Bay Area Opera—opening the season

Nathan Gunn-David BachmanDivas and diversions…

The Opera season is upon us, and between the sparkling soufflés of the well endowed, the bangers-and-mash of our middleweights and the spunky porridge of shoestring operations, the Bay Area’s opera houses supply some hearty fare. But tight times have closed major opera houses across the country, and it is not surprising that many of our own are struggling to eke out a season.

If we don’t want a thin gruel in the near future, it is imperative that we support this musical conduit to the deepest human conflicts and passions—and the simplest support is to go see it!

West Edge Opera, formerly the Berkeley Opera, has had two successful seasons in its digs at the new El Cerrito Performing Arts Center. After losing their long-time slot at Berkeley’s Julia Morgan Theatre, they have not only reinvented themselves, but grown into a new creative identity.  Last year’s “Popera” season was a smashing success, and they continue their focus on artistic accessibility with a new season that stretches from baroque classic to American premiere.

Chronicling a journey from mistress to empress, Monteverdi’s L’Incoranazione di Popea was steamy in 1642 and still surprising today, as well as a good fit for chamber orchestra. Artistic Director Mark Streshinsky is certain to add flair to the careful period sensibility of conductor and harpsichordist Gilbert Martinez of MusicSources, and it will be sung with an accomplished cast that includes renowned Christine Brandes as Nero (yes, that Nero!) and coloratura soprano Emma McNairy as Popea (stealing the show last year in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos). Performances will be held Fri Feb 1 and Sat Feb 2 at 8:00 p.m. and Sun Feb 3 at 3:00 p.m.

In April Fabrizio Carlone’s Bonjour M. Gauguin immerses us in the world of French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin, with text derived from his own writings and dance collaboration by the Kunst-Stoff Contemporary Dance Company, all set amidst a video backdrop of the artist’s arresting neo-primitivism. They end their season in July with Benjamin Britten’s gorgeous and chilling The Turn of the Screw.

The San Francisco Opera ignites their season this Friday, Sept 7 with Verdi’s Rigoletto and an opening night gala. Full of flash and splendor (and heart-ache and vengeance), this looks to be a very worthwhile production, and will be repeated as a free live simulcast at AT&T Park on Sat Sept 15 at 8:00 p.m. Advanced registration is encouraged, using a link from their website at www.sfopera.com.

Their season continues with Bellini’s Capulets and Montagues, featuring the incomparable Joyce DiDonato as Romeo and Nicole Cabell her Juliet, with a French director/set designer team and costumes by Christian LaCroix.

Zeljko Lucic in Rigoletto-photo by Marty SohlAfter five years on the job, SFO’s General Director David Gockley is to be commended for balancing older chestnuts with experimental pieces, programming three contemporary operas this season. Moby Dick, written in 2010 by Bay Area Composer Jake Heggie (famed for his operatic treatment of Dead Man Walking), opens on Oct 10 at 7:30. After the all-female love scenes of Nero and Romeo, seven men vying with madness and the elements on the open sea is a breath of fresh—or salty—air.

Moving to the East Bay, the SF Opera teams up with Cal Performances to bring Nolan Gasser’s The Secret Garden to the stage, performing at Zellerbach at the beginning of March. Also a highlight of Cal Performances’ season, the Napa Valley composer’s new opera is highly awaited.

After the fall splendor, the SF Ballet moves into the Opera House for their spring season, but then the Opera returns in June and July for a strong second season. On June 19 they premiere Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, commissioned by the SF Opera and featuring mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and baritone Nathan Gunn.

Their season also includes appearances by international luminaries Angela Gheorghiu and Natalie Dessay amid a host of rising stars.

San Jose Opera also kicks off this week with Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, on Saturday, Sept 8 at 8:00 p.m. at the jewel-like California Theatre in downtown San Jose. That opera not only includes a forsworn High Priestess—condemned to death by the King who loves her—and villagers on the rampage with torches, but also “Au fond du temple saint,” arguably the most beautiful tenor/baritone duet in the repertoire. Their season continues with Strauss’ comedy, Die Fledermaus, beginning Nov. 10.

A little further north is that mighty mouse of operas, West Bay Opera, held in Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theatre. Despite the intimate house, conductor José Luis Moscovich and director Ragnar Conde last year stuffed what seemed like hundreds of Philistines and Hebrew slaves, not to mention patriarchs, priestesses and strong men, onto the tiny stage in Samson et Delilah. This October 3 they host Offenbach’s fantastical and surrealistic Tales of Hoffman, with the robotic doll’s eye-popping “Les Oiseaux” aria and the lovely Barcarolle duet.

Livermore Valley Opera hosts two strong shows this year, beginning with Puccini’s La Bohème, opening Oct. 6 at Livermore’s Bankhead Theater. Gifted baritone Eugene Brancoveanu both directs and sings in this tale of tragic love. Curiously, their season concludes in March with La Traviata, Verdi’s parallel story, a “case” of love and tubercular loss. Actually, Verdi wrote his opera first, but both, like Rent, reflected the socioeconomic effects of a ravishing disease.

Walnut Creek’s Festival Opera, famous for last year’s flash-mob “Libiamo” chorus at the Ferry Building, scaled back productions this year, but still managed to commission “About Face,” a combination of operatic arias and Henry Mollicone’s chamber opera, Face on the Barroom Floor. The concerts, at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. on Dec 5, feature a formidable threesome: soprano Heidi Moss, tenor Thomas Glenn and—again—baritone Eugene Brancoveanu. Their regular season, conducted by Michael Morgan with members of the Oakland Symphony, has been especially ambitious and successful for the last two years, and their tight times are shocking. 

 Goat Hall Productions, once a darling of Potrero Hill, lost its main venue during an earthquake retrofit and has been on the road since. But also doing show business as SF Cabaret Opera, the energetic company still commissions and produces a slew of new operatic scenes every spring in its Fresh Voices Festival. Under the long and able team of director Harriet Page and composer Mark Alburger, they recently held a Kurt Weill songfest, and last week, in “Opera á la Carte,” they paraded four nights of arias and preview scenes from their upcoming production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutti.

Anastacia Louise in The Little Match Girl-SF Lyric OperaThe SF Lyric Opera is another small company that uses passionate creativity in lieu of wealthy patrons. Conducted by Barnaby Palmer, they were regulars at the Legion of Honor and then, after their rent tripled, at the Cowell Theatre. After a three-year hiatus, they reincarnated last March to combine forces with the dancers of ODC in David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, to rave reviews and sold out shows. Whether they can return again is the question.

And beyond the struggles of the SF Lyric Opera? How about the North Bay Opera? Or Cinnabar Opera? And Ensemble Parallèle? These fine ensembles are hanging by a thread, hoping to raise funds for one big production.

And where is the Trinity Lyric Opera, which brought such a fine rendition of Copland’s The Tender Land? Or the Oakland Metro Opera, a black box theatre with stunning productions of Philip Glass and Lou Harrison? Open Opera? Urban Opera? They are all gone, and we are the poorer for it.

—Adam Broner

Photos: Nathan Gunn appears in Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene at the SF Opera on June 19; photo by David Bachman. Zeljko Lucic stars in Verdi’s Rigoletto, opening the SFO season on Sept 7; photo by Marty Sohl. Photo bottom: Anastacia Louise in The Little Match Girl Passion, performed March 2012 by the San Francisco Lyric Opera.