Opera on the rocks


SF Opera General Director David Gockley takes it on the chin – and the face – from Music Director Nicola Luisotti.

As buckets of ice water pummeled San Francisco Opera senior staff in response to the ALS challenge, my colleague Martha Chesley remarked that this was a great example of harnessing the internet for a good cause (ALS research, that is – not dowsing our esteemed colleagues). But, as with any facet of technology (such as nuclear physics) or system of thought (such as religion), the internet can serve purposes good and bad – witness the recent trolling of Robin Williams’s daughter, or the tragedy of Tyler Clementi. It’s not the medium, it’s the messenger.

This can be true of the arts, as well. Martial music has been used to spur combatants to glory and the grave (taranatara!). Research points to harmful effects of violent video games; misogynistic rap lyrics may perpetuate heinous attitudes toward women.

Kazuo Ishiguro, best known for The Remains of the Day, examines this double edge in An Artist of the Floating World, a poignant novel recounting the life of a fictional Japanese nationalist painter in the aftermath of World War II.

Censorship is not the answer. Freedom of ideas and expression is essential to personal and social development. But it’s ever more important to be able to make critical judgments amidst a deluge of images and information.

Arts education is ideally suited for promoting just this kind of discriminating thought. Great works of art revel in ambiguity, present new perspectives, and cultivate our ability to “hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald cited as a benchmark of intelligence. Like a cold shower, the arts have the power to shock us into new realizations. As we navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of cyberspace, arts education and the habits of mind it stimulates are needed more than ever.

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Cognitive Dissonance

One of my favorite reports from the field came some years ago from an artist teaching basic music to a 4th grade class:

Artist: So if consonance means the notes sound stable and match, what do we call it when notes go against each other and sound unstable or clash?

Eager student:  Incontinence?

Mistakes are essential to growth, and teachers strive to create an atmosphere where students can err without embarrassment. As educators, we want space for intellectual risk, which often comes with emotional and social risk, as well. Particularly in the arts, we encourage pushing the envelope of convention and daring a plunge into new frontiers.

I fear, however, our society is increasingly intolerant of teachers or schools that take such risks.


The 2008 Opera à la Carte production of La Bohème toured 125 schools.

Each year, San Francisco Opera Guild mounts a 45-minute English-language version of a classic opera with professional singers under the banner of Opera à la Carte. Students perform specially designed speaking roles and choral parts. Last year’s Barber of Seville toured 105 schools across the Bay Area. This year it’s La Bohème, and word is that some teachers are reluctant to present a work ending with the death of the central character. I have pointed out – not entirely in jest – that this provides a teachable moment about the effects of an inadequate health care system.

But whether it be life and death, love and loss, revenge, adultery, murder – any of the common themes in our great operas – isn’t the educational environment exactly the place where we want young people to have the opportunity to explore their beliefs, fears, and hopes? And don’t the arts provide the perfect context for this?

I’m reminded of many a wonderful project provided by arts educators to help students deal with strong emotions in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. I also think of Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment wherein the great child psychologist argues that the violence of fairy tales provides a framework for children to master anxieties. Did you know that in the original Snow White the evil Queen devours what she believes is her daughter’s heart?

Disneyfication is a psychological equivalent to over-sanitization of our physical environment, which many scientists believe has helped lead to the recent rise in asthma and allergies. I urge us to give schools and teachers more license to take risks in presenting challenging works of art and literature that present difficult themes in appropriately sensitive ways. And letting our kids frolic in the mud once in a while might be a good thing, too.


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The Calculus of Joy


A student performs in an Opera à la Carte school production.

A committed teacher writes for help in advocating for the field trips and visits from professional performers that our programs provide: “I am struggling to remove my emotional self from the conversation and stick to the educational value. Yet I fear that after all these years of selling the arts, I am a bit battle fatigued.”

With decades of experience and research behind us, we still struggle to justify robust arts education programs. Sandra Ruppert, Executive Director of the Arts Education Partnership, a national research and advocacy organization, cites “a ‘policy paradox’ of strong policies for the arts in education at the state level but weak implementation of those same policies at the school level. “ So often, I find that serious inclusion of arts is a grass roots phenomenon – the efforts of particular teachers, parents, and school leaders with strong convictions.

We live in a world of data, testing, standards – and failing schools. Schools are now being asked to reorganize around Common Core Standards. Arts educators see this as a positive development, since higher-level thinking skills embedded in Common Core dovetail so well with what we do.  Yet, when I approached a group of teachers a few years back with an arts project designed to help implement Common Core, they pleaded with me to have the program as a break from standards, saying that they and their students needed a breath of air.

Our work in arts learning can and must be assessed in ways meaningful and convincing to educators and the larger community. But then there are the things that remain – ephemeral, elusive to easy capture – often just the qualities that make the arts a breath of air.  As Albert Einstein once said “not everything that counts can be counted.”

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E pluribus vocibus unum

It’s a feature unique to opera –  three, four, or even seven characters at odds with each other all singing together. Mozart did it brilliantly in the act two finale of The Marriage of Figaro and Verdi in act two of Falstaff (with five simultaneous texts). A cacophony of personalities joined in perfect harmony.

To be sure, teamwork is key in the performing arts, as it is in sports. But when they say, “there are no small parts, only small actors,” it’s because we must bring everything we are as individuals to the group endeavor. To be homogenous without first being autonomous is to be like sheep.Pirsig quote

Robert M. Pirsig was wise in this regard.  The smallest action, done with intent and care, can be a masterpiece. This is the core of the artisan movement, where, for example, a single cup of coffee is prepared with great precision (and at a precious price point).  Sing a simple song –  but as if your life depends on it.

Opera by definition forges a single work out of many. At San Francisco Opera Guild, our mission “Giving Voice to Potential” suggests that each and every individual has something rare and important to contribute. But contribute we must in the service of a greater whole – in our Summer Conservatory, to the realization of a culminating performance.

Dido and Aeneas, with its ample choruses, group dances, and numerous supporting roles, is fertile ground for individuals to blossom amidst ensemble. Our 24 Conservatory students, who studied and performed Dido this summer, bear witness to this democracy of opera.


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Revel, ye Cupids

We possess amazing faculties – self-awareness, memory, the capacity to imagine the future, the ability to reflect on the past. Yet how extraordinary to cast all these aside and completely lose oneself – for a moment, to really lose one’s self. This can happen in the theatre, and performing artists strive to embody as well as create these experiences in others. Paradoxically, it takes tremendous preparation and discipline.Dido and Aeneas

A highlight of our season at San Francisco Opera Guild has been the annual Summer Conservatory. A group of 24 young people, ages 11 to 18, from around the Bay Area and as far away as San Diego and New York, come seeking a summer program focused on opera. Under the guidance of Caroline Altman, our former Director of Education, students are immersed for three weeks in opera history, singing, acting, and preparing and performing an opera, in this case, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

It’s something very special to Witchsee an ambitious project like this realized by a group of talented young people. Were there ever witches more nefarious, sailors more rowdy, royalty more noble? The level of accomplishment was extraordinary, but what made this production especially moving was to observe the sheer joy of performing, of being in the moment.

Not all these young people arrived here with prior opera experience,  but I wager they all take with them an appreciation of the triumph of beauty that opera, and all the arts, make possible.

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Sheroes after my own heart

I’ve been spending tim6.29.14_SFO_Traviata-6571e with three women this week, cavorting – and catharting – with favorite femmes fatales: Dido, Violetta, and Blanche du Bois.  Hailing from different eras and different cultures, fated in part by society, in part by personal history, each makes a defining moral choice and faces tragic consequences.

I’ve also been visiting with the 24 students in our Summer Conservatory program, who perform Dido and Aeneas this week, and many of whom attended a student dress rehearsal of La Traviata last month.

The SF Opera’s production of La Traviata, beautifully costumed and staged, was notable for Ailyn Perez’s riveting Violetta. Conductor Giuseppe Finzi writes in the program “there is meaning in every single note” as his direction ably demonstrates. The opera spoke forcefully of societal mores and parental control to an audience of 9th graders during a project I led years ago in Connecticut, and evokes similar responses from the teens in our Summer Conservatory.

BlancheMerola Opera’s propulsive Streetcar Named Desire  featured Julie Adams acting up a storm as Blanche. The piece can’t match the power of the original play or iconic film, but the atmospheric production made the most of it and the young singers were superb.

I look forward to what the even younger singers in our Summer Conservatory will make of Dido and Aeneas this Friday. A perfect piece for young performers (Purcell possibly created it for such), with masterful writing and straightforward but deeply-felt emotional content. From what I’ve heard so far, our talented cast, aged 10-18, are more than up to the task, bringing youthful energy and a modern outlook to an ancient classic.

Life may have been short for these operatic heroines, but art, thankfully, remains long for us.

photos: Kristen Loken
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Do people actually still go to the opera?

So asked a twenty-something techie I met one night at dinner (what are the chances of that happening in San Francisco?) A recent Berkeley grad, he was telling me about the job he’d just landed – something to do with big data (or was it big brother?) I went on to explain what I did for a living, and he posed the question above.

SF Opera’s simulcast of La Traviata in the ballpark Saturday attracted a crowd of 26,000. But as reported at the Opera America conference here last month, attendance nationwide has been declining.  Companies have been curtailing schedules or even, in some notable cases, shutting their doors.

We’re all looking for innovative ways to reach new people. The theme of last month’s conference “Audiences Reimagined” invited a record number of opera companies from across the U.S. and Canada to consider ways of increasing civic impact, getting opera out into communities, and engaging new audiences through media and technology.

The internet so often seems an isolating force.  Our ability to access quality audio and video in almost any setting brings the arts to us rather than require we go out to meet it.

But there is nothing like experiencing the arts in public venues for which they were created – the impact it delivers, the focus it enables.  The ephemeral exchange between performers and live audience, the sense of community – we need to relate not only in cyberspace, but in the immediacy of physical space.

Creating audiences of the future is almost always Maxine Greenecited as a main goal for education programs at arts organizations.  I believe our work has a much more significant aim:  to make possible moments of personal discovery and transformation, to “give voice to potential” as the San Francisco Opera Guild’s mission states.  If we can do this, there will always be seekers of great art wherever and however it is to be found.

Audience of the Future

Audience of the Future

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