Quantcast
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

Actors David Malis and John Pringle, director John Copley, conductor Edoardo Muller, and, of course, Ian Campbell

Opera gypsies

Emily Manhart and John Copley. Copley: "I want them to fall in love with Figaro and Susanna." - Image by Paul Stachelek
Emily Manhart and John Copley. Copley: "I want them to fall in love with Figaro and Susanna."

I’ve had an indifferent relationship to music, not nonexistent, but remote, like having lunch with a stepfather one meets at the age of 30. It’s always been that way. While other children at West University Elementary School gleefully grabbed the flute, bassoon, violin, I selected the triangle for my compulsory two weeks of music class. That’s not to say I didn’t have my moments. Sixteen years old, heading west on El Cajon Boulevard, 8 p.m., spicy summer evening, my big blue eyes wide open to a big, affectionate world, the Supremes blasting from the AM radio centered on the dash of my parents' Hillman Minx.

Cheryl Parrish as Susannah, John Pringle as Figaro

Twenty-three years old, uncomfortably posturing cross-legged on an enormous paisley pillow, smoking hashish six blocks from the comer of Haight and Ashbury, listening to Cream by way of a stout Motorola record player; feeling my heart pump, feeling the righteousness, the arrogance, the indisputable power of being young and being in the right place at the right time.

Conductor Edoardo Muller. "Pavarotti asked if we would release him to conduct Pavarotti Plus on public television."

Thirty years old, working on the Alaskan pipeline coming home to Isabel Pass Construction Camp, 50 miles from the nearest village. I was three months into my first pipeline job. The construction camp was a string of ATCO trailers laid down like moose droppings on the arctic snow, warehousing 1200 men tn two-man rooms. After dinner, shuffle hack to a 10-by-8 room, lie down on cheap single bed, listen to Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. Have not seen a woman in months, ache in the belly from their absence.

Emily Manhart as Cherubino, Cheryl Parrish as Susannah

Thirty-six years old, driving an orange, half-ton Ford truck, accompanied by four Tlingit Indians and six ounces of cocaine, cruising Fourth Avenue, the main drag in Christmas Eve Anchorage, playing WayIon Jennings on a 150-watt custom dash stereo. Music so loud both passenger windows throb in and out.

Rita Cullis as Countess Almaviva. "She’ll work virtually every month with one of the British companies, but then in summer she’ll sing at the Salzburg Festival."

But that’s most of it. Music was never much in my life, not like a daily habit, not like knowing names of more than eight or nine famous singers, not like understanding even the beginning of how it comes together. Mostly,

I used music like the gas I put in my truck; it was there to help me get from point A to point B.

Rehearsal. "The stage here is too big for Marriage of FIgaro."

And so it was with more than ordinary civilian ignorance that I first tentatively walked into the rehearsals of The Marriage of Figaro held at the Civic Theatre. Figaro is one of five productions presented this year by the San Diego Opera.

Emily Manhart, John Pringle. Pringle's steady job is baritone with the Australian Opera.

The San Diego Opera was formed in 1950 by volunteers who acted as middlemen, presenting visiting opera companies to a (it can be hoped) grateful and generous public. Beginning May 1965, the San Diego Opera began producing its own operas. It’s had four general directors since then; currently, Australian Ian Campbell is boss.

The Marriage of Figaro has a busy plot line. The count, Count Almaviva, has bug eyes for his wife’s maid Susanna. Susanna has bug eyes for the count’s valet Figaro; in fact, the pair want to be married. But the count would like to restore venerable tradition of sleeping with young bride on her wedding night; failing that, he would simply like a good dose of carnal knowledge. We have plot and counter plot highlighted by much cross dressing — boy dressing as girl, girls trade clothing with girls — and in the end Susanna and Figaro are married and the count seduces his own wife.

I wasn’t thinking much about wife seduction standing there on the comer of Third and C. I was thinking that opening night was two weeks away and I didn’t know a goddamn thing about opera.

The stage door opens, reveals production supervisor Mary Yankee Peters, an attractive, trim, 5’2" 40-year-old woman dressed in brown cords and black top. Peters escorts me down cement stairs to the basement and then across the width of the building to the rehearsal room.

It’s a repulsive space, looks like a 1960s governmental bunker, like a social security administrator’s office, or better, a Department of Motor Vehicles employee’s lunch room. We have institutional white linoleum floors, square acoustic panels on the ceiling, the entire area is maybe 40’ by 40’.

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon. On the north side of the large room is one folding cafeteria table. Behind it is John Copley, the stage director. Next to his table, perched on a high stool, is maestro Edoardo Muller. On his right is a man playing the harpsichord. Facing the three, sitting in ordinary folding chairs, like extra-good students at a high school leadership meeting, are eight mature adults, dressed in leisure clothes, the kind you’d wear if you were taking the kids to Sea World on a Saturday afternoon.

They are singing.

Which doesn’t begin to describe it. It’s like saying an adding machine is a computer. Even though this is the first day of rehearsals, even though no one is working their voice, the clarity, the volume, the color of their sounds is, to use an old but wise phrase, like walking into a new world.

Preparations for The Marriage of Figaro run constantly from 8 in the morning until 11 at night. Stage crew, wardrobe, lighting designers, chorus, principals roll in and out of the building 15 hours every day. Usually, the singers rehearse down in the bunker from 11 a.m. to 1, 2 to 5:30, 7 until 11 p.m.

By day three, the singers are standing, then moving about the room. Duct tape is laid out on the floor indicating the obstructions singers will find up on the performance stage. Chairs, benches are placed here and there, indicating where future fountains, stairways, doorways will be. Entrances and exits are practiced. Arias become more than snippets, now duets, now four, now six sing together.

I came to remember more of the score than I ever thought possible, discovered my favorite parts, sat a bit straighter when they were sung. I got to know the cast, the watchman, found the tunnels and steps under the building that eventually took me out to the empty lobby where I could smoke cigarettes next to a No Smoking sign.

And I came to feel an emotion I’ve never had about music. I had felt joy, exultation, sadness, self-pity, boredom, but I had never felt gratitude.

Back on that first day, one of the singers, Rita Cullis, a soprano who plays Countess Almaviva, has just ripped out a couple of lines. A ten-minute break is announced, the maestro beckons her close and quietly says, “We don’t agree yet. That’s all right; we have time so that we can both feel the same thing. That is important.” David Malis plays the count who is scheming after Susanna. He attended Morris College in North Carolina, the University of Georgia (majored in tuba), and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He’s sung principal roles in San Francisco, La Scala, Covent Garden, Theatre des Champs Elysee, the Met, Santa Fe among many. He’s a tall (over six feet), big-boned fellow, mid-30s, with a brawny, flat-stomached figure.

A week into rehearsals I offer Malis a ride back to his temporary lodgings at the Capri in Pacific Beach. We stop on the way, purchase a six-pack of German beer. Malis is staying on the eighth floor in a two-bedroom condo overlooking the Pacific. His wife, daughter, and nanny are flying in tomorrow. I pop two beers, grab a cracker, a slice of Camembert cheese, and ask,

Civilians generally believe that the maestro is all powerful. I was surprised to see John Copley, the director, run the show up to this point. Is that...

In my experience that’s a little unusual. This is the way the situation should be handled. Copley and the maestro both have definite ideas, and they are both very accommodating of each other’s opinion. There are a lot of situations where the director and the maestro barely speak to each other. Believe me, this is fantastic. John is running the show, but you’ll notice the maestro will stop and say, “You know, -I have to have this.”

What’s a bad situation like, say, a production where you think to yourself, "This is going to be hell”?

You feel like they’re standing there with their foot on top of you. I worked with a conductor, who shall remain nameless, in Austria, a real negative experience because after I sang the first time he said, “Well, I just have to ask you, is that all you’ve got?”

What did you do?

It hurts. Number one, I knew it was a stretch for me; the part was a stretch because it was a role that has traditionally been done by dramatic baritones, heavier voices than mine, and I’m strictly a high lyric baritone, and I knew that I was stretching the envelope of what I was capable of doing. I also knew that I wasn’t going to fool anybody by trying to sound like someone else. I had to go out there and sing it with my voice, and he had to be a little sympathetic and keep the orchestra down. We eventually met on fairly equal terms. I don’t think he ever really liked me.

If I was listening to The Marriage of Figaro in Milan, how would it be different?

The house makes a big difference because, just the intimacy of the show, it is a very intimate show. This stage here is too big for Marriage of Figaro. But all the houses in America are big, and you can’t use that as an excuse not to do a good job. Here, the set is gigantic, it’s almost funny. The first scene with Figaro and Susanna talking about the room that the Count’s given them to live in — Figaro is happy about it, Susanna’s unhappy because she thinks the count has designs on her, which he does. But the room looks like they can put in a pool and a sauna, it’s so gigantic.

In rock ’n’ roll you can have a South African band, an Irish band, a British band, an American band, and you can’t tell their mother country while they’re singing. Is it the same in opera?

When you’re singing, everything is stretched out. You don’t say, “Hey, Fred, how are you today,” you say, “HEEYYYYYY FREEEDDDD HOOOWWWW ARRRE YOUUUUU.” That kind of stretching, where speech becomes vowel, because you’re sustaining a sound, you can’t sustain an s or a t or something like that. That seems to be the great equalizer as far as accents are concerned, because, if you listen to people’s accents, a lot of it has to do with the way they clip their words and the shortness and the length of their consonants. Whereas those distinctions become very blurred once you start singing because everything gets stretched out so much. In opera, people are trained in these different languages and make a big effort, but you can still notice Pavarotti singing in French. It’s still the gorgeous Pavarotti sound, but his French is pretty terrible. It’s a little funny because the Italian sound is so far forward, everything is in the mask, and in the French everything runs more together.

Is opera, like anything else, divided into categories, like grand opera, less grand opera, less-less grand opera?

Generally speaking, the people who are considered to be the real stars of opera are the people who sing what they call grand opera, opera seria. Like most of the Verdi, Wagner, some of the Mozart, more like Don Giovanni. The voice is more important than the actual drama on the stage. For a lot of serious opera fans, staging is not the most important thing; people are there to hear reams of beautiful sounds. If you have the pipes and can put it out, they don’t care if you stand in one comer and sing all night.

Most of the rest of us who have good voices but will never be of that level have to develop all of the facilities that one has.

There are niches to be found. I like to think that I have something different to offer. My voice sounds different from other people’s. When I get in the most trouble is when I start trying to make a particular operatic sound.

What niche have you found?

My voice and my personality combined are very, very much suited to the lighter repertoire, the more comic. The count is probably a little on the dark side for me.

You’ve sung at the Met. Was there anything that stood out?

Having so little rehearsal. The Met being the place that it is, giving so many performances and being a repertoire house, I only had about a week. I never set foot on the set until 20 minutes before the curtain went up on opening night.

Welcome home.

They came to my dressing room and said the first act set is up and it’s cleared. “Would you like to come out and walk on the set?" So I went out there knowing full well that people were filing into this gigantic auditorium on the other side of the curtain and I was about to make my Met debut.

One of the things I’ve been intrigued by is the vaudevillian aspect of opera, the freelance; five, six weeks here, five, six weeks there, pop all over the world. Is the traveling exhilarating?

Yes, but I’m no more free than anybody else is. I have a commitment in that place, and everything has to be geared to those five to seven to eight nights that I go out onstage. And everything else I do is aimed towards those few days. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure.

What happens with your personal relationships?

That’s the most difficult thing to do. I mean, both friendships and marriages. I have not {earned how to do that. You have a tendency to get settled into a certain mode and just expect things to stay that way. The potential for a problem occurring is doubled or even tripled when those people in the relationship are performers and are successful performers.

It’s very frustrating for me just trying to develop the kinds of friendships you have when you live in one place. My wife and I have been in Minneapolis for the last six years, where my wife has been playing with the orchestra. And there’s a lot of people in Minneapolis that I love very much whom I barely know.

I’ll go back after one of my wife’s concerts and I speak to these people, and we get together and have a wonderful time, and they say, “When will I see you again?”

“Well, I’ll be home for a week in March and another week in May.” And now my wife is going to New York to play with the philharmonic, and I feel like we’ve been in Minneapolis for six years, and I haven’t been able to be the kind of friend that I would have liked, and that’s frustrating.

For instance, you’re getting something like $10,000 or $20,000 from the San Diego Opera. How many operas in the world pay that kind of money? How big is the gene pool?

It’s funny. It seems big because there are a lot of opera companies, but it’s just incredible how you keep bumping into the same people wherever you go.

How many houses pay well?

See, the funny thing is, I would say the pay is really not that different from house to house; generally speaking, people have a certain fee. Of course, there are variations, a small house like the Mobile Opera in Alabama can’t afford to pay what the Met pays, so there is a difference, but it’s not as big a difference as you would imagine.

We get paid per performance. Fees are a hard thing to talk about because they vary so tremendously. Except for the real upper echelon, the top 20 singers who can really make serious money, as far as I know — how can I say this diplomatically or realistically — for a singer who is not the tip-top, but say, from number 35 on down to 200, which is basically the people who work in most of the opera companies, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to say that a singer in that position could make anywhere from $70,000 to $120,000 a year.

Not fabulous riches.

No, we’re not talking about fabulous riches here, but we’re not talking about peanuts either. There are perks: you get to travel a lot and you get to stay in a lot of interesting places and you get to meet a lot of really neat people. The down side is, you have no real roots. This is a ruthless and rootless business. I don’t know anybody who has a successful relationship with a wife and kids and still travels around the way that it’s required in opera.

Where do you go from here?

I go to Vancouver to do the same thing in March. I have a week off in between. Then I go to Hong Kong, and this summer I’ll be singing Figaro at the “Met in the Park” series, the Rossini Figaro. Then I go to Buenos Aires to make my debut at the Theatro Colon as Ford in Falstaff and then hack to San Francisco to do Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

At the end of the first week, rehearsals were still held inside the underground bunker. Incredible to realize how many thousands of notes must be brought from memory, then backward and forward over the entire course of the opera.

What surprises me is that rehearsals appear to be run by the director, John Copley. Except for his eyes, which ceaselessly move about the room, the maestro appears to be another stage prop, a hit superfluous, even silly sitting on the edge of his high stool waving a very small baton at six singers and one harpsichord. The director is the one speaking, urging, stopping, starting, instructing the cast, “No, no, try this, that’s better, that’s adorable.” Copley is 59 years old, set off by a round Cupid’s belly, overlarge horn-rimmed glasses, clean shaven, maybe 5’8". He speaks exaggerated. 1950s Liberace, made more noticeable by his manic British accent. Directions are accompanied by squeals, oohs, and ahhs. He's very, very smart. He is also a hell of a musician, able to sing any note, at any point in the opera.

After eight days the company moves upstairs. I caught Copley during a break, one of two given this afternoon We sit, fill 2 of the 3000 empty seats. Copley turns, nods his head, beckons me to begin.

I’ve never heard of a director in opera. Have there always been directors?

Well, Michael Kelly was the original. In Mozart’s time, he was the Don Basilio, the Don Curzio, and I’m sure he was a wonderful actor because he wrote terribly well. And I’m sure that there were wonderfully instinctive actors and actresses who were singing, but it must have been so different. It wasn’t in any way done the way we do it now. This is like theater; I direct as if I had actors. The difference between these people and actors is that they actually can sing as well.

There’s sometimes an idea that opera singers are the fat people who stand on the stage and sing. That’s not what we’re doing in this sort of situation at all. We cast very good singing actors and actresses. There isn’t anybody in this who isn’t a good actor. Some of them could act in the theater.

The lead, Pringle, seems that way.

Yes, he’s a very great actor. It’s not just because he’s a great Australian star. The reason that he’s such a great Australian star is that he’s such a wonderful actor. For 20 years I’ve been working with him. He is a total joy for the director. He can do anything you want.

You’re arriving on a plane, Lindbergh Field, thinking about the job. What is it that you want to get done?

I want the audience to understand this opera with all of its extraordinary brilliance and its layers and structures, imagination, emotions. I want to clarify it so that this audience, hearing it sung in Italian, can actually understand what was written.

You see, it isn’t my idea of it. Unlike a lot of modem directors who are so insistent on it being then version, then stamp, of whatever opera it tis, I don’t pretend it’s black plastic and dustbins and take it totally out of the genre. Opera has become, now, the direct theater. All I’m interested in is creating these incredible masterpieces as simply — I’m after the simplicity of it, and to get every inch out of everybody without it being gimmicky, without it being fanciful or somebody else’s stamp on what is already a work of genius.

Do you see what you do as an addition to the music?

It’s all together. I don’t think there’s any division between how we act and how we sing. I love singers. That is also something that’s rather different from me and some of the modem directors. They don’t really care for singers very much. They rather wish they didn’t sing.

Are singers different in America than Europe?

Singers have developed over the last 20 years, particularly here in America. They’re marvelous actors, and they find it very difficult to put up with nonsense and being treated like a lot of cattle. There arc all sorts of examples these days. Singers, very important singers, because the director is so powerful in Europe, have to do such gaspings and gropings that they can’t sing the part. There’s a famous Don Giovanni where the singer has to sing sitting on the lavatory. Of course, the fights about it were just so incredible, but the director and the designer won because this particular Don Giovanni was not a great star, and he had to do what he was told. So he had to sit and have a crap while singing de da da lum pa, de, da da lum pa and pull the plug at the end of it.

How do maestros feel about that?

Well, this maestro was in awe of this director and the designer. He was a very junior person. That’s why I don’t work in that situation. I work in a very adult and grown-up situation where we’re all rather on the same level. This cast, we’re all of the same sort; Susanna and Pringle and Judy Christin, I’ve worked with all of them for years and years at the Metropolitan, San Francisco, all these major places. You just grow up with people, and we’re like a family. That must be apparent to you.

How long has this tradition of a really important director been in opera?

Certainly not before World War II.

If I was going to rehearsals in Milan, what would be different?

If you were doing it in Milan, you might have the five greatest stars in the world doing the five great parts who might work very happily together or might not. Certainly Muti or Abbado would be conducting.

What would the director’s role be?

Depending, if Strehler is working with Muti that would be an equal, although Muti is totally the boss when he conducts. He would have enough faith in Strehler to know that Strehler is doing his thing and they would work very closely together. I was very lucky in my early years to work with Visconti and Giulini, who were a great partnership, and Giulini was very much the man in charge although Visconti was just a terribly famous film director. He was an internationally famous man, but he was very much second to Giulini in that situation. It varies, you see.

What do you want to happen here?

I want the audience to understand what was written, to enjoy it. I want them to fall in love with Figaro and Susanna, and I want them to he touched by the count and the countess and to he amused by Cherubino and he amused by the story. I think it’s very funny. At the end of the evening, when you leave the theater, you have to go out thinking that married life is not that easy. That’s really why it’s called The Marriage of Figaro.

You have this couple that is starting their marriage against tremendous odds because of this whole feudal rite and the fact that the count wants to screw Susanna. But it’s much more than that. You have a couple who have been married for five years who have lost it. And the whole process of the opera is them finding each other through the excitement of the new marriage. And that’s the genius of the piece. And that’s what touches one so much.

How many times have you directed it?

Oh, I cahn’t tell you, so many times. I did it in 1957 the first time. And I’ve done five new productions. I mean. I’ve built five productions, but I’ve revived my own productions so many times.

When is your job over? Do you stay after opening night?

I cahn’t, I leave the next day. I go home.

Is that typical?

Always. No, not always. Sometimes I can stay four or five days. I might sometimes catch the second performance, but it’s rare, because I do 12 operas a year. I have to get to the next place.

Then stay four or five weeks?

No, less. Sometimes I only have two weeks. If it’s a production that I’ve already done, my assistant goes and prepares it, and I come for the last two and a half weeks.

It strikes me that there can’t be more than 20 people like you on earth.

No, there aren’t.

How does that make you feel?

Awful. I hate it. I cahn't wait to stop. I’ve done it for so long. I’m returning here in '93 when I’m 60. And I’m going to do just two or three snows a year in the places that I like being. I’m coming here in ’93, and I’m coming here in ’94. I may come here in '95 because I like the climate, I like the people, I like the way it’s done here. It isn’t La Scala or Covent Garden, but it’s a very, very high standard and he casts very well.

There are 54 opera houses in Germany and 100 and some in America, but I don’t have a sense of where the San Diego Opera stands.

If you think of the Met and Chicago and San Francisco and Los Angeles being the very top rank, this would come in the second rank, for me. It might be the third rank for other people, I don’t know. But from my point of view it’s the second rank because we have such good casts here and it’s a very good rehearsal period; you have enough time and it’s extremely well run. Mary Yankee is a marvelous stage manager.

San Diego is extremely orderly so you don’t tear your hair out with a great deal of disorganization, because a great deal of opera — and this is something that is very hard for you to understand — is organization. I mean, you’re not seeing a big opera; this is a very small opera, but if you have a chorus of 90, you might have 120 extras in the battle scene, and Aida is always, of course, huge. Just to get those shows on is a huge organizational situation, and that’s one of the reasons why I have gone on working all my life. I’ve never been out of work, never done less than 11 or 12 operas a year. I am a very organized director. I don’t suddenly say, “Oh, we won’t do that, let’s not do that, let’s concentrate on Madam doing this and have 200 people standing around.”

This is my production from San Francisco, so all the paperwork is done by the assistants and the stage management there. When it all comes here, they can go through the paperwork and find out who comes on here, how many people come on there, who carries the broom, who carries the mop, and all of that.

People think the maestro is field marshal, and what I’ve seen is that you’re running the show up to this point. Is that how opera is done?

No, we work together, totally, all the time, but it’s just that when I'm actually staging the show with a sensitive and good maestro like this, he understands that I have to have the control, because it’s such a short period. If we were working in a six-week period which I generally do in Europe, we work much more slowly. We talk a lot. We investigate so that Maestro is involved with every idea, even with picking up the ribbon because it may take stage time; therefore, Maestro has to consider the bits in between, how it all works.

A hundred years ago if I bought my ticket, went to this opera, what would I see?

All of the artists would have been fighting to do their own thing. Opera, the way you do it like theater, didn’t evolve until well into the 20th Century.

It would just be figures coming onto the stage, stand, sing it out?

Yes, yes. In the 18th Century and early 19th Century, they all wore their own costumes. There wasn’t design, there wasn’t a set design, a costume design. When you think of something like this being done the very first time, some of the Amadeus film gave you a little bit of an idea. The thing that was wrong in that film was choreography, which made it look like it had all been very well rehearsed. Well, of course, it wouldn’t have been rehearsed. Singers would have been very, very improvisatory; the good ones might have stood out and been effective, but there might have been a countess, for instance, who was statuesque and stood rather still.

It sounds like you’ve been traveling forever. Where were you on your 21st birthday?

I went home. I know that I went home for my 21st birthday because my aunt, who’s now 85, gave me a box with a big ribbon on it filled with 100 crisp one-pound notes. That was a lot of money. I was living in the Midlands, I remember that. But I’d been living in London since the age of 15 and a half. I’ve always been sort of a gypsy, you see. I’ve never been a home person, but I went home because it was my 21st, and my father was still alive. Not so long after that my father died. I never went home again.

Big day, the sets have arrived from San Francisco, making the overland trek in four 48-foot semis.

Even though the civic center looks like one of those cheap 1960s government units that some dirtbag president-for-life has put up, the stage area is the real deal, enormous ceilings, ropes, weights, screens.

I watch as stage hands in T-shirts, tennis shoes, cut-offs, many wearing leather carpenter aprons, unpack and prepare massive sets. Off on one side of the stage is a small, enclosed desk crowded by three plywood walls. On the west wall hangs a hand-built bullshit meter with a little arrow that moves back and forth like a tugboat’s speed indicator. On the meter’s high end is a red triangle labeled “No computer." The green triangle shows “Thirty-minute change over, no sweat." Further on, in yellow, “An easy show” and “Check’s in the mail," as well as “Any stage manager, any stage management decision.”

I’m here to meet John Pringle, the Figaro guy. His steady job is baritone with the Australian Opera, and he’s sung in what has now become, for me, the usual operatic haunts of Europe: Paris, Brussels, Cologne and so on. I wave as he makes his way through the partially erected sets. Out on the street he asks, “Will an hour and a half be enough?"

I said I thought it would probably do.

We walk across the street to the U.S. Grant Hotel and are seated in the Grant Grill. I study the wine list, regretfully order coffee and trout.

I look across white table linen into steady, more like steely green eyes and ask,

How old are you?

Fifty-three. This year is my 25th year in opera.

You were a pharmacist for four years?

Five years.

How did you make the transition?

Well, I was singing as an amateur in my spare time. Purely classical, I was only interested in classical music. There were amateur companies around town. They would put a show on. They were very keen. It was a hobby for them as it was for me, and I got to sing some pretty good roles. It developed a bit from that.

I met the chap who was running the Australian opera, and he’d actually seen me do a couple of things and said he liked what I’d done and offered me a job without an audition. I knocked it back at the time, thought, “I’ll wait for another year.”

The company was based in Sydney but came to Melbourne. So the next time they were in Melbourne, I went down and did an audition and they offered me a job again but with better terms than the previous time. I don’t mean financially; it was financially pretty lousy. I took a big cut in salary from pharmacy to become a professional singer.

What sort of terms?

Well, they originally offered me some principal roles and some chorus. I wasn’t that keen to sing in the chorus, not because I felt snobbish about it at all but because I thought, “If I’m going to leave a good profession, it’s got to be worthwhile in an artistic sense."

And that’s how I started. I started the following year. The offer was better because there was no chorus involved and it was all principal parts, small ones. I was happy about that, and I had a couple of good covers, covering big parts. By the end of that first season, I got to sing one really good part.

At this time, late ‘60s early ‘70s, was Australia a backwater in opera?

The standard of performance wasn’t bad. It’s pretty hard to tell, at this distance. Some of them were quite good, some of them were pretty lousy. I think it was probably a bit backward in the quality of productions.

What makes a really pleasurable run for you?

Things that make it really good are actually the things that we have here. Sometimes, in other places, the amount of time they have for rehearsal is not really adequate. There’s no real ensemble feel, no real thread that goes through a production. It’s two or three big stars getting up and doing their own thing, like Madam X comes, sings Tosca and does what she’s always done. Mr. Y comes and sings and just stands in the middle because he doesn’t act, he just sings. Maybe Mr. A. comes and does the baritone part, he might he something of an actor, but he’ll look a bit out of place because he’s the only one acting. I’ve spoken to colleagues who have gone to important houses in Europe, and they’ve had two or three days’ rehearsal in which to spin instant opera. Not very satisfying for them. It’s a rescue operation.

This is different, this is the way I like it, and I think the way most of us like it. We’ve got the time to get a good show together. We have a terrific director. We have a good conductor. Maestro Muller is a terrific Mozartian, and there are not that many of them around, so that’s a pleasure. The production is going well, a friendly ambience around the company and a desire among everyone to really do something that does honor to the Figaro, which is a great opera.

What’s different about opera since you started 25 years ago?

It doesn’t dominate my life the way it used to. I think I’ve got my priorities a bit sorted out since then. In those days there was very little that was more important to me than making a career in opera, going overseas, and being an international star and all that stuff. But since then, having learned from personal experience the way most people do, I had kids, had a divorce — your life changes. I think you get to the point where you see that operatic performances are not the most important thing in the world. I have a young child now. I learned the hard way, and while I learned it, my family, in part, suffered. Hopefully, I’ve got it sorted out now.

Where would you put yourself in terms of the world league of opera singers?

I’m a salaried employee most of the time in Australian opera, which by world standards is, if not up to the best standards, keeps a genuine standard, which I think compares very favorably with some of the companies that I’ve seen and worked with overseas. I remember when I first went to Europe to sing, and naturally, I was a bit anxious, a bit nervous about whether I’d be up to what was required, and I found that I fitted in very well.

People think of jobs and personality types: big burly Teamster, gay hairdresser, insecure actress. Are there corresponding personality types to baritones, sopranos, tenors?

There’s a bit of conventional wisdom about this, and there’s a feeling in a lot of places that tenors are not as bright and don’t act as well as baritones. And people come up with all sorts of theories about it: it is an unusual voice and it resonates, there are high resonances going on in their head, there are spaces in the brain.

I’m kidding. I think that is facetious, but I think baritones in general have to be better actors than tenors because they usually play the sensible characters.

How is the acting in opera different from dramatic theater?

The standard of acting in opera generally is quite a bit lower than that of the theater. A lot of it is due to the restrictions placed on you by having to sing. You can’t jump around as much as a singer as you can as an actor because your voice quavers a bit. If you support your voice well, you can certainly move quite a bit without getting a shake in the voice. I don’t know how much of the rehearsal you saw today, but we were able to run a bit and grab each other without actually getting off the note. If you try to sing a sustained line, you wouldn’t he able to move quite as much as that. Also, there are conventions in the operas where the action will actually stop, be suspended for three or four minutes while a number is sung, say a quartet or duet, and singers are repeating, “I am unhappy” six times with beautiful notes that Mozart writes, but it’s hard to be a truthful actor for that period of time.

How do opera singers describe different voices?

I’m a lyric baritone so I don’t sing the heavier end of it. They have different terms in different countries. The Germans talk about a Helden baritone who sings the Wagner roles. The big ones, very big voice with a big orchestra, need to be big to get through the orchestra. And they have cavalier baritone, which is sort of brighter, lighter.

That would be you ?

Yeah, I’d be somewhere grouped in a cavalier baritone because my voice isn’t very big, but it’s big enough for the stuff I do. It’s important when you have that sort of voice not to push it because you can shorten your career by overworking.

How about the sopranos? Would there be a cavalier kind of voice with them?

Well, there’s a lyric soprano, which would be, say, the countess in Figaro. There’s low sopranos and you have the lyric spinto soprano, which is in between a lyric soprano and a heavy soprano, and then there is dramatic soprano, which is a really gutsy voice that would sing Tosca or something like that. And you have coloratura sopranos that sing the really high stuff.

How many baritones are there in the world on your level?

I find that almost impossible to work up. I can only make a stab in the dark. If you take North America, Europe, Australia — 100? Or 50? But, you see, there are other, heavy baritones, and there'd be others who would be just about there and ones that are just a bit past it.

In a production that is not a success, is there one person that can ruin it quicker and better than anyone else?

Obviously, the conductor and stage director are key positions.

If the accompaniment is not good, it’s very difficult to get things sparkling on the stage. And obviously you are very much in the hands of the director when it comes to the drama. Say there’s an opera where four of the roles are very important and each one is not very well cast, you can probably still get a good performance. But you can’t give a good performance with a conductor that’s not up to it.

The word “cultivated” comes to mind. Opera people speak formal English, which is odd to hear from humans dressed in ordinary clothes, with ordinary bodies and faces, unremarkable until they speak, speak so formally that the very occasional use of slang or vulgarity stands out like a polite postal clerk. It’s novel to hear complex sentences, unique to hear that voice: not louder than ordinary conversation, but strong, strong as a 16-cylinder, 450-horsepower engine set to low idle.

Ian Campbell is the general director of the San Diego Opera, the majordomo, the chief, the guy who hires and fires. He has presence. If I ever owned a business that sold services or goods to the rich, this is the guy I would hire to run it, which is one way to describe his present job. You talk with Campbell and one thinks of dinner parties in Manhattan, and, far more uncommon, one thinks of old money. He is elegant, charming, charismatic, engenders immediate trust, and like everyone else here, is very, very smart.

Campbell, 46 years old, married, two kids, reddish hair, medium height, well-trimmed beard and mustache, started out as a principal tenor with the Australian Opera, did a tour at the Met in New York as assistant artistic administrator, signed on in San Diego as general director nine years ago.

It was the first night that rehearsals were in costume. The auditorium is empty except for Copley, the lighting director, and assorted assistants who are seated at mid-auditorium behind plywood boards, which rest on the backs of other seats forming a large table surface now filled with monitors, lamps, paper, much paper. A dozen rows away, Campbell and I chat while on the stage Cheryl Parrish sings.

How has opera changed?

America now has about 120 professional opera companies that pay money for singers to sing, twenty years ago there were about 10. It’s changed remarkably.

How come?

In a curious way, the mechanical media. Radio, television, recording has played a tremendous role in promoting an art form that people wished to believe was in decline. For example, when Luciano Pavarotti sang La Boheme in the first Live from the Met telecast, more people heard Boheme or saw Boheme that night than had seen it in the history of the opera. That’s the power of television; one broadcast was seen by so many millions. Now in the modern era, you have things like Moonstruck with Cher, which featured La Boheme. Pretty Woman, a big hit movie, when the characters go to San Francisco, they go to the opera. Richard Gere is currently in San Diego. Tomorrow you can stop by and see opera people sitting in Spreckels to be a part of a Richard Gere movie as he goes to the opera. Why is opera being used like that by the film industry? Because it’s sexy.

Audiences have grown all around the world. We’ve had a succession, in the last 20 years, of great artists who brought attention to opera. People like Joan Sutherland, particularly Luciano Pavarotti, Domingo — they’ve become symbols of what used to be an esoteric art form. They’ve recorded crossover music; Pavarotti is played by truck drivers. When we brought him in here in ‘85, he filled the Sports Arena. Sixteen thousand people at a one-night stand paying very high prices. There was a person representing every walk of life imaginable.

Practically every opera company in this country has a team that goes into schools. The last rehearsal we’ll have two and a half hours for children, and they will see exactly the show the adults will see. It’s the final rehearsal. They’ll see it, they’ll like it, and when they’re 18 they’ll discover it’s really crap, and when they’re 35 they’ll come back.

We’ve added an opera this year because of the growth. Three thousand seats, which is what this accommodates, this is a week at the Old Globe. The other important factor is the quality of what we do has continued to rise.

I’d expected enormous voices in opera, but I’ve noticed that John Pringle, although his voice is clear and brilliant, it doesn’t seem super-powerful. Is that normal?

These are normal-sized voices. Power to me is irrelevant provided you can be heard. One reason why Americans, in particular, want big voices is that the theaters are so big. This theater is bigger than the Bolshoi in Moscow, it’s bigger than Covent Garden, it’s bigger than Vienna, it’s bigger than Munich, Hamburg, Berlin. Most European theaters are 2000 or less. In Germany, most theaters are 1500. This is 3000. America does not have subsidies; we have to bring a lot of people into a house. In Europe with the government subsidy, the houses are smaller, so people don’t have to shout.

All these voices are perfectly balanced. This theater has good acoustics. We must remember we have a generation now that has been brought up with a volume-control knoh and used to the volume on records, CDs. Here, it’s the other way around. The orchestra plays, the voice comes through the orchestra, and they blend, it’s not a matter of one dominating the other. So when people see their first opera, there are some adjustments they need to make.

Is John Pringle a good actor for a singer?

Oh, yes. If he did a similar job at the Old Globe, he’d find it far less complicated because the product is, well, limited sets. This is typical 18th-century style: they often have unit sets, there’s no orchestra to worry about, there aren’t choruses to be shunted on and off. Whereas here, we have the orchestra, the chorus, the stage hands with all of these big set changes. It’s very difficult.

Also we bring people from all around the world. The Globe uses English speakers because it’s an English-language house. Because we perform in foreign languages, we have Chinese, British, Australian, Italians, Americans. And these people frequently have not met each other before, and we weld them into a production in two weeks. They often know each other, but they’ve not worked with each other.

Edoardo Muller is the maestro for this opera, and then the next opera you’d have another maestro?

Yes, another conductor totally. It will be an American, and the one after that will be the girl you see there in the front row. The one after that is a Dutchman. This man, Edoardo Muller, I hire every year. He will not conduct the last performance of this because Luciano Pavarotti asked if we would release him to conduct Pavarotti Plus on public television at the Met.

Do opera singers have a traditional vice, like, for writers it’s alcohol, for rock ’n’ roll bands it’s drugs and sex?

Eating too much is the most common one. Singers can’t take drugs on a regular basis. If they abuse themselves physically, they can’t get up and do this. What they do tend to do, many of them, is they ruin their attachments because you leave a wife at home, particularly if she’s got a baby or two, and you’re on the road nine months a year. She often can’t understand, even if you might be pulling in a lot of money. It’s “You’re never home and you don’t take me and the babies on tour.”

You don’t want them on tour. So those who do bring in their wives often bring them in the night of the opening, not during rehearsals, it’s too busy. So they often get pressure that way. The wife doesn’t understand. Even though she said she would, she doesn’t. Then you get the other ones who usually fall in love with somebody in every port because they need the sex, they need the companionship. The women are normally more closeted, although there are some that bang around a lot but...

For the people that reach this level, how many months a year would they work?

Take Pringle. In Australia, he’s a dominant figure. He would start working with the Australian opera early in January, he might get a couple weeks in December where he won’t work. Rita Cullis is the British one. Rita is based in Britain; she’ll work virtually every month with one of the British companies, but then in summer she’ll sing at the Salzburg Festival. You choose the work. You may have a couple of weeks off, but you can’t afford to take three months off.

Because people forget you?

People forget you. You’ve got to keep plugging away. If you hit the top, you can get very rich. Luciano Pavarotti pulls in about $3 million a year. There aren’t many, but there are Americans working in Frankfurt and Cologne and Hamburg pulling half a million. You’ve never heard of them, they’ve never made a record, most of our audience wouldn’t know any of these people, but because they’re there and they can work every three or four nights, it adds up to a lot of money over a 52-week year.

I’m thinking of rock ’n’ roll musicians. Usually when they hit 30, 35 there’s a crisis: “Am I going to make it in music? Should I find another career?” Does that happen in opera?

It happens virtually every night. There’s no particular time period. Voices develop over different stages. There are sopranos that are already professional at age 16. Roberta Peters sang “Queen of the Night” at the Met when she was 16 or so. Tenors, in particular, don’t really start to mature until they’re about 30. There are some basses whose voices develop more and more colors as they get older.

So that crisis is always there with the singer saying, “I'm still not doing the roles I want. If I don't get them within three years, I’ll quit.” But that role will come if you’ve got a good voice; if you’ve got a good instrument you will be, quote, discovered, unquote, because there’s so many of us out there looking for them. I don’t know any brilliant singer who is not working. There are many unemployed, very bad singers, just as there are many very bad actors waiting tables in Los Angeles.

Singers go through vocal problems. It’s very common for a singer who’s been singing wonderfully for five years, ten years, to suddenly go through a period of two years where nothing works, where they’re always missing the top note. They’ll be working and you’ll hear people say, “Oh,

I heard Luciano Pavarotti, and he was in a mess.” Then you hear him in another house and he sounds good. Well, in that period he was upset — it could be emotional, it could be physical, it could be a crisis with the wife, girlfriend, whatever it might be. It affects these two little lumps of gristle in our throats.

You and I can only talk. We can talk with a cold. We can talk with a slightly hoarse throat. To do what Cheryl Parrish is doing now is unusual. That’s not talking, it’s singing, it’s moving it up here, up in the sinus. That means she has to be physically very fit, concentrate on remembering thousands of words, thousands of notes, and work in a foreign language. So if she just had a fight with her lover before coming to the theater, she’s headed for trouble. Then if she gets into that trouble a few days in a row, that’s where it can compound and you can get into a real decline where nothing works. Many singers have gone through that. They come out of it.

But there’s no particular breaking point. A dancer, I think a dancer gets to their mid-20s, and they start to ache and they know they’re running out. By the time they’re 30, many dancers have given up the business. Singers can go until they’re 60 if they look after the instrument and they look after their figure.

When it goes, how does it go?

The vocal cords lose their elasticity. They lose their musculatures. The voice is supported not only by a column of air but by the diaphragm muscles, the intercostal muscles across the back. When you breath, those muscles have to support the column of air so you can emit the column of air very smoothly. When those muscles no longer have the tension, the vocal cords themselves have changed, like they can change in pregnancy, they can change through disease, they can change just by getting older. They don’t vibrate the same way, the column of air is not supported properly, the singers often develop wobbles. It’s inevitable, it will happen, and generally speaking, by the time you get to the mid-, towards late 50s, you’re starting to limit what you can do. Pavarotti is now 56. He’s got about four good years left, then the wear will start to show. It’s inevitable. It’s sad for those of us who love him and love that voice so much to know that even it has been limited by God.

What do they do when they retire?

Opera singers get very frustrated. Most opera singers cannot run opera companies; they don’t have the management skills, so that’s almost always a closed door. Some can teach but most don’t want to. Most miss the limelight. Most close the door and give it up, they don’t try to do anything else, but those that do finish up judging competitions, which Joan Sutherland is doing a lot of these days. What are called master classes, working with younger singers on interpretation and style. The majority simply fade away because the outlets are not there.

It must be a pretty fearsome thing getting closer to the door, seeing the end of the track.

There’s no way to make it any easier, though. What starts to happen is, if you’re not at the top, the engagements just start to dry up. A singer like Cheryl Parrish, the Susanna, who is young, Cheryl probably has some signed contracts for ‘95 by now. But in 30 years, she’ll have a contract for next year, there won’t be contracts three or four years out. And therefore the message starts to come to you that you’re no longer in demand. If you’re clever, you can change your repertoire and get a few more years of life. There are some great soprancs and mezzos who used to be the glamour stars, and as they got older, they deliberately moved into the character roles, the way an old actress will do videos. But there aren’t many who do that. Most say, “No, I was a diva, and I’m going to end as a diva." Then there’s the odd one that jumps out a window. It happens in any business.

How big is the lake? How many baritones in the world can sing at this level?

The lists are enormous. They have to be fairly big because there are so many performances going on all the time. When we open on Saturday, there’s probably 300 opera performances going on in the world. So there are 300 baritones needed for leading roles.

But isn't there a huge difference in quality between the production companies?

It depends how you judge them. The connoisseur, the experienced operagoer would believe that there are three tenors in the world, Domingo, Pavarotti, and Carreras. For Mozart, I probably could choose — according to my taste, very personal, but according to my taste — there are at least 50 Counts in the world I could use and 50 Figaros. I probably know 20 of those, and there are probably another 30 out there I could use if I knew them, but our paths have never crossed.

That's a very small pool.

It is small and that’s why they can get paid what they do. A leading tenor, particularly a tenor doing the lyrical, spinto repertoire, can get in Europe $15,000 per night. An actor at the Globe gets about $500 a week. And that’s supply and demand, nothing more. The purity of the tenors — very few of us can sing at all, very few are spinto tenors, which is the more restricted list of tenors, so when you get down to certain roles, let’s say there might be 50 Figaros agreeable to me but many more who can sing it. In a case like Trovatore, the role of Manrico, there’s probably only about 20 people in the world singing Manrico today that I would like to have in this theater. In a role like Otello, there’s probably about 10 good singers.

How would you cast Otello?

I would look for an Otello about four years ahead. I know only four people who I would consider hiring. One is Domingo, who will not do it and we couldn’t afford him. Armano Mauro, whom I like enough in other people’s theaters but not in mine; it’s not as classy as I would like. There’s a chap in Germany, Peter Sciffert, who’s quite good, I want to hear him again. Pavarotti has really done it in concert and he won’t, I think, ever do it onstage. Giuseppe Giacomini still sings it, but he would not work in this sized theater. Again, the theater changes it. The size of this theater rules out about half the people that I like because they would not succeed in this size venue.

Too big a place?

It’s not the size, it’s the bite. You would hear them, but they would lack presence, which is a hard thing to explain. A famous tenor sang in the old Met, never sang in the new Met. He didn’t have a good voice, but it had focus, it had point, and it projected into the 4000-seat old Met. Richard Leech, the American tenor, can sing very well in this theater. I want Leech as much as I can get him, but Leech is getting too expensive because he’s one of the few good-looking, well-acted Rodolfos around, so Leech is making $20,000 for singing in Berlin tonight, and he deserves it, he’s very good. We can’t pay him that much, so we feel very lucky if we can get Richard every three years.

I've been surprised to see that the director has so much power. Copley has been dominant in the rehearsals.

When we come back onstage tomorrow night, it’s with orchestra. While the director will still be shaping a lot of stuff, the conductor will now come into prominence. Once the orchestra’s in the pit, they become his rehearsals, not the director’s.

Is the assumption that the musicians and singers already know, don't need as much time with the maestro as...

No, remember the maestro has been down there with the singers all this time, and he has spent a whole day working with them on the music, getting the shape of it the way he wants. But from tomorrow it becomes the conductor’s show. In this company, the way we structure it, is quite deliberately the stage director doing his work till now, working jointly with the conductor. Now the conductor takes over to get the stylistic things right.

Is it different in Europe?

Yes, it depends. In many European theaters the major conductor would be me, the general director. He stands there shouting and being a big drama queen about everything. That’s not so in America.

One of the things I didn't realize was the whole on-the-road aspect of this. All the singers are freelance, everybody's working eight or nine different cities a year.

In the world of opera today, the ensemble company that stays together for a year or a number of years is relatively rare. A company like that can’t pay people enough money. Even in Vienna, in Covent Garden, in London, Hamburg, Munich; those companies have a core of permanent singers, but the very good ones, because of jet aircraft, are constantly flitting around the world.

It wasn’t always that way. Vienna between the wars had a whole stack of great singers who worked there for 15 weeks. And if you go further back to the turn of the century, Caruso used to take the boat to New York. He’d come in from Italy, he had a floor at the Knickerbocker Hotel, and he would sing at the Met, sometimes eight different operas in the one season. He’d stay there for months, based in New York.

In one week Caruso would sing three, sometimes four different operas. On Monday night he might do Elixir of Love, three days later he might do Rigoletto. Today, Luciano Pavarotti comes into the Met and he does only Lucia Di Lammermoor. And he does eight performances. That’s the end of him for that year at the Met. There’s too much money to be made by being out here and out there. Opera has changed into a much more itinerant band of individuals.

Consider this: it used to be an itinerant company. In the early days in Italy, a promoter like myself would call together a group of singers, and we’d mount a couple of productions, and we’d move from city to city. And I’d have the gambling rights in the front of the theater, and that’s how I’d make the money. I’d put a casino in there, take the profits, move on to the next city and the next and the next.


Two nights until opening.

I had deliberately waited to interview Italian conductor Edoardo Muller. I wanted to watch him at length, wonder to myself, “What kind of a man is this?” I was intrigued. He has the sweetest expression I’ve ever seen on a man. One thinks of religion, of the truly religious; he carries that same countenance of painful openness, that look of tender empathy. It can be highly frightening.

Muller is 5'10”, on the far side of middle age, thin-lipped, a sharp nose, his light, curly hair just a shade longer than short. He has conducted... well, basically everywhere.

We talked during a dress rehearsal, more precisely during the three ten-minute breaks between acts. Each break, I follow him under the stage, exiting to his spartan, small dressing room, furnished with one chair, one cheap Formica desktop, one large mirror with showbiz light bulbs strung around its perimeter. Not one item of personal gear in the room.

We enter, he offers me the only chair. I decline, squat against the wall, ask, How would you describe the San Diego Opera?

It’s a one of the most quiet...quiet is not a beautiful word for an orchestra, it is one of the most correct. They respect, they do extremely professionally. For this reason we can build something that lasts four hours. When you say something, you don’t have to repeat three or four times. And also, have you ever heard me to ask for silence?

No.

This absolutely absurd in Italy. In Italy a conductor must be also a policeman.

I had no idea that the director had so much influence. People think of the maestro as a god or a captain or a general. Is it different in Europe?

Listen, don’t be confused on what you saw. Because the man responsible, with all respect to the singers and the director, is the conductor. But because Copley is a very good musician, I consider him a very good director. I don’t interfere too much, just sometimes without shouting, sometimes I go to him and say, “Don’t you think this could be this way? This is a bit too much.” But in any case, is very important nowadays that a show is completely beautiful. We look at the television, we look at the cinema, we are very clever now about what we see. We cannot anymore see a tall soprano, a short tenor, stay together for 20 minutes of a duet and sing.

Has that changed in your lifetime?

Yes, very, very much. Twenty, 25 years ago much less good taste in performance, it was more to go to the opera to listen to the opera than to see to the opera. I think the first great director that worked on staging in opera has been Visconti. Visconti happened with the Callas. Callas was very talented as an actress. So they worked together, and they really had something new to say, something deeper. And the lesson of Visconti and the lesson of Callas cannot be forgotten. They are important not because she was diva, because she had a beautiful voice, but because they add to opera something that before was neglected.

How about the different kinds of audiences — American, Italian, German. Are there differences?

Yes, yes very much. Let’s divide into Latin and Anglo-Saxon people. In the European, the Latin public can give a lot of satisfaction, more than America, but can give also pain because they react to the good and the bad with a lot of participation, a lot of noise, sometimes with boo. For example% it’s nice for us, but I’ve never heard a boo in this theater, and also if you go to the Met, even with a show that is not very, very good you never hear a boo. You go to La Scala and you’re in a good show, the premiere always listen to some boo. Always.

The audience is more involved?

Of course, of course. Even when they leave the theater, they continue in their conversation between the people who like this singer, this conductor, and people they don’t like. For example, so many times, a conductor that the public didn’t like, when he start to raise his hand, a group will say, “Boo.” Sometimes they talk to singers, to conductor, and this is a bad habit. Sometimes they exaggerate. But a public that is alive, that participate and reacts, I personally like. It’s very profitable to have a public that claps and never boos, but it’s very exciting to have that other kind.

Do you have the same life as singers? Are you four weeks here, two weeks here, four weeks there?

Yes.

Do you ever get tired of the traveling?

We like it. We choose sometimes, we have one month complete rest, to study the next show.

The amount of material you would have to learn, all the notes, it’s staggering. How many operas do you know?

Before I started conducting, I made a long period of study, and in this period I really learned my job. Working with singers, looking at conductors, working with conductors, learning what is good, what is bad, what I have to do, what I have not to do. As soon as you know all these things, you just have to learn the technique of conducting and a bit of confidence in the orchestra, a bit of authority.

For someone who doesn’t know the opera, I was surprised how quiet the baritones seemed to be. Is that normal?

But this is just a rehearsal, just a bit of the arias. They are sparing themselves. Tomorrow we have the last dress rehearsal. We had a lot of rehearsal before, and they are as athletes, they have to train, but the moment of the run they are strong. We have two baritones, and both I think are not singing in full voice. Even the sopranos are doing not their full voice. These kinds of singers are especially for Mozart. For Mozart, the singers, is not how much voice they have but the beauty, how they phrase, how they breathe, how they pronounce, how they move, present music. For Mozart it is the beauty of the voice, the musicality. They have to be almost instruments. It’s not that one has plenty of voice is better than one with a bit less voice, not at all. It’s my duty not to cover them while they are singing, to adjust the volume of the orchestra because they have to be heard.

What are you doing up there, when you’re conducting?

Concentrating. Feeling the strength without permitting anyone to disturb it.

When you’re conducting, what’s going though your mind? Are you watching the singers or listening to them? I assume you can speed up the music and slow it down, make it louder, make it quieter. What other things are you doing?

A little bit like when you drive a car. If there is a turn, you must know what is the ideal speed, where to enter the bend, this side or that side, where there is a danger. When everything is going free, you can just relax and permit them to do music. Sometimes I don’t meter the time because I want the orchestra to listen to the singer when it is easy. But when there is a change in tempo or in the chorus, I have to end. So I am anticipating, I have an inside track, an idea on how the opera has to go, and I anticipate with my movements what they have to sing or play. It’s not that I do the movement contemporary to when they play, otherwise it is not conducting. I am anticipating what they have to do.

It’s an amazing thing, the singers, the music, the staging.

Do not be confused. This is the genius of the composer.

I attend opening night in full drag: a rented tux — $79 from Perfect Penguin Tuxedo Rentals. During intermission I wander outside, into the courtyard. The opera company has erected a temporary festive tent, the Bravissimo Patron Tent. I watch as ladies in elegant dresses swoosh around gentlemen in tuxedos and all mill about tables laden with champagne and goodies. At the tent’s entrance a satanic-looking male, clad in what seems to be a custom-fitted tux. His large, manicured fingers grip the stem of his champagne glass. Hanging from his neck, on a red, white, and blue sash, is a large gold medal.

I approach, stare. “Nice medal.”

A distinguished baritone voice offers, “You can buy one of these too.”

“How much?"

“About $50,000."

After the performance, I walk with a friend across Broadway — tux shoes clatter on darkened pavement — to the Star Bar on E Street and into a lifetime’s worth of crushed cigarettes and half-washed glasses. Remarkably bright overhead lights showcase every face.

I look down the Star’s Jong bar and study 30 expressions of despair, excuses, and defeat.

Very subtly, but nonetheless very much there, I hear the first sweet strings of Mozart’s overture.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

Unexpendable Rambo

The first and fourth foray
Emily Manhart and John Copley. Copley: "I want them to fall in love with Figaro and Susanna." - Image by Paul Stachelek
Emily Manhart and John Copley. Copley: "I want them to fall in love with Figaro and Susanna."

I’ve had an indifferent relationship to music, not nonexistent, but remote, like having lunch with a stepfather one meets at the age of 30. It’s always been that way. While other children at West University Elementary School gleefully grabbed the flute, bassoon, violin, I selected the triangle for my compulsory two weeks of music class. That’s not to say I didn’t have my moments. Sixteen years old, heading west on El Cajon Boulevard, 8 p.m., spicy summer evening, my big blue eyes wide open to a big, affectionate world, the Supremes blasting from the AM radio centered on the dash of my parents' Hillman Minx.

Cheryl Parrish as Susannah, John Pringle as Figaro

Twenty-three years old, uncomfortably posturing cross-legged on an enormous paisley pillow, smoking hashish six blocks from the comer of Haight and Ashbury, listening to Cream by way of a stout Motorola record player; feeling my heart pump, feeling the righteousness, the arrogance, the indisputable power of being young and being in the right place at the right time.

Conductor Edoardo Muller. "Pavarotti asked if we would release him to conduct Pavarotti Plus on public television."

Thirty years old, working on the Alaskan pipeline coming home to Isabel Pass Construction Camp, 50 miles from the nearest village. I was three months into my first pipeline job. The construction camp was a string of ATCO trailers laid down like moose droppings on the arctic snow, warehousing 1200 men tn two-man rooms. After dinner, shuffle hack to a 10-by-8 room, lie down on cheap single bed, listen to Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. Have not seen a woman in months, ache in the belly from their absence.

Emily Manhart as Cherubino, Cheryl Parrish as Susannah

Thirty-six years old, driving an orange, half-ton Ford truck, accompanied by four Tlingit Indians and six ounces of cocaine, cruising Fourth Avenue, the main drag in Christmas Eve Anchorage, playing WayIon Jennings on a 150-watt custom dash stereo. Music so loud both passenger windows throb in and out.

Rita Cullis as Countess Almaviva. "She’ll work virtually every month with one of the British companies, but then in summer she’ll sing at the Salzburg Festival."

But that’s most of it. Music was never much in my life, not like a daily habit, not like knowing names of more than eight or nine famous singers, not like understanding even the beginning of how it comes together. Mostly,

I used music like the gas I put in my truck; it was there to help me get from point A to point B.

Rehearsal. "The stage here is too big for Marriage of FIgaro."

And so it was with more than ordinary civilian ignorance that I first tentatively walked into the rehearsals of The Marriage of Figaro held at the Civic Theatre. Figaro is one of five productions presented this year by the San Diego Opera.

Emily Manhart, John Pringle. Pringle's steady job is baritone with the Australian Opera.

The San Diego Opera was formed in 1950 by volunteers who acted as middlemen, presenting visiting opera companies to a (it can be hoped) grateful and generous public. Beginning May 1965, the San Diego Opera began producing its own operas. It’s had four general directors since then; currently, Australian Ian Campbell is boss.

The Marriage of Figaro has a busy plot line. The count, Count Almaviva, has bug eyes for his wife’s maid Susanna. Susanna has bug eyes for the count’s valet Figaro; in fact, the pair want to be married. But the count would like to restore venerable tradition of sleeping with young bride on her wedding night; failing that, he would simply like a good dose of carnal knowledge. We have plot and counter plot highlighted by much cross dressing — boy dressing as girl, girls trade clothing with girls — and in the end Susanna and Figaro are married and the count seduces his own wife.

I wasn’t thinking much about wife seduction standing there on the comer of Third and C. I was thinking that opening night was two weeks away and I didn’t know a goddamn thing about opera.

The stage door opens, reveals production supervisor Mary Yankee Peters, an attractive, trim, 5’2" 40-year-old woman dressed in brown cords and black top. Peters escorts me down cement stairs to the basement and then across the width of the building to the rehearsal room.

It’s a repulsive space, looks like a 1960s governmental bunker, like a social security administrator’s office, or better, a Department of Motor Vehicles employee’s lunch room. We have institutional white linoleum floors, square acoustic panels on the ceiling, the entire area is maybe 40’ by 40’.

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon. On the north side of the large room is one folding cafeteria table. Behind it is John Copley, the stage director. Next to his table, perched on a high stool, is maestro Edoardo Muller. On his right is a man playing the harpsichord. Facing the three, sitting in ordinary folding chairs, like extra-good students at a high school leadership meeting, are eight mature adults, dressed in leisure clothes, the kind you’d wear if you were taking the kids to Sea World on a Saturday afternoon.

They are singing.

Which doesn’t begin to describe it. It’s like saying an adding machine is a computer. Even though this is the first day of rehearsals, even though no one is working their voice, the clarity, the volume, the color of their sounds is, to use an old but wise phrase, like walking into a new world.

Preparations for The Marriage of Figaro run constantly from 8 in the morning until 11 at night. Stage crew, wardrobe, lighting designers, chorus, principals roll in and out of the building 15 hours every day. Usually, the singers rehearse down in the bunker from 11 a.m. to 1, 2 to 5:30, 7 until 11 p.m.

By day three, the singers are standing, then moving about the room. Duct tape is laid out on the floor indicating the obstructions singers will find up on the performance stage. Chairs, benches are placed here and there, indicating where future fountains, stairways, doorways will be. Entrances and exits are practiced. Arias become more than snippets, now duets, now four, now six sing together.

I came to remember more of the score than I ever thought possible, discovered my favorite parts, sat a bit straighter when they were sung. I got to know the cast, the watchman, found the tunnels and steps under the building that eventually took me out to the empty lobby where I could smoke cigarettes next to a No Smoking sign.

And I came to feel an emotion I’ve never had about music. I had felt joy, exultation, sadness, self-pity, boredom, but I had never felt gratitude.

Back on that first day, one of the singers, Rita Cullis, a soprano who plays Countess Almaviva, has just ripped out a couple of lines. A ten-minute break is announced, the maestro beckons her close and quietly says, “We don’t agree yet. That’s all right; we have time so that we can both feel the same thing. That is important.” David Malis plays the count who is scheming after Susanna. He attended Morris College in North Carolina, the University of Georgia (majored in tuba), and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He’s sung principal roles in San Francisco, La Scala, Covent Garden, Theatre des Champs Elysee, the Met, Santa Fe among many. He’s a tall (over six feet), big-boned fellow, mid-30s, with a brawny, flat-stomached figure.

A week into rehearsals I offer Malis a ride back to his temporary lodgings at the Capri in Pacific Beach. We stop on the way, purchase a six-pack of German beer. Malis is staying on the eighth floor in a two-bedroom condo overlooking the Pacific. His wife, daughter, and nanny are flying in tomorrow. I pop two beers, grab a cracker, a slice of Camembert cheese, and ask,

Civilians generally believe that the maestro is all powerful. I was surprised to see John Copley, the director, run the show up to this point. Is that...

In my experience that’s a little unusual. This is the way the situation should be handled. Copley and the maestro both have definite ideas, and they are both very accommodating of each other’s opinion. There are a lot of situations where the director and the maestro barely speak to each other. Believe me, this is fantastic. John is running the show, but you’ll notice the maestro will stop and say, “You know, -I have to have this.”

What’s a bad situation like, say, a production where you think to yourself, "This is going to be hell”?

You feel like they’re standing there with their foot on top of you. I worked with a conductor, who shall remain nameless, in Austria, a real negative experience because after I sang the first time he said, “Well, I just have to ask you, is that all you’ve got?”

What did you do?

It hurts. Number one, I knew it was a stretch for me; the part was a stretch because it was a role that has traditionally been done by dramatic baritones, heavier voices than mine, and I’m strictly a high lyric baritone, and I knew that I was stretching the envelope of what I was capable of doing. I also knew that I wasn’t going to fool anybody by trying to sound like someone else. I had to go out there and sing it with my voice, and he had to be a little sympathetic and keep the orchestra down. We eventually met on fairly equal terms. I don’t think he ever really liked me.

If I was listening to The Marriage of Figaro in Milan, how would it be different?

The house makes a big difference because, just the intimacy of the show, it is a very intimate show. This stage here is too big for Marriage of Figaro. But all the houses in America are big, and you can’t use that as an excuse not to do a good job. Here, the set is gigantic, it’s almost funny. The first scene with Figaro and Susanna talking about the room that the Count’s given them to live in — Figaro is happy about it, Susanna’s unhappy because she thinks the count has designs on her, which he does. But the room looks like they can put in a pool and a sauna, it’s so gigantic.

In rock ’n’ roll you can have a South African band, an Irish band, a British band, an American band, and you can’t tell their mother country while they’re singing. Is it the same in opera?

When you’re singing, everything is stretched out. You don’t say, “Hey, Fred, how are you today,” you say, “HEEYYYYYY FREEEDDDD HOOOWWWW ARRRE YOUUUUU.” That kind of stretching, where speech becomes vowel, because you’re sustaining a sound, you can’t sustain an s or a t or something like that. That seems to be the great equalizer as far as accents are concerned, because, if you listen to people’s accents, a lot of it has to do with the way they clip their words and the shortness and the length of their consonants. Whereas those distinctions become very blurred once you start singing because everything gets stretched out so much. In opera, people are trained in these different languages and make a big effort, but you can still notice Pavarotti singing in French. It’s still the gorgeous Pavarotti sound, but his French is pretty terrible. It’s a little funny because the Italian sound is so far forward, everything is in the mask, and in the French everything runs more together.

Is opera, like anything else, divided into categories, like grand opera, less grand opera, less-less grand opera?

Generally speaking, the people who are considered to be the real stars of opera are the people who sing what they call grand opera, opera seria. Like most of the Verdi, Wagner, some of the Mozart, more like Don Giovanni. The voice is more important than the actual drama on the stage. For a lot of serious opera fans, staging is not the most important thing; people are there to hear reams of beautiful sounds. If you have the pipes and can put it out, they don’t care if you stand in one comer and sing all night.

Most of the rest of us who have good voices but will never be of that level have to develop all of the facilities that one has.

There are niches to be found. I like to think that I have something different to offer. My voice sounds different from other people’s. When I get in the most trouble is when I start trying to make a particular operatic sound.

What niche have you found?

My voice and my personality combined are very, very much suited to the lighter repertoire, the more comic. The count is probably a little on the dark side for me.

You’ve sung at the Met. Was there anything that stood out?

Having so little rehearsal. The Met being the place that it is, giving so many performances and being a repertoire house, I only had about a week. I never set foot on the set until 20 minutes before the curtain went up on opening night.

Welcome home.

They came to my dressing room and said the first act set is up and it’s cleared. “Would you like to come out and walk on the set?" So I went out there knowing full well that people were filing into this gigantic auditorium on the other side of the curtain and I was about to make my Met debut.

One of the things I’ve been intrigued by is the vaudevillian aspect of opera, the freelance; five, six weeks here, five, six weeks there, pop all over the world. Is the traveling exhilarating?

Yes, but I’m no more free than anybody else is. I have a commitment in that place, and everything has to be geared to those five to seven to eight nights that I go out onstage. And everything else I do is aimed towards those few days. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure.

What happens with your personal relationships?

That’s the most difficult thing to do. I mean, both friendships and marriages. I have not {earned how to do that. You have a tendency to get settled into a certain mode and just expect things to stay that way. The potential for a problem occurring is doubled or even tripled when those people in the relationship are performers and are successful performers.

It’s very frustrating for me just trying to develop the kinds of friendships you have when you live in one place. My wife and I have been in Minneapolis for the last six years, where my wife has been playing with the orchestra. And there’s a lot of people in Minneapolis that I love very much whom I barely know.

I’ll go back after one of my wife’s concerts and I speak to these people, and we get together and have a wonderful time, and they say, “When will I see you again?”

“Well, I’ll be home for a week in March and another week in May.” And now my wife is going to New York to play with the philharmonic, and I feel like we’ve been in Minneapolis for six years, and I haven’t been able to be the kind of friend that I would have liked, and that’s frustrating.

For instance, you’re getting something like $10,000 or $20,000 from the San Diego Opera. How many operas in the world pay that kind of money? How big is the gene pool?

It’s funny. It seems big because there are a lot of opera companies, but it’s just incredible how you keep bumping into the same people wherever you go.

How many houses pay well?

See, the funny thing is, I would say the pay is really not that different from house to house; generally speaking, people have a certain fee. Of course, there are variations, a small house like the Mobile Opera in Alabama can’t afford to pay what the Met pays, so there is a difference, but it’s not as big a difference as you would imagine.

We get paid per performance. Fees are a hard thing to talk about because they vary so tremendously. Except for the real upper echelon, the top 20 singers who can really make serious money, as far as I know — how can I say this diplomatically or realistically — for a singer who is not the tip-top, but say, from number 35 on down to 200, which is basically the people who work in most of the opera companies, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to say that a singer in that position could make anywhere from $70,000 to $120,000 a year.

Not fabulous riches.

No, we’re not talking about fabulous riches here, but we’re not talking about peanuts either. There are perks: you get to travel a lot and you get to stay in a lot of interesting places and you get to meet a lot of really neat people. The down side is, you have no real roots. This is a ruthless and rootless business. I don’t know anybody who has a successful relationship with a wife and kids and still travels around the way that it’s required in opera.

Where do you go from here?

I go to Vancouver to do the same thing in March. I have a week off in between. Then I go to Hong Kong, and this summer I’ll be singing Figaro at the “Met in the Park” series, the Rossini Figaro. Then I go to Buenos Aires to make my debut at the Theatro Colon as Ford in Falstaff and then hack to San Francisco to do Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

At the end of the first week, rehearsals were still held inside the underground bunker. Incredible to realize how many thousands of notes must be brought from memory, then backward and forward over the entire course of the opera.

What surprises me is that rehearsals appear to be run by the director, John Copley. Except for his eyes, which ceaselessly move about the room, the maestro appears to be another stage prop, a hit superfluous, even silly sitting on the edge of his high stool waving a very small baton at six singers and one harpsichord. The director is the one speaking, urging, stopping, starting, instructing the cast, “No, no, try this, that’s better, that’s adorable.” Copley is 59 years old, set off by a round Cupid’s belly, overlarge horn-rimmed glasses, clean shaven, maybe 5’8". He speaks exaggerated. 1950s Liberace, made more noticeable by his manic British accent. Directions are accompanied by squeals, oohs, and ahhs. He's very, very smart. He is also a hell of a musician, able to sing any note, at any point in the opera.

After eight days the company moves upstairs. I caught Copley during a break, one of two given this afternoon We sit, fill 2 of the 3000 empty seats. Copley turns, nods his head, beckons me to begin.

I’ve never heard of a director in opera. Have there always been directors?

Well, Michael Kelly was the original. In Mozart’s time, he was the Don Basilio, the Don Curzio, and I’m sure he was a wonderful actor because he wrote terribly well. And I’m sure that there were wonderfully instinctive actors and actresses who were singing, but it must have been so different. It wasn’t in any way done the way we do it now. This is like theater; I direct as if I had actors. The difference between these people and actors is that they actually can sing as well.

There’s sometimes an idea that opera singers are the fat people who stand on the stage and sing. That’s not what we’re doing in this sort of situation at all. We cast very good singing actors and actresses. There isn’t anybody in this who isn’t a good actor. Some of them could act in the theater.

The lead, Pringle, seems that way.

Yes, he’s a very great actor. It’s not just because he’s a great Australian star. The reason that he’s such a great Australian star is that he’s such a wonderful actor. For 20 years I’ve been working with him. He is a total joy for the director. He can do anything you want.

You’re arriving on a plane, Lindbergh Field, thinking about the job. What is it that you want to get done?

I want the audience to understand this opera with all of its extraordinary brilliance and its layers and structures, imagination, emotions. I want to clarify it so that this audience, hearing it sung in Italian, can actually understand what was written.

You see, it isn’t my idea of it. Unlike a lot of modem directors who are so insistent on it being then version, then stamp, of whatever opera it tis, I don’t pretend it’s black plastic and dustbins and take it totally out of the genre. Opera has become, now, the direct theater. All I’m interested in is creating these incredible masterpieces as simply — I’m after the simplicity of it, and to get every inch out of everybody without it being gimmicky, without it being fanciful or somebody else’s stamp on what is already a work of genius.

Do you see what you do as an addition to the music?

It’s all together. I don’t think there’s any division between how we act and how we sing. I love singers. That is also something that’s rather different from me and some of the modem directors. They don’t really care for singers very much. They rather wish they didn’t sing.

Are singers different in America than Europe?

Singers have developed over the last 20 years, particularly here in America. They’re marvelous actors, and they find it very difficult to put up with nonsense and being treated like a lot of cattle. There arc all sorts of examples these days. Singers, very important singers, because the director is so powerful in Europe, have to do such gaspings and gropings that they can’t sing the part. There’s a famous Don Giovanni where the singer has to sing sitting on the lavatory. Of course, the fights about it were just so incredible, but the director and the designer won because this particular Don Giovanni was not a great star, and he had to do what he was told. So he had to sit and have a crap while singing de da da lum pa, de, da da lum pa and pull the plug at the end of it.

How do maestros feel about that?

Well, this maestro was in awe of this director and the designer. He was a very junior person. That’s why I don’t work in that situation. I work in a very adult and grown-up situation where we’re all rather on the same level. This cast, we’re all of the same sort; Susanna and Pringle and Judy Christin, I’ve worked with all of them for years and years at the Metropolitan, San Francisco, all these major places. You just grow up with people, and we’re like a family. That must be apparent to you.

How long has this tradition of a really important director been in opera?

Certainly not before World War II.

If I was going to rehearsals in Milan, what would be different?

If you were doing it in Milan, you might have the five greatest stars in the world doing the five great parts who might work very happily together or might not. Certainly Muti or Abbado would be conducting.

What would the director’s role be?

Depending, if Strehler is working with Muti that would be an equal, although Muti is totally the boss when he conducts. He would have enough faith in Strehler to know that Strehler is doing his thing and they would work very closely together. I was very lucky in my early years to work with Visconti and Giulini, who were a great partnership, and Giulini was very much the man in charge although Visconti was just a terribly famous film director. He was an internationally famous man, but he was very much second to Giulini in that situation. It varies, you see.

What do you want to happen here?

I want the audience to understand what was written, to enjoy it. I want them to fall in love with Figaro and Susanna, and I want them to he touched by the count and the countess and to he amused by Cherubino and he amused by the story. I think it’s very funny. At the end of the evening, when you leave the theater, you have to go out thinking that married life is not that easy. That’s really why it’s called The Marriage of Figaro.

You have this couple that is starting their marriage against tremendous odds because of this whole feudal rite and the fact that the count wants to screw Susanna. But it’s much more than that. You have a couple who have been married for five years who have lost it. And the whole process of the opera is them finding each other through the excitement of the new marriage. And that’s the genius of the piece. And that’s what touches one so much.

How many times have you directed it?

Oh, I cahn’t tell you, so many times. I did it in 1957 the first time. And I’ve done five new productions. I mean. I’ve built five productions, but I’ve revived my own productions so many times.

When is your job over? Do you stay after opening night?

I cahn’t, I leave the next day. I go home.

Is that typical?

Always. No, not always. Sometimes I can stay four or five days. I might sometimes catch the second performance, but it’s rare, because I do 12 operas a year. I have to get to the next place.

Then stay four or five weeks?

No, less. Sometimes I only have two weeks. If it’s a production that I’ve already done, my assistant goes and prepares it, and I come for the last two and a half weeks.

It strikes me that there can’t be more than 20 people like you on earth.

No, there aren’t.

How does that make you feel?

Awful. I hate it. I cahn't wait to stop. I’ve done it for so long. I’m returning here in '93 when I’m 60. And I’m going to do just two or three snows a year in the places that I like being. I’m coming here in ’93, and I’m coming here in ’94. I may come here in '95 because I like the climate, I like the people, I like the way it’s done here. It isn’t La Scala or Covent Garden, but it’s a very, very high standard and he casts very well.

There are 54 opera houses in Germany and 100 and some in America, but I don’t have a sense of where the San Diego Opera stands.

If you think of the Met and Chicago and San Francisco and Los Angeles being the very top rank, this would come in the second rank, for me. It might be the third rank for other people, I don’t know. But from my point of view it’s the second rank because we have such good casts here and it’s a very good rehearsal period; you have enough time and it’s extremely well run. Mary Yankee is a marvelous stage manager.

San Diego is extremely orderly so you don’t tear your hair out with a great deal of disorganization, because a great deal of opera — and this is something that is very hard for you to understand — is organization. I mean, you’re not seeing a big opera; this is a very small opera, but if you have a chorus of 90, you might have 120 extras in the battle scene, and Aida is always, of course, huge. Just to get those shows on is a huge organizational situation, and that’s one of the reasons why I have gone on working all my life. I’ve never been out of work, never done less than 11 or 12 operas a year. I am a very organized director. I don’t suddenly say, “Oh, we won’t do that, let’s not do that, let’s concentrate on Madam doing this and have 200 people standing around.”

This is my production from San Francisco, so all the paperwork is done by the assistants and the stage management there. When it all comes here, they can go through the paperwork and find out who comes on here, how many people come on there, who carries the broom, who carries the mop, and all of that.

People think the maestro is field marshal, and what I’ve seen is that you’re running the show up to this point. Is that how opera is done?

No, we work together, totally, all the time, but it’s just that when I'm actually staging the show with a sensitive and good maestro like this, he understands that I have to have the control, because it’s such a short period. If we were working in a six-week period which I generally do in Europe, we work much more slowly. We talk a lot. We investigate so that Maestro is involved with every idea, even with picking up the ribbon because it may take stage time; therefore, Maestro has to consider the bits in between, how it all works.

A hundred years ago if I bought my ticket, went to this opera, what would I see?

All of the artists would have been fighting to do their own thing. Opera, the way you do it like theater, didn’t evolve until well into the 20th Century.

It would just be figures coming onto the stage, stand, sing it out?

Yes, yes. In the 18th Century and early 19th Century, they all wore their own costumes. There wasn’t design, there wasn’t a set design, a costume design. When you think of something like this being done the very first time, some of the Amadeus film gave you a little bit of an idea. The thing that was wrong in that film was choreography, which made it look like it had all been very well rehearsed. Well, of course, it wouldn’t have been rehearsed. Singers would have been very, very improvisatory; the good ones might have stood out and been effective, but there might have been a countess, for instance, who was statuesque and stood rather still.

It sounds like you’ve been traveling forever. Where were you on your 21st birthday?

I went home. I know that I went home for my 21st birthday because my aunt, who’s now 85, gave me a box with a big ribbon on it filled with 100 crisp one-pound notes. That was a lot of money. I was living in the Midlands, I remember that. But I’d been living in London since the age of 15 and a half. I’ve always been sort of a gypsy, you see. I’ve never been a home person, but I went home because it was my 21st, and my father was still alive. Not so long after that my father died. I never went home again.

Big day, the sets have arrived from San Francisco, making the overland trek in four 48-foot semis.

Even though the civic center looks like one of those cheap 1960s government units that some dirtbag president-for-life has put up, the stage area is the real deal, enormous ceilings, ropes, weights, screens.

I watch as stage hands in T-shirts, tennis shoes, cut-offs, many wearing leather carpenter aprons, unpack and prepare massive sets. Off on one side of the stage is a small, enclosed desk crowded by three plywood walls. On the west wall hangs a hand-built bullshit meter with a little arrow that moves back and forth like a tugboat’s speed indicator. On the meter’s high end is a red triangle labeled “No computer." The green triangle shows “Thirty-minute change over, no sweat." Further on, in yellow, “An easy show” and “Check’s in the mail," as well as “Any stage manager, any stage management decision.”

I’m here to meet John Pringle, the Figaro guy. His steady job is baritone with the Australian Opera, and he’s sung in what has now become, for me, the usual operatic haunts of Europe: Paris, Brussels, Cologne and so on. I wave as he makes his way through the partially erected sets. Out on the street he asks, “Will an hour and a half be enough?"

I said I thought it would probably do.

We walk across the street to the U.S. Grant Hotel and are seated in the Grant Grill. I study the wine list, regretfully order coffee and trout.

I look across white table linen into steady, more like steely green eyes and ask,

How old are you?

Fifty-three. This year is my 25th year in opera.

You were a pharmacist for four years?

Five years.

How did you make the transition?

Well, I was singing as an amateur in my spare time. Purely classical, I was only interested in classical music. There were amateur companies around town. They would put a show on. They were very keen. It was a hobby for them as it was for me, and I got to sing some pretty good roles. It developed a bit from that.

I met the chap who was running the Australian opera, and he’d actually seen me do a couple of things and said he liked what I’d done and offered me a job without an audition. I knocked it back at the time, thought, “I’ll wait for another year.”

The company was based in Sydney but came to Melbourne. So the next time they were in Melbourne, I went down and did an audition and they offered me a job again but with better terms than the previous time. I don’t mean financially; it was financially pretty lousy. I took a big cut in salary from pharmacy to become a professional singer.

What sort of terms?

Well, they originally offered me some principal roles and some chorus. I wasn’t that keen to sing in the chorus, not because I felt snobbish about it at all but because I thought, “If I’m going to leave a good profession, it’s got to be worthwhile in an artistic sense."

And that’s how I started. I started the following year. The offer was better because there was no chorus involved and it was all principal parts, small ones. I was happy about that, and I had a couple of good covers, covering big parts. By the end of that first season, I got to sing one really good part.

At this time, late ‘60s early ‘70s, was Australia a backwater in opera?

The standard of performance wasn’t bad. It’s pretty hard to tell, at this distance. Some of them were quite good, some of them were pretty lousy. I think it was probably a bit backward in the quality of productions.

What makes a really pleasurable run for you?

Things that make it really good are actually the things that we have here. Sometimes, in other places, the amount of time they have for rehearsal is not really adequate. There’s no real ensemble feel, no real thread that goes through a production. It’s two or three big stars getting up and doing their own thing, like Madam X comes, sings Tosca and does what she’s always done. Mr. Y comes and sings and just stands in the middle because he doesn’t act, he just sings. Maybe Mr. A. comes and does the baritone part, he might he something of an actor, but he’ll look a bit out of place because he’s the only one acting. I’ve spoken to colleagues who have gone to important houses in Europe, and they’ve had two or three days’ rehearsal in which to spin instant opera. Not very satisfying for them. It’s a rescue operation.

This is different, this is the way I like it, and I think the way most of us like it. We’ve got the time to get a good show together. We have a terrific director. We have a good conductor. Maestro Muller is a terrific Mozartian, and there are not that many of them around, so that’s a pleasure. The production is going well, a friendly ambience around the company and a desire among everyone to really do something that does honor to the Figaro, which is a great opera.

What’s different about opera since you started 25 years ago?

It doesn’t dominate my life the way it used to. I think I’ve got my priorities a bit sorted out since then. In those days there was very little that was more important to me than making a career in opera, going overseas, and being an international star and all that stuff. But since then, having learned from personal experience the way most people do, I had kids, had a divorce — your life changes. I think you get to the point where you see that operatic performances are not the most important thing in the world. I have a young child now. I learned the hard way, and while I learned it, my family, in part, suffered. Hopefully, I’ve got it sorted out now.

Where would you put yourself in terms of the world league of opera singers?

I’m a salaried employee most of the time in Australian opera, which by world standards is, if not up to the best standards, keeps a genuine standard, which I think compares very favorably with some of the companies that I’ve seen and worked with overseas. I remember when I first went to Europe to sing, and naturally, I was a bit anxious, a bit nervous about whether I’d be up to what was required, and I found that I fitted in very well.

People think of jobs and personality types: big burly Teamster, gay hairdresser, insecure actress. Are there corresponding personality types to baritones, sopranos, tenors?

There’s a bit of conventional wisdom about this, and there’s a feeling in a lot of places that tenors are not as bright and don’t act as well as baritones. And people come up with all sorts of theories about it: it is an unusual voice and it resonates, there are high resonances going on in their head, there are spaces in the brain.

I’m kidding. I think that is facetious, but I think baritones in general have to be better actors than tenors because they usually play the sensible characters.

How is the acting in opera different from dramatic theater?

The standard of acting in opera generally is quite a bit lower than that of the theater. A lot of it is due to the restrictions placed on you by having to sing. You can’t jump around as much as a singer as you can as an actor because your voice quavers a bit. If you support your voice well, you can certainly move quite a bit without getting a shake in the voice. I don’t know how much of the rehearsal you saw today, but we were able to run a bit and grab each other without actually getting off the note. If you try to sing a sustained line, you wouldn’t he able to move quite as much as that. Also, there are conventions in the operas where the action will actually stop, be suspended for three or four minutes while a number is sung, say a quartet or duet, and singers are repeating, “I am unhappy” six times with beautiful notes that Mozart writes, but it’s hard to be a truthful actor for that period of time.

How do opera singers describe different voices?

I’m a lyric baritone so I don’t sing the heavier end of it. They have different terms in different countries. The Germans talk about a Helden baritone who sings the Wagner roles. The big ones, very big voice with a big orchestra, need to be big to get through the orchestra. And they have cavalier baritone, which is sort of brighter, lighter.

That would be you ?

Yeah, I’d be somewhere grouped in a cavalier baritone because my voice isn’t very big, but it’s big enough for the stuff I do. It’s important when you have that sort of voice not to push it because you can shorten your career by overworking.

How about the sopranos? Would there be a cavalier kind of voice with them?

Well, there’s a lyric soprano, which would be, say, the countess in Figaro. There’s low sopranos and you have the lyric spinto soprano, which is in between a lyric soprano and a heavy soprano, and then there is dramatic soprano, which is a really gutsy voice that would sing Tosca or something like that. And you have coloratura sopranos that sing the really high stuff.

How many baritones are there in the world on your level?

I find that almost impossible to work up. I can only make a stab in the dark. If you take North America, Europe, Australia — 100? Or 50? But, you see, there are other, heavy baritones, and there'd be others who would be just about there and ones that are just a bit past it.

In a production that is not a success, is there one person that can ruin it quicker and better than anyone else?

Obviously, the conductor and stage director are key positions.

If the accompaniment is not good, it’s very difficult to get things sparkling on the stage. And obviously you are very much in the hands of the director when it comes to the drama. Say there’s an opera where four of the roles are very important and each one is not very well cast, you can probably still get a good performance. But you can’t give a good performance with a conductor that’s not up to it.

The word “cultivated” comes to mind. Opera people speak formal English, which is odd to hear from humans dressed in ordinary clothes, with ordinary bodies and faces, unremarkable until they speak, speak so formally that the very occasional use of slang or vulgarity stands out like a polite postal clerk. It’s novel to hear complex sentences, unique to hear that voice: not louder than ordinary conversation, but strong, strong as a 16-cylinder, 450-horsepower engine set to low idle.

Ian Campbell is the general director of the San Diego Opera, the majordomo, the chief, the guy who hires and fires. He has presence. If I ever owned a business that sold services or goods to the rich, this is the guy I would hire to run it, which is one way to describe his present job. You talk with Campbell and one thinks of dinner parties in Manhattan, and, far more uncommon, one thinks of old money. He is elegant, charming, charismatic, engenders immediate trust, and like everyone else here, is very, very smart.

Campbell, 46 years old, married, two kids, reddish hair, medium height, well-trimmed beard and mustache, started out as a principal tenor with the Australian Opera, did a tour at the Met in New York as assistant artistic administrator, signed on in San Diego as general director nine years ago.

It was the first night that rehearsals were in costume. The auditorium is empty except for Copley, the lighting director, and assorted assistants who are seated at mid-auditorium behind plywood boards, which rest on the backs of other seats forming a large table surface now filled with monitors, lamps, paper, much paper. A dozen rows away, Campbell and I chat while on the stage Cheryl Parrish sings.

How has opera changed?

America now has about 120 professional opera companies that pay money for singers to sing, twenty years ago there were about 10. It’s changed remarkably.

How come?

In a curious way, the mechanical media. Radio, television, recording has played a tremendous role in promoting an art form that people wished to believe was in decline. For example, when Luciano Pavarotti sang La Boheme in the first Live from the Met telecast, more people heard Boheme or saw Boheme that night than had seen it in the history of the opera. That’s the power of television; one broadcast was seen by so many millions. Now in the modern era, you have things like Moonstruck with Cher, which featured La Boheme. Pretty Woman, a big hit movie, when the characters go to San Francisco, they go to the opera. Richard Gere is currently in San Diego. Tomorrow you can stop by and see opera people sitting in Spreckels to be a part of a Richard Gere movie as he goes to the opera. Why is opera being used like that by the film industry? Because it’s sexy.

Audiences have grown all around the world. We’ve had a succession, in the last 20 years, of great artists who brought attention to opera. People like Joan Sutherland, particularly Luciano Pavarotti, Domingo — they’ve become symbols of what used to be an esoteric art form. They’ve recorded crossover music; Pavarotti is played by truck drivers. When we brought him in here in ‘85, he filled the Sports Arena. Sixteen thousand people at a one-night stand paying very high prices. There was a person representing every walk of life imaginable.

Practically every opera company in this country has a team that goes into schools. The last rehearsal we’ll have two and a half hours for children, and they will see exactly the show the adults will see. It’s the final rehearsal. They’ll see it, they’ll like it, and when they’re 18 they’ll discover it’s really crap, and when they’re 35 they’ll come back.

We’ve added an opera this year because of the growth. Three thousand seats, which is what this accommodates, this is a week at the Old Globe. The other important factor is the quality of what we do has continued to rise.

I’d expected enormous voices in opera, but I’ve noticed that John Pringle, although his voice is clear and brilliant, it doesn’t seem super-powerful. Is that normal?

These are normal-sized voices. Power to me is irrelevant provided you can be heard. One reason why Americans, in particular, want big voices is that the theaters are so big. This theater is bigger than the Bolshoi in Moscow, it’s bigger than Covent Garden, it’s bigger than Vienna, it’s bigger than Munich, Hamburg, Berlin. Most European theaters are 2000 or less. In Germany, most theaters are 1500. This is 3000. America does not have subsidies; we have to bring a lot of people into a house. In Europe with the government subsidy, the houses are smaller, so people don’t have to shout.

All these voices are perfectly balanced. This theater has good acoustics. We must remember we have a generation now that has been brought up with a volume-control knoh and used to the volume on records, CDs. Here, it’s the other way around. The orchestra plays, the voice comes through the orchestra, and they blend, it’s not a matter of one dominating the other. So when people see their first opera, there are some adjustments they need to make.

Is John Pringle a good actor for a singer?

Oh, yes. If he did a similar job at the Old Globe, he’d find it far less complicated because the product is, well, limited sets. This is typical 18th-century style: they often have unit sets, there’s no orchestra to worry about, there aren’t choruses to be shunted on and off. Whereas here, we have the orchestra, the chorus, the stage hands with all of these big set changes. It’s very difficult.

Also we bring people from all around the world. The Globe uses English speakers because it’s an English-language house. Because we perform in foreign languages, we have Chinese, British, Australian, Italians, Americans. And these people frequently have not met each other before, and we weld them into a production in two weeks. They often know each other, but they’ve not worked with each other.

Edoardo Muller is the maestro for this opera, and then the next opera you’d have another maestro?

Yes, another conductor totally. It will be an American, and the one after that will be the girl you see there in the front row. The one after that is a Dutchman. This man, Edoardo Muller, I hire every year. He will not conduct the last performance of this because Luciano Pavarotti asked if we would release him to conduct Pavarotti Plus on public television at the Met.

Do opera singers have a traditional vice, like, for writers it’s alcohol, for rock ’n’ roll bands it’s drugs and sex?

Eating too much is the most common one. Singers can’t take drugs on a regular basis. If they abuse themselves physically, they can’t get up and do this. What they do tend to do, many of them, is they ruin their attachments because you leave a wife at home, particularly if she’s got a baby or two, and you’re on the road nine months a year. She often can’t understand, even if you might be pulling in a lot of money. It’s “You’re never home and you don’t take me and the babies on tour.”

You don’t want them on tour. So those who do bring in their wives often bring them in the night of the opening, not during rehearsals, it’s too busy. So they often get pressure that way. The wife doesn’t understand. Even though she said she would, she doesn’t. Then you get the other ones who usually fall in love with somebody in every port because they need the sex, they need the companionship. The women are normally more closeted, although there are some that bang around a lot but...

For the people that reach this level, how many months a year would they work?

Take Pringle. In Australia, he’s a dominant figure. He would start working with the Australian opera early in January, he might get a couple weeks in December where he won’t work. Rita Cullis is the British one. Rita is based in Britain; she’ll work virtually every month with one of the British companies, but then in summer she’ll sing at the Salzburg Festival. You choose the work. You may have a couple of weeks off, but you can’t afford to take three months off.

Because people forget you?

People forget you. You’ve got to keep plugging away. If you hit the top, you can get very rich. Luciano Pavarotti pulls in about $3 million a year. There aren’t many, but there are Americans working in Frankfurt and Cologne and Hamburg pulling half a million. You’ve never heard of them, they’ve never made a record, most of our audience wouldn’t know any of these people, but because they’re there and they can work every three or four nights, it adds up to a lot of money over a 52-week year.

I’m thinking of rock ’n’ roll musicians. Usually when they hit 30, 35 there’s a crisis: “Am I going to make it in music? Should I find another career?” Does that happen in opera?

It happens virtually every night. There’s no particular time period. Voices develop over different stages. There are sopranos that are already professional at age 16. Roberta Peters sang “Queen of the Night” at the Met when she was 16 or so. Tenors, in particular, don’t really start to mature until they’re about 30. There are some basses whose voices develop more and more colors as they get older.

So that crisis is always there with the singer saying, “I'm still not doing the roles I want. If I don't get them within three years, I’ll quit.” But that role will come if you’ve got a good voice; if you’ve got a good instrument you will be, quote, discovered, unquote, because there’s so many of us out there looking for them. I don’t know any brilliant singer who is not working. There are many unemployed, very bad singers, just as there are many very bad actors waiting tables in Los Angeles.

Singers go through vocal problems. It’s very common for a singer who’s been singing wonderfully for five years, ten years, to suddenly go through a period of two years where nothing works, where they’re always missing the top note. They’ll be working and you’ll hear people say, “Oh,

I heard Luciano Pavarotti, and he was in a mess.” Then you hear him in another house and he sounds good. Well, in that period he was upset — it could be emotional, it could be physical, it could be a crisis with the wife, girlfriend, whatever it might be. It affects these two little lumps of gristle in our throats.

You and I can only talk. We can talk with a cold. We can talk with a slightly hoarse throat. To do what Cheryl Parrish is doing now is unusual. That’s not talking, it’s singing, it’s moving it up here, up in the sinus. That means she has to be physically very fit, concentrate on remembering thousands of words, thousands of notes, and work in a foreign language. So if she just had a fight with her lover before coming to the theater, she’s headed for trouble. Then if she gets into that trouble a few days in a row, that’s where it can compound and you can get into a real decline where nothing works. Many singers have gone through that. They come out of it.

But there’s no particular breaking point. A dancer, I think a dancer gets to their mid-20s, and they start to ache and they know they’re running out. By the time they’re 30, many dancers have given up the business. Singers can go until they’re 60 if they look after the instrument and they look after their figure.

When it goes, how does it go?

The vocal cords lose their elasticity. They lose their musculatures. The voice is supported not only by a column of air but by the diaphragm muscles, the intercostal muscles across the back. When you breath, those muscles have to support the column of air so you can emit the column of air very smoothly. When those muscles no longer have the tension, the vocal cords themselves have changed, like they can change in pregnancy, they can change through disease, they can change just by getting older. They don’t vibrate the same way, the column of air is not supported properly, the singers often develop wobbles. It’s inevitable, it will happen, and generally speaking, by the time you get to the mid-, towards late 50s, you’re starting to limit what you can do. Pavarotti is now 56. He’s got about four good years left, then the wear will start to show. It’s inevitable. It’s sad for those of us who love him and love that voice so much to know that even it has been limited by God.

What do they do when they retire?

Opera singers get very frustrated. Most opera singers cannot run opera companies; they don’t have the management skills, so that’s almost always a closed door. Some can teach but most don’t want to. Most miss the limelight. Most close the door and give it up, they don’t try to do anything else, but those that do finish up judging competitions, which Joan Sutherland is doing a lot of these days. What are called master classes, working with younger singers on interpretation and style. The majority simply fade away because the outlets are not there.

It must be a pretty fearsome thing getting closer to the door, seeing the end of the track.

There’s no way to make it any easier, though. What starts to happen is, if you’re not at the top, the engagements just start to dry up. A singer like Cheryl Parrish, the Susanna, who is young, Cheryl probably has some signed contracts for ‘95 by now. But in 30 years, she’ll have a contract for next year, there won’t be contracts three or four years out. And therefore the message starts to come to you that you’re no longer in demand. If you’re clever, you can change your repertoire and get a few more years of life. There are some great soprancs and mezzos who used to be the glamour stars, and as they got older, they deliberately moved into the character roles, the way an old actress will do videos. But there aren’t many who do that. Most say, “No, I was a diva, and I’m going to end as a diva." Then there’s the odd one that jumps out a window. It happens in any business.

How big is the lake? How many baritones in the world can sing at this level?

The lists are enormous. They have to be fairly big because there are so many performances going on all the time. When we open on Saturday, there’s probably 300 opera performances going on in the world. So there are 300 baritones needed for leading roles.

But isn't there a huge difference in quality between the production companies?

It depends how you judge them. The connoisseur, the experienced operagoer would believe that there are three tenors in the world, Domingo, Pavarotti, and Carreras. For Mozart, I probably could choose — according to my taste, very personal, but according to my taste — there are at least 50 Counts in the world I could use and 50 Figaros. I probably know 20 of those, and there are probably another 30 out there I could use if I knew them, but our paths have never crossed.

That's a very small pool.

It is small and that’s why they can get paid what they do. A leading tenor, particularly a tenor doing the lyrical, spinto repertoire, can get in Europe $15,000 per night. An actor at the Globe gets about $500 a week. And that’s supply and demand, nothing more. The purity of the tenors — very few of us can sing at all, very few are spinto tenors, which is the more restricted list of tenors, so when you get down to certain roles, let’s say there might be 50 Figaros agreeable to me but many more who can sing it. In a case like Trovatore, the role of Manrico, there’s probably only about 20 people in the world singing Manrico today that I would like to have in this theater. In a role like Otello, there’s probably about 10 good singers.

How would you cast Otello?

I would look for an Otello about four years ahead. I know only four people who I would consider hiring. One is Domingo, who will not do it and we couldn’t afford him. Armano Mauro, whom I like enough in other people’s theaters but not in mine; it’s not as classy as I would like. There’s a chap in Germany, Peter Sciffert, who’s quite good, I want to hear him again. Pavarotti has really done it in concert and he won’t, I think, ever do it onstage. Giuseppe Giacomini still sings it, but he would not work in this sized theater. Again, the theater changes it. The size of this theater rules out about half the people that I like because they would not succeed in this size venue.

Too big a place?

It’s not the size, it’s the bite. You would hear them, but they would lack presence, which is a hard thing to explain. A famous tenor sang in the old Met, never sang in the new Met. He didn’t have a good voice, but it had focus, it had point, and it projected into the 4000-seat old Met. Richard Leech, the American tenor, can sing very well in this theater. I want Leech as much as I can get him, but Leech is getting too expensive because he’s one of the few good-looking, well-acted Rodolfos around, so Leech is making $20,000 for singing in Berlin tonight, and he deserves it, he’s very good. We can’t pay him that much, so we feel very lucky if we can get Richard every three years.

I've been surprised to see that the director has so much power. Copley has been dominant in the rehearsals.

When we come back onstage tomorrow night, it’s with orchestra. While the director will still be shaping a lot of stuff, the conductor will now come into prominence. Once the orchestra’s in the pit, they become his rehearsals, not the director’s.

Is the assumption that the musicians and singers already know, don't need as much time with the maestro as...

No, remember the maestro has been down there with the singers all this time, and he has spent a whole day working with them on the music, getting the shape of it the way he wants. But from tomorrow it becomes the conductor’s show. In this company, the way we structure it, is quite deliberately the stage director doing his work till now, working jointly with the conductor. Now the conductor takes over to get the stylistic things right.

Is it different in Europe?

Yes, it depends. In many European theaters the major conductor would be me, the general director. He stands there shouting and being a big drama queen about everything. That’s not so in America.

One of the things I didn't realize was the whole on-the-road aspect of this. All the singers are freelance, everybody's working eight or nine different cities a year.

In the world of opera today, the ensemble company that stays together for a year or a number of years is relatively rare. A company like that can’t pay people enough money. Even in Vienna, in Covent Garden, in London, Hamburg, Munich; those companies have a core of permanent singers, but the very good ones, because of jet aircraft, are constantly flitting around the world.

It wasn’t always that way. Vienna between the wars had a whole stack of great singers who worked there for 15 weeks. And if you go further back to the turn of the century, Caruso used to take the boat to New York. He’d come in from Italy, he had a floor at the Knickerbocker Hotel, and he would sing at the Met, sometimes eight different operas in the one season. He’d stay there for months, based in New York.

In one week Caruso would sing three, sometimes four different operas. On Monday night he might do Elixir of Love, three days later he might do Rigoletto. Today, Luciano Pavarotti comes into the Met and he does only Lucia Di Lammermoor. And he does eight performances. That’s the end of him for that year at the Met. There’s too much money to be made by being out here and out there. Opera has changed into a much more itinerant band of individuals.

Consider this: it used to be an itinerant company. In the early days in Italy, a promoter like myself would call together a group of singers, and we’d mount a couple of productions, and we’d move from city to city. And I’d have the gambling rights in the front of the theater, and that’s how I’d make the money. I’d put a casino in there, take the profits, move on to the next city and the next and the next.


Two nights until opening.

I had deliberately waited to interview Italian conductor Edoardo Muller. I wanted to watch him at length, wonder to myself, “What kind of a man is this?” I was intrigued. He has the sweetest expression I’ve ever seen on a man. One thinks of religion, of the truly religious; he carries that same countenance of painful openness, that look of tender empathy. It can be highly frightening.

Muller is 5'10”, on the far side of middle age, thin-lipped, a sharp nose, his light, curly hair just a shade longer than short. He has conducted... well, basically everywhere.

We talked during a dress rehearsal, more precisely during the three ten-minute breaks between acts. Each break, I follow him under the stage, exiting to his spartan, small dressing room, furnished with one chair, one cheap Formica desktop, one large mirror with showbiz light bulbs strung around its perimeter. Not one item of personal gear in the room.

We enter, he offers me the only chair. I decline, squat against the wall, ask, How would you describe the San Diego Opera?

It’s a one of the most quiet...quiet is not a beautiful word for an orchestra, it is one of the most correct. They respect, they do extremely professionally. For this reason we can build something that lasts four hours. When you say something, you don’t have to repeat three or four times. And also, have you ever heard me to ask for silence?

No.

This absolutely absurd in Italy. In Italy a conductor must be also a policeman.

I had no idea that the director had so much influence. People think of the maestro as a god or a captain or a general. Is it different in Europe?

Listen, don’t be confused on what you saw. Because the man responsible, with all respect to the singers and the director, is the conductor. But because Copley is a very good musician, I consider him a very good director. I don’t interfere too much, just sometimes without shouting, sometimes I go to him and say, “Don’t you think this could be this way? This is a bit too much.” But in any case, is very important nowadays that a show is completely beautiful. We look at the television, we look at the cinema, we are very clever now about what we see. We cannot anymore see a tall soprano, a short tenor, stay together for 20 minutes of a duet and sing.

Has that changed in your lifetime?

Yes, very, very much. Twenty, 25 years ago much less good taste in performance, it was more to go to the opera to listen to the opera than to see to the opera. I think the first great director that worked on staging in opera has been Visconti. Visconti happened with the Callas. Callas was very talented as an actress. So they worked together, and they really had something new to say, something deeper. And the lesson of Visconti and the lesson of Callas cannot be forgotten. They are important not because she was diva, because she had a beautiful voice, but because they add to opera something that before was neglected.

How about the different kinds of audiences — American, Italian, German. Are there differences?

Yes, yes very much. Let’s divide into Latin and Anglo-Saxon people. In the European, the Latin public can give a lot of satisfaction, more than America, but can give also pain because they react to the good and the bad with a lot of participation, a lot of noise, sometimes with boo. For example% it’s nice for us, but I’ve never heard a boo in this theater, and also if you go to the Met, even with a show that is not very, very good you never hear a boo. You go to La Scala and you’re in a good show, the premiere always listen to some boo. Always.

The audience is more involved?

Of course, of course. Even when they leave the theater, they continue in their conversation between the people who like this singer, this conductor, and people they don’t like. For example, so many times, a conductor that the public didn’t like, when he start to raise his hand, a group will say, “Boo.” Sometimes they talk to singers, to conductor, and this is a bad habit. Sometimes they exaggerate. But a public that is alive, that participate and reacts, I personally like. It’s very profitable to have a public that claps and never boos, but it’s very exciting to have that other kind.

Do you have the same life as singers? Are you four weeks here, two weeks here, four weeks there?

Yes.

Do you ever get tired of the traveling?

We like it. We choose sometimes, we have one month complete rest, to study the next show.

The amount of material you would have to learn, all the notes, it’s staggering. How many operas do you know?

Before I started conducting, I made a long period of study, and in this period I really learned my job. Working with singers, looking at conductors, working with conductors, learning what is good, what is bad, what I have to do, what I have not to do. As soon as you know all these things, you just have to learn the technique of conducting and a bit of confidence in the orchestra, a bit of authority.

For someone who doesn’t know the opera, I was surprised how quiet the baritones seemed to be. Is that normal?

But this is just a rehearsal, just a bit of the arias. They are sparing themselves. Tomorrow we have the last dress rehearsal. We had a lot of rehearsal before, and they are as athletes, they have to train, but the moment of the run they are strong. We have two baritones, and both I think are not singing in full voice. Even the sopranos are doing not their full voice. These kinds of singers are especially for Mozart. For Mozart, the singers, is not how much voice they have but the beauty, how they phrase, how they breathe, how they pronounce, how they move, present music. For Mozart it is the beauty of the voice, the musicality. They have to be almost instruments. It’s not that one has plenty of voice is better than one with a bit less voice, not at all. It’s my duty not to cover them while they are singing, to adjust the volume of the orchestra because they have to be heard.

What are you doing up there, when you’re conducting?

Concentrating. Feeling the strength without permitting anyone to disturb it.

When you’re conducting, what’s going though your mind? Are you watching the singers or listening to them? I assume you can speed up the music and slow it down, make it louder, make it quieter. What other things are you doing?

A little bit like when you drive a car. If there is a turn, you must know what is the ideal speed, where to enter the bend, this side or that side, where there is a danger. When everything is going free, you can just relax and permit them to do music. Sometimes I don’t meter the time because I want the orchestra to listen to the singer when it is easy. But when there is a change in tempo or in the chorus, I have to end. So I am anticipating, I have an inside track, an idea on how the opera has to go, and I anticipate with my movements what they have to sing or play. It’s not that I do the movement contemporary to when they play, otherwise it is not conducting. I am anticipating what they have to do.

It’s an amazing thing, the singers, the music, the staging.

Do not be confused. This is the genius of the composer.

I attend opening night in full drag: a rented tux — $79 from Perfect Penguin Tuxedo Rentals. During intermission I wander outside, into the courtyard. The opera company has erected a temporary festive tent, the Bravissimo Patron Tent. I watch as ladies in elegant dresses swoosh around gentlemen in tuxedos and all mill about tables laden with champagne and goodies. At the tent’s entrance a satanic-looking male, clad in what seems to be a custom-fitted tux. His large, manicured fingers grip the stem of his champagne glass. Hanging from his neck, on a red, white, and blue sash, is a large gold medal.

I approach, stare. “Nice medal.”

A distinguished baritone voice offers, “You can buy one of these too.”

“How much?"

“About $50,000."

After the performance, I walk with a friend across Broadway — tux shoes clatter on darkened pavement — to the Star Bar on E Street and into a lifetime’s worth of crushed cigarettes and half-washed glasses. Remarkably bright overhead lights showcase every face.

I look down the Star’s Jong bar and study 30 expressions of despair, excuses, and defeat.

Very subtly, but nonetheless very much there, I hear the first sweet strings of Mozart’s overture.

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Rapper Chris “KILLcRey” Reyes transitions to Twitch for performance streaming

The Barrio Logan artist is depicted playing the Grand Theft Auto V and NBA 2K20 on his latest video
Next Article

Padres continue defiance of baseball’s unwritten rules, sparking concerns among MLB brass

Unwrite This!
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Art Reviews — W.S. Di Piero's eye on exhibits Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Best Buys — San Diego shopping Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits City Lights — News and politics Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Famous Former Neighbors — Next-door celebs Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Here's the Deal — Chad Deal's watering holes Just Announced — The scoop on shows Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Of Note — Concert picks Out & About — What's Happening Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Pour Over — Grab a cup Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Set 'em Up Joe — Bartenders' drink recipes Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Sports — Athletics without gush Street Style — San Diego streets have style Suit Up — Fashion tips for dudes Theater Reviews — Local productions Theater antireviews — Narrow your search Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Waterfront — All things ocean Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close