When I was a student I had one music professor who seemed to relish the motto, “There are those who like music and those who like opera.” As a loyal subscriber to the San Francisco Opera, I can recognize the sort of compositions that would have led him to promote this claim; but I still think it gives opera as a whole a bad rap. Thus, now that my colleague, SF Opera Examiner Cindy Warner, has filed her report on the announcement of the 2010–11 Season of the San Francisco Opera, I think it would be beneficial to point out that opera does not have to be “all about the diva.” There will always be opportunities for the serious listener; and, in the coming season, some of those opportunities are likely to be quite interesting.
The obvious place to begin is with Richard Wagner, since the summer of 2011 will bring three performances of the four-opera cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen. This will be the staging by Francesca Zambello for a production being shared with the Washington National Opera that was conceived to have a particularly American ring (pun intended) to it. We got our first taste of this conception when Das Rheingold was performed here in the spring of 2008, and Die Walküre will be part of the coming spring season. However, 2011 will be the year in which the whole cycle will be rolled out in its entirety. The conductor for all of these productions will be Donald Runnicles, who not only has considerable Wagner experience under his belt but has demonstrated his skill in working effectively with a variety of Wagner directors, including Zambello.
What is important, however, is that, the Ring is as interesting a musical journey as it is a dramatic one. It is the most extensive demonstration of Wagner’s leitmotiv technique, which assigns recognizable thematic passages to not only each of the characters but also most of the significant objects (such as the Ring itself) and several critical abstract concepts (beginning with the very first notes of Rheingold, which represent the primal natural force from which everything else will unfold). Nevertheless, while this technique integrates the four operas, there is also a fascinating discontinuity in Wagner’s compositional style. This is because he took a “break” after completing the second act of Siegfried, during which he composed Tristan und Isolde followed by Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Only after these two operas were completed did he conclude Siegfried and compose all of Götterdämmerung; and, while his leitmotiv logic remained intact, both his grammar and his rhetoric became far more elaborate. Götterdämmerung takes the whole affair to a new level in so many ways (including being the only opera with a full chorus) that some (including myself) might argue that it serves as a model for all subsequent operatic composition. Even without such a hyperbolic claim, Götterdämmerung certainly serves as one of the major listening experiences for those who take their listening seriously.
However, beyond the opportunity to hear Wagner’s epic in its totality, there are two other opportunities in the coming season that deserve recognition. The first is the return of Leoš Janácek to the San Francisco Opera repertoire in the form of The Makropulos Case (which has been called The Makropulos Affair in other productions), based on a play of the same name by Karel Capek. One might view this opera as a curious meditation on the ars longa vita brevis principle, since the heroine is an opera diva whose life is anything but brief. Janácek’s approach to composition is probably as distant a departure from Wagner as one is likely to find, but he has a knack for invoking constructions that are as fascinating as the dramatic material he sets. In addition, the opera will be conducted by Jiri Belohlávek, currently Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. By my records Belohlávek was last in San Francisco in 2002, when he brought his interpretation of Janácek to the San Francisco Symphony. The Makropulos Case will provide his debut with the San Francisco Opera, and his particular approach to Janácek definitely deserves to be heard.
The other musical occasion of note will be Music Director Nicola Luisotti’s next venture beyond the “standard Italian” repertoire. This past fall he demonstrated his mastery of Richard Strauss with a production of Salome that many would call the most memorable event of that season. This coming fall will present us with the opportunity to listen to his take on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when he conducts The Marriage of Figaro. The staging will be the tried-and-true conception of John Copley, which, in past productions, has always effectively rendered the dramatic complexities of the narrative with admirable clarity. Such clarity is equally necessary in giving Mozart his due, and it goes without saying that Mozart is as different from Strauss as Janácek is from Wagner. Mozart is always a powerful listening experience, and we have every reason to look forward to how Luisotti will address that experience.
These are only a few examples of why one can go to the opera to listen as well as to watch; but they remind us that, whatever some academics may say, the music is very much a part of the opera experience!