SFOpera - In Memoriam 2020

In Memoriam 2020

The unique, unprecedented challenges of 2020 have not spared the opera community. The sheer number of profiles below is just one measure of the collective and individual losses we have endured this year. Yet, despite the darkness, there have also been examples of overwhelming generosity and compassion, bold scientific breakthroughs to overcome this pandemic, opportunities for contemplation, along with newfound connections and discoveries in the virtual space.

As we look toward the New Year with hope, we invite you to first look back and celebrate our 2020 honor roll. These individuals—singers, conductors, playwrights, stage directors, designers, crew, and passionate supporters—are the architects of the San Francisco Opera Company of yesterday and today. Go ahead and be inspired by their example!

Thank you to our guest contributors: San Francisco Opera Dramaturg Emeritus Dr. Clifford “Kip” Cranna (KC), writer and historian Paul Thomason (PT), Tad and Dianne Taube General Director Matthew Shilvock (MS), and former general director Pamela Rosenberg (PR). We extend our apologies for any inadvertent omissions or errors.

Gabriel Bacquier, baritone

The eminent French baritone Gabriel Bacquier was such an accomplished performer that a colleague once asked, “Is this an actor singing, or a singer acting?” Bacquier began with small parts at the opera in Nice in 1949–50, moved on to Brussels, then joined the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1956 and the Paris Opéra two years later. His international career took off after his Don Giovanni at the Aix-en-Provence Festival was televised throughout Europe. Though a master of French style he successfully resisted being pigeon-holed and was equally acclaimed in Italian roles. Though he sang for eighteen seasons at the Met, San Francisco only enjoyed his artistry in 1971 when he sang his first performances of Michele in Puccini’s Il Tabarro, opposite Leontyne Price who was singing Giorgetta for the first time. (The one-act opera was paired with a fully staged Carmina Burana.) Opera News wrote: “Bacquier’s voice was not particularly large, but the force of his personality was immense and his craft unerring, allowing Bacquier to deliver three-dimensional characterizations built on shrewdly observed detail.” In addition to opera he was a master recitalist. (PT)

Silvano Carroli, baritone

The long career of Silvano Carroli was distinguished by engagements in the major operatic houses throughout Europe and America, where he shared the stage with the leading artists of his day. The arresting power of his sonorous baritone was ideal for Verdi, as San Francisco Opera audiences witnessed in the early 1980s in his portrayals of Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera (in two separate seasons), Iago in Otello, and Count di Luna in Il Trovatore. The San Francisco Chronicle called his riveting portrayal of the villain Iago a “portrait of evil,” noting that “cold steel became glowing dragon.” The Venice-born artist began his early career at that city’s Teatro La Fenice, and quickly became sought-after in a wide variety of repertoire as evidenced by his numerous recordings and DVDs. Carroli also dedicated himself for years to teaching and held the chair of singing at the school for tenors of the Del Monaco Foundation. (KC)

Rosanna Carteri, soprano

Soprano Rosanna Carteri’s meteoric career abruptly came to an end in 1966 when she retired at the age of 36 to care for her family. “The consolation I have is that I stopped when I was at the very top,” she told an interviewer years later. She made her American debut in San Francisco in 1954 as Mimì in La Bohème. A few days later she sang in the American premiere of Cherubini’s comic opera The Portuguese Inn. “By the time she appeared in the Cherubini, the word had gotten around that she was one of the best lyrics in company history,” Arthur Bloomfield wrote. “The thought of her sustained pianissimi still brings chills.”

She was born in Verona and made her operatic debut in 1949 when, at the age of 19, she (rather improbably) sang Elsa in Lohengrin at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. Though she appeared in quite a number of contemporary operas, her repertoire during her two seasons in San Francisco was more typical of her international appearances: Mozart’s Susanna and Zerlina, Massenet’s Manon, Marguerite in Faust, and Micaëla in Carmen. She was blessed with great physical beauty, in the words of Lanfranco Rasponi, “her face was that of a Renaissance Madonna, and her figure was that of a model.” Her warm, clear, even lyric voice could convey intense emotion without marring its beauty and she seemed to intuitively understand Italian verismo style. In 1958 she appeared in a sensational TV film of Puccini’s La Rondine. It’s a brilliant example of great singing and acting by a soprano for whom the opera might have been written. (PT)

Anton Coppola, conductor

A rumble shot through the crowd, more powerful than the applause, louder than even the evening’s two stars, Luciano Pavarotti and Dorothy Kirsten. It was October 1, 1969, and the Santa Rosa Earthquake was rattling the walls of the War Memorial Opera House, right in the middle of Puccini’s La Bohème. Audience members stood to leave. The evening teetered on the brink of disaster. But the music continued. Pavarotti and Kirsten rallied, delivering performances as robust as ever. And behind the conductor’s podium, Anton Coppola soldiered on, leading orchestra and singer alike. “Pin a rose” to Coppola, the San Francisco Examiner said in its review, “for never missing a note.” Coppola passed away at age 102, ending a lengthy career in opera that began when he was a child, singing in the American premiere of Turandot. His career took him here three times: Not only did he conduct La Bohème, but he also tackled La Rondine and Rigoletto in 1968.

ChristiAne Eda-Pierre, soprano

Born in Martinique, Christiane Eda-Pierre became one of France’s first international Black opera stars. After studies at the Paris Conservatory she made her debut in Nice in 1958 as Leila in Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles. The following year she sang Lakmé at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and soon thereafter her career became international. Her clear, even voice with its great flexibility and soaring top seemed to destine her for the standard coloratura repertoire, but she also was acclaimed in French Baroque operas (including several by Rameau) and contemporary works. In 1983, toward the end of her career, she created the role of the Angel in Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise. She also excelled in Mozart’s works, bowing in San Francisco in 1977 as Ilia In Mozart’s Idomeneo, and at the Met three years later as Constanze in Abduction from the Seraglio. Her rich, warm tone also served her well in more lyric roles such as Antonia and Giulietta in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Two months after her Met debut she sang for 150,000 people in New York’s Central Park in a concert performance of Rigoletto with Luciano Pavarotti, later appearing on a Met telecast of the opera with the tenor. (PT)

Rosalind Elias, mezzo-soprano

Mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias was one of the most beloved members of the Metropolitan Opera where she appeared in almost 700 performances over the course of 42 years. She debuted in 1954 in the small role of Grimgerde in Die Walküre. But her big break came four years later when Samuel Barber cast her in the role of Erika in the premiere of his opera Vanessa. Reviews raved about the young “notable singing actress,” and she was soon singing larger parts like Octavian, Cherubino, Zerlina, and Dorabella, the role of her sudden debut in San Francisco.

In 1970 SFO unveiled a new, sumptuously cast production of Così fan tutte directed and designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. But before the third performance, the Dorabella, Teresa Berganza, fell ill. Elias had done Così with Ponnelle in Salzburg and was called at 10pm and begged to save the next day’s show. She got on a plane in New York shortly before midnight, arriving in SF in the wee hours. After a 4 pm rehearsal she retired to her dressing room with a sandwich, then went on stage, less than 24 hours after getting the summons on the other side of the continent. Arthur Bloomfield reports that Renato Capecchi, the Don Alfonso, told a colleague that Elias “fitted into the show perfectly. The only adjustment was lengthening Berganza’s dress.” (PT)

Mirella Freni, soprano

A major star of supreme international stature, lauded for her luminous sound, exquisite vocalism, and elegant stage presence, Mirella Freni made her San Francisco Opera debut in 1967 as Mimì in La Bohème opposite her frequent co-star Luciano Pavarotti (also in his Company debut) as Rodolfo. Twenty years later—by then both world-renowned—the pair returned in those roles here in a performance that remains available on DVD. Other Freni roles for San Francisco included Manon Lescaut, Adrianna Lecouvreur, and Tatiana in Eugene Onegin. Her transcendent enactment of the latter role’s famous “Letter Scene” ranks among her most glorious moments on our stage. Her artistry lives on in numerous recordings, as well as in notable cinematic portrayals: Mimì (conducted by Herbert von Karajan and directed by Franco Zeffirelli), Susanna in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film of Le Nozze di Figaro, and Cio-Cio-San (a role she never sang onstage) in Ponnelle’s movie version of Madama Butterfly. A native of Modena, Italy (as was Pavarotti), she was married for many years to Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, with whom she frequently performed. Although not given to diva-like behavior offstage, the gracious Mirella was nevertheless one of the great Italian divas of her time. (KC)

Ann Getty, philanthropist

Raised on her family’s peach and walnut ranch in Wheatland, California, Ann Getty was inspired by her youthful idyll to pursue both anthropology and biology while at UC Berkeley. Mrs. Getty’s passion and curiosity for both culture and science found expression in a life’s work dedicated to many fields, including publishing, interior design, early childhood development, and philanthropy. Her commitment to the arts and fundraising efforts nurtured many institutions within her beloved San Francisco, especially the Opera, San Francisco Symphony, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, along with other nonprofits like UCSF and the Leakey Foundation. San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock said, “Ann was an accomplished designer, a passionate opera lover, and a great champion of this city. It is hard to imagine our cultural world without her. When you walk through the Opera stage door and turn left, you see a small, discreet plaque before the mid-stage entry saying ‘In honor of Ann & Gordon Getty For Their Extraordinary Support.’ This plaque reminds us of the quiet, thoughtful but transformational support that Ann and Gordon have given to the arts over so many years.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice

A tireless champion for equality who ascended to a seat on the nation’s highest court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s love of opera was an essential component of her public and private life. Following her passing in September, social media platforms were flooded with backstage photos of singers, conductors, and crew posing with RBG. The headline for Francesca Zambello’s moving New York Times tribute captured it: “Ruth Bader Ginsburg Loved Opera, and Opera Loved Her Back.” Ginsburg was the subject of an opera, Derrick Wang’s 2015 Scalia/Ginsburg, and she made her stage debut as the Duchesse of Krakentorp (a speaking role) in Washington Opera’s 2016 production of La Fille du Régiment in a cast headed by Lisette Oropesa as Marie and Lawrence Brownlee as Tonio. Last year, at the age of 85, RBG was planning to attend San Francisco Opera’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro, her favorite opera, but a last-minute change in her schedule prevented the trip. Company members fondly remember one of her previous visits in 2013 for the world premiere of Tobias Pickers’s Dolores Claiborne. After the performance, she greeted the composer, cast, and crew backstage and relished the opportunity to look out into the War Memorial auditorium from the stage.

Nicholas Graves

A San Francisco Opera subscriber since 1997, Nick Graves served two tenures on the Company’s board of directors, from 2007–2011 and, more recently, from 2016–2018. He and his wife, Mary, were production sponsors for the acclaimed 2011 Ring cycle staged by Francesca Zambello and served as co-chairs of the Ring Circle Committee.

Graves grew up in Los Angeles as a child of Russian immigrants. “His Russian heritage from his father lived on through his love of family gatherings, traditional Russian holiday feasts, and the arts, especially opera.” After earning his undergraduate degree, Graves joined the Peace Corps and served as a civil engineer in Ecuador, where he met his wife. Following his service, he embarked on a highly successful investment career. In addition, he served as a board member and chair for numerous non-profit causes including Acción, a global microfinance non-profit, Berkeley Repertory Theater, and California Trout.

Sir Jules Haywood, choir director

Choir director and pianist Jules Haywood was born in Marshall, Texas in 1924, but is best known for his distinguished musical career in California, especially the Bay Area. He was the first African American student to earn a bachelors degree in piano at the University of Southern California, which he followed up with a masters. After attaining performing experience abroad (and being knighted in Italy for a series of concerts), Haywood returned to the Golden State where he worked as a choir director. In 1961, five years into what would become a 32-year tenure as music director of San Francisco’s landmark Third Baptist Church, he led his Studio Choir in the world premiere of Norman Dello Joio’s Blood Moon at San Francisco Opera. The opera was not a success, but the San Francisco Examiner hailed the soloists, orchestra, and choristers: “The supporting elements, very much up to par, included assistance by the Jules Haywood Negro Choir.” His many achievements in choral music include preparing a 1000-person chorus for the 1959 National Baptist Convention in San Francisco and, in 2002, being called out of retirement to lead a concert commemorating Third Baptist Church’s 150th anniversary.

Claude Heater, baritone

Oakland native Claude Heater’s singing career thrived in Europe during the 1960s, including three seasons at the Vienna State Opera under Herbert Von Karajan’s baton. He eventually achieved a reputation in Wagner’s music dramas, performing Melot in Tristan und Isolde alongside Birgit Nilsson’s Isolde at La Scala and Bayreuth before settling into the heavier, endurance-testing roles of Tristan, Siegfried, Parsifal, and Tannhäuser at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera. But before he was a heldentenor, Heater was a baritone and that is how San Francisco Opera audiences were introduced to him in 1961. On the War Memorial Opera House stage he appeared as Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor opposite Joan Sutherland and had supporting roles in Boris Godunov, Turandot, the world premiere of Norman Dello Joio’s Blood Moon and the first American performances of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In recent years, Heater was best known for cultivating young singers and for his self-named foundation which presented an acclaimed Tristan und Isolde at Herbst Theatre in 2018 starring his longtime partner, Juyeon Song, as Isolde.

Warner Henry, patron

Founder of the Henry Wine Group, Warner Henry hailed from Los Angeles where he and his wife Carol were among the city’s most generous arts supporters, especially for opera. They were instrumental in the creation of Los Angeles Opera in the 1980s and sponsored many of its productions. They eventually founded the Carol and Warner Henry Fund for Mozart Opera that continues to support stagings of the composer’s works at LA Opera, including the recent La Clemenza di Tito starring Russell Thomas. Henry served on the Company’s executive committee for many years and also lent his expertise as a board member to the Colburn School and Los Angeles Master Chorale. An Angelino through and through, Henry was a graduate of Stanford University and he and Carol maintained a long-lasting connection to the Bay Area. These staunch advocates for opera in the Golden State have been San Francisco Opera subscribers since 1994.

Nicolas Joël

Nicolas Joël’s international career as a stage director led ultimately to leadership roles as general manager of the Capitole de Toulouse (1990-2009) and director of the Paris Opera (2009-2014). In 1977, at age 24, Joël made his American debut with San Francisco Opera assisting Jean-Pierre Ponnelle in his famed production of Turandot starring Montserrat Caballé and Luciano Pavarotti. He returned to stage Ponnelle productions of Tosca and Così fan tutte, and then mounted his own productions of Poulenc’s La voix humaine in 1979 and Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalilah in 1980 (available on DVD and the 2007 revival will stream January 23–24), returning for Ernani (1984) and new productions of Parsifal (1988) and Faust (1995). Born in Paris, he started his career at age 20 as assistant director at Strasbourg’s Opéra du Rhin. After serving as an assistant for the centenary production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Bayreuth Festival, Joël went on to direct with companies such as Opéra de Lyon, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Teatro alla Scala, Vienna State Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden, and the Metropolitan Opera. Joël was named a Chevalier (Knight) of the Legion of Honor in 2004 and became an officer in 2014.

Current Capitole de Toulouse Director Christophe Ghristi observed that “He had a love and a great knowledge of the repertoire. He knew the voices, the technique, the set, etc. He had a concern for the craftsmanship of the theater.” (KC)

Ernest Knell

A gifted mainstay of San Francisco Opera’s music staff for 35 years, conductor and pianist Ernest Knell was trained at Eastman and Julliard, joining the Company in 1976. He was soon made associate chorusmaster and took part in over 500 productions, accompanying and often conducting chorus rehearsals, coaching singers in solo roles, and conducting backstage choruses and orchestral ensembles (called “bandas” in the opera world). This latter art became one of his unique specialties, making him legendary in this vital, difficult, and seldom-heralded realm of opera production. He was also an acknowledged master of keyboard-created sound effects, from thunder to gunshots to cathedral bells. He was a talented organist (with a long association with St. John’s Episcopal Church in Oakland), often busy backstage in the many operas that require this skill. He served as chorusmaster for numerous opera companies throughout the Bay Area. In 1987 Ernest met a new member of the San Francisco Opera Chorus named Julianne Booth, and they were married the next year. Ernest’s sincere and unstinting willingness to meet any musical challenge that might arise in order to create great opera was highly valued and will be long remembered. (KC)

Naděžda Kniplová, soprano

Few Czech artists were free to pursue international careers during the 1960s, but Naděžda Kniplová’s talent brought triumphs at Prague’s National Theater and as a guest soloist on stages throughout Europe, Japan, and the United States. Her breakthrough came in 1967 with appearances as Brünnhilde under the baton of Herbert von Karajan at the Salzburg Easter Festival and as Kostelnička in Janáček’s Jenůfa on a trans-Atlantic tour with the Hamburg State Opera. Kniplová’s only role with San Francisco Opera was a big one: Brünnhilde in the 1968 new production of Die Walküre. Alongside the Wälsung twins of Jess Thomas and Régine Crespin, the Czech soprano held her own, exhibiting “a big full-blooming voice, and a valuable emotional sincerity” (SF Examiner).

A year after the completion of the historic Ring recording led by Georg Solti, Kniplová was the centerpiece of a competing set conducted by Hans Swarowsky. This Ring, released in the U.S. on Westminster Gold—a label known for affordable prices and whimsical, racy covers—enshrined Kniplová’s Brünnhilde for budget-minded consumers. Her legacy is also indelibly preserved in the music of her homeland, namely first-choice recordings of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová, Jenůfa, and Smetana’s Libuše.

Harry Kupfer, director

Based for much of his career in Berlin where he was nicknamed the city’s “opera king,” Harry Kupfer was a powerful and, at times, controversial force in opera production around the world during the past half century. The director was known for his concept-driven accounts of standard repertory works—his Der Fliegende Holländer, for example, took place entirely within Senta’s mind—which offered new approaches that both inspired and provoked. San Francisco Opera engaged Kupfer to stage Così fan tutte for the bicentennial of Mozart’s death in 1991. In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Martin Bernheimer observed: “He neutralizes the once Baroque action by moving it to a vague semblance of 1900, toys with symbolic abstractions rather than realistic settings, and stops safely short of multiple mad scenes. By the time the curtain falls, his characters are only chronically—not terminally—confused.”

Kupfer’s influence on the field was profound. Former San Francisco Opera General Director Pamela Rosenberg said of the German director, “In the course of 60 years, Harry Kupfer directed more than 200 productions and made an enormous impact on the opera world. A virtuoso of directorial craftsmanship, his productions for the stage explored the possibilities of this art form to probe the human condition.”

Ming Cho Lee, designer

“In the 1960s and ’70s Ming Cho Lee radically and almost single-handedly transformed the American approach to stage design,” said Arnold Aronson, professor emeritus at Columbia University School of the Arts. In a storied career that stretched decades Lee designed for the theater, ballet, and opera. His Off-Broadway credits include the original production of Hair and he had more than 30 Broadway productions to his credit. Among his work for New York City Opera was the landmark production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare that catapulted Beverly Sills to superstardom for her performance of Cleopatra. Lee worked for San Francisco Opera in 1961 as Art Director and Designer in Residence before emerging as an in-demand freelance designer. Two of the eight productions he did for the Met—Boris and Puritani—came to San Francisco. And his 1973 La Favorita for San Francisco travelled to both Chicago and the Met.

Ming Cho Lee was born in Shanghai in 1930. His father was the general agent in the Far East for several insurance companies and it was assumed his son would follow in his footsteps. But Lee became smitten with Jeanette MacDonald–Nelson Eddy movies and frequently played their records. In 1967 he told the New York Times: “One day my uncle heard me listening to their records and said: ‘They’re no good. You should listen to this guy.’ He gave me some records, and it was Caruso. Then he gave me some more Italian opera records, and pretty soon I knew I couldn’t go into insurance.” (PT)

Nancy Livingston Levin, patron

Nancy Livingston’s love of opera and the arts was mirrored in her enterprising work as a fundraiser. Originally hailing from Ohio, she moved to San Francisco in 1971 where she pursued a career in advertising and met her husband Fred Levin. “I married the client,” she said of the relationship that began as business associates and developed into a life partnership. United by their interests in the same things, their shared project in retirement became philanthropic work and serving on non-profit boards to make a difference. In 2016, they together received the Outstanding Fundraising Volunteer Award on National Philanthropy Day in San Francisco. The Livingstons were longtime patrons of San Francisco Opera as both subscribers since 2003 and supporters of the Adler Fellows.

John Macurdy, bass

For over forty years bass John Macurdy was a mainstay of opera in the US. His artistic home was the Met where he sang 1,001 times between his debut in 1962 as Tom in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera and his final appearance in 2000 as Hagen in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. He had an enormous repertoire that stretched from Seneca in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea (which he sang with San Francisco Opera in 1981) to creating roles in several world premieres. But Verdi and Wagner suited him especially well, he once told interviewer Bruce Duffie. “It’s like a good suit of clothes. The ones that fit, fit very, very well … I look at how Wagner wrote and every one of the bass roles fits my voice like the day it was made. It’s also true of Verdi. I feel very fortunate.”

Critics often used phrases like “suavely sonorous,” “formidable,” “imposing, clear voice” in reviewing Macurdy. When he ventured his first Hunding in Walküre (the role of his SFO farewell in 1990) one New York critic commented he “did it well. It was, indeed, almost too well sung.” But that was fine with Macurdy’s audiences, whether in the US, in Paris, at La Scala, Salzburg, or Teatro Colón. (PT)

Franz Mazura, bass

Austrian bass Franz Mazura was internationally recognized as a consummate singing actor. His long association with San Francisco Opera began when he made his US debut in 1968 as Jochanaan in Salome (his Salome, Anja Silja, was also making her US debut) and ended in 1997 when he returned as Schigolch in Lulu. In 1979 he sang the double role of Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper in the world premiere of the completed Lulu at the Paris Opera and repeated the roles the following year for his Met debut.

Mazura worked as an actor before making his operatic debut in Kassel in 1949 after which he spent over a decade in a succession of smaller German theaters. By the time he was singing in major international houses he was famous for the way he could dominate the stage through the intensity of his acting and his dark, rock-solid voice. His second season in San Francisco brought a “stark, taut Pizzaro” in Fidelio as well as Gunther in Götterdämmerung, a portrayal seen by millions when the Bayreuth Ring directed by Patrice Chéreau was shown on television. Though he was primarily known for his chilling, yet believable, villains, like Alberich in the Ring, he was also marvelously adept in the comic role of Frank in Die Fledermaus. He made his final appearance in opera as Meister Hans Schwarz in Die Meistersinger at the Berlin State Opera—the night before his 95th birthday. (PT)

Terrence McNally, playwright and librettist

Terrence McNally has, quite accurately, been called “the bard of the American theater.” In a career that lasted over half a century his prolific output encompassed more than three dozen plays, books for ten musicals, scripts for both film and television, and opera libretti. But as passionate as McNally was about the theater, he was equally passionate about opera. For 30 years he delighted listeners to the Met Opera’s radio broadcasts as a regular intermission guest. He loved singers, past and present, and delighted in finding a recording of a live performance he did not know about. That passion (one might use the word “obsession”) spilled over into his play The Lisbon Traviata, about an obscure pirate recording of an actual performance Maria Callas gave in 1958. A few years later McNally again turned to Maria Callas for the central figure in Master Class for which he won one of his four Tony Awards. Late in his career he began collaborating with composer Jake Heggie. San Francisco Opera gave the world premiere of Dead Man Walking in 2000, one of the few contemporary operas that has achieved a secure place in the international repertoire. Heggie’s 2007 chamber opera Three Decembers was based on a text by McNally with libretto by Gene Scheer. McNally wrote an original libretto for Heggie’s 2015 opera, Great Scott. “He had a nearly infallible instinct for the combination of music and drama,” Heggie wrote of his collaborator, “recognizing that each is enhanced, elevated and made more deeply visceral when infused with the other. He was a great colleague, friend, mentor, and guide—inspiring and incredibly fun to work with.” (PT)

Jolanda Meneguzzer, soprano

Florentine soprano Jolanda Meneguzzer came of age during World War II, studying music despite frightful conditions. “Florence was occupied by the Germans and was repeatedly bombed by the Allies, resulting in both death and destruction, but we children also studied with the utmost commitment in schools through good times and bad,” she told Opera Warhorses in 2014. After appearing in Florence, Rome, Naples, and Berlin, she made her American debut at San Francisco Opera in 1962 as a late replacement for another soprano in La Fille du Régiment. As if the first-night pressure were not enough, Meneguzzer was required to make her entrance on horseback—and she had never ridden a horse before! Her charm, courage, and Italianate flair in Fille, Don Giovanni, and Falstaff led to returns in later seasons, including the 1963 production of La Sonnambula where she was the Lisa to Joan Sutherland’s Amina. Looking back on her long and distinguished time upon the stage, Meneguzzer said “performing with Sutherland was one of the most exciting matches of my career.”

Kerstin Meyer, mezzo-soprano

Though Swedish mezzo Kerstin Meyer only appeared with the San Francisco Opera for one season, in 1962, one of her chief artistic characteristics was on full display—her versatility. After debuting as Seibel in Faust, she went on to delight audiences as Meg Page in Falstaff, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier (opposite Elisabeth Schwarzkopf), Baba the Turk in The Rake’s Progress (which Arthur Bloomfield found “magnificently vampish”), and the Countess of Berkenfeld in La Fille du Régiment with Marilyn Horne as Marie. It was also in 1962 that she sang the Composer in the Metropolitan Opera’s first-ever performances of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Though the Swedish Royal Opera had been her home since her debut in 1954, she was also a mainstay at the Hamburg State Opera. There Rolf Liebermann nudged her into adding more contemporary roles which suited her just fine since it was a chance to do more than her usual “witches or princesses or gypsies or boys, roles where you never get the man.” At the Malmö Opera she bid farewell to the stage in 2013 by playing a character who had had her plentiful share of men—Madam Arnfeld in A little Night Music. (PT)

Douglas Norby, supporter

Douglas Norby was first introduced to opera by his wife, Susan Anderson-Norby who knew a thing or two about the art form: she has appeared as a supernumerary in San Francisco Opera productions for 40 years and serves on the Company’s board of directors. As longtime supporters, Doug and Susan provided critical funding for the Wilsey Center of Opera, wherein the costume shop is named The Norby Anderson Costume Studio. Additionally, Doug volunteered his time and expertise to advising San Francisco Opera on its media initiatives as a member of the Board’s Media Committee.

Doug grew up in Grass Valley, California and lived most of his life in the Bay Area. With strong business acumen, he held leadership roles with technology and pharmaceutical companies including LSI Logic, Syntex, Lucasfilm Ltd., and Tessera. His community support in the Bay Area also included serving on the boards of the World Affairs Council and UCSF Department of Ophthalmology.

Rolando Panerai, baritone

Italian baritone Rolando Panerai, who died shortly after his 95th birthday, had an enviable career that stretched 65 years and included performances in most of the major opera houses and on recordings with the top singers and conductors of his time. In the 1950s he often appeared with Maria Callas and Giuseppi di Stefano, including the now famous performance of Lucia in Berlin conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Panerai was renowned for the elegance of his phrasing and the evenness of his voice but he also could match Callas when it came to fiery drama. “Below the surface of Mr. Panerai’s Enrico, you hear the panic of a prideful young man who needs his fragile sister to rescue him,” wrote Anthony Tommasini.

In 1958 he made his American debut in San Francisco as “a large-voiced and exceptionally lively Figaro who raced to and fro like a kitten intrigued by everything about him,” as one critic put it. In addition to Rossini’s Figaro he also appeared as Mozart’s Figaro and as Marcello in La Bohème and toured with the Company to Los Angeles and San Diego. During a lull between performances he was approached to sing in Verdi’s Falstaff in Chicago, but Kurt Herbert Adler refused to let him accept the engagement, which infuriated Panerai. “There was much reason to hate not only Adler but even America,” he later told an interviewer. He never returned to SF, never sang at the Met, but decades later did perform the title role of Gianni Schicchi in Chicago. His repertoire of 150 roles was heavily weighed to Verdi, Mozart, and to lighter Italian roles. Oddly enough, given his decades of renown as a Verdi baritone, he never sang a role he very much wanted to do: Iago in Otello, “because nobody has ever offered me the role.” (PT)

Jeanette Pilou, soprano

With the sensuous silvery quality of her voice, and the delicacy and charm of her singing, Jeannette Pilou seemed especially at home in the French repertoire, so much so that many people thought she was French. In fact, she was born in Egypt to Greek parents making her “a little bit East, a little bit West.” Her first operatic appearance was in 1959 at Milan’s Teatro Smeraldo as Violetta. When she sang the role in San Francisco ten years later Arthur Bloomfield not only admired the sound of her voice but also her “conversationally realistic phrasing she employed more gracefully for dramatic effect.” Her repertoire was firmly in the lyric-coloratura fach with one, perhaps surprising, addition, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, the role of her San Francisco Opera debut in 1968, a reminder that once upon a time, Italian coloraturas also did the opera. One New York critic summed up Pilou’s artistry: “A charming artist with a lovely voice of sheen and sweetness which she handles well … but goes far beyond this in expressiveness. She was an absorbing artist to hear and to observe.” Almost 40 years after beginning her career she sang her “ideal role,” Mélisande, in the Greek premiere of Debussy’s opera in 1998. (PT)

Paul Puppo, Electric Shop Foreman 

Since high school Paul Puppo was passionate about the backstage world. After time with Santa Fe Opera, he moved to San Francisco in 1990 where he worked as a theatrical electrician and developed his own company, Illumineering, specializing in LED-specialty products. Since joining San Francisco Opera’s electrical department in 2006, Paul brought his expertise and creativity to our stage time and time again. So many of the lighting effects witnessed over the years were the result of his ingenuity. As we phased out the more regular use of live flame onstage, Paul came to the rescue with wonderfully realistic solutions. His electrical wizardry was on full display last December in Hansel and Gretel production where he brought to life the LED elements of the magic spoon, and the wonderful fire effects under the witch’s cauldron.

Paul was a cherished member of the San Francisco Opera family. He was passionate about the company, IATSE Local 16, and the art form. When he passed in August, he was hard at work on the #WeMakeEvents recognition of live events workers in the US, helping to illuminate in red major buildings all across San Francisco to draw attention to the challenges faced by workers in the live events industry as a result of the pandemic. When you see magical lighting effects on the War Memorial stage in the future, know that Paul’s spark of genius and goodness is still very much a part of that magic. (MS)

Eugenia Ratti, soprano

Eugenia Ratti made her American debut with San Francisco Opera as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia opposite the Figaro of Rolando Panerai (who is also memorialized in this year’s In Memoriam). The two Italians also shared the War Memorial stage and tour performances of La Bohème and Le Nozze di Figaro during their 1958 engagements, but it would be the only season with the Company for both artists. Ratti, whose career flourished in Italian theaters, made American headlines once again in 1959 when she was flown in from Milan as a late replacement for Maria Callas in Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Barbiere for Dallas Opera. Callas fans were likely already familiar with Ratti’s bright and agile coloratura soprano from La Divina’s recordings, including the famous La Sonnambula led by Leonard Bernstein and Un Ballo in Maschera co-starring Giuseppe di Stefano. Ratti’s vocal studies began with her mother, but her not-yet-launched career enjoyed a significant boost in 1952 when she was heard by Tito Schipa and engaged for a concert tour with the legendary tenor. Among her many career highlights, Ratti was Sister Constance in the 1957 world premiere of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala.

Joel Revzen, conductor

Though not the first member of the musical community to fall to COVID-19, conductor Joel Revzen’s passing in June was a sobering reminder to musicians and audiences of the deadly threat posed by the virus. The Metropolitan Opera, where Revzen served as assistant conductor since 1999, said, “We will greatly miss his generous, positive spirit in our midst” and praised “his profound expertise and musicality in rehearsals as a thoughtful, kind, and supportive presence that endeared him to colleagues.” Along with years of leading rehearsals and preparing singers at the Met, Revzen made his debut there leading a star-studded 2017 Eugene Onegin featuring Peter Mattei in the title role and Anna Netrebko as Tatiana. He had made his first Bay Area appearance nine years earlier conducting the Merola Grand Opera Finals Concert in the War Memorial Opera House. The San Francisco Chronicle praised Revzen and the San Francisco Orchestra who “provided able and often luscious support” to the Merolini, including many like soprano Leah Crocetto and baritone David Pershall who would sing with San Francisco Opera in the seasons to come. The Grand Finals concert would be Revzen’s sole appearance with the Company, but appeared regularly on Bay Area podiums including the Napa Valley Festival.

Elinor Ross, soprano

When the American dramatic soprano made her Met debut on short notice, replacing Birgit Nilsson as Turandot (opposite Franco Corelli) in 1970, the New York Times raved, “Her voice is big and assertive in the upper range and it can be quite effective when put to powerhouse use.” That was the typical reaction to her performances as she sang big dramatic roles in big houses throughout Europe (including at the Bolshoi in Russia) and at Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. She made her Chicago Lyric Opera debut in 1958 as Leonora in Trovatore. (“It was the third time I’d walked on any stage,” she recalled.) Her colleagues that evening were Jussi Björling, Giulietta Simionato, and Ettore Bastianini. In 1962 she repeated the role, again with Simionato and Bastianini, when she sang in San Francisco for the first time, having debuted with the company in Los Angeles the previous year as Aida. It was the morning after singing Aida at the Met in November 1979 that tragedy struck. She woke to find she had Bell’s palsy. “My voice was there—I had just started working on Isolde—but I couldn’t open one side of my mouth.” It was the end of her stage career. (PT)

Valéry Ryvkin

The talented Russian opera coach/conductor Valéry Ryvkin served on the San Francisco Opera’s music staff for a decade from 1994 to 2004. A pianist of brilliant virtuosity with a vast knowledge of the opera repertoire, he was a major asset in preparing artists for their roles, particularly in Russian repertoire such as Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel. He served for eleven years as principal conductor and later artistic director of Opera Santa Barbara, significantly helping the company grow in stature. He later taught at Temple University and Carnegie Mellon University, and also served as artistic director of Greensboro Opera in North Carolina.

Born in what was then Leningrad, Ryfkin came to the United States at age 18 and eventually gained admission to the Mannes School of Music, then Juilliard. He worked as a vocal coach and rehearsal conductor at a number of opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, where he assisted Russian maestro Valery Gergiev, as he would later do in San Francisco. Famed Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, who sang the role of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov under Ryvkin’s baton, praised him as a “singers’ conductor” who was “unforgettable to work with.” (KC)

Nello Santi, conductor

Maestro Nello Santi’s exuberant enthusiasm for life was his gift to San Francisco audiences throughout the 1990s—along with his fervent devotion to the hallowed traditions of Italian opera, which he staunchly championed. With his outsized baton and imposing figure, he showed firm control and stylish taste here in operas of Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Giordano, and Puccini. He was an influential heir to the Toscanini school of artistic integrity and fidelity to the composer.

He conducted from memory, knowing every detail of every score, and was famous for supplying missing vocal lines for absent singers in rehearsal with his robust clarion tenor. A native of Italy’s Veneto region, he was active worldwide and had a long association with the Zurich Opera. He was a regular at the Metropolitan Opera, where his career encompassed over 400 performances. His youthful experience as a prompter, chorusmaster, accompanist, singer, and actor gave him masterful insight into every aspect of the operatic art. (KC)

Arlene Saunders, soprano

Arlene Saunders is a soprano who can sing beautifully, act effectively, and illuminate any operatic stage fortunate enough to be graced by her talents,” wrote a reviewer for the New York Times. She was born in Cleveland but, ironically, became far better known in Europe than in her home country. In 1961 she sang at New York City Opera and made her European debut at Milan’s Teatro Nuovo. Three years later she debuted at the Hamburg State Opera where she became one of the mainstays of Rolf Liebermann’s ensemble, being named Kammersängerin in 1964 and starring in three enchanting films with the company: as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, Agathe in Der Freischütz, and Eva in Die Meistersinger as well as singing an extensive repertoire with the company. In 1976 she sang three performances of Eva at the Met, her only appearances there. Her debut with San Francisco Opera was as Louise in Charpentier’s opera in 1967 (“nice ethereal singing” commented Arthur Bloomfield). She returned once more to SF in 1971 to sing Eva opposite James King making his company debut as Walther. Her final appearance in opera was at Teatro Colón in 1985, as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. (PT)

Johannes Schaaf, director

Remembered by Pamela Rosenberg

Johannes Schaaf, with whom I had the immense pleasure of working at San Francisco Opera, Stuttgart Opera, and The Netherlands Opera, was a figure who was bigger than life. Physically he would have been perfectly cast performing the role of Falstaff. But it was his expansive personality, psychological perceptiveness, and above all, original and brilliant mind which made him a consummate stage director. Considered one of the most interesting film directors in Germany in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, he also was a highly acclaimed theater director (as well as being an actor himself). In the mid-1980’s he added opera to his repertoire, working internationally—Salzburg, Covent Garden, Vienna, Paris, Zürich, Amsterdam, San Francisco—and in the major German opera companies.

Schaaf had enormous versatility and range but did not adhere to a “directorial” style. His four San Francisco productions— Kát’a Kabanová, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and Eugene Onegin—were utterly different visually. What they had in common was the incisive psychological portraits, which he helped singers realize. He dug deep into each piece, bringing out its sub-texts, narrative and inner substance. He was, among other things, a terrific director of comedy. His Barbiere was the wittiest production I’ve seen of that piece. One of my favorite memories of him is when he was directing a scene with Ambrogio, Dr. Bartolo’s factotum, who eccentrically, obsessively was dusting the objects in the doctor’s office, including a skeleton. Schaaf demonstrated it for the singer and I thought Buster Keaton has been resurrected! The rehearsal stopped for a while because everyone had tears of laughter rolling down their faces. At the other end of the spectrum, was his deep and poetic Kát’a Kabanová—for me the most aesthetically beautiful production during my time in San Francisco. His work was extraordinarily rich.

Charles Schneider, conductor

Following the news of Charles Schneider’s passing, an outpouring echoed forth from fans, colleagues, and former students. “He blessed my musical life with so much support and opportunity as a young person beginning a career in music,” remarked one in a chorus of gratitude to the beloved conductor. Remembered for his genial warmth and ability to draw the best from his players, it is a curious fact that Schneider’s local debut was leading the US premiere of Kurt Weill’s brilliant if caustic The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny with San Francisco Opera affiliate Spring Opera Theater. The San Francisco Chronicle praised Schneider’s “excellent account of Weill’s rickty-tick and sour jazz caricatures as well as the acid, dark, and melancholic aspects of his score.”

Schneider's lengthy tenures with multiple upstate New York orchestras constitute a unique legacy. Since 1973 he conducted the Catskill Symphony Orchestra; he was music director of the Utica Symphony from 1980–2011 and the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra since 1982; and, in 1975, he was the founding music director of the Glimmerglass Festival.

Mika Shigematsu, mezzo-soprano

Japanese mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu’s career encompassed important roles on stages throughout North America and Europe. She came to the United States in 1989 on a Japanese government scholarship. An audition for the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program, she remarked, was the key that opened many stage doors for her–-not only to performance opportunities, but also “letting me see what I need in the real world.” Adept at bel canto coloratura, she became an Adler Fellow (resident young artist) with the Company in 1993 and in the ensuing years sang eight roles at the War Memorial, including Rossini’s demandingly florid characterizations of Rosina in Il Barbiere di Sivglia and the title role of La Cenerentola. Describing her Cenerentola performance, the San Francisco Chronicle observed that her voice “moves easily between an alluringly fluid, chocolaty legato, and bright, glittery coloratura” and praised her “vibrant and wonderfully light-footed account of the final bravura showpiece.” (KC)

Michael Stennett, costume designer

British designer Michael Stennett’s sumptuous costumes (“frocks” as he impishly called them) were seen in fourteen separate seasons at San Francisco Opera, often in productions of director John Copley, including Handel’s Julius Caesar (his 1982 debut), Orlando, and Ariodante, as well as Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Mozart’s Idomeneo, and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Stennett met the great Australian diva Joan Sutherland when he was 19 and took her suggestion of sending her some costume sketches. This began a long-lasting collaboration with Dame Joan, who wore his stylish period designs in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena here in 1984. His career took him to major houses in Europe, North America, and Australia. His love for singers, and for making them look good onstage, was infectious. “I want them to have a sort of elegance about them,” he said. “That is my aim.” Stennett retired from theatrical work in 1994 to concentrate on a second career as a painter. At his passing The Sydney Morning Herald wrote of “his incredible work, artistry, eye for detail and, above all, his adorable personality ... He was gorgeous, loyal, and a true gentleman who thrived on a naughty sense of humor.” (KC)

Hertha Töpper, soprano

The Austrian mezzo Hertha Töpper made her operatic debut in Graz in 1945 as Ulrica in Ballo in Maschera and became a cherished mainstay of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. It was there she sang her first Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier in 1951, the role of her US debut in San Francisco in 1960 (replacing Sena Jurinac who had cancelled her season) as well as her Met debut in 1962. Those were her only appearances with either company. At the Met she was part of a starry cast inaugurating a new production of Rosenkavalier that included two other debuts, Régine Crespin (as the Marschallin) and a famous Marschallin of yesteryear, Lotte Lehmann, who was debuting as a stage director. Lehmann pronounced Töpper “a beautiful woman” and “an excellent Octavian” who had “a great success.” Töpper was also famous as an oratorio and lieder singer. During the 1950s and 60s she was one of the leading alto singers of J.S. Bach’s vocal works and a special favorite of conductor Karl Richter, appearing in a series of now legendary recordings he made. (PT)

David Traitel, patron

David and his wife, Joan have been subscribers and supporters of San Francisco Opera for over 20 years and Joan has served on the Company’s board of directors since 1998. After several years supporting the Company through generous production and Adler Fellow sponsorships, the Traitels established the Great Singers Fund in 2008 to provide the Company with enhanced support to attract the world’s greatest singers. “Without great singers, opera is not all it could be,” said Joan Traitel. “That’s why my husband and I approached David Gockley (in 2008) with the idea of creating a special way of supporting singers exclusively.” The fund has sponsored many leading stars, including Brian Jagde and Lianna Haroutounian in last season’s Manon Lescaut. A prominent Southern California businessman, David Traitel also served on the boards of notable organizations including the Hoover Institution and the Huntington Library.

Gabriella Tucci, soprano

When both Leonie Rysanek and Sena Jurinac had to cancel their 1959 San Francisco seasons, it gave Mr. Adler the opportunity to present Italian soprano Gabriella Tucci in her US debut, first as Madeleine in Andrea Chenier, then as Desdemona in Otello, both opposite Mario del Monaco. She added Donna Anna (to George London’s Don Giovanni) in Los Angeles and San Diego. “The pure, warm tone of her middle register cut through, not unlike Tebaldi’s,” noted Bloomfield. The following season she debuted at the Met in Madama Butterfly. Critics raved about her “well-trained voice of velvety smoothness and excellent quality,” as well as her personal attractiveness, and the fact that her acting “mirrored the emotional inflections of the role as readily as her voice did.” In all she sang over 260 performances at the Met between 1960 and 1972 ranging from Gilda in Rigoletto to Leonora in Forza and the title role in Aida (her most frequent Met assignment). She did not return to San Francisco. If Tucci is not as well known today as her artistry would suggest, it is because during her career she was sharing repertoire with sopranos like Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Zinka Milanov, Leontyne Price, Antonietta Stella, Mirella Freni, Anna Moffo, and Birgit Nilsson—to say nothing of Leonie Rysanek and Sena Jurinac. (PT)

Suzanne Turley, patron

Suzanne Turley’s love of opera was born at a 1950 Stern Grove Festival performance of Rigoletto by the Pacific Opera Company. Seven decades later, she recalled for SFCV’s Janos Gereben almost all of the principals: “The Duke was Cesare Curzi who sang with SF Opera on the advanced Adler Fellow level. Arturo Casiglia was in the pit. Peggy Overshiner was Gilda and John Lombardi was the Assassin. Dang … the hunchback’s name fails me.” Since that first experience, Turley’s passionate connection to the art form was obvious to all who knew her—emails were directed to her e-handle, “OperaSuzy.”

A generous supporter of San Francisco Opera Center activities, Turley was devoted to the Adler Fellows and Merola Opera Program participants often hosting young artists in her home. The friendships she formed with the Adlers and Merolini endured long after they completed the programs. Her passing in November drew heartfelt tributes across the global opera community. Just as opera had a lasting impact on Turley’s life, she too made a deep and enduring impact on opera.

Erin Wall, soprano

“Once I was an opera singer,” soprano Erin Wall wrote in her Twitter bio. “Then COVID-19 and stage IV cancer changed everything.” And yet, in spite of a diagnosis of breast cancer, Wall kept singing. As she explained in a blog post for the Canadian Opera Company, the Calgary-born soprano had performed through morning sickness, colds, leg injuries, even a miscarriage. But cancer altered her life. Diagnosed at age 42, Wall continued to appear at concerts as much as possible, calling them a “vacation from the cancer world.” And in doing so, she treated audiences to the luminous voice she was known for the world over. In 2017, Wall had made a company debut with San Francisco Opera as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni — a performance the San Francisco Chronicle hailed as “elegant and quietly impassioned.” Her delivery, always rich in nuance and fusing glittering high notes together with a lived-in sense of each character, is preserved on recordings of Massenet’s Thaïs and Britten’s Peter Grimes released this year, a few months before her passing in October.

Richard Woitach, conductor

Needing a resourceful musician to lead Western Opera Theater (WOT) performances, San Francisco Opera general director Kurt Herbert Adler called upon Richard Woitach, whose reputation for impeccable preparation and musical versatility preceded him. Between 1969 and 1972, Woitach bolstered the touring San Francisco Opera affiliate company in its mission of bringing professional-level opera to the people, whether they were on a Native American reservation in Arizona or an oil rig in Alaska. Woitach wielded his forces as a crack unit, able to create opera with only a handful of singers, instrumentalists and crew. On the road with WOT, he conducted La Bohème, a staged version of Brahm’s Liebeslieder Waltzes, and newer works by Carlos Chávez and Dominick Argento. For the main stage company, Woitach led a student production of Lucia di Lammermoor starring Ruth Welting in 1972 and, at the Curran Theater, a Spring Opera Theater production of The Barber of Seville. After his brief but intense tenure with San Francisco Opera, Woitach returned to New York and the Metropolitan Opera where his career as an assistant conductor spanned nearly 40 years.

Arthur Woodley, bass

Born a New Yorker, Arthur Woodley was raised in Saint Croix where he developed a love of music. His deep, sonorous voice and dramatic commitment on stage landed him on the stages of the country’s leading opera houses and concert halls. He made his San Francisco Opera debut in 2005 as the jailer Rocco in Fidelio under the baton of previous music director Donald Runnicles. More recently, Bay Area opera fans witnessed Woodley as the elderly Emile Griffith in the 2016 West Coast premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Champion presented by Opera Parallèle and SFJAZZ. Rich in expressive detail, Woodley embodied the tragic boxer in an unforgettable portrayal. Porgy, which he performed in concert performances of Porgy and Bess with the San Francisco Symphony and in staged performances with numerous companies, was another one of his acclaimed roles. Just last year, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in Gershwin’s opera as Frazier, adding the double roles of Benoit and Alcindoro in La Bohème a few weeks later. Woodley passed a year later at age 71.

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