You may hate it. SFO founding father John Crosby would probably be aghast at all that flashy plastic. But frankly it’s just another sign of change in the company’s image wrought by Crosby’s successor, Richard Gaddes, who retires as SFO general director after this season (and whose first time at the SFO was at its inaugural production: The Rake’s Progress in July 1957. Since then, he’s been around for, at a rough count, 219 SFO productions of 117 operas).
Under Gaddes’ leadership the company remains in solid financial shape; its repertory is, if anything, more adventurous than ever; vocal and, especially, orchestral standards have reached new heights. And this year’s collaboration with SITE points to perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Gaddes’ SFO tenure: building solid, innovative connections with the local and regional community.
Call it the big thaw. One of Gaddes’ major projects since assuming the directorship in 2000 has been to transform the worn-out image of opera as an exclusive play-pretty for the monied set into a user-friendly medium, especially for New Mexicans. His list of achievements is long. For starters, he’s televised live opera into the parks. He’s lowered some prices. He’s sponsored popular, inexpensive spring mini-operas. He’s made physical access easier. He’s got a film series going. He’s opened the hitherto sacrosanct Crosby Theater to mariachis and Garrison Keillor and Lyle Lovett, among others.
As always, there’s plenty to talk about with the affable Gaddes, who sat cucumber cool last week amid the maze of corridors and stairways at the San Juan Ranch, SFO’s command central. He looks fit as usual. (“Fifteen years at the gym, three days a week.”) He’s happy about how the season’s shaping up. (“We’ve already sold, two weeks before opening, 82 percent of the house. That’s a record.”) He’s delighted with the company. (“We’ve got something like 675 people on the payroll this summer.”)
On the season opener, Verdi’s late, great comedy, Falstaff, Gaddes comments that “we’re lucky to have conductor Paolo Arrivabeni making his American debut. We’ve been trying to get him here for years. Everybody loves him.” The long, lithe bass-baritone Laurent Naouri climbs into a fat-suit for the first four readings of the title role. Anthony Michaels-Moore takes over for the remaining six performances.
Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro holds the record for SFO’s most-often-produced opera: 15 outings since the company’s founding in 1957. This summer makes the 16th with, potentially, a dream cast. Still, decades of experience in the opera house lead Gaddes to caution: “You get it all together. You’re sure you’ve got a winner lined up. And then in this business, you pray that nothing awful happens.” Long-timer Kenneth Montgomery promises to lead a generously scaled account of Mozart’s magical score.
After the remarkable Peter Grimes three years ago, this summer the SFO mounts Britten’s anguished contest between the angelic and demonic, Billy Budd, with company newcomer, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, in the title role. Gaddes adds, “You couldn’t ask for a nicer guy and a better Billy.” Rumor hints that the binoculars will be out for his bare-chested performance. Newly appointed chief conductor Edo de Waart makes a long-awaited, welcome return to the SFO pit.
The company was an early champion for baroque opera in the US, with Raymond Leppard leading Cavalli’s L’Egisto in 1974. This season a Handel rarity, Radamisto, becomes the fifth of that composer’s works to enter the SFO repertory, with acclaimed countertenor, David Daniels, in the title role. Baroque specialist Harry Bicket leads the proceedings with, admittedly, a somewhat abbreviated account of Handel’s ample score. Audiences should be in their beds long before sunrise.
Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin made a profound impression at its American premiere here six years ago. Peter Sellars returns to direct her harrowing chronicle of rape, childbirth, war and compassion, Adriana Mater, in the revised version first heard at the Finnish Opera last February. Ernest Martínez Izquierdo conducts this American premiere, a complex score fusing Saariaho’s large orchestra with soloists, offstage chorus and IRCAM-inspired electronic music.
Gaddes thinks it is “in many ways the most challenging premiere we’ve done during my tenure.” The New Yorker’s Alex Ross commented on the Paris premiere in 2006 that by the conclusion, “The feeling of resolution is immense. It is a stupendous ending, all the more so for taking the audience out of darkness into light.”
Just think about it, please. Isn’t that what the greatest operas are all about, anyway?