Opera came early to San Francisco. An adventurous Italian troupe put on productions of Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Norma as well as Verdi’s Ernani in this roisterous boomtown in 1851. By 1860, hundreds of performances had been mounted, almost all of them Italian. The nearest early San Francisco came to German opera were twenty performances (in Italian, of course) of two operas by an Austrian: Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.
The first of Wagner’s Ring operas to be performed in San Francisco was Die Walküre, in 1891 by Emma Juch’s touring opera company. (Miss Juch sang Sieglinde.) It was led by Adolf Neuendorff, a former conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The Chronicle critic was dismayed by the cheesy effects, which he blamed partly on Wagner’s impossible stage directions. About the music, he had mixed feelings. “This is not the most enjoyable form of musical or dramatic art on the stage, but it is great art.” The audience completely filled Morosco’s Grand Opera House on Mission Street near Third, which held 4,000 customers, including standees.
Program cover from the Metropolitan Opera's touring company productions in 1900, which included San Francisco's first Ring cycle.
Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives
In 1900—after trying for five years to pull it off—William Grau, the impresario who produced all operas for the Metropolitan in New York and on tour, managed to bring a complete, all-star Ring to the same venue as the climax of a three-week visit. This involved moving nine train-carloads of scenery and 206 people 3,000 miles to perform twenty operas at $2 to $7 a seat. Conductor Walter Damrosch, who (with his father Leopold) had introduced Wagner to New York, came out early to give a series of recital-demonstrations of the great composer’s operas.
Nellie Melba, the biggest name on the tour, was back for a second year, but not for Wagner. For San Francisco’s first Ring, Grau brought out as Brünnhilde Lilian Nordica (née Norton; the first great American Wagner singer), Johanna Gadski (Sieglinde), Ernestine Schumann-Heink (Fricka, Waltraute, Erda), Ernest Van Dyck (Siegmund, Loge), Andreas Dippel (Siegfried), David Bispham (Alberich, Wotan), and Edouard de Reszke (the Wanderer, Hagen)—the cream of the Met’s German lineup during its first “Golden Age.”
The local critics had grown more sophisticated since 1891. “This is the greatest musical and artistic opportunity ever given in the history of the city,” wrote one. The sets were called “a marvel of mechanical perfection…a masterpiece of scenic art.” “The art of opera has found its highest expression,” wrote a critic for the Call; “fuller, purer, nobler music than we have yet heard even from Wagner himself.” One cranky reviewer found Siegfried to be “puerile, tedious, and exasperatingly dull,” with its “dancing bears and pasteboard dragons.” But his voice was drowned out by the hymns of praise.
San Francisco was very pleased with its own good taste. “After last night [Die Walküre] we need fear no comparison with any American cities outside of New York, not even excepting Boston and the boastful Chicago.” This time around, the newspapers went gaga over the glamour of the boxholders and orchestra-seat swells—”perhaps the most fashionable audience ever drawn to an auditorium in this city.” The Call described the gowns and jewels of 182 society ladies present. A company of policemen held back the commoners who lined Mission Street to stare, and they kept the fine folks’ carriages rolling efficiently in and out.
Satisfied by the ticket sales, Grau brought back a similar company for three weeks the next year. This time he did not repeat the Ring. Instead, he gave the Wagner-infatuated city its first Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, as well as Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, and eleven other operas. Once again, the daily reviews were almost all raves. “It is something worth being able to say we are ‘in it,’ with London, Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and New York. Already, we can look down on Chicago.”
By 1904, Heinrich Conried had taken over as the Met’s impresario and brought San Francisco its first Parsifal, defying Wagner’s edict that this “stage-consecrating festival drama” be performed only at Bayreuth. It sold out three houses, with Nordica alternating as Kundry with Olive Fremstad, and Alois Burgstaller (who had sung the role at Bayreuth) in the lead. In 1905, the new attraction of the Met tour was Enrico Caruso, “the new bright light of the singing world,” who sold out whatever he sang. Once again San Francisco filled up three Parsifals.
Conreid’s 1906 season in San Francisco promised to be equally exciting: sixteen performances of thirteen operas, with Caruso in Carmen and La Bohème, and Fremstad and Louise Homer in both Die Walküre and Siegfried—as “a forerunner of the Wagner revival [of the Ring?] next year,” predicted the Chronicle.
The season opened April 16. On April 17, Caruso sang Don José. At 5:12 the next morning, a large part of San Francisco collapsed. In the three-day fire that followed, the Grand Opera House was one of almost 30,000 buildings destroyed.
San Francisco was not to see another complete Ring until 1935. But the rapidly rebuilt city was not totally Wagner-starved. After a few single Ring operas, San Francisco got three-quarters of a Ring (minus Das Rheingold) in January 1931, when the German Grand Opera Company—apparently subsidized by the German government—made its second visit to the city’s 5,000-seat Civic Auditorium, which it came nowhere near to filling. The star of the 1931 tour was the same Johanna Gadski, who had been the darling of New York, London, and San Francisco in and around 1900, but was now well past her prime. (She died a year later, at 59.) Her voice, wrote the Chronicle’s critic, was “still heroic, though she, no more than others, can utterly resist the flight of the years.” The two Siegfrieds were also over the hill. Perhaps only thirty-two-year-old Margarethe Bäumer (who shared Brünnhilde with Gadski) met the demands of her role.
Once a permanent resident opera company was created in San Francisco in 1922, it maintained for many years the Gold Rush-era tradition: “opera” meant Italian opera. It was what sold best and was the home of the heart of founding director Gaetano Merola. Between 1923 and 1934, 109 performances of thirty-four operas were sung in Italian. Thirty performances of nine operas were done in French. Six German operas (Hänsel und Gretel, Salome, and four non-Ring Wagner operas) were sung a total of seventeen times. The Wagner operas on offer introduced San Francisco audiences to the great bass Friedrich Schorr, twice as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger and once as Telramund in Tannhäuser (with Lauritz Melchior in the lead role). They brought to the city Maria Jeritza and Elisabeth Rethberg—two leading divas of the day—as Elisabeth in the latter.
Kirsten Flagstad, San Francisco Opera's first Brünnhilde, and Artur Bodansky, conductor of the Company's first Ring cycle, in 1935.
By all accounts, the first home-grown Ring was worth the long wait. For 1935, Merola had engaged the leading Wagner singers in the world—Kirsten Flagstad (a year after her Met debut, singing her first Siegfried Brünnhilde as well as her first Ring), Melchior, Rethberg, and Schorr, and conductor Artur Bodanzky, who had led the Met’s German wing since 1915. All tickets were sold a month before the opening. Reviewers had nothing but praise for the celebrated leads and tolerated the “safely traditional” costumes, sets, and special effects, which hadn’t changed much since 1876. The Rhinemaidens were doubled by ballet girls, who “floated” from the top of the stage to the floor. This time around, half a page of the Examiner was devoted to a list of society women’s gowns and their designers—Molyneux, Chanel, Patou, Lanvin—and the pre-performance parties in the boxes.
The following year, three of the four operas were repeated, out of order (they skipped Siegfried so as not to exhaust Flagstad). Lotte Lehmann—”unquestionably the greatest Sieglinde of all time” (Arthur Bloomfield)—took over that role in Die Walküre. Fritz Reiner, it was felt, drew more depth and emotional conviction out of the orchestra. In 1939, Flagstad and Marjorie Lawrence traded off the top soprano roles in two performances of Die Walküre. Ten years later, political pressures over Flagstad’s return to Nazi-occupied Norway during the war nearly led to the cancellation of her Brünnhildes and Isoldes—and possibly the whole season—until calmer heads prevailed.
It was to be another thirty-seven years before San Francisco Opera—now led by Kurt Herbert Adler—was to offer another complete Ring, this one repeated three times. A new generation of international stars assumed the leading roles in 1972: Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde (trading off with Berit Lindholm, who also sang Sieglinde), Jess Thomas as Siegmund and Siegfried, and Thomas Stewart as Wotan and Gunther. Margarita Lilova sang Fricka, Waltraute, and Erda.
Jess Thomas as Siegfried in 1972. He also appeared as Siegmund (Die Walküre) in that Ring cycle.
Except for Lindholm, who had only sung Brünnhilde in the 1970 Siegfrieds, all of these singers were well-known to San Francisco opera-goers by 1972. Jess Thomas had made his professional debut here in 1957 and sung eight leading Wagner roles (including Loge, Siegmund, and both Siegfrieds) since 1965. Adler had given Birgit Nilsson her U.S. debut in 1956, as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre.
This was the first Wagner opera I saw, at nineteen. At the first intermission, I gave up my $3.60 Dress Circle seat for a standee’s place, to keep from dozing off. “He makes all the Italians seem insignificant,” I wrote in my journal—a thought I often have (temporarily) after a good Ring. At the time, I preferred the lyrical Sieglinde of Leonie Rysanek (also making her American debut) and the godlike Wotan of Hans Hotter to Nilsson’s Brünnhilde.
Thomas Stewart had been a Company stalwart since 1962, singing nineteen bass-baritone roles. There was some carping about Jess Thomas’s powers of endurance in the most demanding tenor role in opera, but none about his appearance or stage presence. He may have been the most physically convincing Siegfried ever seen onstage. Otmar Suitner from Berlin conducted a committed, occasionally deeply moving orchestra.
The real innovations in 1972 were in staging (by Paul Hager) and design (by Wolfram Skalicki). Viewed in an international perspective, they were scarcely innovations. Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, the composer’s grandsons, had been mounting powerfully abstract, symbolic productions of the Ring at Bayreuth since 1951. So when Hager and Skalicki introduced San Francisco audiences to a Ring made more of light and shadow than of pasteboard rocks, painted drops, and detailed buildings, timelessly simple costumes rather than horned helmets, bearskins, and breast- plates—one dependent more on scrims, spotlights, misty illusions of fire and water, and lighting that washed the scene in tune with the music and the singers’ emotions—they weren’t breaking new ground.
In fact, Adler had originally hoped for a Wieland Wagner production, to begin with a Rheingold in 1967. But when Wieland died in October 1966, Adler fell back on his home team. Hager and Skalicki adopted Wieland’s use of light and color, but never went as far as he did in the direction of minimalist abstraction. In any case, after 1970 the Wagner brothers’ timeless, light-created productions were already being replaced by post-modern interpretations that portrayed the gods as greedy capitalists, the Nibelungs as wage slaves, the Gibichungs as Nazis, and the final scene as a nuclear holocaust. The Hager-Skalicki Walküre was repeated in 1976 and 1981 (the second time with Nilsson, Thomas and Rysanek again), and their Rheingold in 1977 for Hanna Schwarz’s U.S. debut.
Before he was hired as Adler’s successor in 1982, Terrence McEwen had spent two years imagining a dazzling new Ring that would be naturalistic, romantic, and beautiful, as opposed to the stripped abstractions of New Bayreuth and the defiantly ugly military-industrial statements being made all over Europe. In 1985, after two years of lead-in productions, he managed to whip a great many music lovers (including Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who declared June 1985 “Ring Month” in San Francisco) into a Wagnerian frenzy the city hadn’t seen for half a century.
He engaged German director Nicolas Lehnhoff (Wieland Wagner’s former assistant) and designer John Conklin, a Company regular. They came up with a series of handsome stage images, many of them inspired by early nineteenth-century German art and architecture. The gods (except for Loge, who wore a Victorian morning suit) looked more Greco-Roman than Teutonic as they lolled about columned neoclassical terraces that could have been designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the 1810s. As their power decayed, the terraces crumbled. At the end of Das Rheingold, they climbed towards a towering neoclassical Valhalla (which was a faithful reproduction of Dresden’s Semper Oper House), a distant image of which went up in flames as the cycle closed. The Valkyries’ rock was a steep Yosemite-like island cliff that recalled Arnold Böcklin’s Island of the Dead. Barren landscapes looked like Caspar-David Friedrich paintings. All four operas were enclosed in neoclassical side pavilions.
To conduct, McEwen tried first for Georg Solti, but the conductor opted to go to Bayreuth instead. His next choice, departing San Francisco Symphony conductor Edo de Waart, led (in his first Ring) an orchestra I found precise and powerful, but passionate only by turns, and never as sublime as the Ring deserves. Lehnhoff’s directing brought out the human weaknesses of everyone onstage.
James Morris, vocally and visibly heroic, was to become the leading Wotan of the next twenty years; he sang the role first in this production. A handsome blond German named Peter Hofmann sang Siegmund and the young Siegfried, René Kollo the older Siegfried. Gwyneth Jones and Eva Marton were our Brünnhildes. Hanna Schwarz and Helga Dernesch (still my favorite Fricka) took on the heavier female roles. Walter Berry and Helmut Pampuch were brilliantly nasty as the squabbling Nibelung brothers.
In February 1988 an ailing McEwen announced his resignation (only to be upstaged by Adler, who died the next day), and was succeeded by Lotfi Mansouri as general director. Mansouri decided to revive McEwen’s production for June 1990, this time offering four sold-out cycles in an opera house that had been shaken and scarred by an earthquake the year before. (A giant hairnet hung under the starburst chandelier.) Mansouri offered much the same visual production of the Ring as the 1985 version, even though director Lehnoff had left. Two of the cycles were conducted by Donald Runnicles, interpreting his first-ever Rings, two by Peter Schneider. Back to sing were Morris, Jones, Kollo, and Dernesch. Janis Martin and Hildegard Behrens offered alternate Brünnhildes.
Hildegard Behrens (Brünnhilde) in our 1990 Ring cycle
In 1995, another Runnicles Die Walküre was performed, which marked the Company debut of the huge, Flagstad-voiced Jane Eaglen as a subsitute Brünnhilde. In 1996, the opera house shut down for seismic rebuilding while the Company camped out in its original home, the vast, inelegant Civic Auditorium of 1915—now renamed for rock producer Bill Graham.
Back in his handsomely refurbished opera house in 1999, Mansouri decided to offer another four-cycle run of the 1985 Ring, this time with a new director (Andrei Serban) and designer (Robert Perdziola), who made a few flashy changes (Erda, Nibelheim, the giants, the costumes), but otherwise left intact the Lehnhoff-Conklin original.
James Morris, strong as ever, sang all the Wotans in the three Runnicles-conducted Rings in June 1999. Having impressed Mansouri by her drop-in role in 1995, Eaglen was chosen as Brünnhilde in the same three cycles, which she sang with Golden Age splendor. Deborah Voigt was a moving Sieglinde. In the three Rings he conducted, Donald Runnicles, now San Francisco Opera’s music director, led the Opera orchestra in one of the most knowing and sympathetic renderings of Wagner’s seventeen-hour score I have heard.
When David Gockley came to San Francisco in 2006, he had been thinking about a new Ring for some time, along with director Francesca Zambello (a collaborator of his since 1984, now his artistic adviser) for Houston Grand Opera. In fact, a Houston newspaper suggested that one of his reasons for taking the San Francisco post was the opportunity it offered to do their new Ring here, after his Texas board decided it was too great a risk. Gockley and Zambello set out at once, along with Wagner master-conductor Runnicles and designer Michael Yeargan, to give us the Ring we are seeing this summer.
San Francisco audiences have been experiencing Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, often in productions of major distinction, for more than a century. Younger companies in the West—notably Seattle Opera, which has made regular performances of the Ring its trademark since 1975—have taken up the challenge: Chicago in 1996 and 2005, Los Angeles for the first time last year. But outside of New York, since 1900 opera lovers in this country have had better chances of hearing a memorable Ring in San Francisco than anywhere else.