Sunday, February 12, 2023

A Fun, Fine, Falstaff

Opera San Jose
February 11, 2023

Chanae Curtis as Alice Ford.

Opera San Jose’s production of Verdi’s final opera is a madly entertaining evening, thanks to a superb cast, a repurposing of Steven C. Kemp’s imaginative 2013 set design, and a high level of comic energy under stage director Jose Maria Condemi. All of which serves to underscore the brilliance of an opera that is probably not performed as often as it should be.

It all begins with our titular character, of course, and baritone Darren Lekeith Drone is perfection. He carries the big man’s great lusty presence, mints comic currency from his delusional confidence and problematic anatomy, and even makes us feel his pain, railing against the suggestion that he should give in to age and fat-shaming. (Coming from an 80-year-old composer, these are salient points.)

Sir John is assisted in his shenanigans by two able comedians, bass-baritone Andrew Allan Hiers as the lumbering Pistola and tenor Marc Molomot as the troll-like Bardolfo. Molomot’s exaggerated tremblings before his lord’s lectures are hysterically funny.

Chanae Curtis as
Alice Ford, Darren
Lekeith Drone as 

The vocal delights are plentiful, starting with the potent soprano of Chanae Curtis as Alice Ford. Curtis’s instrument is lyric but strong, notably in the many marcato passages that run through Alice’s part (befitting her role as the female ring-leader). Playing Dr. Caius, the standard old-dude-your-dad-wants-you-to-marry, Zhengyi Bai exhibited a gorgeous lirico spinto tenor. Let’s hope he returns in some lead roles. (Bai also has the best costume, an elegant concoction of black andsilver from Sarasota Opera.)

The most memorable performance comes from baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, who’s always been one of my favorites but has outdone himself as Ford. Convinced (mistakenly) that his wife actually means to have a tryst with the bloated Falstaff, Ford launches into a full-blown tirade, beginning with the cuckold’s arioso, “E sogno?” The music swings into the language of dramatic opera and Brancoveanu dives in head-first, conveying Ford’s anger with a thrilling intensity, both vocally and dramatically.

The fullness of this anger pays comic dividends in the following scene, when Ford and his men ransack his house like FBI agents looking for classified documents. The genius stroke from Condemi is how Ford’s men go through every last drawer, throwing papers around like jumbo confetti, even though they’re searching for a 300-pound man who would probably not fit into such small spaces. It’s all completely absurd, except that papers flying all over the place is just really freakin’ funny. At the end of the scene, as they approach their quarry (which is actually Ford’s daughter necking with her boyfriend), they hold up their cabinet drawers like riot shields.

As masterworks do, Falstaff reveals more and more of its brilliance on further viewings. It may take until I’m eighty years old before I completely understand all its machinations. This time, the revelation came in a moment when the four female conspirators were hiding by the stairwell as four male conspirators gathered downstage. Each and every one of these eight singers had their own vocal line, going off all at once, and still, it all made sense, like a great operatic cantata. It’s as if, after eight decades of developing new skills, Verdi needed exactly such a many-charactered farce to provide him with the necessary challenges. It’s wonderful to imagine an 80-year-old artist so open-minded and energized that he’s helping to push opera into a new idea like through-composing, the erosion of the walls previously placed between set pieces (arias, choruses, etc.). (Compare this to your older friends who won’t even listen to a song recorded after 1980.)

Kemp’s set was placed into a stage-wide wine barrel, which gives the opera a certain Alice (Ford) in Wonderland surreality. Having seen a few conductors who lack this quality, I was struck by Joseph Marcheso’s ability to negotiate the space between singers and orchestra, particularly in a moment when he waited for soprano Natalia Santaliz to finish a long sustenato before cuing his players. This is such a valuable skill.

I truly enjoy the little accidents of stage business, and a scene between Falstaff and Mistress Quickly (Megan Esther Gray) provided a choice example. Gray’s top hat went flying off during an emotional passage and sat there on the floor as she (rightly) concentrated on her rather involved vocal work. But Drone found a moment in Falstaff’s blocking to return it to her. She placed it back on her head, and, a minute later, it flew off once more.

Through February 26 at California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $55-$195,, 408/437-4450.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 35-year opera critic and author of 28 novels, including Gabriella’s Voice and Operaville, available at Amazon.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

A Female View of the French Revolution



Wilmington Concert Opera

Composer Sarah Van Sciver and librettist Kirsten C. Kunkle have created a stirring, intriguing concert opera about six prominent women of the French Revolution, whose Girondin party aimed to curtail the spiraling violence spurred by the more radical Montagnards. (One of the more notable Girondins was American revolutionary Thomas Paine.)

Kunkle addresses the imposing morass of French politics by approaching at an intimate level, beginning with the good possibility that these six women conferred with each other on a regular basis. Van Sciver delivers these meetings with propulsive piano parts that convey the tension and terror in the Paris streets, while the addition of cello and violin add the feel of an 18th century salon. Especially in the early pieces, she works these meetings into conversational fugues, imbued with fascinating layers, harmonics and rhythms.

The primary subject of these discussions is Charlotte Corday, whose behavior since the Montagnards’ 1792 September Massacres has become more and more erratic. In her recounting of those killings, Corday reveals her plan to murder Jean-Paul Marat, the Montagards’ leader. Librettist Kunkle sings the piece herself, deploying a powerful soprano and a great sense for emotion and dynamics. Two of the top notes are so forceful and exposed that they will stop the listener cold.

Corday did murder Marat (“I will kill one man to save one hundred thousand,” she said.) She was executed for it, and the act itself was immortalized in David’s famed painting, Death of Marat. The repercussions of this desperate move fuels much of the opera.

Other intriguing pieces in the work are “My Dear Marie-Antoinette,” a musing by the queen’s favorite portraitist, Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (sung by Tracy Sturgis), and “Bonaparte,” a comic jab at Napoleon by writer Madame De Stael, sung with great wit and enunciation by Raffaella Lo Castro.

Girondines is captivating enough as a musical creation, but it has the additional quality of making the listener want to re-examine the Revolution. It’s a remarkable  and stimulating creation.

Girondines is available on several platforms, including Amazon Music, iTunes, Spotify and YouTube.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 35-year opera critic and author of 28 novels, including Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice, available at Amazon.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Chutzpah and Genius

Sunday in the Park with George

San Jose Playhouse

December 3, 2022

“Writing about music is like dancing about furniture.” *

I would have loved to be in on that meeting between Stephen Sondheim, writer James Lapine and their producers, sometime in the early ‘80s. It would have been very “It’s a show about nothing!” Or “It’s a hip-hop biography of Alexander Hamilton!”

Or, perhaps “It’s a musical about a painting!”

You couldn’t have blamed the committee of angels for questioning the mental health of their artist friends. And perhaps it’s fitting, because Georges Seurat likely got the same reaction to his idea: using a gazillion tiny dots to represent Parisians recreating in a park.

For that matter, perhaps an element of meshuggeneh is needed for works of genius. Lucky for us, the angels wrote the checks, the off-off-Broadway production made it to the stage (with future stars Kelsey Grammer, Christine Baranski and Brent Spiner playing small roles), and eventually the show about a painting became one of the most esteemed works in musical theater.

Fortunately for South Bay theatergoers, San Jose Playhouse is just crazy and talented enough to take on this nearly impossible work, and to succeed with great flair. Just take the principal role of Seurat, which demands a vocal range from low baritone to falsetto alto, to go with Sondheim’s already-challenging arsenal of quirky intervals, artful repetitions and tongue-cramping patter. Fortunately, local treasure Stephen Guggenheim is up to these demands, and additionally has just the right bearing for the stern, obsessive artist. As imagined here, Georges can cruelly cut loose his lover one minute and the next playfully narrate the voices of his painting’s dogs, a goofy Labrador and frisky terrier. He also demonstrates an egalitarian devotion to his more blue-collar models and an utter dedication to his vision. Guggenheim covers all this ground with aplomb, showing Seurat’s great humanity and imagination.

The heart of the play is Seurat’s whimsically named muse and model, Dot, and here the match is absolutely perfect. Opera San Jose alum Julia Wade, returning from the East Coast to play the part, has the same red hair, fair complexion and clarion soprano that Bernadette Peters brought to the original role. Wade wastes no time in demonstrating her skills with the opening number, “Sunday in the Park with George,” which offers lightning-fast Rossinian patter. She rolls through them like a pro, and gives Dot a fetchingly naive, optimistic twist, no matter how many obstacles her artist lover throws in her way.

The figures in the painting also offer talents a-plenty. Susan Gundunas plays Georges’ mother and gives a poignant account of “Beautiful,” a grief-filled reflection on change. F. James Raasch plays distinct opposites as the oddly gentle Soldier and the brutish Boatman. Krista Wigle lends her particular brand of sunshine to Yvonne and the hugely amusing ugly American tourist, “Mrs.” (to Jim Ambler’s “Mr.”). Jackson Davis gives a particularly rich account of Jules, the older artist who dislikes Georges’ art but respects his talent and ambition.

The sense of ensemble - and the combined directorial skills of the brothers Guggenheim (musical director Stephen and stage director Scott Evan) - are on full display in the famed second-act opener “It’s Hot Up Here.” The painting’s immortalized figures take turns kvetching from their wall in a Chicago museum, and the sheer coordination is stunning to watch. Playing off a recorded soundtrack, the unmoving performers pass lines of song from left to right with the synchronization of a drill team. It’s not just brilliant, it’s also really, really funny.

Another kind of delight comes from the projections by Rick Frendt, Jon Gourdine and Shannon Guggenheim, which create the sensation of traveling through Seurat’s mind as the painting takes form. Later, the projections deliver a dazzling facsimile of the Chromolume, a more technological exploration of light and color developed by Seurat’s great grandson. I remember thinking, back in the mid-nineties, that the second, time-traveling act seemed gimmicky, but computer-produced art has come a long way since then, and the act now seems more relevant.

In the end, it’s still hard to pin down what makes this musical work, but Sondheim works do not come with easy explanations. The themes include the creative process, the idea that sometimes an artist’s most dangerous addiction is art itself, the curse of being ahead of one’s time, the conflict between love and the artistic life, and the desire to reach back through the decades in a search for ancestral connections. But one thing’s for sure: you will leave the theater with your brain buzzing, your eyes newly energized, and the lovely anthem “Sunday” rolling through your head like the green purple yellow red grass. The musical about a painting is just that brilliant, and so is this production.

Through Dec. 11 at 3Below Theatres, 288 S. Second Street, San Jose, $25-$55, 408/404-7711,

*This is an ever-evolving quote, variously attributed to Martin Mull, Jackson Browne and probably Mark Twain. The furniture is my contribution.

Image: F. James Raasch, MaryTheresa Capriles, Stephen Guggenheim and Osher Fire. Photo by Dave Lepori.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 28 novels, including A Painting Called Sylvia, available at He is also a painter, exhibiting occasionally with Works San Jose and continually at Philz Coffee in Campbell and Los Gatos.

Monday, November 14, 2022

A Fitting Cinderella

Opera San Jose

Alma Deutscher's Cinderella

November 12, 2022

“Act your age, not your shoe size.” – Prince

It could be that the distinct advantage of being a prodigy lies in having developed the skills to create works of art without the usual baggage of dogmas, nay-sayers and cultural strictures. Which is one reason Alma Deutscher’s Cinderella is such a breath of fresh air. Deutscher simply looks at the musical options available to her - be they classical, romantic or bel canto - revs up that awesome musical brain and applies them to her story. The resultant opera is unapologetically beautiful and vastly entertaining.

The only stumbling block going in may be the fairy tale itself, which has been done to death and, in this age of female empowerment, is not aging well (even Disney is ditching princesses). Fortunately, Deutscher seems aware of these issues and has responded with some intriguing innovations. The primary shift is taking the glass slipper that leads the prince to his quarry and changing it to the second half of an odd melody that Cinderella sings as she flees the ball.

This is nicely set up by the family situation. The nasty stepmother is a retired prima donna (talk about typecasting!), her daughters two budding divas, and they live in the opera house owned by her late husband. The lowly stepdaughter Cinderella handles the score reproductions and has shown some ability as a composer. Once Deutscher establishes the prince as a budding poet, we have the possibility of the two lovers being drawn to each other not through physical attributes but because of their talents and passions.

Another crucial key to the opera’s success is the composer/librettist’s sense of humor. She acknowledges that she’s toying with the classics in a Shrek-ian sort of way with anachronisms (“Triglycerides?” reads the minister from the king’s health report) and regular removals of the fourth wall. “Life is not an opera!” shouts the king, whereupon the orchestra fires up the love theme from Traviata, until the king commands the conductor to cut it out.

With help from the mighty Packard Humanities Institute, the production is tres lavish, beginning with the singers. The stepdaughters, Griselda (soprano Stacey Tappan) and Zibaldona (soprano Julia Dawson) are accomplished bel canto coloraturists, eliciting much laughter with their constant showing off (they’re comically bad because they’re actually really, really good). They both display great comic skills as well, Zibaldona as a constantly melting snowflake and Griselda as a bull in a china shop. As the stepmother, Rena Harms offers a soprano so cutting and powerful that it’s kinda scary. She seems to possess that Cruela de Vil combination of hot and evil, and you can see why she scares the bejeebers out of poor Cinderella.

Another fun ensemble is the king, bass-baritone Ben Brady, and his wildly nervous minister, Joshua Hughes. In view of the king’s failing health, the two are working hard to hook up the brooding poet prince, tenor Joey Hammond-Leppek, with an appropriate bride. Hammond-Leppek possesses a warm, strong tone, but also shows the ability to bring it back to touching pianissimos.

Soprano Natalia Santaliz covered Maria in OSJ’s recent West Side Story, which is a funny coincidence, because the meeting between Cinderella and the prince is quite similar to that of Tony and Maria. Santaliz gives the title character a hugely sympathetic presence, with a light but silvery lyric soprano. Her status as the only singer of color evokes both Cinderella’s lonely state and the recent travails of Meghan Markle. She’s also very good at conveying the darker side of Cinderella’s childhood, notably in the song “Beggar Girl.” The loveliest piece of music in the score is her duet with the prince while they’re dancing. Hammond-Leppek showed great care in bringing down his volume to match hers. Although her voice suited the character, it was a little bit lost in the larger production numbers.

The ensemble’s comic energy and esprit de corps was largely the work of stage director Brad Dalton. Steven C. Kemp’s sets were ravishing, with lovely touches like the carved doors of the king’s chambers and the stained glass windows of the wedding scene. The ballroom was stupendous, with a balcony that circles around like the prow of a ship. Johann A. Stegmeir’s costumes were impressive, notably Cinderella’s ball gown, which had its own entrance. I also enjoyed how the evil daughter’s yacht-wide gowns were played for laughs (and the stepmother’s red gown, let’s just say Rrowr!). Playing the fairy (godmother or not, we don’t know), contralto Megan Esther Grey received quite an upgrade from literal widow’s weeds to a sparkling wedding-day gown. Along with singers from the always-dependable Ragazzi children’s chorus, she provided a calming, hopeful presence.

The orchestra seemed extra comfy with the retro score, delivering a lush performance, and it was a pleasure watching Deutscher’s delicate conducting. It was the first time, in fact, that I had ever watched a composer conduct her own work.

It will be fascinating to watch where Deutscher aims her talents next. As much as I enjoyed her gentle twisting of a classic story, I yearned for more. I even envisioned one of the too-cartoonish evil characters, say Griselda, having a sudden attack of self-awareness: “Why the hell do I spend so much time and energy trying to impress these people?” (See Sondheim, Into the Woods.) In any case, I hope San Jose remains one of her regular stops.

The final act brought one of those nerve-wracking stage crises. A screen had latched onto one of its neighbors and could not be lifted to reveal the interior of the opera house (artfully painted to look like the California Theatre). Had Santaliz thought about it, she might have realized that Cinderella was, in fact, the housekeeper of said opera house, and walked over to shake it loose. It might have been hilarious. After a torturous sixty seconds, some brave stagehand finally snuck over and nudged it free.

Through Nov. 27, California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $55-$195, with special “pay-their-age” children’s rates,, 408/437-4450.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 35-year opera critic and author of the novels Gabriella’s Voice and Operaville, both available at

Photo: Natalia Santaliz as Cinderella, Rena Harms as the stepmother. Photo by David Allen.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Opera San Jose: Bollywood Meets Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro
September 10, 2022

Maya Kherani as Susanna.
Photos by David Allen.

Opera San Jose's re-setting of Figaro into the 1890s British Raj of India works like a charm, thanks in no small part to a cast full of South Asian faces and an immaculate attention to detail. Of course, you'd have to give equal credit to the piece itself. Has there ever been a time or place when we haven't had class inequalities, marital infidelities, jealous spouses and horny teenagers?

The performance's beginnings were not so promising. Our Susanna seemed oddly quiet, and the usually reliable chair scene didn't quite click. Also, conductor Viswa Subbaraman was having a hard time negotiating tempi with his singers. I'm happy to report, this all faded as the performers loosened up and their core talent came through. 

The principal quartet makes an excellent case study.  Our nobles, the Almavivas, Count and Contessa, are played by baritone Eugene Brancoveanu and soprano Maria Natale, and are all about power and anguish. Brancoveanu's Count is a fine balance between Casanova and buffoon, making his perpetual defeats a joy to the groundlings. His recitation of grievances, "Vedro, mentre io sospiro," is particularly forceful and hilarious. Natale's instrument is just as strong, the kind of sound that gets into your head and shakes things around. Her "Dove sono" is heartbreaking, marred only by some unsteady breathing. I also enjoyed her reaction to Cherubino's adolescent crush. Most Countesses employ bemused dismissiveness. Natale's reaction is bemusement, but with a sincere gratitude for much-needed adoration.

Susanna (Maya Kherani), The Countess
(Maria Natale) and Cherubino (Deepa Johnny).

Down in the servants' quarters we have baritone Efrain Solis as Figaro, as smooth and wily in presence as he is in vocal delivery. I particularly enjoyed his work in the recitatives, dancing with the artful handiwork of harpsichordist Veronika Agranov-Dafoe. When the dam finally bursts in Figaro's rant against women, "Aprite un po' quegl'occhi," the wildness of Solis's delivery is pretty hilarious. Recovering from her early timidity, soprano Maya Kherani in fact makes a perfect Susanna, pretending helplessness in the manner of an Indian "bruha" archetype as she schemes her way through one crisis after another. Her singing is the same, understated but packed with small, well-crafted touches. Her cadenza at the end of "Deh vieni, non tardar" proved exceptionally artful and moving, even with the knowledge that she was really just playing a prank on her new husband.

Comically, the ensemble work under stage director Brad Dalton grew stronger as the evening progressed. After Cherubino's famed "Voi che sapete" - delivered with a fetching innocence by mezzo Deepa Johnny - the page is forced to hide from the jealous Count on the balcony, followed by all manner of door-slamming farce. Besides inspiring lots of laughter, the scene was a reminder of the depth of Mozart's brilliance, dishing out musical diamonds (e.g., the Countess and Susanna's tight, harmonized fusillades of scolding) even in the midst of chaos.

Figaro (Efrain Solis) and the Count (Eugene Brancoveanu).

Bass Matthew Anchel gifted the unscrupulous Dr. Bartolo with a cave-deep resonance and a ready comic sense. Mezzo Tahanee Aluwihare played a Marcellina much more subtle than the usual hag, giving her a certain librarian charm. Bass-baritone Jesus Vicente Murillo had a grand time playing the drunken gardener Antonio.

The production was blessed throughout with the fine touches of Indian culture. The dancers lent the festive scenes a sense of Bollywood joy, doing their best to match their moves to the old Austrian rhythms. Other pleasures included face-marking, the wedding ritual, and a trio of antique cricket bats. I enjoyed the thick, bushy hair and mustache of the Count (Heather Sterling, wig and makeup), which gave him the appearance of every other Bollywood leading man of the '70s.

Costume designer Deepsikah Chatterjee delineates the gender-war by dressing the Act I male principals in green, the women in fuschia. Her work throughout is dazzling, especially Figaro's sun-yellow wedding outfit. Steven C. Kemp's set design made an interesting marriage between Mozartean traditions and Indian palettes.

Speaking of traditions, the season-opening singing of the national anthem is always a treat, especially because opera audiences contain some excellent vocalists. With Austrian music, Italian words, Indian costumes, and supertitles in English and Spanish, it was truly an international evening.

Through September 25, California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose, California. $55-$195, 408/437-4450,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 35-year opera critic and author of 28 novels, available at

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Mermaids' Tears (the story)

In my latest novel, Mermaids' Tears, my twelve-year-old protagonist, Rusty, writes the title story as a way to console his older housemate, Autumn, who has lost her brother to suicide.

Mermaids' Tears

In the month of October, in the terminally charming town of Caramel-by-the-Waters, there was born a cute and sweet girl. Her parents named her October. Almost three years later, in the month of July, there was born a cute and spirited boy. His parents named him January. This would not seem to make sense, but the boy’s big ice-blue eyes reminded his father of winters in Wisconsin.

 It’s not unusual for a first-born child to resent a second, mostly for intruding on her parental monopoly, but this was not true of October. She gazed at her big-eyed brother in his crib and said, “I will always be here to protect you, because you are my dear brother, and we will be the best of friends.”

 October and January were, in fact, the closest siblings that any of their friends had ever met, and they both grew into smart and kind young adults. They did, however, have troubles. January’s problem was his brain, which had an on switch but no off. It was constantly on the prowl, and like an overworked engine it would run hot and drift into redlines of worry and fear. It also prevented him from sleeping. Many was the night that October would rub January’s temples and sing wordless songs into his ear - but sometimes even this wouldn’t help.

 October’s problem was her body, which was a healthy body but large and unwieldy. The girls at school made mean jokes that burned like hot embers.

 Caramel-by-the-Waters had some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and the two siblings spent many an afternoon walking their sands. One June day, they came to the tidepools to discover an albino sea lion sunning herself on the rocks. The sea lion tumbled into the water and barked at them. October heard this sound distinctly as an invitation, and before she knew it she was diving headlong into the cold blue waters. She didn’t see the albino creature anywhere, but discovered, much to her surprise, that she, Autumn, was an exceptional swimmer. Her ungainly body, so awkward on the land, became, in the water, a divine transport. She dove deeper and discovered that she could stay underwater for several minutes at a time, navigating the gold-green curtains of the kelp forest.

 When October finally surfaced, she found January pacing the shoreline in a frenetic state. “Where did you go? I thought you had drowned! We need to get home - it’s almost time for supper.”

 Just then, the albino sea lion appeared fifty feet away and repeated its funny barking.

 “No,” said October. “I can’t go home. I think I will stay here and become a mermaid.”

 October knew that this was preposterous. She wasn’t even certain that mermaids existed, and she had no notion of how to go about becoming one. But somehow, January seemed to understand.

 “I’m going to have a hard time explaining this to Mom and Dad,” he said. “But you do seem happy here. Tell you what. I’ll tell them you found a nice place near the beach, and we’ll fill in the rest later.”

 October let out a high-pitched laugh like a dolphin (which was very odd). “Thank you, brother. When you come to the beach, just call my name and I’ll come up to visit you.”


 October loved her new life. She swam through swirling eddies of silver sardines, their fins tickling her skin. The sea otters taught her how to float on her back and open shellfish on her stomach. The whales taught her their beautiful and eerie songs. The albino sea lion, Snowball, took her to the edge of the Montrez Bay Canyon.

 Every afternoon, January called for her at the beach. He brought green apples, her favorite food, and used a stick to bat them into the surf.

 October waited for signs that she was becoming a genuine mermaid, but none came. And she worried about her brother. Each day, he looked more and more worried, and grew deep bags under his eyes. She asked if she should return to land so she could take care of him, but he wouldn’t have it. January waded into the surf and gave his sister a long, sad embrace.

 “I’m afraid it’s not something that can be fixed,” he said. “I have come to a decision. I cannot bear this torment any longer. I am leaving to a place where the pain can no longer reach me. Sadly, sister, you won’t be able to reach me, either. But I really need to go. I love you, October.”

 October thought of a hundred arguments to make January stay, but she realized that she could not ask him to suffer what he simply could not suffer. Especially when he had been so supportive of her odd mermaid ambitions.

 “I will miss you terribly, brother. But I think I understand.”

 January handed her a silver necklace. “I recorded some music onto this amulet. It sounds to me like whalesong. Hold this to your ear and it will play for you. Maybe you can share it with your whale friends.”

 They held each other for a long, long time, until the sun dipped under the horizon, and then finally October let January go. He gave one last wave from the crest of the white sand, and then he was gone.

 October thought he might change his mind, but after three days of keeping watch over the beach she realized he would not return. She held the amulet to her ear and sang along with its mournful tune, and as she did she could feel a great pain entering her body.

 The next morning, the pain had traveled to her legs. She swam to the tidepools and lifted herself onto a rock to discover that she had no legs. What she had was a gold-green tail with fins instead of feet. What she had not known was that a human could not become a mermaid until she had suffered a great loss. And certainly, the loss of January was greater than any she could imagine.

 This sudden transformation filled October with alternating waves of joy and despair. She began to cry, and her emotions were so strong that her tears crystallized into bits of colored glass. The waves carried her tears to the shoreline, where beachcombers found them among the pebbles and sand dollars. Most of them called these little gems sea glass, thinking them to be fragments of long-ago bottles, tossed and burnished by sand and surf. But the more whimsical called them mermaids’ tears, and they had no idea how right they were.

Mermaids' Tears (the novel) is available at

Monday, June 13, 2022

San Francisco Opera: Don Giovanni

Amitai Patti as Don Ottavio, Adela Zaharia as
Donna Anna. Photos by Cory Weaver.

June 10, 2022

This production of Giovanni is the third in Michael Cavanagh's American House Trilogy, designed to cast a new light on the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, also including Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte. Figaro was set at the birth of America, Cosi in the Great Depression, and Giovanni in a post-apocalyptic era. This latter is the result of private greed and natural disasters - sadly, all too likely.

The setting provides many parallels to modern-day America. A womanizing oligarch wreaking havoc on society to feed his private obsessions? Say it ain't so! What's surprising is how, in the experience of the performance itself, there is a decided undertone of "meh." Considering the talent onstage (and the pyrotechnics), I found this curious, but I later realized that Cavanaugh's approach undoes something essential about Da Ponte and Mozart. These operas are comic, sometimes farcical, but they use their humor to smuggle in all kinds of profound, sometimes ugly truths (the noble class is not noble; pure fidelity doesn't exist; love is all about power). I am so found of this approach, in fact, that I use it as a touchstone for my novels.

Christina Gansch as Zerlina, Cody Quattlebaum
as Masetto.

All that said, it feels like this production is simply trying too hard, a distinctly non-Mozartean trait. Which explains the feeling of "meh." We need more of the funny to whet the appetite for the heavy.

I am the last critic to disapprove of modified settings. In fact, I enjoy the approach, because it often brings out new aspects of masterful works. A fine example in this production is the throughline of Zerlina, the peasant bride being wooed away from her wedding by Giovanni. Soprano Christina Gansch sang and performed the part brilliantly, highlighting the treasure trove of music given to this single role: "La ci darem la mano," her duet with Giovanni, and the arias "Batti, batti" and "Vedrai, carino." These latter two share the theme of pain. In the first, Zerlina offers herself to her fiancee Masetto for painful punishment; in the second, she offers Masetto the healing qualities of love after he has been beaten silly by Giovanni. If you're following the "Fifty Shades" trail here, this leads nicely to a scene only included in the lesser-performed Vienna version of the opera, in which Zerlina threatens the captured Leporello with torture. Cavanagh accentuates the scene by affording her an electric chair and a collection of handtools worthy of the "Saw" horror franchise.

Nicole Car as Donna Elvira.

Vocally, the standouts were all female, especially soprano Adela Zaharia's heart-rending performance of Donna Anna's "Non mi dir." Soprano Nicole Car as Donna Elvira is a delight any time she opens her mouth, and also presents enough stylish outfits to fill a catwalk.

Baritone Etienne Dupuis and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni are well-cast as the swaggering Don and his beleaguered servant Leporello, but the excessively earnest tone of the production seems to mute their interplay. There are exceptions that show the possibilities, particularly the de Bergerac-like scene in which Leporello dresses like his boss and mimes a serenade to Elvira as Giovanni supplies the vocals. At one point, Giovanni actually takes Leporello's limbs and uses him as a human puppet.

The person who really had the most fun was costume designer Constance Hoffman, for what is the post-apocalypse than a global thrift shop? The straight-laced Ottavio wears nothing but elegant business suits, while Giovanni sports an 18th-century waistcoat beneath his leather coat, and Leporello is clad in a street person's denim. Zerlina and her girlfriends wear the petticoat/vest combos of steampunk-Burning Man, while Masetto goes for overalls and plaid shirts. And then, for Giovanni's final banquet, a band of white-faced Mozarteans shows up, looking a little zombified.

Etienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni.

The final question for DG connoisseurs is always, "How are they going to drag the Don to hell this time?" Cavanagh's answer is "very impressively." The Commendatore is not the standard statue but a 24-foot-tall bust that cracks in two and swallows Giovanni amid a sea of flames, both real and projected. Yowza! (Set and projection design by Erhard Rom.)

Conductor Bertrand de Billy led his orchestra in a reading leaning on the legato, very smooth, befitting the nature of the production.

Through July 2 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $26-$408, 415/864-3330, Proof of vaccine, picture ID and masks required.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 35-year opera critic and author of 26 novels, available on