reasons to see it, the primary one being to see if the soprano can actually pull of the multiple demands of the title role: dramatic vocalization, a lengthy dancing/stripping scene, and performing the world's only necrophiliac love aria. In all categories, I'd have to give Nadja Michael an A. Michael gives the massively troubled teen a self-involved intensity, delivers the kinds of searing top-notes that befit the actions and the score, and dances better than any opera singer in the world (and perhaps better than 20 percent of professional dancers). As far as her physical attributes, let's just say that she makes a convincing argument against the fat-Viking-lady stereotype (on the other hand, let's just say "Yowza!").

Sean Curran does a fine job of choreographing the Dance of the Seven Veils, managing to trigger plenty of Salome's sensuality (including an enticing flash of nudity) without inspiring the men in the front row to begin tossing dollar bills. The gore is also handled well: the life-cast of Greer Grimsley's head leaks enough blood to stock a Red Cross bank for a week, and is genuine enough to convey the horror of the scene.

When he actually has his head, Grimsely is fantastic, taking what could be dull biblical condemnations and investing them with power through his thunderous baritone. (His backstage pronouncements were delivered with the help of a megaphone fashioned from the bell of a sousaphone.) Russian mezzo Irina Mishura does well with the double-scorned mother Herodias, but British tenor Kim Begley fails to deliver the real power behind Herod's lechery.

With its use of modern tonalities, and absolutely vicious brass and percussion, its amazing to think that Strauss created this score in 1905. Consider just one of its innovations: Strauss wrote Jokanaan's (John the Baptist's) music around the tonal center of C, and Salome's around C#, thus guaranteeing that every time they met, they would produce nothing but dissonance. This happens most notably at the climax of Salome's final line, a musical event known as the "Salome chord."

Bruno Schwengl's production design follows the current trend toward minimalism, creating a shadowbox of golds and blacks that culminates in Jokanaan's cell, which resembles the aperture of a lens, creating the feeling that we are standing inside of an old-fashioned camera. His costumes are an odd hybrid of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and biblical, although Salome's white dress more resembles the one worn by Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven-Year Itch."

Nicola Luisotti's orchestra was astounding and powerful, although his stage notes promise a preponderance of piano and pianissimo that never comes. Against this artful cacophony - which propels the action forward in a way that almost drives the listener to distraction - the silences before the moment of execution create a rich Hitchcockian suspense.

Through Nov. 1, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

Image: Nadja Michael. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," at

Friday, October 23, 2009

San Francisco Opera, "La fille du regiment"

Oct. 19, 2009

The co-production idea is reaching extreme proportions these days, as a production that has already seen New York, London and Vienna touches down in San Francisco. The show is comically brilliant, highlighted by the physical humor of soprano Diana Damrau and the inventive direction of Laurent Pelly.

Although the stated influences are Laurel and Hardy, Damrau's performance is distinctly Carol Burnett, a combination of ragged red hair, the willingness to be homely and unladylike (apropos for a girl raised by soldiers) and absolute fearlessness. In Act I, she laments her agreement to marry a member of the regiment then runs to a pile of laundry and dumps herself on top of it, leaving her butt straight up in the air. During the infamous music lesson in Act II, Damrau sees her prim white dress as no obstacle to falling directly on the self-same body part, creating a priceless image of frustration.

The bonus is Damrau's voice, which shimmers in the high pianissimos like a diamond, particularly in her touching farewell to the regiment, "Il faut partir" (the aria reminds me of "Una furtiva lagrima" from "L'Elisir d'amore," both of them surprising passages of pathos in the midst of absurd farces). Her many cadenzas are as agile as gymnasts, and she has an uncanny sense for using the standard facial movements of vocal production to accentuate the current physical gag.

Juan Diego Florez lives up to every bit of his reputation as the hapless lover Tonio. Florez emanates an everyman charm, and delivers all nine high C's of the call to arms "Pour mon ame/Qual destino" with incredible ease. Meredith Arwady, a rookie alumna of SFO's Merola Program, gives a masterfully comic performance of the mezzo role, the Marquise of Berkenfeld, lending immediate pizzazz to the opening barricade scene and throwing a few Victor Borge tricks into her piano playing in the priceless music-lesson scene. Bass-baritone Bruno Pratico gives the captain, Sulpice, an amiable presence, and mezzo Sheila Nadler is just a rip and a half as the Duchess of Krakenthorp.

Chantal Thomas's set design is absolutely fascinating, a regimental encampment built on a smattering of gigantic maps, followed by a tilt-a-whirl music parlor balanced precariously on those same maps, rolled up. Pelly and choreographer Karine Girard augment the action with three priceless dance scenes: a waltz of clothesline long-johns (or perhaps a can-can), a ballet of suspiciously hairy housemaids, and an entrance minuet of fantastically crotchety senior citizens. And kudos to the SFO chorus, which excels in these scenes and with the rapscallious gents of the regiment.

Through Oct. 31, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

Image: Diana Damrau as Marie. Photo by Cory Weaver

"Yeah, Donizett does all light stuff, right? Just like Gilbert & Sullivan."
--overheard in the parking garage, a lady who has apparently not seen "Lucia di Lammermoor"

Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," at

Monday, October 5, 2009

San Francisco's Abduction from the Seraglio

September 29, 2009

The third performance of this production created one of those backstage dramas that fans sometimes enjoy more than the opera itself - though for a sad reason. Bass Peter Rose, set to play the Turkish villain Osmin, had to return home upon the death of his father. Andrea Silvestrelli, in town to perform in Puccini's "Il Trittico," performed the role earlier in Chicago (in fact, upon the same sets), and so was able to step in on a moment's notice.

Silvestrelli performed Osmin with robust enthusiasm, and his usual resounding vocal presence, although he fumbled a bit over the English dialogue. He gave notice of his presence early on in the fuming "Solche hergelauf'ne Laffen," a curse upon all wandering European fops, and spent the rest of the evening amusingly storming about.

Another early delight came in our wandering rescuer, Belmonte. Matthew Polenzani played the role with a divinely Mozartean lyric tenor, caressing his phrases and bits of coloratura with a sensitivity often missing in tenors of the Verdi/Puccini stripe. This comes in his opening aria, "Hier soll ich dich denn sehen," in which Belmonte laments the shipwreck and subsequent imprisonment of his beloved Constanze.

Playing that very heroine, soprano Mary Dunleavy excels in a similar lament, the second-act Adagio "Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose," but otherwise suffers from a difficult-to-define lack of focus. A handy contrast appears in the form of her servant, Blonde, soprano Anna Christy, who is spot-on in all categories: her singing is brilliantly centered, her physical comedy hilarious (especially the nipple-twisting torments she inflicts upon her pursuer, Osmin), and her Bernadette Peters cuteness should be insured by Lloyd's of London. One particularly effective bit of phrasing is an overlong sustenato she uses to toy with Osmin's guards in "Durch Zartlichkeit und Schmeicheln." The guards hang upon the note even as they are hanging upon the blonde.

Blonde's beau, Pedrillo, is played by tenor Andrew Bidlack with an earnest enthusiasm, seeming almost like one of those heros from 1920s movie serials. Osmin's guards lend a creepy presence with their male-geisha appearances, and the identical mustaches and outfits of the Janissaries give a cult-like quality to the scene. Charles Shaw endows the speaking role of the Pasha with an air of wisdom that succeeds in not being overbearing. (An interesting historical note: the Pasha's role was limited to speaking primarily because Mozart and his librettist, Johann Gottlieb Stephanie, were afraid another singing role would make the Singspiel too long.)

Production designer David Zinn sets the opera in a theater-within-a-theater; having the characters romp about in the balconies and front-row seats gives a nice Brechtian alienation and forgives some of the silliness of the plot (part of the Enlightenment trend of doing just about anything to take an audience to exotic locales). There are some nicely goofy bits, too, such as Pedrillo borrowing a mandolin for his serenade from the prompter's box. Director Chas Rader-Shieber has instilled a fine sense of comic energy in his troupe, and Cornelius Meister does the same for his orchestra, illustrating all the radiant nooks and crannies of a thoroughly elegant score.

Through Oct. 17, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Boulevard, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

Image: Anna Christy as Blonde. Photo by Terrance McCarthy.

See Michael's opera novel, "Gabriella's Voice," at

Friday, September 25, 2009

San Francisco Opera, Il Trovatore

Sept. 22, 2009

This is not something a critic says lightly, but I think I have just seen the best soprano I have ever seen (and heard). Her name is Sondra Radvanovsky (an American, lest that last name mislead you), and she's currently taking over the city of San Francisco as Leonora in "Il Trovatore."

Let's get extremely specific about this. Let's talk about a device that Radvanovsky uses, first in her opening Andante, "Tacea la notte placida," and most remarkably in Leonora's centerpiece Adagio, "D'amor sull'ali rosee," sung outside the palace as her lover Manrico awaits execution within. The device is a sudden diminuendo - although it doesn't feel sudden, due to the incredibly smooth quality of Radvanovsky's singing. She then takes the note to the barest of pianissimos - a single silk thread of tone, just that close to actual silence - and grows it back. But she's not done. Seeming to possess the lung capacity of pearl diver, the soprano carries the line far past the spot where an average singer might take a catch-breath, spelling out the phrase as a literally breathless audience listens. Although I have always had a problem "buying into" the implausibilities of "Trovatore," Radvanovsky had me weeping for Leonora regardless, if only for the emotional thrill ride that accompanies such gorgeous singing. It's also remarkable that she achieves these iridescent pianissimos from a position of strength - her fortes and top notes are powerful and ringing. Her instrument is a pit bull that also performs pirouettes.

New musical director Nicola Luisotti has made a special project of this "Trovatore," and it certainly shows. The cast is powerful in matters both vocal and dramatic, especially mezzo Stephanie Blythe in the "co-star" role of Azucena. Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky brings his trademark dash and power to the villain role of Count di Luna, particularly in the graceful Largo, "Il balen del suo sorriso." Tenor Marco Berti lends his warrior spinto to Manrico - although his cabaletta "Di quella pira," cut by a verse, lacks the anticipated energy. Turkish bass Burak Bilgili, meanwhile, starts things right with a muscular, compelling delivery of the story of Azucena's slain mother (I always feel like this story should come with a warning - "Pay careful attention or you will be lost for the rest of the opera").

The chorus presence - notably the legions of soldiers on both sides - is impressively active, thanks to stage director David McVicar and fight director Jonathan Rider. The vision of Manrico's men climbing the fences, guns at the ready, was an especially striking image.

Charles Edwards' sets - inspired by the works of Goya and used previously in productions at the Met and Chicago Lyric - are set upon a three-sided rotating monolith, and it's much fun to watch the next scene cruising in even as the last one is spinning away (especially Manrico and di Luna, dueling all the way offstage at the finish of Act I). The lighting by Jennifer Tipton added greatly to these artful tableaux, notably the hellish orange-yellows of the Anvil scene. Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes are intriguing, notably the top hats worn by the Count's forces and di Luna's Act I outfit, a dazzling black uniform with white button squares - going nicely with Hvorostovsky's blazing white hair.

Luisotti is well at home with Verdi, and it came through with his orchestra, which gave a lively, robust performance. Watch closely during the Anvil Chorus, by the way, and you'll note that only one "anvilist" is actually producing the famed metallic peals - a shrewd maneuver.

Through Oct. 6 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Boulevard, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330.

Image: Sondra Radvanovsky. Photo by Terrance McCarthy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

San Francisco Opera's Il Trittico

September 18, 2009

It’s impressive enough that Patricia Racette is delivering all three soprano roles in Puccini’s trio of one-acts; what’s even more impressive is the style in which she and her cohorts are doing it. Aided by sets and costumes from the 2002 New York City Opera production, SFO’s performance is a thoroughly satiating evening of opera, capped by a dazzling, Fellini-esque “Gianni Schicchi.”

The three-role trick demands a singer with versatility both vocal and theatrical, and Racette, a graduate of SFO’s Merola Program, certainly qualifies.Tackling the verismo potboiler of Il Tabarro, Racette performs the lusty, frustrated wife Giorgetta with a forceful, dramatic, tone, invested with a bit of a jagged edge.With Suor Angelica, she shifts to a classic Puccinian lyric, shaping her phrases with a light touch befitting the religious setting. Dramatically, her handling of the pivotal scene, in which she learns of the death of her illegitimate son, rang resoundingly true, and led the way into a mesmerizing performance of the beautiful “Senza mamma.”

Finally, she shifts to the Rossinian, opera buffa sensibilities of “Gianni Schicchi.” Racette sacrifices all for the laughter, trotting around in a pink Sandra Dee dress and heels and even marking up the revered “O mio babbino caro” with comic pouts and sobs. It’s a miracle that any one singer could make it through this panoply of styles (the last I knew of was Barbara Divis’s 2007 performance at Hawaiian Opera Theater), but then Racette is a pretty miraculous performer.

Not that she achieves all of this by herself. Il Tabarro offers tenor Brandon Jovanovich’s wrenching performance of “Hai ben ragione,” a tirade against the harshness of a stevedore’s life. Baritone Paolo Gavanelli achieves a fine balance with Michele, the sometimes-sympathetic, sometimes-scary husband, notably in his final, fatal litany of suspicions.

Angelica is rare for its all-female adult cast; this serves to accentuate the strength of SFO’s chorus singers, who are asked to sing together almost as a single entity, the sisterhood offering a running commentary on their eccentric peer. The stark contrast comes from contralto Ewa Podles, who applies her quirky stage presence to Angelica’s heartless aunt, The Princess.

For “Gianni Schicchi,” director James Robinson has assembled the most divine team of oddballs this side of “The Office.” The standouts include contralto Meredith Arwady as Zita, the enormous (both physically and vocally) bass Andrea Silvestrelli, and David Lomeli, who lends a brilliant tenor to the ingenue Rinuccio. The center, of course, is the title character, and Paolo Gavanelli, like Racette, displays an astounding ability to play both sides of the coin, recovering from the tormented Michele to play the crafty, cantankerous lawyer. His impression of the dead uncle, Buoso – upon which the family’s will-changing scam depends – is hilarious, with a few bits of Adam Sandler thrown in for good measure.

Allen Moyer’s “Schicchi” set – an astounding kaleidoscope of black-and-white checks – earned its own applause. Bruno Schwengl took his black-and-white costumes straight from a Fellini movie. The cast also made much use of the new electronic cigarettes, chain-smoking inside a dying man’s room as only a dysfunctional ‘50s clan could. Moyer’s “Angelica” set is a ‘50s model as well, a children’s hospital whose green-tiled walls, painted cabinets and miniature desks should evoke memories both good and bad for Catholic spectators.

It’s a joy to see Il Trittico in its original form (for the first time at SFO since 1952), especially for the testament it provides to Puccini’s virtuosity. It was almost as if the aging composer wanted to play a game of Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better, simultaneously paying tribute to verismo, the sacred music of his childhood and the great school of opera buffa. His very popularity has inspired a trendy new wave of Puccini-haters, but what’s irrefutable is that the man was an amazing musician.

Through October 3 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the opera novel “Gabriella’s Voice.” Look for his author page at

Image: Allen Moyer's Fellini-esque set for "Gianni Schicchi." Photo by Cory Weaver.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Manon, Opera San Jose, 9/12/09

It's a true delight when Opera San Jose ventures beyond the standard regional-company fare, especially when it pays off as well as it does with its recent opening of Massenet's "Manon. The reason lies squarely with its lead couple, soprano Khori Dastoor and tenor Alexander Boyer. Both singers display a deep knowledge and skill with both their characters and Massenet's music.

I could go on and on about Dastoor, who has developed into a masterful bel canto singer. The singer brings lyricism and sensitivity to Manon's opening aria, "Je suis encore tout etourdie," reaches an emotional peak with with the second-act "Adieu, notre petite table" (notably a thrilling double-forte cresendo suddenly cut off to the nearly whispered confession, "I am nothing but weakness and fragility"), then ventures into the prytechnical with the coloratura cadenzas of Manon's "brag-piece," "Je marche sur tous les chemins." Throughout, Dastoor brings out the light and dark sides that make Manon one of opera's most complex and compelling characters. It was a thrill to follow the artistry with which Dastoor shaped her lines, especially a couple of gorgeous 2nd-act diminuendos, and to enjoy the space afforded to her by Joseph Marcheso and his orchestra.

Boyer continues to make a mark with his powerful, lyric voice (and after Don Jose, finds himself in yet another sucker-for-the-ladies role). Tenors with Boyer's kind of tone can get away with murder (sorry, sopranos), but Boyer chooses not to, continually refining his approach. A good example is the third-act prayer, "Ah! fuyez, douce image" and the following duet with the repentant Manon, "N'est-ce plus ma main," in which he employs a lighter tone to bring out Des Grieux's emotional vulnerability.

The supporting roles are another strength: tenor Bill Welch, who makes the most of the comically hateful nobleman Guillot de Morfontaine; baritone Adam Meza, who enjoys himself a little too much as the caddish soldier De Bretigny; and bass Silas Elash, who lends the proper degree of gravitas to Des Grieux's father (who has that irritating quality of being insufferably right all the time). The only complaint is for baritone Krassen Karagiozov as Manon's cousin, Lescaut; he's fine vocally, but distractingly stiff in his movements.

I save a separate paragraph for "the actresses" - Pousette, Rosette and Javotte, played by soprano Jillian Boye and mezzos Cathleen Candia and Bettany Coffland. Massenet laces his party scenes with these three in the same way that Mozart decorates "The Magic Flute" with his Three Ladies, like a host serving up regular portions of creme brulee. Those three-part female harmonies are just sonically delicious.

The biggest surprise in the program was seeing the name of OSJ's General Manager, Larry Hancock, as set designer. No typo there. Already serving as supertitles translator, apparently Hancock's going to address these recessionary budgets by doing everything himself. The results for "Manon" were pretty impressive, a series of scenes designed not so much to be showy as to best augment the action. (Given Hancock's encyclopedic knowledge of opera, this is no surprise.) A couple of standout touches were the royal red bed canopy in Act 2 that rose all the way into the flies, and the creepy hand-like tree in the final scene on the road to Le Havre.

OSJ's new principal conductor, Joseph Marcheso, in addition to "playing nice" with his singers, is a hell of a lot of fun to watch; he's quite theatrical in his movements. He and the orchestra brought out all the subtleties in Massenet's work that are, perhaps the culprit in making him one of history's most underrated composers.

Through Sept. 27, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. Alternate casts. $51-$91, 408/437-4450, the serial version of Michael's novel "Outro" at
Image: Alexander Boyer and Khori Dastoor. Photo by Chris Ayers.

Friday, June 19, 2009

La Traviata, San Francisco Opera, June 16, 2009

There are few young-singer programs as successful as those at San Francisco Opera, and the faithful gathered this week to welcome back one of their hotter alumni, soprano Anna Netrebko, who has been busily conquering the opera world. The occasion was a "Traviata" that excelled in spots but seemed rather lackluster in comparison to SFO's recent productions of "Tosca" and "Porgy and Bess."

Director Marta Domingo took an interesting and apt tack in updating the time setting from 1850s France to 1920s America, sending Violetta from courtesan to flapper without much consternation, and bringing her onstage in a stylish 1929 Buick. Domingo also had a lot of fun designing the lavish art-deco party set for Act II, providing a dazzling backdrop for the silent-movie costumery and dance divertissements, including some quirky era choreography by Kitty McNamee and a wonderfully athletic dance solo from Jekyns Pelaez as the matador.

The third-act set, an astral background of hanging lamps filtered through falling snow, received a few snickers from the purists, but to hell with the purists, I liked it. It also matched well with Netrebko's marvelously understated approach to Violetta's swansong, "Addio del passato," over a sensitively played layering of strings from Donald Runnicles and his orchestra. Netrebko played with the dynamics and phrasing with great facility, a contrast with the drier approach she applied to "Sempre libera" in the first act. I enjoyed the overlong pause that she and Runnicles applied before the opening cadenza of that piece (building anticipation among the aficionados) but was disappointed that she opted out of the final high E-flat.

As Alfredo, tenor Charles Castronovo was good but not spectacular, and did have his moments, notably when Alfredo denounces Violetta before the partygoers and throws a wad of cash at her to pay for their time together. He also sang beautifully in the final duet with Violetta, "Parigi, o cara."

Baritone Dwayne Croft delivered an able Germont, though I have yet to see a singer who can make up for this character's gross schmuckiness. It doesn't help matters that Croft failed to deliver the usual passion of "Di Provenza, il mar, il suol," Germont's salute to his family's homeland. And might I add a postscript compliment to lighting designer Mark McCollough, for the flickering effect in the autumn trees of Alfredo's country home. Well done!

Through July 5, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, $15-$290,, 415/864-3330.
Image: Anna Netrebko as Violetta Valery. Photo by Terrence McCarthy

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

San Francisco Opera, Porgy and Bess, June 12, 2009

Every great once in a while, a critic faces that most daunting of tasks, writing about a production that has no flaws. Such a one is San Francisco's production of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," a work of vastly misunderstood genius that has finally, in the past few decades, received its due. This derives largely from the efforts of SFO general director David Gockley, who oversaw the first-ever production of Gershwin's complete score in 1976 at the Houston Grand Opera, 41 years after the premiere of the opera's Broadway-ized version in Boston. That said, I'm now going to hand out compliments like party favors.

Our Porgy, baritone Eric Owens, is a force of nature, rumbling away at this powerful lead role and harvesting every bit of its pathos. His showpiece is "Bess, You is My Woman," but he also stars in "Little Stars," a deceptively calm and poignant prelude to the violent actions that immediately follow: the killing of Robbins by Crown, the resident bad guy of Catfish Row. (After Crown flees from the law, Porgy takes in his beleaguered girlfriend, Bess, and the tale begins.)

Bess, fixed firmly between the sweetness she has found with Porgy and the animal lust she feels for Crown, demands a fine balance. Laquita Mitchell, equipped with a full lyric spinto soprano, fills the bill well; she is all woman, and burns brightest in "I Loves You, Porgy," after her dalliance with the fugitive Crown on Kittiwah Island. Lester Lynch endows Crown with a delicious brand of animal depravity, earning a melodrama-style booing from the audience at curtain call. His physical presence was thrilling, especially in the fight with Robbins (eviscerating him with a cotton hook) and his abusive encounter with Bess in the Act II Kittiwah scene.

Playing Sportin' Life, the dope dealer once performed by the likes of Cab Calloway and Sammy Davis, Jr., is tenor Chauncey Parker. It's a hell of a lot to ask a single performer to produce operatic notes, jazz rhythms and an evening full of slick dance maneuvers, but Parker does so with aplomb, providing particular delight with the bible-thumper taunt "It Ain't Necessarily So" (featuring such classic Ira Gershwin rhymes as "He made his home in / that fish's abdomen").

The hope of the next generation is evoked by the newlyweds Jake and Clara, a fisherman and his wife bringing up a newborn babe. Eric Greene and Angel Blue play these parts with a great sense of joy, Greene with the rascally commentary "A Woman is a Sometime Thing," and Blue with the all-important framework song "Summertime." The song's oddly fetching match of happy lyrics and sad harmonic underpinnings gets its full explanation here, serving as both a hopeful prelude and, during a horrific hurricance, Clara's fearful reprise. Blue's performance of it, in both cases, is sumptuous. The most gripping song of all is "My Man's Gone Now," a funeral lament sung by Karen Slack as Robbins's widow Serena. Slack's rendition is heartbreaking and vocally spectacular.

The supporting ensemble is amazingly good, fueling Catfish Row with a constant flow of energy, as well as handling the difficult chorus parts, inspired by negro spirituals. Most thrilling of all was the uproar created at the finale of the hurricane scene, which was enthralling in its sheer power. Give credit to stage director Francesca Zambello and Ian Robertson for marshalling these forces, as well as Jonathan Rider for choregraphing the excellent fight scenes. The set design by Peter J. Davison - from a Washington National Opera production - sets the scene among towering metal walls and rusted railings, creating a warehouse-like atmosphere that is both rugged and beautiful. Giant fallen letters from a decrepit amusement park sign give the Kittiwah Island set a fantastical aura, like the ruins of an ancient civilization. John DeMain and his orchestra played with great vigor, attacking what must be a challenging score for orchestral musicians.

And about that score. As I implied before, Gershwin's original work was pretty much eviscerated, since no opera house would allow black performers and since the composer's Broadway backers wouldn't tolerate such a long and musically adventurous piece. Which is a profound shame, because the complete work presented here is truly a revelation. Steeped in folk, jazz and classical forms as very few composers could be (and having taken trips to South Carolina to study the Gullah culture that informs the story), Gershwin tapped into a spiritual singing style that fits the traditional forms of opera surprisingly well, backing these scenes with lush orchestral accompaniment, but also stepped out to pepper the score with the jazzier songs that had made his reputation. Stringing everything together with traditional recitative, he succeeded in blending all these elements into a purely American artform that, thanks to a nationwide myopia about issue both artistic and racial, died off as soon as it was created. It was perhaps too far-seeing for its own good, and it will now be up to a new century of Americans to see "Porgy and Bess" for the work of genius that it is.

Through June 27, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, $15-$290,, 415/864-3330.
Image: Eric Owens and Laquita Mitchell as Porgy and Bess. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

San Francisco Opera, "Tosca," June 5, 2009

Tosca can be a physically brutal little opera, and SFO's latest production takes this notion to the hilt, stressing pure power in both its singing and acting. The energy of it all makes for an outstanding evening of theater.

With a magnificent series of tromp-l'oeil sets by Thierry Bosquet, inspired by a 1932 SFO production, and a straightforward approach to the music and action, the differences come largely in the small touches and decisions, notably those made by talented stage director Jose Maria Condemi. One must begin with Scarpia, played by Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli as a sort of creepy ringleader, choreographing events around him for his own maximum entertainment. At one point, he rushes to the front of the stage to reveal the torture being inflicted upon Tosca's beloved Cavaradossi, and the effect is almost like a magician announcing "presto chango" before a masterful illusion. Another particularly sleazy moment comes when he offers to take Tosca's wrap, then gives it a thorough sniffing before setting it down. He spends a large portion of the rest of his stage time pushing his lackeys to the ground - particularly the equally creepy Spoletta, Joel Sorenson, who does a lovely job of smacking the stage with maximum impact. Vocally, Ataneli doesn't quite have the lower-end gusto for the Te Deum, but his high baritone of serves him well for the rest of the performance.

Our Tosca, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, brings a strong lyric voice to the role, and isn't afraid to go a little ragged for Floria's frightened screeches (particularly after Scarpia reveals the price she must pay for Cavaradossi's freedom). She also plays the opening lines of her "Vissi d'arte" a little breathy, accentuating her character's emotional torment, and finishes the aria with some beautifully wrought diminuendos. As an actress, Pieczonka makes an excellent showing of contemplating the carving knife that has made its way into her hand (almost channeling the approach Sarah Bernhardt used in Sardou's original play), then delivers a deliciously rough stabbing. And her final leap from the parapet is quite convincing (which is more than I can say for most of the Toscas I've seen).

Cavaradossi is played by Carlo Ventre, who sings the part with a rugged lyric spinto, and delivers his top notes with a lushly broad, bronze tone. He excelled in his "E lucevan le stelle," but perhaps was even better in the arioso that follow, "O dolci mani."

In the supporting roles, Dale Travis invests his sacristan with a delightful array of tics and nervous gestures. My favorite among the costumes (costume supervisor: Jai Altizer) is Scarpia's Act II coat, purple with intricate white embroidery. Marco Armiliato's orchestra was strong throughout, especially the horns and percussion, who took great pleasure in Scarpia's thunderous motif (is there better entrance music in opera?).

Puccini's use of motif in the opera is an endless well of discoveries, and this time around I found phrases from the first-act duet "Mia gelosa" ("My jealous one") floating around as Scarpia pursued his Iago-like endeavors to use Tosca's jealousy against her. It's also a constant pleasure to study the way Puccini uses different musical forms against each other: Scarpia's vows of conquest played against the congregation singing the Te Deum, the confrontation of Scarpia and Cavaradossi against the cantata sung by Tosca in the neighboring church, and the shepherd's song (performed by Zachary Weisberg) used as a prelude to the painter's morning execution, a scene whose quietude and comings-and-goings harken back to the tollgate act of "La Boheme." It's fashionable these days to downplay Puccini's talents (and seemingly to punish him for his popularity) but it's stupid to deny this level of musical mastery.

Through June 26 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $15-$290, 415/864-3330,

Side notes: The opera was simulcast to AT&T Park, the stadium of the baseball Giants, and the principals took their bows wearing Giants paraphernalia (the sacristan, for instance, with a "#1" foam finger). They did, however, miss a prime opportunity: Scarpia should have appeared wearing the jersey of the hated rival Dodgers. Walking to the performance, it was impossible not to think of the movie "Milk," which told of the assassination of gay rights leader Harvey Milk, a crime which took place directly across the street from the Opera House at City Hall. The movie made brilliant use of scenes from "Tosca" to foreshadow Milk's murder. One of the singers in those excerpts was tenor Joe Meyers, a friend and choirmate from my college days, which made it, for me, even more personal.

Image: Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca) and Lado Ataneli (Scarpia).
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sacramento Opera, La Boheme, May 8, 2009

About the 30th time you see La Boheme, you begin to focus on the itty-bitty particulars. Thus, I am here to report that Sacramento Opera stage director Chuck Hudson opted for a bowl of pickled herring instead of the usual cartoonish prop-fish in the final scene, that the baguette was, indeed, employed in the mock duel (reinforced by a steel rod, no less), and that the sight gag used to demonstrate the failings of Musetta's new shoes was a naughty sit-down can-can.

A more important decision was the use of an upstairs loft over the tollgate in Act III, to host parts of the double-couple interplay - but this may not have been a decision at all, since the sets were borrowed from the University of Cincinnati. Brian Ruggaber's design is pretty nifty - the Paris skyline literally flies away to open up the fourth wall -but the higher elevation of the singers had the unfortunate effect of sending their voices directly into the flies. This added to the already-challenging acoustics of the Sacramento Community Theater and the sometimes overboisterous playing of Tim Rolek's orchestra.

Still, the production featured some strong young singers, equipped with quirks that were sometimes problematic, sometimes intriguing. This came through especially in the garrett scene, whose trio of hit arias did not strike gold the way they usually do. Adam Flowers was fighting his passagio in "Che gelida manina" (thought his top notes were fine), and NaGuanda Nobles sang a hurried "Mi chiamano Mimi" that refused to blossom in its usual fashion, not even at the rapturous turn when the spring sunrise comes to Mimi's windows.

With Flowers, this seemed to be simply a matter of warming up. He was back to form in the tollgate duet with Mimi, "Donde lieta usci," and downright captivating in his final-act duet with Marcello, "Ah, Mimi, tu piu non torni." As for Nobles, it turned out that "Mi chiamano" simply didn't take advantage of her outstanding feature, a sultry lower range that came to the fore in the tollgate scene and made the death scene even more devastating than usual.

I am forever amazed by Rochelle Bard's chameleonic ability to match her voice to a role. Though she's capable of broadening her tone to the depth of a lyric-dramatic when it's called for, she chose to rule that quality out completely and sing Musetta as a pure Rossinian lyric. This added an extra degree of coloratura to Musetta's famed Waltz, and allowed Bard to reveal, through deft phrasing and a gorgeous final messa di voce, the longing behind her character's seeming bragadoccio. She also does a pretty good can-can, and bosses around her Alcindoro (Burr Phillips) in an extremely amusing fashion.

As for Marcello, who continues to be my favorite of the bohemians, Nicolai Janitzky is not much more than perfect, his baritone resounding but never forced, his characterization a fine balance of Marcello's machismo and painterly sensitivity. He was the other reason that the final Marcello/Rodolfo duet achieved such a profound level of intensity. (And a brief plaudit for Tom Corbeil, who did a fine job with Colline's Coat Aria.)

Sacramento Opera's volunteer chorus was superbly energetic; Hudson led them to a degree of barely controlled chaos in the Cafe Momus scene, which is just about right (and did so without the usual scrambling children). The silver lining to the orchestra's occasional overplaying was that they were also spot-on, bringing out all the fine colors of Puccini's score. I also enjoyed the company's supertitle projection, which allowed for additional lines to be added to a single frame. This allowed the translations to more closely match the singing.

The sign of a masterwork is that, even on a 30th viewing, the listener is still making discoveries, and this time I made at least two. One arrived as Musetta was warming Mimi's medicine over a candle, saying, "Don't let the flame go out." I apologize to librettists Giacosa and Illica for not noticing this before. The other was the suspended note from the strings at the moment of Mimi's death. Puccini is the master of playing the audience's emotions, and yes, you bastard, for the 30th time you made me cry.

Through May 12. Sacramento's '09-'10 season includes "The Elixir of Love," "La Traviata" and an evening of opera music by Tchaikovsky. 916/737-1000,
Image: NaGuanda Nobles and Adam Flowers as Mimi and Rodolfo. Photo by Sacramento Opera/Eleakis Photography.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Opera San Jose's Carmen, April 18, 2009

Sometimes it takes all night to figure out a voice, and such was certainly the case with Opera San Jose's Alexander Boyer, whose powerful tenor had a way of dominating the opening night of the company's "Carmen." Boyer's reading of Don Jose's famed Flower Song fully displayed the lyric ring of his instrument, but there was something else lying at the edges of his timbre, yet to be uncovered.

That something began to reveal itself in the mountain scene, as Jose got into louder and louder squabbles with his Carmencita, and came to full fruition in the final scene at the bullfight: a primal, slashing edge to his tone that began to bounce off the walls the further he fell into his character's desperate, ruined mindset. Boyer delivered an emotional welling-up full of stalker creepiness, leading up to a well-choreographed stabbing and a nice post-mortem kiss just to put a little Stephen King icing on the cake. I don't know if I've ever sat through a Carmen finale filled with so much tension, or a more fortuitous match of a singer's talents with a role's requirements.

The production marked the stage-directing debut of former OSJ singer Sandra Bengochea (nee Rubalcava), and though her ensemble work is a little rough around the edges, you have to enjoy her leanings toward chaos and an action-packed stage. This came through in much of the side-work: the hijinks of the boisterous smuggler duo Dancairo and Remendado (Stephen Boisvert and Bill Welch) and the intriguing decision to take the first-act catfight (usually recounted after-the-fact) and bring it onstage.

As our heroine, Cybele Gouverneur, born of Venezuelan parents, begins with the advantage of just plain looking like Carmen. The mezzo does well with upper ranges and elevated emotions - as in the final two scenes - but opts for a covered tone that can sometimes mute the lower reaches, as in the opening Habanera. (When the range dips truly low, however - as in the ominous Tarot song, "En vain pour eviter les responses ameres" - the results are downright spooky.) Gouverneur also needs more work with the "rhythmic gymnastics" portion of the program, the percussion and dancing tasks of Lillias Pastia's tavern.

As Micaela, Rebecca Davis delivers the same lovely lyric soprano we've heard in previous productions, but with a few odd problems with breathing and phrasing, particularly in the showpiece aria, "Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante." She's much stronger soon after, in Micaela's brief report of the impending death of Jose's mother. Bulgarian baritone Krassen Karagiozov plays Escamillo with a James Bond smoothness that's almost too smooth. The part could use a little more vigor. I have always been a sucker for the sopranos who are cast as Carmen's sidekick Frasquita, and Jillian Boye certainly continues that tradition, playing the part as a kind of gypsy goth girl.

The OSJ chorus was a little off its game, taking an unfocused approach to Bizet's difficult parts, and carrying on a few quibbles with conductor David Rohrbaugh over entrances and tempos. This also happened with the rapid smuggler's quintet, "Nous avons en tete une affair." The orchestra, on the other hand, was spot-on all night, particularly with the gorgeous entre'acte and the festive bullfight anthems that follow. Set designer Giulio Cesare Perrone uses brick archways and slate steps to produce a warm public square, but his mountain set seems a little artificial. I'm also rather fond of the new stage cigarettes, which allow performers to simulate smoke by blowing powder out the ends. And, as always, the decision to use Bizet's original spoken dialogues will always receive a thumbs-up from these parts.

Opera San Jose, Bizet's "Carmen, through May 3, California Theatre, San Jose, $69-$91, 408/437-4450,
Image: Cybele Gouverneur as Carmen. Photo by Chris Ayers.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Gabriella's Voice: The Serial Novel

Chapter Four, Part II

Trauma at the Space Needle

After watching Tosca take her stunningly awkward dive from the parapets of the Castel Sant’Angelo, Gabriella and I evacuated, stopping by the opera house dispensary to obtain a couple of aspirins for her self-fulfilling headache. We passed by the International Fountain, walked through the monorail terminal just in time to see the night’s last departure, then crossed the big lawn in the direction of the Space Needle, shining like a big round boat against the milky blue clouds of night.

“Let’s go there,” I said.

“No-oh!” sang Gabriella, on a descending fifth (coincidentally, Puccini’s favorite interval). “That is too cheesy, much too cheesy. And it’s a rip-off, too. Trust me on this one. Seven bucks for a glorified elevator ride, and once you’re at the top all you’ve got is a jungle of tacky souvenirs and the same boring fucking Seattle skyline you can see from any of the perfectly free hilltops all over town. Spare me!”

“Wow,” I said. “This is a sensitive topic, isn’t it?”

“Yes! Every friend of mine in the world who lives farther away than Olympia insists on dragging me up this screwy thing!”

“One problem, dearest Rosina,” I said. “I’ve never been up that screwy thing myself, and it’s funny but I have this rampant inability to pass up going to places I’ve never been. Come on – my treat.”

Gabriella let out a sound like a congested lion and led me grudgingly across the green. The elevator attendant warned us that they were getting ready to close down for the night, but I reassured him that my companion couldn’t handle more than a few minutes anyway. After a half-minute of excessive gravity, we exited to find shiny cheap mounds of retail kitsch and a window-wide band of lights. Gabriella shucked off her contempt and settled into the old role of tour guide, taking my hand and pulling me to the south window, where the skyscrapers of Seattle posed for us like fly-eyed giants who slept standing up.

“Okay, the tall, thin puppy at the far end there – sorta square on one side, rounded on the other? – that’s the Columbia Seafirst Center, 943 feet, built in 1985, dark black by daylight, almost a shadow, then swing just a little bit to the right, with the pyramid on top, that’s the Mutual Tower, 730 feet tall and my favorite, jade green tints and art deco stars, some groovy retro geometrics, cause you know me, I’m a traditionalist. Built in 1988. Then that ugly concrete circus tent off in the distance, that’s the Kingdome, of course. Next! Well, just around the corner from that you’ve got that little white thing with the nice spire, that’s the Smith Tower. Not much now, but back when it was built in 1914 it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Now, what really cracks me up, back over to the, um, east here, are those godawful circular.… I don’t know, they kinda look like the apartment building Mary Tyler Moore lived in – those are the Westin Hotel towers. You can’t see the first one, it’s hidden behind the other, but they built it in 1969, when all architects were obligated to design ugly buildings, but when they built the second tower, the one we can see, in 1982, well, they decided it had to look exactly like the original, because why have one homely building when you can have two? And then, if you swing further east, across I-5, you can see that big, gentle rise of Capitol Hill, and right between that and the freeway there’s Pike Street and the Trademark Cafe and First Hill, of course, where you’re... no longer living.”

How this drawn-out spiel turned so quickly, I don’t know. But there it was – Gabriella’s brown eyes melting me down not with anger, necessarily, but rather with a look of confused impatience, one finger still pointed out the window toward Broadway.

I felt more ashamed of this than I should have – the woman didn’t own me, after all. Right? I turned to finger a row of dangling Mt. Rainier keychains, trying to come up with a good answer. “How did you know?” I asked.

Gabriella slapped me playfully on the shoulder, trying to shake some of the overseriousness out of my face. “You, pal, are a known quantity. Certain islanders have observed you sharing long conversations with a certain celebrated soprano, and have set the bloodhounds loose. And of course they all figured out the deal about your big ass check, too, which only adds to the intrigue. All of which means that I get daily reports on your whereabouts and behavior, whether I want them or not. So what are you doing staying at the Island Country Inn?”

“It’s a nice island,” I said.

Gabriella skipped over my lame response and continued her cross-examination, turning her head away from me and toward her skyscraper sisters. “I don’t get it. If you were some kind of stalker – and believe me, I’ve had ‘em – well, you were already in an ideal position right there on First Hill, just down the street from the Trademark, where I spend the majority of my waking hours, and where you could come in any ol’ time and run into me. So why would you pick up and move to Bainbridge?”

“It’s a nice... island,” I muttered.

“God, Billy! Open up, wouldja? Won’t you give me just one damned factoid about yourself? If you really want to be opera-pals, you gotta give me one or two little strings to hold on to here.”

“I’m in love with your voice,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s nice, I know, and I appreciate it, but what’s that got to do with.…”

The buzz came up from my shoetops and rifled into my arms. I grabbed fistfuls of Gabriella’s velvet wrap and pulled her toward me. Her eyes popped out in surprise.

“Listen! I’m - in - love... with your voice. Bainbridge Island is the place in which your voice resides. When you perform in that theater, your singing leaves a residue in the air, and the rest of the week… I walk the streets of Winslow, breathing it in, letting it settle on my skin.”

The buzz seeped back out of me and I loosened my grip on the wrap, smoothing out the creases with small, apologetic movements. Gabriella backed away to a safe distance, clearly unnerved. I hung my head, ready to take whatever she would give.

“I was right about you. You are a creep. I should have known, I should have.… Damn it!” Her speech was beginning to slur, her eyes shining with water. “I was starting to like you, you know? It’s not easy for me to find friends, Billy. I’m weird. I’m constructed of different... parts than other people, and you might think that’s just great… but it’s not easy! It’s….”

She never finished the sentence, but instead turned and walked quickly to the elevator. If the idea was to get away from me, it wasn’t going to work. The elevator was still on its way back up. I caught up with her just as the door slid open. We seemed to have no choice but to get in, together.

“Ah, the last couple of the day. You should feel honored….”

The attendant was punchy from the day’s work and didn’t seem to notice that his well-meaning chatter was being ignored. I stood on one side, Gabriella on the other, silent, both of us staring down at the burgundy carpeting. The quick descent, the steady escape of gravity pulled at my chest and stomach and the old music came rushing back in, grandma and mom and dad and Bobby, and Stephanie, poor Stephanie, and by the time we reached the ground the walls of the elevator were moving in on me. The doors showed a thin slip of light and I panicked, pushing past the attendant and through, rushing out into the gift shop where I immediately lost my directionals, running one way then the other down the rows of clothing and road maps as the cashier stared on in horror. She must have thought I had committed some sort of crime, and was attempting to flee. Finally I spotted the front door and spun in place, knocking down a rack of Puget Sound T-shirts before sprinting for the door and bursting into the night air.

I thought the outdoors would be enough for me, but they weren’t. I sucked in air but couldn’t breathe. I stumbled forward, dizzy, hyperventilating, halfway across the big lawn and fell to my knees, knocked down by the wind off Lake Union, by the lights of the Needle like a frozen helicopter at my back. I raked at the grass with both fists, throwing the blades over my shoulders, into my hair. The buzz gripped me with its seaweed hands and threw me into sobs, great gasping waves, and I buried my face into the lawn, the warm damp earth filling my nostrils with the smell of tobacco and grilled fish and burning wood.

The rest of it came to me through several feet of sand; I was buried somewhere, trying to dig my way out, and I heard the sound of my name, a hand on my shoulder, fingers around my forehead lifting me up. The feel of skin against half my face. What came next was song. As I lifted my ear to the base of Gabriella’s neck, a warm liquid filling my head, and the world came back to me.

Next: Recovery at Bainbridge

Buy the book at:

Image by MJV.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Gabriella's Voice: The Serial Novel

Chapter Four, Part I

Potato Voice

It was nearing seven o’clock on a Thursday, and I was flat-footing the pavement down Fifth Avenue, seeking out the sci-fi Polaris of the Space Needle to guide me. For the last few blocks, I’d been back-watching for a cab, but by now I felt like I must be pretty close, so I continued pacing and sweating. This was not the way I wanted to make my debut at the Seattle Opera.

The needle-ray August heat had given way to waxy balls of September humidity, the skies a long white shadow borne down with barometric pressure. I held my shirt away from my torso and flapped it like a fly-line, trying to keep cool but unable to slow down this power-walking that was causing the problem in the first place. I would rather be anything, anywhere, than late to an opera.

It could be that this was my punishment for deceiving my muse, my Euterpe, my Santa Cecilia. Refusing to admit that I was now residing on Bainbridge Island, I had told her that I would be doing some book-hunting downtown, and would prefer to just meet her at the Opera House, rather than having to plod back uphill to the Sheraton. I thought that I had left myself plenty of operating room, but the ferry I was supposed to take out of Winslow had a breakdown, and I had to wait for the next one, the Wenatchee, which arrived forty-five minutes later.

My next mistaken assumption was that once I found the Space Needle, and thus the Seattle Center, finding the Opera House would be easy. The lady at the Opera had told me that it was on Mercer Street, so I figured I would just keep walking north till I ran into it, but I didn’t figure on a couple of things. For one, the Center itself is about the size of a small city; for two, that city contained more opera-size buildings than two square blocks of mid-town Manhattan. I made my way like a cockroach under the kitchen light, scattering one way to the Pacific Science Center, the other way to the Key Arena. Even after I conquered my XY chromosomes and asked for directions, I passed the Bagley Wright Theater, the Intiman Playhouse and the Exhibition Hall before I finally blundered into the Opera House.

And, of course, I was too late, anyway. The lady at the entrance handed me my tickets, informed me that the overture had just ended two minutes ago, and signaled me downstairs to the buffet room, where my fellow delinquents were watching the first act on a trio of television monitors.

When I rounded the corner, I noticed two things: the picture on the monitors was coming to us courtesy of a fixed camera at the very back of the hall (a Ken Doll-size Cavaradossi, applying swipes of paint to a postage-stamp portrait of Maria Maddalena); and every single one of my fellow patrons, no doubt blessed by the ocean-breeze transport of air-conditioned automobiles, appeared to be five times as well-dressed as myself. I even spotted a couple of guys in tuxedos. Catching a glimpse of my blue jeans and wrinkled khaki shirt in the mirrored wall, I thought, great, even here among the lepers, I’ve got bubonic plague.

Then I spotted Gabriella dolled up in a flouncy black pantsuit with sharp white piping and a crushed-velvet wrap, and felt even worse. Then she smiled at me, embracing the length of the room with her teeth, and I immediately felt better.

She waved me into a seat at her table and whispered, “What happened to you? You look like you took the underside of an escalator.”

“Unexpected distances,” I answered, and prayed the response was sufficiently vague.

“Well here,” she said. “Sit down, sip some of this water, watch Carol Vaness waltz around the stage in that floral red dress (God I’m jealous!), and I’ll get you a cappuccino. The big advantage of being late is the ol’ downstairs espresso bar.”

“Thank you,” I said. I wrapped my palms around the glass of ice water and applied the cold moisture to my forehead.

After watching the nondescript figures of Tosca and Cavaradossi wend their way into their confluent fixes, Gabriella and I wandered up the wide, golden stairway and down to our seats.

“It’s the biggest house I’ve ever seen,” said Gabriella, noting the way my head was pivoting from wall to wall. “The local singers call it The Barn. I think that’s why they do so much Wagner here; it’s the only stuff that’s loud and obnoxious enough to fill the space.”

The bells rang, the crowd reassembled around us and the curtain rose to reveal an impressive but ridiculously ornate rendition of Baron Scarpia’s apartment, featuring Greco-Roman touches like twenty-foot Ionic columns and a humungous frieze of a glowering Zeus. The audience reacted immediately with that amusing, only-in-opera phenomenon, an ovation for the set. I’m surprised the designer didn’t come out and take a few bows – and perhaps the audience could throw blueprints at his feet. Gabriella was apparently having identical thoughts; she turned to me and half-whispered the word “money,” then repeated it a few times: “Money money money.” Then added a self-amused “moooooooooo-lah!”

“What are you trying to say?” I asked.

All through the second act, as poor Cavaradossi got the blood squeezed out of his forehead, then, as the Baron and Tosca did their little boss-and-secretary decathlon around the furniture, Gabriella would wait for high soprano notes and dig her fingers into my forearm, then lean over and whisper the words “po-ta-to voice.” Not wishing to disturb those around us any more than we already were, I took the phrase as some kind of derogatory reference to Irish singers, and chose to withhold response. After about ten of these instances, however, Gabriella having worked her way to simply mouthing the words and hiding her face in her hands, I will admit I was getting a little curious.

After Scarpia was safely dispatched with a kitchen knife to the heart, two Catholic candles burning vigilantly over his corpse, I turned to my red-headed companion and asked, “Okay. What the hell is a ‘potato voice’?”

“Follow me,” she replied. “And I will tell you.” She performed a neat spin and led us into the aisle, waiting until we were again side by side, descending the golden staircase into the lobby, before she explained.

“Potato voice, my friend, is when ill-trained singers attempt to produce big, dark shouting-in-the-cave sounds by dropping their jaws to the turf and making an exaggerated vertical shape with their mouths.”

I was beginning to catch on. “So... their mouths are making shapes... like a big long Russet potato.”

“You are shoh clevah,” she lisped. “Yes. And somewhere along the line, some highly paid voice teacher told our Tosca that if she wanted to make it to the big time, she was just gonna have to show some molars. You’ll be big and loud and impressive, you will frighten children and small dogs, and you will get lead roles at the Seattle Opera, where Microsoft executives will throw roses and laptop computers at your feet.”

“So in a sense, at least,” I said, “the potato voice works.”

Gabriella came to a parade halt at the precise center of the lobby, patrons cutting cowpaths all around us, and put a hand to my shirt pocket. “Yes,” she said. “But it’s ugly, ugly, ugly, and it cuts years off your singing career, because no one has a throat that can handle that kind of punishment. Except Domingo, perhaps, and he’s a freak of nature.”

I hitched my thumbs into the pockets of my jeans and made a conscious decision about my friendship with Gabriella Compton: we were comfortable enough now that I could pester her with some willful irritation. “Let me try this out on you, Rosina. Yeeeeeew... want nothing more in this life than to put on big, filthy-expensive costumery and sing on stages like the one past those stairs – am I right?”


“Soooooooh, given your Kryptonic natural talent, couldn’t you adopt the potato voice, just for a while, to appease the lions of fashion, and then, as you get more and more successful and pri-ma-don-na-esque, slip your way right back to bel canto?”

Gabriella took on her customary squint (more and more, with those almond-shaped eyes, this gesture was reminding me of a young Lauren Bacall – which, if you think about it, is not at all a bad thing to remind someone of), then opened her eyes back up with ideas and gave my shoulder a triple tap, like a conductor on a music stand. “Come with me.”

She escorted me to the northeast corner of the lobby and past an easel and placard marked Press Room. As we entered, she put a hand over her mouth and said, “If anyone asks, you’re Harvey Glassenderfer from the Santa Barbara Gazette.”

It was a spacious room with that typically ecumenical decor of Northwestern interiors, though the ornate wallpaper and broad-striped armchairs were trying really hard to speak French (parlez-vous armoire?). A Bosendorfer grand was squatting all over the southeast corner like a big black musical rhino, while along the opposite wall stood various underdressed media types (professorly tweed, diagonally striped ties from college graduation, loose cotton pants, never ironed), grazing from a modest buffet table.

Gabriella split the crowd like a power fullback, leading me straight through to the object of her intentions, a twenty-foot-long wall covered from stem to stern in signed black-and-white photographs. She pointed them out like a school teacher explicating phonetics.

“Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. Tito Gobbi. Richard Tucker. Oh, and here’s Licia Albanese – ain’t she a babe? Then some older ones over here – Lily Pons! Mary Garden, Enrico Caruso, Pauline Viardot-Garcia. Ezio Pinza. Um, Luisa Tetrazzini – that’s the chick the Italians named their white sauce after – and Beverly Sills. Joan Sutherland, Claudia Muzo, Anna Moffo. Oh, and, of course,” she turned to a picture of Renata Tebaldi, dressed alpine-style for “Guglielmo Tell,” made a respectful curtsy, and laughed. “Sorry. I always feel the need to genuflect. But are you getting the picture? The pictures?”

Not having fully comprehended that this was part of her answer – in fact, most of her answer – I gave Gabriella no more than a dumb stare.

She let out a frustrated yip that almost turned into one of her renegade notes, then rolled her eyes artfully heavenward. “Must I transcribe everything for you, Billyboy? You see, I am a good soprano, right? I am aware of the fact that I do have some substantial raw material tucked away in this throat o’ mine. So, I’ve got a choice here, two roads diverging in a yellow wood. I can take that talent, pump it up with that cartoon jawdrop orangutan steroid therapy, and make of myself a dandy little mediocre barking diva. Pay all my bills on time, play places like Seattle, scare ninety percent of the audience into thinking that I am one of the damned finest, loudest, most alarming singers they’ve heard... why... in the last month or so, and hey! that’s jes’ fine.

“Or... I can stay true to my art, I can focus on exactly what it is that I and only I want out of the music, I can spend hours at the Trademark Cafe making bucks so that opera will not be my sole source of income, and I can work my ass off on the bel canto treadmill of infinitely subtler and subtler vocal gradations.…” She raised a finger and dropped it down on the marcato beats of her conclusion. “And - get - my - pick - shure - on - that - fuck - ing - wall!” then hitched a thumb to the sea of portraits behind her.

Gabriella froze for a moment, like any great performer waiting to read the reaction of her audience, then smiled with great affected charm and said, “Question answered?”

“Oh my, yes,” I said. “And we’d best get back to our seats, because I hear the bells a-ringing.”

Gabriella took my hand and led me from the press room. “Okay. I wish I didn’t have to listen to that potato voice, though. She’s giving me a headache.”

Next: Trauma at the Space Needle

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Image: Joseph Wright and Deborah Berioli in Opera San Jose’s 2004 production of “Tosca.” Photo by Pat Kirk.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Gabriella's Voice: The Serial Novel

Chapter Three, Part II

Gabriella’s Diva Café

After the Sunday matinee of “Il Barbiere,” I came out to Bjune Drive and was greeted by a hailstorm, nickel-size nuggets pelting the ground to the timpani roll of thunder. It made a lovely post-dinner cocktail to Rossini’s ringing final-act choruses, and so I stood there a while, under the covered entranceway of the theater, bewitched.

The others in the audience, likely islanders and Seattle-area natives, were not so enamored, and charged into the downpour like warriors, umbrellas and determined scowls firmly in place. I stood to the side, behind a square-faced column, and tried to look inconsequential.

“So was I good, or not?”

The voice came in from behind me, spirited and husky. I mistook it for a snatch of some passing conversation, and failed to respond. Then came three taps on my shoulder, and I turned to find Gabriella, shrouded by her long Italian hair.

“What? Was I that bad?”

“Not at all,” I answered, trying not to smile. “If anything, you’re getting better. Your breathing has evened out.”

“Not as much fear,” she laughed. “Those cadenzas were scaring the shit out of me.”

“I did notice something slightly different in the first act, though. It seemed like you were placing your top notes higher in the mouth, higher in the.… What do you call it?”

“The mask.”

“Yes. The mask. What was that?”

She dropped the corners of her mouth. “Was it bad?”

“No. Not at all. Just a little lighter, that’s all. And I only noticed it early on, not later.”

Gabriella placed her hands on either side of the square-faced column and let the side of her umber hair fall along its length. “I’m a bit sore today. I had to take it easy till my voice warmed up.”

“Hmm. Like a pitcher working through the early innings without his best stuff.”


“Sorry. I’m a bit overfond of baseball metaphors. But it’s no surprise, you being sore. This Saturday night Sunday matinee thing has to go.”

“Yes, Maestro says the same thing. It’s pure economics, of course; they get a better deal on the theater for two days straight. Hey, after I get out of these goofy clothes, you want to go somewhere and talk about my voice?”

I gave Gabriella a studied squint. “I don’t know. Are you going to turn into a creep?”

She placed an offended hand against her hip. “I beg your pardon.”

“Who played shortstop for the Orioles last year?”

“Placido Domingo.”

“Not even close.”

Gabriella shook back her shoulders and raised her already-upturned nose. “I don’t have to be right. I’m a soprano. So – The Pegasus?”

“No. I’ve got a better idea.”

I took Gabriella to the Madrona and introduced her to the wonders of martinis and steamed mussels. After a few tentative nibbles, she was going through them like popcorn, and drinking up the sauce with her spoon.

“Damn, Billy! These are gorgeous!”

“Eating mussels is like ingesting the sea directly.”

“She paused for a sip of her martini and made a face. “And how about this?”

“Drinking martinis is like ingesting gasoline directly.”


“It’s an acquired taste. Give it ten years or so.”

“Yeah. I’ll get back to you on that.” She cleansed her palate with ice water and watched the Winslow Ferry, slipping southeast under quickly clearing skies. The captain gave us two pulls on the horn, low baritone range, a quarter note followed by a whole. Gabriella downed another mussel and pointed her tiny seashell fork in my direction.

“Do you know what I like about you, Billy?”

“Tell me everything.”

“You are the only person besides Maestro who knows what it is I’m doing up there. Do you know how hard it is to be working so hard to do something, and have nobody really understand what it is you’re doing?”

“No. But I can imagine it.”

“And do you know, that when I’m singing just right, I can’t really hear my own voice. It rings right up out of my head and floats away.”

“A separate entity.”

“Exactly. I call it my heaven voice, because you know when you die, your voice rises up out of your body and goes to heaven.”

“Did you get that from Maestro?”

“No. That one’s mine. And it’s true, you know. But... oh, what was I talking about? Oh! Yes – that’s why I need people like you, Billy, people who can hear these things. Because I can’t hear them myself. I am totally disconnected from my own voice.”

“That’s a shame, because you’re missing out on a wonderful experience.”

She tried her martini again and winced a little less this time. “So why is it that you can hear these things, Billy? You have no formal training – am I right?”

I took a chunk out of my garlic bread and chewed it down before I answered. “I come from a long line of sopranos.”

“As good as me?”

“No. But good.”

“Did they ever take it anywhere?”

I heard those little alarms going off again, and answered her with a blank gaze.

“Oh,” she said. “I’ve re-entered the confidential information zone. Jesus, Billy, you’re like a one-man mine field. So tell me this, at least. Why didn’t you say hi to me after last night’s performance?”

There she had me. “How did you...?”

“When you know a part as well as I know Rosina, you start letting your eyes drift. Fourth row, orchestra right. Am I correct?”

“Well... yes.”

“And you haven’t dropped by the cafe once this week.”

“I was trying... not to be a creep.”

“Ah, Billy!” She slapped me on the hand. “Look, son, Gabriella Compton’s Diva Cafe is sort of like an exclusive private club. It may be hard at first to gain admittance, but once you’re in, you’re in. Relax, wouldja?”

“Okay,” I said. “I will.”

The waitress came by and we ordered cappuccinos, plus a raspberry cheesecake and two forks. Then we wandered into another lengthy agenda of operatic subjects: the lush recitative orchestrations of Richard Strauss, the appropriate age for major singers to retire from the stage, the role of academia and monied foundations in propping up amusical, overintellectualized modern operas; and, finally, a handful of opera jokes aimed at the different voices.

“Three,” I said. “One to screw it in, two to say, ‘I could’ve done it better.’”

Gabriella covered her mouth and popped her eyes at me. “God!” she tittered. “Bill! That is so true!” Then she took a look at her watch. “Uh-oh.”

“Ferry time?”

“Ferry time. Are you coming with?”

I might have been a freshly initiated member of Gabriella’s Diva Cafe, but I wasn’t ready to look like a stalker, so I had my lie tucked away in my shirt pocket, available for ready use. “Actually, I’m heading the other direction. Meeting a friend in Bremerton.”

“Oh. Okay. Well, I’d better go. Kiss my hand?”

I couldn’t refuse an offer like that. “Molto bene, signorina.” I touched her hand to my lips in the gentleman’s manner, then wished her “Buona notte” and watched her drift off along the waterfront. After finishing a cup of decaf and following Gabriella’s ferry across the harbor, I paid my bill and began the five uphill blocks to the Island Country Inn, Bainbridge’s only hotel.

Next: Potato Voice

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Image by MJV.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Opera San Jose, Cosi fan tutte, 2/07/09

In regional opera, sopranos are supposed to be a dime a dozen - and quality baritones and golden-voiced tenors the rare birds. What a phenomenal decade it's been for Opera San Jose, as Irene Dalis's resident troupe has put on casts of remarkable male singers.

OSJ's opening-night production of "Cosi fan tutte," then, might mark a return to normalcy. Michael Dailey as tenor Ferrando and Daniel Cilli as baritone Guglielmo are certainly fine singers and good comedians, but their voices have yet to hit that mid-residency blossom point where the sound begins to jump off the stage.

In the case of the sister sopranos, however - abbondanza! Betany Coffland endows Dorabella with a powerful mezzo that cuts right through the orchestra, particularly in her first-act aria of grief, "Smanie implacabili." Rebecca Davis displays a vivid lyric soprano as Fiordiligi, with superb and easy top-notes. She's not quite up to the off-the-cliff low notes of the monstrous second-act aria, "Per pieta, ben mio," but then, few but Mozart's original template, Adriana Ferrarese, are. The many duets between the sisters are harmonically ecstatic experiences. The two are also spot-on in character - the frisky, gullible Dorabella, the stern, morally solid Fiordiligi - and up to the excellent physical humor coached by stage director Brad Dalton.

The two comedian parts are in capable hands, as well. Khori Dastoor, who has spent most of her residency playing ingenues, falls easily into the soubrette role of Despina, and (who knows?) might have found herself a new career path. (You could do worse than having all the onstage fun.) And baritone Joseph Rawley, a Merola alumnus, displays the most robust voice in the cast, as well as the perfect blend of cynicism and fun, as Don Alfonso.

The extremely conflicted da Ponte plot - in which two lovers go into disguise to woo their best friend's betrothed - gets better and better with age. Or could it be that opera critics get more cynical with age?

Opera San Jose, Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte," through Feb. 22, California Theatre, 345 S. First St., $69-$91, 408/437-4450,

Photo by Pat Kirk.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gabriella's Voice (The Serial Novel)

Chapter Three, Part I

The Forbidden Singer

The first memory I have of operatic singing was my mother quietly chanting “Che gelida manina” (“What tiny, cold hands”) as she stretched a pair of mittens over the ends of my fingers. My father was in the kitchen drinking coffee, and could not hear.

From what I am able to remember, my mother’s voice was even stronger than my grandmother’s, endowed with the same delicate agility but possessing also an emanating butterscotch warmth, something I would hear years later in Tebaldi and identify by the enigmatic Italian term “spinto.” (Crudely put, “spinto” is the ability to stuff a hall up to the rafters with sound, seemingly without the intention to do so.)

My mother would only sing when my father was away on one of his long sales trips. A week after he left, my mother would begin to hum; a week later she would graduate to trills, and melodies sung on nonsense syllables. A few days later she would be pouring Italian arias over my pancakes like maple syrup, and by the end of the week she was performing the final act of “Rigoletto,” singing mostly Gilda but also the intervening parts of Maddalena, Rigoletto, Sparafucile, the Duke of Mantua, and even the men’s chorus, ghosting away offstage with their thunderstorm chromatics.

Two nights later, she was entertaining me and my infant brother Bobby with the mad scene from “Lucia di Lammermoor,” kitchen knife held up in her hands, splotches of ketchup spilled on her apron to pass for the blood of her freshly murdered husband – when my father walked in, home a week early. My mother shrieked a high D across the living room, then stood there shrinking under my father’s quiet stare, her spine jacking down like some sort of hydraulic lift. She set the knife on the couch and crept upstairs to their bedroom, where she stayed for the next three days, pleading illness. The following day, my father went to work and asked for a demotion back to the home office. It was six months later, after family finances forced my father back to the road, before my mother worked her way back to a trill, released into the air like a renegade hummingbird as she hung laundry on the clothesline.

Next: Gabriella’s Diva Cafe

Find Gabriella’s Voice at:

Image: Rochelle Bard in Opera San Jose’s 2007 Lucia di Lammermoor. Photo by Pat Kirk.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Gabriella's Voice (The Serial Novel)

Chapter Two, Part III

Diva on a Ferry

Standing on the top deck, I was pleased to find that Gabriella shared my maritime tendencies. I joined her at the railing, where she stood with her face toward Seattle, her eyes narrowed pleasurably against the stiff Puget breeze.

“You look like the Flying Dutchwoman.”

“Der Fliegende Hollandfrau. I lo-ove this wind. Maestro tells me to ride down below and protect my throat, but how can I when it feels like... this?”

“Well put,” I said with a smile.

Gabriella turned away from the wind to study me, blinking her eyes in some sort of self-generated brain teaser, then just as suddenly reached out to jab a finger into my chest.

“You! It’s you!”

“Me? What?” And tried not to think, “The woman who sang Rosina two nights ago is jabbing her finger into my chest.”

“That thousand-dollar check they found in the fishbowl this weekend. That was you!”

I was determined to steer clear of this particular subject. I fixed her with an even stare and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Gabriella wasn’t buying it. “Oh, Bill Harness, you are a piece of work, aren’t you? The nobleman parades amongst the commoners disguised as a poor student. ‘Bongiorno, signorina. My name is Lindoro. My name is Gualtier Maldè. How’s it hangin’?’ And the question I have to ask now is, are you in fact the good and sweet Count Almaviva, or are you perhaps the evil, two-timing, well-dressed Duke of Mantua?”

I held up my hands, collecting the wind. “Neither. I swear. I’m a baritone, Rosina, maybe I am Figaro, Largo al factotum, and I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you more than that.”

She gave me yet one more well-aimed squint, then turned without a word to the emptiest portion of the horizon, where the sound crooks a northwest finger past Port Townsend toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“It’s so dark out there,” she said, speaking not necessarily to me but to the water. “I want to gather up all that darkness, swallow it down piece by piece, and then sing it.”

I was content to let the moment settle, but Gabriella was not. She gave a linebacker’s slap to my shoulder and said, “Come on, let’s go up front and watch the skyscrapers sprout.”

I followed Gabriella into the wind, and the blossoming aurora over the steering house, but not before I stole a starboard glance at her singable darkness. I was either in heaven or in hell, but I felt remarkably alive.

Next: The Forbidden Singer

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Photo: Opera San Jose’s 2005 production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman. Photo by Pat Kirk.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Gabriella's Voice (The Serial Novel)

Chapter Two, Part II

Puccini's Granddaughter

The day felt extraordinary, so I sought to make it more so. After donning my tidiest leisure clothes, I took the ferry to Winslow and, heading straight for the docks, found a nice seafood place called the Madrona. I sat beneath a royal blue umbrella on the back deck, ordered a martini straight up (two olives), a bowl of cream-of-mushroom soup, and a plate of steamed mussels. I directed my gaze out over the silver-plated water.

One directionless hour later, I migrated the few yards next door to the Pegasus, a comfortable-looking brick building with a side patio bordering on a construction site. Not exactly picturesque, but I needed that shorefront breeze to keep me cool.

Gabriella arrived an hour later, giving off charged ions from her meeting. Our conversation began something like Carmen feeling for the sore spots in Don José, only what she seemed to be looking for in me was not blind devotion but a certain set of opera aesthetics. For an even half an hour we discussed the major sopranos of the 20th century, and I learned to watch for the pointed dagger of her opinions. After having a couple of my favored singers labeled “shouters and screamers,” I opted for a more passive approach, sitting back while Gabriella gave her opinions first, then wedging mine in alongside, wherever they might fit. (After all, I might have my paltry opinions and my well-trained ear, but I didn’t have her voice.)

After dispensing with the prima donnas (a mere ten percent of whom met Gabriella’s standards), we ran through a long menu of operatic debates: musicality versus theatricality, verismo versus bel canto, German versus Italian (she fell strongly in the Italian camp), the viability of placing classic operas in modernized settings (a practice she was strongly against), and the eternal struggle between conductors and singers. An hour later, I finally got to my point.

“So, no offense to the State Ferry Opera Company, Gabriella, but what are you doing here?”

Gabriella gave me that squinty-eyed stare again (this was obviously her trademark gesture); after an hour and a half of carefully paced confiding I had nevertheless managed to trip a switch. She broke off a chunk of raspberry scone and placed it in her mouth, chewing it slowly while she added up my motives.

“Why would you ask me that?”

I ran a finger across my sunglasses on the table. “Because your voice... and I’m sorry, I don’t know how to say this without gushing, and I swear I am not a man who gushes. Your voice is an immaculate instrument, divinely played. You do things on a stage I’ve never seen or heard before. Your performance contains all the adrenaline and vigor of your youth, and yet you seem to approach the score with all the craft and forethought of a singer ten, fifteen years older. Talent like that appears out of place at the State Ferry Opera Company, no matter how noble their ambitions.”

“Well,” she said. “I will tell you. But it’s not a simple answer.” She crossed her legs and leaned back in her chair, eyeing a French cabaret poster above my head. “Reason One: sheer numbers. Sopranos are a lira a dozen in this bidness, and Lord knows you’d better get used to the burn of the branding iron before you throw yourself into the herd. Reason Two: politics. In case you hadn’t noticed, I use some old-fashioned coloratura techniques that don’t always fly these days.”

“Yes. I wondered about that. Where did that come from?”



“Giuseppe Umbra, my teacher. We call him Maestro. He is ninety-three years old going on twenty-four, and he used to work with Puccini.”

I thought I had missed something there. My eyes began to blink without my permission. “You mean... he specializes in Puccini.”

“No,” she said. “He worked as an assistant to Puccini during his last years at his summer home in Torre del Lago. Puccini was working on ‘Turandot’ at the time – and dying of lung cancer. Isn’t that hideous? It was cigars that did it. I have nightmares about that.”

“No doubt.”

“Yes. And singers were flocking there from all over to learn Puccini’s vocal methods. He could no longer demonstrate his vocal lines for his students, so he used Maestro’s voice instead.”

I ran a hand through my hair. “So let me get this straight. Your training basically comes directly from Puccini, and yet the folks at the operas don’t like the way you sing.”

Gabriella put a hand flat to the table and fixed on me with wide eyes. “I have scores that I work with, that have notations written in the margins by Puccini himself. And nobody likes my voice.”

“Well I certainly do.”

“Grazie. But the big companies, they want belters. And shouters. They want rock stars, they want big jumbo-jet sopranos who can stop traffic, cause sonic booms and fill up stadiums.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Yes. And that’s why I’m here. Maestro has his studio here on Bainbridge, and he’s the artistic director of the company. I’m here to learn roles, and get better and better, and maybe return a little bel canto to the big opera houses.”

“Excuse me a minute,” I said. “I’ve been here for three hours and four drinks, and I need to.…”

“See a man about a horse?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” I said with a broad smile.

When I returned, Gabriella was scanning a book I’d picked up about Pacific Northwest history. Without looking up from the page she asked, “So what are you doing here?”

I had neglected to think of an answer ahead of time, so the one I gave sounded very hollow and left a gummy film on my teeth. “I’m visiting some friends in town.”

“And where are you visiting from?”

“Back east.”

“Where? Korea?”

I watched her until she set down the book and granted me her eyes. “Can we go back to opera trivia?” I asked.

“Well that’s a hell of an attitude. Here I am pouring out my little coloratura heart for you, and you can’t name me a state of origin?”

“Try something else.”

“Okay.” She held an arm up by the elbow and tapped a finger against her cheek. “What do... or did, you do for a living?”

“I’m an umpire.”


“An umpire. Baseball? Balls and strikes?”

“Yeah, right. And I’m Sam Ramey.”

“Care to try another?”

Gabriella turned to look inside at the clock above the kitchen, hiding her face behind a letter-size sheet of red hair. “Actually, I have to get going. The next ferry leaves in fifteen minutes.”

“Can I come with you?”

“I don’t know. Are you becoming a creep yet?”

I ran a hand over my mouth and jawline. “I don’t seem to be sprouting fangs. And my facial hair appears to be growing at a normal rate.”

“Are you a tenor?”

“I am but a weak baritone.”

“Okay. A baritone I can trust. And an umpire, to boot.” Gabriella let out a “Die Fledermaus” stage laugh and headed into the cafe, leaving me trailing in her wake.

Find Gabriella’s Voice at:

Photo: Giacomo Puccini

Next: Divas on Ferries