John David Peters
A cockroach looking down toward the empty end of a cereal box — that’s my sense of the bare stage of the San Diego Civic Theatre viewed from the first row. No trace is left of its last production, a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1859 opera A Masked Ball, directed by the famous Italian conductor Edoardo Müller.
It’s a great barnlike space, gray floor, bare walls, while high above are dozens of pipes extending from one side of the stage to the other, which support a system of pulleys and about 30 bags of sand to raise and lower the scenery and position the lights, to create the vast illusion of other worlds, to make the magic. No phantom could hide himself in this airplane hangar, this mammoth and empty cereal box, unless he were invisible or very small. Behind me in the theater are 2992 red plush seats, though for the opera they take away the first row of 90 to make room for the orchestra. Above the stage is a screen that gives the supertitles (as opposed to subtitles) of the opera in English.
“Io moro!…miei figli,” sings Gustavo III, King of Sweden, at the end of A Masked Ball as he staggers forward, stabbed by an assassin.
“I am dying, my children” flashes across the screen.
Moments later the curtain descends to wild applause. The audience exits the theater, some suffering from a mild case of whiplash caused by several hours of rapidly raising and lowering their heads from the supertitles above to the stage below — one more version of suffering for the art one loves.
The performances begin with a piano dress rehearsal on a Monday, followed by an orchestra dress rehearsal with the singers on the stage on Tuesday, a full orchestra dress rehearsal on Wednesday, and dress rehearsals for students on Thursday, which include tours and talks about the opera. Between 1500 and 2000 students from area schools attend the dress rehearsals and about 10,000 attend each season. This is one of the San Diego Opera’s cleverest programs because it creates future opera fans. During ten days of talking to men and women who were passionate about opera, I spoke with several young people who were first introduced to opera in this program and had become major enthusiasts.
A Masked Ball or Un ballo in maschera or Ballo, as it was called by all I talked to, had five performances and was the last of five operas performed in 1999. Sixty thousand tickets were sold during the season. Ballo closed on Wednesday, May 12. The sets included a gallows scene with the gallows in the foreground and a rocky cliff, a warehouse by a harbor where a witch told the future in a great crystal ball on a raised platform with a ghostly ship in the background, and, most sumptuous of all, the king’s palace with great columns and a classical motif — an exact replica of the original Gustavo III’s palace in Sweden. And of course there were the costumes and properties (swords, goblets, candelabras) — all of which added up to a fair amount of baggage. The morning after the closing two semi-trucks backed up to the rear of the theater. At 8:30 the dismantling began and by 6:00 p.m. it was finished. The trucks were locked up, the drivers started the motors, and the trucks hit the road to Dallas. The sets, costumes, and properties of Ballo are owned by the Dallas Opera, which bought them from the Cologne Opera in Germany and then modified them to fit its own stage and needs, after which Dallas recouped its expense by renting them out. It is too expensive for most opera companies to build all of their own sets, so there is a certain amount of wheeling and dealing among the American and European companies. The San Diego Opera’s production of Aida was rented for $50,000. The 1999 season production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte was built quite inexpensively by the San Diego Opera Scenic Studio, an arm of the San Diego Opera, for $130,000 by using bits and pieces from other stock. They now rent out the production, and by the fifth rental Così will become a moneymaker, helping to support San Diego Opera productions. The opera’s costumes, properties, and sets — the production — of La Bohème has already been rented eight times and will probably have a lifetime of 25 years. On the other hand, the production of last season’s Falstaff was rented from the Florida Grand Opera in Miami, the production of Of Mice and Men came from the New York City Opera and the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, right down the street from the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But it’s not opera production that interests me; rather, it’s passion — the way opera can get inside people and rule their lives. Here is an art form — by far the most complicated, expensive, and ornate — that appears to over-sweep the people who love it in a way not found elsewhere. And it isn’t just the music but the whole mix of which costumes, sets, and properties are a part, along with the drama, acting, singing, performers, lighting, even the makeup, even the audience. And those who are passionate have stories going back to the first opera for which music exists, Jacopo Peri’s Euridice, produced in Florence on October 6, 1600, for the wedding festivities of Henri IV of France and Maria de’ Medici. Competing with the stories of the operas are those about the singers — first the castrati, those male sopranos who began singing in opera and for the church in 1600 as well. Think of all those lopped-off testicles. Although castration was illegal in Italy, when the castrati were most popular in the 18th Century it is estimated that 4000 boys were castrated each year, despite the fact that few found jobs as singers. The last castrato retired from opera in 1824, but the last church castrato retired from the Sistine Chapel in 1913 and can be heard on records. Perhaps the castrato we know best is the 18th-century Farenelli (the name meant rascal) because we can rent the movie about him from the local video store. For ten years he worked to soothe the crippling melancholy of King Philip V of Spain by singing him the same four songs every night.
But for 300 years there were singers of which we have only stories, and no matter how exactly their singing can be described, it isn’t a shadow of the music itself. Then in the late 1870s Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and within 20 years singers began to be recorded. Enrico Caruso, the most famous and perhaps the best tenor of the century, made his first recording in 1902 and his last in 1920 shortly before his death. Between those dates he made more than 250 others for which he earned $2.5 million. What’s that worth these days? Listening to him on a digitally remastered CD with all the crinkling paper noises removed, you can hear what all the fuss was about. He sang the way Babe Ruth played ball, maybe better.
One afternoon in June I talk to John David Peters, head production carpenter of the San Diego Opera Scenic Studio. “We’d never be able to do opera on the scale that we do it in San Diego if we had to build all our own shows. Something would have to give. Scenery budgets alone are between $150,000 and $250,000. Sometimes we rent because a visiting director wants a production he’s used to. Or sometimes we’re a coproducer with several other companies. Or there might be five or six sets of a particular opera available and we look at the pictures. Or there are aesthetic and practical concerns to consider like the size of the stage, but it’s not uncommon to have a set and director that have never seen each other, because they start planning years in advance. Right now they’re budgeting the years 2005 to 2006.”
Although a set may be built or coproduced or modified in San Diego, the designer might come from anyplace. The designer for Falstaff came from Germany. Peters met him once in Chicago and once the designer came out to San Diego.
“Sometimes you never see the designer at all. You get the plans and models and have detailed conversations with the technical staff. I’ll study up on the opera in order to know what I’m dealing with — how wide a stage I need, the size of the chorus, even if there are going to be elephants. If you didn’t know about the swan in Lohengrin, that could be an issue, or that the stage is going to be in flames in Götterdämmerung — you’ve got to know that beforehand. But you have the designer and the technical staff and they say here’s a pack of drawings and here’s the model and we’ll see you in eight weeks and you slowly see it come together until it’s all one piece and the curtains open and it makes an impact.”
When Peters joined the Scenic Studio as a shop carpenter in 1969, he didn’t like opera. He only liked rock and roll.
“I had almost no understanding of opera when I started,” he tells me. “No one in my family listened to opera or went to the opera, so I had no experience with it. But I became involved in it in that it used scenery and I loved making the scenery and I loved the effect of the scenery. But it took five to ten years to appreciate the total effect of the opera as music. I’m not sure there was one opera that took my attention but a gradual sense that the whole thing was pretty neat. But maybe it was hearing Puccini’s La Bohème again and again, because La Bohème is still my favorite opera.”
Talking to men and women about opera, I’m struck by how many point to Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème as the first opera they grew to love. And, too, they speak about that sudden realization of the total effect — that La Bohème is more than its music, which was composed in the 1890s. It is more than its story about four bohemian artists in Paris in love with Mimì dying of consumption in the next garret. It is more than the singers, acting, sets, production, theater, audience, even the cabs waiting outside the door. It’s the whole kit and caboodle.
Enrico Caruso was a great practical joker, especially when singing the poet Rodolfo in La Bohème and especially when Mimì was being sung by Dame Nellie Melba, the autocratic, no-nonsense soprano whose enduring fame is the result of having a dessert named in her honor, as well as a type of toast. One night as Caruso/Rodolfo began to sing Melba/Mimì a sweet love song, he pressed into her hand a sausage that he had had a cohort heat up on a spirit lamp offstage. Melba gave a shout and flung the sausage into the air, while making unprintable sounds. Without missing a beat, Caruso continued to sing, only adding the words, “English lady, you like sausage?” They had fun in those days.
In 1977 John David Peters took his present position as head production carpenter, and as his set-building skills increased, so did his knowledge and love of opera. For 30 years he has been building the sets of other designers. Now for the first time Peters has designed and built his own — the set for Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera Il trovatore or The Troubadour, which opens the San Diego Opera’s 2000 season on January 22. The action takes place during a civil war in 15th-century Spain and concerns brothers separated as children who, unaware of their relationship, love the same woman yet are at war with one another. Also featured are Gypsies, battles, convents, poisoned rings, the tales of a baby thrown into a fire and a witch burned at the stake.
“It was decided for me to do the set for Il trovatore about a year and a half ago,” says Peters. “We started building it at the beginning of September and finished in November. The actual work time would usually take six to eight weeks, but we also had other work to do.”
Besides doing sets for operas, the Scenic Studio does sets for ballets, movies, plays, outdoor concerts, even trade shows. The money from this is channeled back into the opera’s operating expenses.
“The sets for Il trovatore were relatively inexpensive as these things go,” says Peters, “because we were able to reutilize a lot of our own resources. It was budgeted for $90,000, then we used about $60,000 of our existing stock. If we get inquiries about it, then we’ll be glad to rent it out. But it may go into one of those gray areas where we just wait and see. There are a number of productions that we’re prepared not to rent because we have limited storage space. If we don’t rent it, we’ll break it down.”
Opera, like extra-sharp cheese, modern poetry, and skydiving, offers pleasures that at first may not be readily apparent and may take some determination to appreciate. The British poet W.H. Auden wrote, “No opera plot can be sensible, for in sensible situations people do not sing.… In a spoken play, for example, I think we should laugh if we were told that a woman had been careless enough to throw her own baby into the fire instead of the child of her enemy, but when this happens in Il trovatore we have little trouble in swallowing it. The emotional persuasiveness of music is so much greater than that of words, that a character can switch from one state of feeling to another with an abruptness which in a spoken drama would be incredible.”
I like to think of Peters driving up to the Opera Scenic Studio in 1969 to answer a help-wanted ad with the Rolling Stones blaring on the tape player and now he drives home listening to La Bohème. But that’s too tidy. The tapes scattered around my car include Verdi, Pearl Jam, Thelonius Monk, and the Buena Vista Social Club.
The effect of the opera on John David Peters is from behind the curtain. He attends to the building of the sets. And his wife Mary, a former soprano, is employed as stage manager, so even at home there is an interweaving of opera as business and pleasure.
But I also want to know what it is like to sing in an opera, the very passion of singing, so I talk to James Scott Sikon, a 35-year-old bass-baritone, who played the role of Christiano, a sailor, in Ballo, and whose 11th and 12th appearances with the opera will be in this season in A Streetcar Named Desire in April and La Bohème in May. He has also appeared with dozens of other opera companies in the United States, Europe, and Canada. He debuted with the San Diego Opera in 1990 and moved here in 1996.
Sikon was brought up in Carbondale, Illinois, home of Southern Illinois University. Although no one in his family was interested in opera, he did some singing in high school.
“Some people from the college music department saw me sing and invited me to concurrently enroll at the university when I was a senior in high school, which I did. Really, at that time I had no plans of being an opera singer, I just knew that I liked singing, and the people at the university told me that was what I should do, that it was what my voice was appropriate for. So I started thinking about it seriously, and when I was 19, just for experience purposes, I auditioned for the Opera Theater of St. Louis.”
Sikon got the job in St. Louis and after three years was being given principal roles.
“The first opera that really made me decide that this was what I wanted to do was Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann when they did it in St. Louis. I had a small role and sang in the chorus. I loved the production and got more excited about the art form at that point. To me, it was a bit boring at first because unfortunately at that time people weren’t much concerned with the dramatic aspect of opera, and from my personal standpoint that’s very, very important. Even today when I go to an opera and I see someone just standing and singing, I couldn’t be less interested. But when I realized that the entire art form was an accumulative thing between dramatic and singing and everything, that’s when I became really interested and where I found my forte, because I think I’m hired more often than not for my acting abilities, and sometimes reviewers will say that my acting overshadows my singing ability, which is nice to hear because not that many singers can act well.”
Sikon gives a laugh that combines modesty and irony, then he grows serious again. “But it’s the overall total performance package you have from someone that makes an impression, the total experience of the dramatic and the excitement. I mean, there’s beautiful, great voices that you can hear, but you can do it a lot cheaper staying home and listening to CDs.”
He goes on to stress the importance of the acting also as a tool to help the audience suspend disbelief. After all, these people are up there on the stage and they’re singing, but that singing is really meant to be talking.
“As a singer, that is one of the most difficult things. It tends to make the difference between a singer and an artist. I mean, is a person able to communicate by singing? A lot of people may be confused and think that’s the same thing, but it’s not. Somebody may be up there singing and not communicating. Just because you’re making noise doesn’t mean you’re communicating or putting across a message or moving people.”
I ask why this is important. To emphasize communication, he tells me, is a way of including more members of the audience, of making opera more accessible. And acting, too, is a form of communication.
“Anything we can do to include more people is only beneficial to us, obviously, because it’s going to perpetuate the art form. That’s our future audience and those are our future singers. Companies are continually looking for ways to draw in a bigger audience and make opera more accessible to people who haven’t had much experience with opera, rather than catering to just your elitist type of mentality. Therefore, opera companies now try to bring production values to the level where people can relate, people can believe. That’s one of the problems that a lot of people have with opera, you have to suspend that disbelief before you can actually enjoy and understand the production. San Diego in my opinion is really very well run in the sense that among other things they balance the total package as far as can this person sing and can this person act. They really want to build an audience.”
I ask Sikon about his role of Christiano, the sailor, in A Masked Ball.
“Christiano was one of the smallest roles I’ve done, actually. You have to know your place as a comprimario singer; that is, a singer of secondary roles, you have to understand where you fit in. I’ve been lucky enough to sing leading roles with some companies and I’ve sung comprimarios. Sometimes it’s harder to do the comprimarios because you don’t have nearly as much time to make an impression. You have to come out and nail it. You have to deliver immediately. In Ballo, it’s funny, because it was such a small role, but when Christiano sings you know he’s singing — it’s very nice, very exposed singing. But it can be nerve-racking because you don’t have a second chance; everything has to be right. In this business you have to struggle with ego, you have to put it in its proper place. It’s important because when you get out in front of 3000 to 5000 people you have to have somewhat of an ego or you’d never be able to perform, because it can be very frightening regardless of your level of experience. There’s all kind of stories of incredible performers with résumés a mile long who are so racked by nerves that they’re barely able to get onstage. So if you don’t have an ego and don’t believe in yourself, when you find yourself in a problem like that, you’re not going to be able to deliver.”
So what’s it like, I ask, what’s it feel like — the actual experience of being onstage and having the opera taking place around you — the singing, the acting, the drama, of being half blinded by the lights, feeling the hush of the audience. Sikon starts a little slowly, somewhat skeptical of my question.
“I personally don’t believe you can ever really lose yourself within the production, you have to constantly be aware of everything around you because there are so many things that go into pulling it off. But sometimes you have a sense onstage of all the different parts coming together. If you’re lucky enough to be in that situation — of course, it doesn’t happen all the time, and in some productions and with some companies it never happens — but if you’re really lucky and if you find you’re in a great production with great singers and everybody is healthy and at the top of their game, then it can be magical, it really can. Because regardless of how many times you’ve heard an opera or seen an opera, when you’re seeing a live production you’re seeing something being created in front of you, and when everybody is at the top of their game and healthy and excited and there’s an excitement from the company itself, then you can do great things and it’s wonderful to see because that’s when people start to relax and grow within the role and you can actually see somebody making an effort and really working to develop the character. The total package, of seeing everything that it takes to present the finished product — you are all aware of that once you get to that point. You’d think people would get a bit more jaded, and I assume some people do, but for me when I see somebody at the top of their form and believing in what they’re doing — it’s incredibly exciting.”
I am talking to Sikon on the phone, and his enthusiasm is obvious. When I hang up, I think of the first opera that caught my attention — Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, which a teacher during my freshman year in college had played for me, the sorry tale of a poet who has four loves and loses them all, only to have his muse come to him while he is in a drunken stupor and tell him that she will never leave him. I liked that. As an aspiring poet, I liked her devotion. Looking back, I realize that Hoffmann was a pretty serious drunk. How else could you fall in love with a mechanical doll? But I was also moved by Offenbach himself, who had spent his life writing comic frippery, and right at the end he had put all his talent into writing something more substantial — Tales of Hoffmann — then he had died before he could finish it, before he ever knew of its great success. The summer after my freshman year I saw the 1950s English movie of the opera — a hugely romantic movie in which each scene looks like a painting. I sat through it three times and came back the next night. After that I was hooked. Even now if a theme from Hoffmann catches me unawares I’ll be nearly undone. But the passions one has at 18 have to put up with a lot of competition, and for years my interest in opera played second fiddle to an interest in jazz and rock and roll. Still, I already have my tickets for Hoffmann at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in February.
Now, from Sikon, I have a small sense of the excitement of being behind the scenes. Next I want to talk to a member of the opera’s orchestra.
There are about 40 members in the opera’s full orchestra, and I speak with Joni Hill, a 44-year-old violist, who has played with the orchestra for 16 seasons. She also played with the San Diego Symphony for ten years and plays with the San Diego Chamber Orchestra. She teaches for the Sweetwater Union High School District.
Raised in East Texas, trained in music at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and principal violist with the Dallas symphony, Joni Hill came to San Diego 21 years ago. Her original passion was for chamber music, but increasingly opera has moved to the center of her life, especially the operas of Puccini and Mozart.
“The San Diego Opera in particular has been my inspiration,” she tells me. “It’s what really makes me feel like a whole person.”
Hill praises many conductors at the opera, especially its resident conductor Karen Keltner, but her warmest praise went for Edoardo Müller, who conducted Ballo and will conduct Il trovatore. Müller first appeared with the San Diego Opera in 1997 conducting Puccini’s Turandot, but his closest association is with the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy. Müller is an extremely popular conductor, and it seems that wherever there is an opera house he has been there with his baton.
“He’s a joy to work with,” says Hill. “He tries to evoke responsibility from the players and performers, meaning that along with his guidance and direction, he still needs our ideas. He once told me a story about a famous conductor of one of the major opera orchestras. Evidently during a performance, the singer and the orchestra were off by about one-quarter-note value and it was a sort of panic situation. The conductor simply stopped conducting and within a split second the orchestra and the singer were on track together. When I asked Müller how he was able to get us to listen so well, this was the story he told me, by which he meant that sometimes if the conductor almost gets out of the way of the musicians and allows them some sense of musical and artistic responsibility, then the production will achieve a different standard.”
Hill goes on to speak of Müller’s seriousness and humor and respect for the singers and musicians — those qualities necessary in any teacher or administrator. And she describes other conductors who are insulting to the singers and members of the orchestra, who are ironic, sarcastic, or short-tempered. Then the singers and players do what they are told, but no more — that is, they don’t grow within the role. They only do their jobs.
“But Müller tries to honor what the singers want to do. And he strives to have us complement what they’re doing. Of course, there have been a few occasions when he’s thought the music may suffer if a particular singer takes too many liberties or whatever. Then he invites the singers to consider doing their timing or phrasing in other ways.”
And so the singers and orchestra end up working with him, instead of simply doing what he says with a sort of silent resentment.
But again I want to know what it feels like when the opera is going on around you — the orchestra is playing, everybody is singing, people are on the edge of their seats.
“Sublime is the word I feel.… I don’t want to get myself into trouble. It’s interesting how…I’m almost afraid to say this, so I have to trust your discretion, but one of the most…again you asked how I feel.”
Her embarrassment is almost palpable. For any artist, their medium — whether it be painting or poetry or playing the tuba — tends to become the vehicle for their feelings, whereas the spoken word feels clumsy — oversized boots in place of a dancer’s slippers.
That’s right, I tell her, how you feel.
“Okay, so what happened on this one occasion when I was performing in an opera, I don’t remember which, but during this performance all of a sudden I had this flashback of remembering, well, of being in East Texas where I was brought up. It didn’t snow that often but it snowed now and then, and I remembered this time when I was out running around in the snow when I must have been six or seven, and I remember how I felt in the snow and I was so happy in this beautiful blanket of snow, and it was just one of the most glorious, cheerful feelings I’ve had, and while I was playing the opera I had this flashback to that and it just made me so incredibly happy. These flashbacks I must admit have occurred on other occasions, and in one regard I hesitate to mention it to you because it almost sounds, you know, is this woman really paying attention to what she’s doing? But I think that actually is what brought on the flashback, because I was so focused and so incredibly into what I was doing that this wonderful feeling occurred and this flashback happened and it’s usually only when I’m playing opera in this type of situation under a great conductor that it happens. I hope that’s not too corny for you, but it’s true.”
Well, that’s what I was looking for: a description of a transcendent moment, the ability of art to lift one out of oneself, briefly make one forget oneself. But Hill goes a little further. I had told her that I was a writer and she includes this in her explanation.
“When you’re writing, there must be times when you feel almost in a trance. I’m sure you’re not writing word by word. It’s just coming from somewhere in you. All the preparation, all the schooling, the technical, grammatical, historical, all of your research, everything comes into play, and when the creative juices are flowing you trust that it’s there, and certainly that’s what musicians hope for. We’ve done our preparation. You almost feel that you’re standing in this tremendous expression that the composer, the conductor, the singers, the instruments, and the audience are all participating in, and it’s almost like time’s standing still and you just have this treasure of sound and human impulse. For me, it’s not just the music, it’s the collective effort of the participants that just really makes life so fabulous as a musician.”
One can compare the transcendent moment and distraction — both make one forget the self. But in the first there is the sense of vital change and that one returns to oneself somewhat changed even if the change is no more than passionate memory, although there can also be the awareness of having experienced something vastly larger than the self, whereas with distraction one remains unchanged. Of course, these moments don’t happen all the time. Perhaps that is fortunate. It helps us value them. If the rose didn’t die, would we find it as beautiful? If we lived a thousand years, would the world around us still taste as sweet? Those unpleasant squawks that my parents called opera, which came from the record player, it took years before I could tolerate them. Then it took years before I could like them. And how ephemeral is that single transcendent experience — a few hours and it is gone, just a memory. The performance that led Joni Hill to the flashback of the snowstorm in East Texas during her childhood — she can’t even remember what it was.
Having looked at a passion for opera from the production side, I wanted to look at it from the audience or consumer side. After a certain amount of head scratching I wind up at one of the greatest resources for opera in San Diego, but a place where people rarely go and in a neighborhood that over the years has grown increasingly seedy: Benedikt & Salmon Record Rarities, a one-story yellowish building in the 3000 block of Meade Avenue.
“You know, we’re the best-known secret in San Diego,” Bob Salmon tells me. “Like, Ian could avail himself of our things, our expertise and our fantastic collection of historical things, but he just doesn’t. He’s not interested.”
The Ian he refers to is Ian Campbell, general director of the San Diego Opera since 1983. We’re sitting in the small front room of the store, if such a huge enterprise can be called a store. Everywhere are shelves of records and books, with corridors of shelving disappearing into a rabbit warren of other rooms and buildings. Two walls are covered with signed photographs of singers. Boxes of records and books are piled here and there. The building contains over 100,000 old records, both classical and jazz, over 10,000 books, and photographs and autographs going back to the 18th Century, including one of the great castrato Farenelli. Salmon and I sit at a table. Every few minutes his wife Gerri Benedikt calls from a small office in back, “Come on, Bob, you’ve got to get moving. The ups man will be here in a half hour.” They seem endlessly busy — Salmon specializes in vocal recordings and Benedikt in instrumental — and my conversation gets spread over several visits.
Gerri Benedikt, Bob Salmon
“We have a kind of museum here,” Salmon continues, with a glance toward the back office. “People call us and ask us questions. But I’m surprised that more people involved with music in this town don’t avail themselves. The store is a bridge between the present and the past. We have cylinders and records that go back to the turn of the century. For instance, a large collection I bought about six months ago is all 19th-century singers. I don’t know why we don’t get more people in here — our customers are collectors from all over the world, either by mail or the Internet — but here in San Diego with such a large population you’d think there’d be some interest, but we have virtually no store business. You can come in any time of the day and not see anybody except us. We’ve been written up, we’ve been on television, we’ve had a lot of publicity, but it doesn’t seem to help. All it does is bring people out of the woodwork trying to sell you something.”
I ask him how many different recordings of A Masked Ball and Il trovatore he has, since those productions by the San Diego Opera frame my story. Salmon leans back to consider my question. He is a rather small, elderly man with gray hair and blue eyes. As I come to realize over the next week or so, despite his huge inventory he seems to know exactly what he has and where everything is. Not only that, he seems to have listened to every record and read every book.
“Well, we have about 30 recordings of Ballo. It was never that popular till several years ago, except in Italy. The earliest I have was recorded in 1929 or ’30 with Beniamino Gigli and the chorus and orchestra of the opera house of Rome. As for Il trovatore, we have 27 of those. The oldest is from 1929 with the tenor Aureliano Pertile.”
I ask Salmon about his background in music.
“I first got interested in opera when I was in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’d just got out of the Army. I was married and had kids and I saw the movie The Great Caruso with Mario Lanza and it made me want to hear what Caruso really sounded like, so I started to buy records. That was in 1951. Then when I came to San Diego, I started taking voice lessons and I sang in Starlight Opera in the ’50s. I was a printer, a Linotype operator, and I went to Germany and I sang — well, first of all, I entered the San Francisco Opera auditions in about 1965 and I won that and also the Met auditions and I got third in that. I was supposed to go up to San Francisco and take dramatic lessons and voice lessons, but I could never take advantage of it because of the money. I had a family and three kids.…”
So Salmon mostly stayed around San Diego, singing with the opera here and a number of other places and he had radio programs on opera on kpbs for five years and three other stations as well. On his wall he has a picture of himself and the tenor Plácido Domingo taken in 1966.
“I sang with people like Domingo — a real good friend. I’m writing a book on tenors, that’s my expertise mainly. I was a tenor and I sang. But I’m a collector and I have probably 1800 different tenors on record, which is a phenomenal number if you think about it.”
Salmon worked as a compositor for the Union-Tribune for 35 years until his retirement. He and Benedikt opened Benedikt & Salmon Record Rarities in 1982.
On another day Salmon gives me a tour of the store, leading me through the narrow aisles of shelving that rise above my head as I’m careful not to stumble over boxes on the floor. The place is not exactly cluttered, but I think that another dozen records might send it over the top. I also feel that without a guide I would have trouble finding my way out.
“I don’t necessarily have a sense of mission in keeping the records in the store together,” Salmon tells me, “as in keeping together my own personal collection. I have 10,000 records at home. I’ve got probably 3000 to 5000 autographed photos of singers. My problem, if you can call it a problem, is that I’m afraid that I’ll get rid of it too soon.” He turns back to me and laughs, then continues, talking over his shoulder. “If God would tell me when I’m going to die, then I’d know when to get rid of it, see. But if I get rid of it — I’m 76 years old now, that’s getting up there — but supposing I get rid of it and live another 15 years when I could be enjoying this. That would be to me…well, I’d have no interests anymore. When you’re interested in something, there’s always something to look forward to. I wouldn’t want to be sitting around home. That’s why we enjoy this even though it’s a lot of work. We wouldn’t want to sit and watch television day and night doing nothing. Now, my father’s going on 101 and he worked here in the store until he was 99, getting cardboard from a nearby furniture store and making boxes and doing a lot of book work. I think of retiring someday. But you start thinking about it, what are you going to do with all this stuff?” He stops to laugh again. “But we’ll probably donate a lot of it. Benedikt wants to donate some good stuff to Juilliard or set up a scholarship or something — that’d be a good idea.”
It is the second marriage for both of them. Benedikt received her music training at Juilliard School of Music in New York with a double major in piano and clarinet. Then she taught music at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, before moving to Los Angeles, where she was active in performance for some years — orchestra, opera, and chamber music — establishing a woodwind quintet, the Brentwoodwinds, and receiving two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. She came to San Diego in 1982. A dark-haired, attractive woman, Benedikt has the seriousness and formality of a concert musician.
As I follow Salmon he keeps up a steady commentary on different singers, operas, opera houses, conductors, performances, how two or more singers might sing a particular role. Some of the singers are familiar to me, most aren’t. I recognize the names of most of the operas, but I know practically none of the recordings.
One of the singers he keeps mentioning is Chaliapin. I don’t know the name. It sounds like an Indonesian pork-and-pineapple dish. Soon I learn that Fyodor Chaliapin was a Russian bass born in a slum in Kazan in 1873. A handsome man, well over six feet, who had practically no opera training (four months) but who sang in choirs and choruses before landing in provincial opera when he was 20. He became the most famous of all basses, a famous actor and the man who was probably most responsible for making Russian opera popular in the West — especially Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. He died in Paris in 1938. I say all this because he comes back later.
Salmon leads me into a windowless room with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with 78s that reminds me of a woodshed. He points to one 15-foot shelf.
“Those are all Caruso 78s. People think Caruso recordings are rare.” He gives a philosophical grin and shrugs. “When you play a Caruso record on an early phonograph meant to play those records, the voice comes out like thunder. It’s a sound that can’t be duplicated when they do it electronically. For example, rca experimented in the ’40s. What they did was they took Caruso’s voice and isolated the voice from the Mickey Mouse–type band orchestra that he had in the acoustic days and they put it with a symphony and the results weren’t very good. We have a lot of early phonographs at home and I’ve got a 1905 Victor with a wood horn and you play these old records on there and it’s just like they’re alive, just like night and day compared to the electronic ones they put out. Then you really hear how these 78s are supposed to sound.”
Later Salmon showed me a 1917 signed portrait of Caruso. He also has watercolors painted by Caruso. As he showed me the portrait, he told me the story of how Caruso’s mistress, the mother of his children, ran off with Caruso’s chauffeur.
Salmon continues along, half talking to me, half talking to himself, regretting the lack of room, how every space was full, how there wasn’t enough time. He points out the vast variety of recordings and books, the popular stuff, the early jazz and ragtime; 1/4-inch-thick records from 1915 with embossed labels; he digs through boxes; digs back through shelves; dust is disturbed; we sneeze. In one room are 20,000 jazz records. He shows me some forgeries that snuck by him.
“The worst thing was this signed photograph of Charlie Parker is in a 1956 magazine, but Parker died in 1955. So you know that’s wrong. And we had another one, a Glenn Miller, but he was lost when his plane went down in 1944 and this was a 1945 magazine. So we got taken. We got our money back though. We spent $4500 on this junk. So even if you’re an expert, so-called, you can be taken.” He laughs.
What is astonishing to me are the connections in his mind, all the pieces of musical knowledge, differences between singers’ voices, singing styles, composing styles, directing styles, the sound of one opera hall compared to another, going back in time — how far? Salmon speaks of the different singers, their different abilities and different roles with the knowledge and familiarity of a pianist touching the different keys.
He waves a hand at the bookshelves.
“I’ve read them all. My collection of books at home is fantastic — in all languages. I’ve made myself knowledgeable to the extent to where I can get the gist of it in Italian and French. I have a lot of Russian books, I’ve learned the Cyrillic alphabet; I can figure it out. These are things you’ll never see anywhere. I’ve never taught any courses, but I’ve done a lot of radio programs where I’d bring an old phonograph and early records.” He pauses to dig into a box and pulls out a black tube. “Now these are cylinders, four-minute cylinders. Edison’s first wax cylinders, which he patented in 1892, were two-minute cylinders. But Edison always improved the machine so you didn’t have to buy a new one. You could put attachments on in order to play the new technology. These four-minute cylinders were made of celluloid with an asbestos lining. Edison went out of business in 1929, and he was always convinced that the cylinder was the best way to reproduce music and his theory was — and it’s correct — that the cylinder going at 120 rpm has far less distortion.”
Salmon pauses again. “But opera to just listen to it on a record is not complete theater. You have to see it. And that’s why you can’t judge a singer by the recordings. You have to hear him on the stage. They can make his voice sound ten times bigger than it is by twisting a dial. That’s why many times I was disappointed in a singer, because I’d listen to his records, then I’d hear him at the theater and it would be a letdown.”
I ask Salmon about his favorite opera, and he talks about his love of Verdi, settling on Otello as his favorite. And what would be his dream cast?
“I think for sure I’d take the tenor that Verdi chose for the first performance at La Scala in 1887 — Francesco Tamagno. And then the soprano, I’d take Romilda Pantaleoni, who was the original. I think you’d have to go back to the people who Verdi himself chose as the greatest interpreters of the time. That’s not to say there aren’t great singers now. I saw Mario Del Monaco three times in Otello. He sang at the Met from 1951 to 1959. He was irresistible. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. He was so fantastic an actor, and the voice was the right kind for Otello. It just rang out. You could put a thousand-instrument orchestra with him and he could still be heard. It was just that kind of a voice. He was handsome, too, a very good-looking man. Even his curtain calls were exciting. He’d have that dark makeup on, and he’d bare his teeth with that big smile. He’d knock you over.” Salmon laughs. “But my favorite tenor would have to be Nicolai Gedda. You heard of him? He’s number one — he sings all styles with a lot of conviction. He has a fantastic top register. And he’s a linguist. He’s fluent in about nine languages, very intelligent singer, very artistic. I saw him in Tales of Hoffmann, among others. He’s made more recordings than any other tenor who’s ever lived. And he’s still performing and he’s 73 years old. We corresponded for years and every time he did a new role he sent me a picture.”
There were more stories, more singers and performances. I had the sense of the crowded rooms as being filled with ghosts and silent music. And there was a melancholy to the rooms — just the fact they were empty and dusty, the fact of these two elderly people with their vast body of knowledge and only one another to share it with and, of course, the thousands they deal with through the mail or over the Internet.
As we are walking out, Salmon gestures to another room crowded with shelves and boxes, which, he says, at one point he had hoped to turn into a little coffee shop.
“I had visions of having little, like, soirees in here, you know, where people could sit and talk about records and all that. It just never happened. Nobody’s interested. San Diego’s the wrong sort of town. If this store was in New York, we’d be really swamped with business. I know that, but I wouldn’t want to live in New York. San Diego’s filled with theaters, but there’re no people who are collectors or who listen to music. And most people go to the opera for the spectacle and in order to be seen.”
I buy an autobiography of Chaliapin, the Russian bass with the Indonesian-food-dish name. He carried two pistols in his suitcases at all times. Women found him irresistible.
One of the opera lovers I meet, a psychologist with Kaiser Permanente, tells me that he had had his understanding of opera polished and sharpened by a man who taught a class in opera at the Athenaeum in La Jolla, a man who seemed to know everything about opera and whose passion had ignited within his students a passion of their own. The teacher’s name is Stanley Walens, and within several days I’m driving out to Walens’s house in University City in my Hertz Malibu, along curving and hilly residential streets lined with eucalyptus, palm, and hibiscus. Solitary retirees sit on lawn chairs in the shadowy openings of their attached garages, sipping cold drinks and staring out at the street. They look worse than bored. Maybe they need Otello, maybe Chaliapin.
“I think there are two things that people wish they could do,” Walens tells me. “One is write. A lot of people can write, but almost everybody wishes they could write. And the other is that I think that everybody wishes they could sing. What person wouldn’t want to be an opera star if they didn’t have to work to do it? Because singing is so erotic and so central to our being and so pleasurable to hear and imagine.”
We sit on the rug in Walens’s shadowy living room. He’s on the rug because of his bad back; I’m on the rug because it seems rude to sit higher than one’s host — something like that. A small dog is running around. The curtains are drawn. One wall is filled with shelves of records, more records fill other rooms. Walens is a tall, slightly heavy 50-year-old man who looks ten years younger. The name of his course at the La Jolla Athenaeum was “Why there aren’t any opera singers I listen to today and why I have so much fun listening to 78s and replications of 78s,” which is something of a tease because, as I learn, there are plenty of “post-78” singers that he listens to. Still, he likes the older singers.
“When you can adjust your head to the sound problems of the 78 recording medium,” Walens says, “there are singers available only on 78s or on transfers to LPs or CDs who are so amazing that no one in the last 25 years comes close to them. There are several reasons for this. One is that opera houses have changed size. The opera house at the beginning of the 20th Century held about 1000 people, and a big house held about 1500. The smallest opera house you can find now holds about 3000. The Met holds 4000 — basically the size of a city block. You’re asking one person to create a sound that fills the cubic space of a building that’s seven or eight stories high and a block long. The sheer energy and focus the voice needs to fill that space and the kind of activity you need to make that kind of sound is so different from what people had to do a century ago that the quality is often lowered. I don’t mean there aren’t good singers today, but that the nature of singing has changed, and I don’t find the kind of lyricism that one can achieve when singing with a big voice as beautiful as the kind of lyricism one could achieve a century ago when one only had to fill a house that was only half a block long and half a block wide.
“There’s a constant loss of the past, and I celebrate that past every time I listen to a singer from the 1910s. When you hear these recordings, you wake up to this incredible cultural legacy that’s all but irrelevant to modern life. Yet the power of beautiful art never diminishes or loses its ability to change us. I love the fact that on these CDs, LPs, and 78s you have all these lost voices as if these recordings were the repositories for the last bit of culture in a world where people think only the new should survive. I think Americans yearn for voices from the past, whether they are Frank Sinatra songs or for Joe DiMaggio. And maybe because of an Athenaeum class someone will want to go back and listen to a Caruso recording, to hear a voice that they can’t believe can give them that much pleasure. Caruso made about 260 recordings, and I’ve listened to about 80. This man had the most amazingly versatile voice I’ve ever heard. It changes tones and character. It has a lot of overtones so it sounds really rich. He has a real sense of freedom, of naturalness; that is, he’s able to make the language that he sings seem much more conversational, like actual speech.
“For me, what makes opera amazing and different from any other art form is this power of acting combined with the rush of music. Opera is a completely artificial art form and it’s a complete abandonment of the self to something you’re feeling — it’s like doing a gigantic religious ritual. It’s also a ritual that has transformatory powers, like the rituals of the Northwest Indians who I’ve studied — it’s capable of changing you.”
Walens grew up in Philadelphia and first began listening to opera on the car radio as he was being driven to and from music school on Saturday afternoons — the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts from New York.
“I can remember some basic dates. I can remember when I first heard La Bohème and I remember the day that the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad died [December 7, 1962]. It was a strange day and the announcer, Milton Cross, was very upset. I was 14. No one I knew listened to opera. My friends didn’t listen to it. They listened to pop singers — Eddie Fisher and Frankie Avalon, who was a Philadelphia boy. And I just didn’t. I would go inside on Saturdays and listen to the radio. We had one of these tiny little radios with terrible sound, but it was a different world. I didn’t know anything about opera history or vocal production. I just thought it was something nice. But I also remember when they started broadcasting opera on TV in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The Met did a number of small broadcasts. The one I remember best was sections of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov with Giorgio Tozzi. I thought that was an astonishing opera. It’s still one of my favorites. Then in the early ’60s the Bayreuth Festival in Germany began broadcasting Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung during the summer. I look back and think what was it like to be 14 in 1962 and spend five hours listening to an opera at a Formica table, to a plastic radio — it must have been really strange. I just got hooked on Wagner immediately.
“Then in high school I went to my first opera performance—Wagner’s Tannhäuser, done by a company in Philadelphia. It was so dismal, so 19th-century. The scenery was flats and little painted rocks and the actors just stood there and faced the conductor. The costumes were nice enough, but there wasn’t a moment of insight or drama. Everything I’d thought about opera from hearing it on the radio, about what it should look like and how it could be the most amazing dramatic form was not present on the stage. But soon afterward I saw Wagner’s Die Walküre with Jon Vickers and he tore through that paper scenery like mad. That was the first inkling I got that opera could be in performance what I’d imagined. Vickers was this incredible, cosmic force. He almost hammed everything up. Everything was so intense and so dramatic that you were swept away by what he was doing every moment. I’d gone to the theater many times, and I’d never seen anyone act like that.
“There’s a fundamental difference between the emotional experience of listening to singing and the emotional experience of hearing the singing of a great actor. I also think that opera is an art form so powerful that I’ve never seen anything on a dramatic stage as transforming as an opera can be, that I’ve never come out of a play feeling so utterly moved that I realize I’m not going to be the same person ever again. But many times I’ve come out of opera houses thinking the performance has changed me in some fashion. In the years when I discovered Wagner I was also reading German Romantic philosophy: the idea of art as something that transcends life, the idea of creating a ritual performance so great that everyone who perceives it is transformed. But I also know that what I liked about Wagner as a young man was the groundbreaking aspects of his music, of doing something so incredibly original that you can’t imagine where it came from.”
Walens’s passion led him to other composers — Richard Strauss and Puccini. He went to Haverford College outside of Philadelphia and bought dozens of operas at estate sales around the city. And he read about the composers and studied the music, while his own musical training branched out in all directions. At music school he had studied the percussion instruments, then the cello. In college he learned the string bass, viola, and trombone. But instead of music, he had taken a degree in anthropology, receiving his Ph.D. from Northwestern University and joining the anthropology department as ucsd in 1982. For the past six years he has been assistant editor of the journal Philosophy of Science.
I had with him the sense I had with Bob Salmon — that he couldn’t listen to a piece of music without this huge linking to thousands of other pieces of music and to history itself — his own and the history of the medium, all the variations of sound and emotion — so that certain signature notes, perhaps only two or three, could awake in him a vast body of association. He seemed to have an intimate knowledge of hundreds of 20th-century voices — how each performer sang in dozens of operas, in dozens of different performances, and how each performer produced his or her particular sound, its psychological and spiritual and physical effects, its historical connections, its dramatic range, all its various nuances, so that in listening to one note there is this whole body of other information trailing behind it.
As Walens talks about singers who were important to him he mentions someone I had heard about from Bob Salmon.
“After I saw Giorgio Tozzi in Boris Godunov, the first voice I came to know was Chaliapin. His influence on our culture is truly amazing, because he changed acting from the 19th- to the 20th-century fashion. Early on he realized when he sang Mephistopheles in Faust that he was just doing kind of cartoonish devil things, just posturing. So he decided he would make Mephistopheles an entire person with motivations and a character. And they say his performance of Mephistopheles was astonishing. I remember reading stories about him in Boris Godunov when he would supposedly see the ghost of the murdered child-czar in a corner and he would be so intent at looking at the ghost that at times the audience would stand up to see what was in the corner or the orchestra would stop playing because the conductor was looking in that corner as well. And I remember reading an autobiography by Konstantin Stanislavsky where somebody had asked Stanislavsky how did you come up with this method of acting that completely revolutionized how plays were performed and he said, ‘All I did was watch Chaliapin and I wrote down what he did.’ So for me, Chaliapin really is the person who changed 20th-century acting to be character-based and to be so intense and so thought through that it moves away from the posturing of the 18th and 19th Century and into a kind of naturalism that we now accept as what acting should be about. And that’s the kind of intensity that I always liked about opera — someone so engrossed that they carry you away with them.”
Walens pauses to find a recording from 1932 of Chaliapin singing what is called “the clock scene” from Boris Godunov. Boris, who has seized the throne by having the child-czar Dimitri killed, is filled with dread when he learns that Dimitri apparently still lives and is approaching Moscow with an army. The scene begins with Boris beginning to sing, “I feel horrible, let me catch my breath.” Then the cellos imitate the ticking of the clock that is also the beating of Boris’s terrified heart. Even though the language is Russian and the recording 70 years old there is no doubt about the singer’s passion and terror, which builds and builds until Boris cries out, “Before my eyes…the child in blood! There, over there in the corner… It’s swaying, growing.…”
The great English philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who died two years ago, was taken by his parents to see Boris Godunov with Chaliapin performed in St. Petersburg in 1916. Berlin was seven years old. He described the scene when Boris sees the ghost of Dimitri. “Chaliapin seemed physically to contract as he clutched the tablecloth of the table on the extreme left of the stage, behind which he stood. His features contorted, and his voice in some miraculous fashion seemed at the same time to sing magnificently while sounding distorted and strangled. He gradually disappeared or nearly so, behind and underneath the table, half pulling the tablecloth over himself. The whole thing was most terrifyingly hypnotic. I don’t think that at that age I could have known what was being represented, only that a huge, magnificently dressed man was going through an agony of terror or some abnormal or very frightening condition. His dilated eyes and the violent, twisted, continuously expressive miming remain with me to this day. He was certainly the greatest actor that I’ve ever seen.”
There is a common error about literature and art in general that its point is its answer — that a poem’s point is its meaning, that a mystery novel’s point is the secret of who committed the crime, that the opera’s point is the sum of its music — whereas actually it is the whole experience — that the poem’s meaning is only part of the entire experience of the poem; that in a good suspense novel the secret of the criminal’s identity is just one benefit among many; that music is not the point of the opera but just one of many strands, though the most expressive.
“One of the things I had trouble with in American schools,” Walens tells me, “was that when you were taught to interpret a novel you were taught to see what was on the surface — what does Tom Sawyer say, what does he mean. You can’t do that in opera, because no matter what the character is saying, there are 104 characters in the orchestra saying something at the same time. You can’t listen to Wagner and not know there’s always a dialog between what the singer is saying and what’s going on in the orchestra pit. For me, that was not only my main entrance to opera but also the world of interpretation and the realization that things are more complicated than they seem.”
It is this emphasis on opera as a coming together of many different elements that is a major reason that Walens, and others I spoke to, put such stress on the dramatic. To care little about dramatic ability is to ignore one of opera’s strongest effects. This became most apparent when we were talking about actual singers.
“For me, the popular singer who I don’t care for is Pavarotti,” says Walens. “He has the most physically gorgeous instrument of our time and gorgeous word production, but he might as well be saying, ‘I can’t find my toenail clipper, where did I put it’ as ‘You’re the woman of my dreams, I can never live without you, I’m going to jump off this cliff’ or whatever. He has no emotional center. On the other hand, I think Plácido Domingo is the finest tenor we have today because he puts everything into what he does. Even though his voice isn’t quite as beautiful as Pavarotti’s. You hear opera lovers quarreling about these two tenors all the time. I really expect an opera singer to do more than just sing beautifully.”
Walens calls this “a real breakdown in opera lovers’ camps” — those people who care only about voice production and those who want the dramatic. Among sopranos the comparison is often made between Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, who were nearly the same age and sang many of the same roles — Callas dramatic, passionate, and tempestuous onstage and off, endlessly controversial; Sutherland statuesque, dignified, nondramatic, with great purity of tone but who has been accused of never singing a consonant in her life.
Talking about Callas, Scott Sikon had told me, “She wasn’t always making pretty sounds, but that’s not always what opera’s about.”
“People who only care about sound,” Walens tells me, “would choose Sutherland over Maria Callas in Norma [Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 opera about a Druid priestess] every time, but when I hear Maria Callas in Norma I think this is a woman in torment. She’s made a big mistake and she’s going to have to live with the consequences. When I saw Joan Sutherland in Norma it was just — ‘I can sing this, I can walk around the stage and I won’t miss a note.’ Sutherland had a beautiful flowing tone, but she might as well have been playing the oboe. And I never cared for one minute that I was listening to Norma.”
A few days later I speak with opera critic David Gregson, who tells me that seeing Callas singing Norma at the Met when he was a teenager “hooked me for life.” Gregson writes about the performing arts for San Diego Magazine, Microsoft’s San Diego Sidewalk website, and Opera West. He’s written about the local performing arts scene since 1968.
“Callas fans, of which I count myself one, tend to be more interested in theatrical presence, the excitement and drama, than the vocal purity. That’s what I like — I like to be excited, I like to be moved, stirred, I like to be thrilled. And there are times when a little pure soprano with her chirping sound, her birdlike voice, can do it for me a little bit, but I prefer these divas that churn up a lot of excitement. As for Sutherland, she was rather a bumpkin onstage. She had a great voice, but you never knew what she was talking about and her acting was so minimal you hadn’t a clue what the dilemma of the diva was. But I’ll tell you when I first saw Lucia di Lammermoor [Donizetti’s 1835 opera about betrayal, madness, murder, and suicide in a Scottish setting] it was with Maria Callas at the Met. I was so thrilled I thought I’d die. I didn’t know the opera very well, but I knew what the story was from beginning to end because Callas made you know what the story was. Many years later I heard Joan Sutherland in the same role, and I had to keep checking the libretto to see what was going on because I hadn’t a clue. It was all very pretty, but I had no idea what emotion was being expressed, whether anger or disappointed love or what.”
The pleasure of speaking with Bob Salmon or Stanley Walens or Gregson is the pleasure of speaking with someone who has a passion — they feel they have dedicated their lives to something larger than themselves and they believe it has been worth it. They have been paid back a thousandfold. Over a ten-day period I talk to a number of other people about opera — some briefly and some at length. I ask a middle-aged man with candy-striped Bermuda shorts looking in the window of a T-shirt shop in Coronado.
“What’s opera — that screeching that rich people pretend to like?” he asks.
Then I ask a meter maid down by the Civic Theatre before she can give me a ticket.
“Opera? I never listen to it, don’t have the time. Besides, it makes me jittery.”
I buy some film at a drugstore and ask the man behind the counter about opera.
“I knew a gay guy who loved it. Maybe it’s, like, you know…maybe it appeals to a gay audience.”
But I also found many who liked it. For instance, a young college couple at Tower Records with $40 trying to decide between Verdi’s Falstaff and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann with the woman saying, “But we already have two Verdi operas and Hoffmann has a windup doll.…” And the man says, “Only jerks fall in love with windup dolls.”
Then I run into a man on the beach in Coronado who listens to Puccini’s Tosca on his Walkman because the music seems to harmonize with the waves.
I learn about a mailman who listens to opera as he makes his daily rounds and a man who lives in or around Oceanside whose house is virtually held up by opera records and who claims to have every opera record ever made. Bob Salmon is indignant. “Nobody has every record. You’re always finding more.”
But the more I learn, the more I become interested in opera’s impact in San Diego. Certainly, the San Diego Opera is a big affair — after all, 60,000 tickets were sold in 1999 — but how many people go for the spectacle; how important, in fact, is the music? And I recall Salmon’s remark that people go to the San Diego Opera in order to be seen.
So I talk to Mitchell Lathrop, a San Diego lawyer who is a member of the board of directors of both the San Diego Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and I ask him why opera isn’t more popular in San Diego.
“Because they don’t understand it and don’t take the time to understand it.” Lathrop gives a jolly chuckle. “I think if you expose people to opera at a young age and you give them the right one, then that works. I mean, taking somebody to Wagner’s Parsifal for their first opera would be a mistake, unless he’s a trained musician before he got there, which is unlikely. On the other hand, something like La Bohème is perfect. Its music is lovely. I took my daughter to La Bohème when she was two weeks short of being two years old and she actually made it all the way through.” Lathrop chuckles again.
“But out here we have to build an audience. For one thing, we don’t have as many music schools and San Diego isn’t really considered a focus of long-term musical training and education. Plus, we have an awful lot of competing interests. We’ve got the weather, we’ve got the beaches, we’ve got sports. And granted a city the size of New York has a lot of competing interests, but opera has more of a tradition in places like New York, Boston, Chicago — places where they have these great music schools that have been part of the culture for a very long time.”
Lathrop was brought up in New York and his parents took him to opera when he was very young. “I was a pianist when I was a boy,” he tells me. “I started studying music when I was about four years old, and I performed semiprofessionally until it became time to go to college. It was a question of Juilliard or Annapolis. A weird combination, but I wound up going to Annapolis and that was pretty much the end of my piano career.”
Lathrop came out to San Diego in 1975 and became active in the opera right away. He talks about his experiences, his passion for Wagner and Romantic opera. The singers that he loves and performances he remembers. He describes a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Met in February, 1976, with Jess Thomas and Birgit Nilsson as the greatest performance he has ever seen, and I think how ephemeral it all is, since Lathrop has seen well over a hundred operas and mixed with all the others is this memory of a particular shining experience nearly 25 years ago. “Everything was special about it — the artistry of the principal performers, the production itself, which has got to be one of the greatest things the Met ever did, the orchestra, the entire package.”
That’s a term others have used — the entire package — and it’s how Lathrop describes what he loves about opera. “The combination of the music, the voice, the story, the emotional power of the stories, even though it’s how they’re portrayed, how those human emotions come across, combined with the lighting, the sets, the entire package — I think it’s a magnificent art form. But primarily the emotional impact of the total production.”
And for San Diego the entire package is especially necessary because it makes the opera more accessible to the audience. We talk a little about Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas. How would a singer who can’t or doesn’t act be received in San Diego?
“If your voice is great,” says Lathrop, “you could probably get away with it, I think. It depends upon the house. Now, for example, there are things we could get away with in a performance in New York that we couldn’t get away with here. San Diego is more critical of the acting and the physical appearance of the singers. They want a more well-rounded performance in the sense of the interaction between the artists and acting and singing.”
I tell him of a young soprano I saw at the Met who easily weighed 250 pounds.
“That would never sell in San Diego. I mean, we would be killed. Those kinds of things probably vary from region to region. I suppose with the right lighting designer and enough distance you could probably hide some of that weight. And in New York you have so many passionate opera lovers and of course the population’s a lot greater — you always have an audience. If the voice is good enough, then the audience will overlook a lot of the physical characteristics, whereas I doubt that that would happen here.”
So it is difficult to build an audience in San Diego — the singers have to be attractive and dramatic, the sets have to be grand, production values are lowered, the music has to be tuneful — something you can hum on the way out of the theater. That transforming experience so important to opera lovers, doesn’t it become the job of the opera company to try to hand-deliver it, to make you comfortable, to take the pain out of the experience?
But the other way to build an audience is to get at the kids. Someone else I talk to is 16-year-old Jennifer Wright, a junior at EastLake High School. She plays the viola for the EastLake High School string orchestra and also for the Sweetwater Union High School District orchestra. When Jennifer was nine, she and her Girl Scout troop went to see the San Diego Opera’s production of The Barber of Seville as part of the opera’s educational program for students. She speaks with a breathless quality, a mix of enthusiasm and shyness that sends the words tumbling out of her mouth.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“But it wasn’t really until I saw Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers about two or three seasons ago at the San Diego Opera that I became a total opera freak and really started to appreciate opera and understand it more. I think that taking students to the opera kind of plants them in there and if they like it, then they carry it on for the rest of their lives. I know I will. And my best friend, who’s a violist in her high school orchestra in Oklahoma, she was in the Girl Scout troop too and she loves opera too. And last season our orchestra went to see Così fan tutte and Of Mice and Men in the special program for students.”
The introduction to a few operas led Jennifer to explore others.
“I like going to the opera, that’s the best part, going to see it live after watching it on TV or a video, to actually go and experience it. I love the operas of Mozart and Rossini and Puccini. My favorite is Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers. Then Mozart’s Magic Flute. Even though you can’t understand the plot, the music is wonderful. To me, I love music more than anything, so I’d rather see an opera than a movie because it has a story set to music and it’s always the best music. Even if you see a movie scored by John Williams, like Star Wars, he’s still no Mozart. I like a good comic opera, but I also like dramatic opera. Puccini’s Tosca is a really good example of dramatic opera and it has the most wonderful music and it makes me feel wonderful even though the story is sad and tragic and wild, but it’s wonderful to be able to hear it and understand it, to hear the emotion expressed by the characters, for the music and story to actually fit perfectly. It makes me very happy to hear that. I’m afraid I can’t explain it that well, but I definitely feel swept away by it. You know the final scene in Mozart’s Don Giovanni when Don Giovanni is pulled down into hell? That part always makes me shiver, because the music’s so intense and if you see it all onstage, that even intensifies the effect. And the flames are shooting up and the hole opens up in the stage. I love that. Nah, he deserved it. I’m excited because it’s coming to the San Diego Opera and I hope to go see it. So far I’ve only seen it on video. My dad gets them from the Coronado library that has a good selection of opera videos.”
Jennifer talks about operas she hopes to see, favorite singers, her plans to become a composition major at San Diego State, even the opera she hopes to write.
“Right now, I have a few piano sketches and I’m working on the libretto. It has tragic themes, but it’ll have a lot of comedy in it. It’s a fantasy story which takes place on some island that’s made up and which has a monarchy.”
Her plans make me dizzy, but they are also exciting — the plans of a person with her entire life ahead of her. I ask if her fellow students ever find her being an opera freak a trifle peculiar.
“I don’t think anybody in my school thinks I’m crazy for liking opera. I think they’ve accepted it. When I was a sophomore I liked to take my viola and just start playing in the middle of the school campus — maybe Glinka or Telemann. Some people would look at me funny and some would throw me quarters, but everybody pretty much knows who I am by now. Nobody ever gives me a hard time about it, they just know that’s me.”
One last anecdote. In July I happened to be in St. Petersburg, Russia, teaching a poetry class for two weeks to a group of American students who preferred studying poetry in Russia than in the United States. I saw two operas at the Mariinsky Theatre, where Chaliapin had sung: Verdi’s Rigoletto sung in Russian and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Amazing productions but dusty since the opera has been on short rations since the fall of the Soviets.
Before leaving St. Petersburg I went to the Chaliapin Museum in his old apartment filled with his furniture, clothing, books, paintings, costumes — all the memorabilia from his many roles but especially from Boris Godunov. Next to Chaliapin’s bed were his fur slippers, on the bedside table was the book he apparently had been reading — as if he meant to return that night. On one wall was a large photograph of his funeral in Paris in 1938 with the streets full of several thousand people.
After I had wandered through the rooms — I was the only visitor — the elderly woman caretaker led me into a small recital hall next to Chaliapin’s bedroom and put on a recording of Chaliapin singing Boris from over 70 years ago. First came the cellos as the clock struck back and forth, then Boris’s death scene, felled by a heart attack, half-mad as the false Dimitri nears Moscow with his army. It was a live performance and we could hear Chaliapin groan, cry, “Forgive me, forgive me,” then stumble, fall to the floor of the stage. The woman stood by the door with her hand to her throat weeping. On the recording, women were also weeping. There was a rising swell on the basses to the cellos, then to the violas and violins as Boris’s soul departed from his body. The music came to an end. Neither the woman nor I knew a word of one another’s language. In any case, I felt too full of the music to speak. The woman wiped her eyes. We nodded to one another.