V Pocket Opera Is Born: 1977

Getting Management: Samira Baroody and Peter Jacoby; English Versions and Literalism: Examples from Cosi; New Territory: La Cenerentola, The Rake's Progress and Stiffelio, 1979; The Importance of Elegant, Evocative Shabbiness and New Venues: The Little Fox, On Broadway, Alcazar and Other Theatres; First Off-Broadway Seasons, 1980; More about English versions: The Two Widows; Donizetti, Bel Canto, Cuts and Maria Callas; Pocket Opera Discovers Offenbach, 1981; Grand and Tragic Themes to Gush Over: Luisa Miller, Lucia di Lammermoor, Eugene Onegin


Life moves on. At this point, Pocket Opera was born.


How did it come to pass?


The year is 1977, the twenty-fifth anniversary of my concerts in North Beach. Robert Commanday, the leading critic at the Chronicle and a strong supporter, got excited about it and wrote a very nice long article about my unusual career. We gave a special twenty-fifth anniversary performance of Giulio Cesare, besides a retrospective program.

As a result of all this, somebody sent me in the mail a form from the California Arts Council, and with the form was the suggestion, "Why don't you apply for a grant?" At the time we were doing some touring with our one-act operas and, more ambitiously, with an occasional Handel. Lee McRae was handling it. Do you know Lee?


Very well.


A lovely person. She struggled valiantly to get engagements for us. We were then going under a name that I thoroughly disliked, even though I had come up with it myself: Opera Concertante. But our purpose was to do opera in English and to get away from this kind of high-flown pseudo-elegance.


At any rate, the form from the CAC arrived, an application for touring money. It asked just one question, "Why do you need the money?" and left four lines--just four lines!--for the answer. It even stipulated, "Do not add anything further." Well, this was unbelievably refreshing! Though generally I have a horror of filling out forms, this was one I thought even I could handle. [laughter] My debut at grant writing! But there was one catch: to receive a grant you had to be incorporated.


Nonprofit, or was it something else?


You had to be a nonprofit. Peter Mezey, who took weekly piano lessons with me, was a lawyer much interested in Pocket Opera--in what soon became Pocket Opera--and he told me how easy it was to form a corporation. We needed three people to form a board, and that was it. So Peter plus another pupil, a magnificent flamenco dancer named Eloisa Vasquez, and a close friend named Gwyn Sullivan became president, vice president and secretary. Lo, we were incorporated!


How did you get the name Pocket Opera?


The term had been used by Paul Hertelendy, in a review of Don Pasquale in the Oakland Tribune. "This pocket opera version," said he. The words leapt out. I liked the name--apt, down to earth, easy to remember, certainly a vast improvement over Opera Concertante. So voilà, Pocket Opera sprang to life! I sent in my four-line request to the CAC, and wonder of wonders, I asked for six thousand dollars, the maximum, and got six thousand dollars.


Oh, that's rare. They liked your four lines a lot.


I would have been willing to put it in the form of a haiku. [laughter] I should add that by the next year we had acquired a general manager, Peter Jacoby, who took over such things as grant applications.

He also received a grant form from the CAC. Jerry Brown, no longer governor, had been replaced by a bureaucracy which proved its mettle by coming up with a form consisting of thirty-five pages. The first question was, "What is the goal of your organization?" A full page was provided for a detailed answer. The second page, "State the purpose of your organization." Another full page for another detailed answer. Then, "What does your organization hope to accomplish?" And so forth and so forth. The same question put in a dozen different

ways, each of them requiring some variation, I presume, of the original answer.

It would seem that grant-writing is the art of spinning out infinite verbiage. And with four lines I had shot my wad! [laughter]


You didn't apply again?


No, but Peter and later managers did. We continued to get CAC grants, but the funds were so pared down and the process so laborious and time-consuming, that to get a grant you had to spend as much money as you were hoping to get. Still, they say, the prestige was worth it. Under Reagan, the Council was so reduced that they gave out no funds whatever, but limited themselves to giving out advice. This was known as "trimming the fat."

Thus Pocket Opera was born. Birth enabled us to do more touring, as the six thousand dollars, I believe, came in the form of a matching fund. It meant, in effect, that people could engage us for half the price.

About this time, Samira Baroody entered the picture, an important event. She had attended a performance, had loved it, and spontaneously called to ask if there was anything she could do to be of help. She continued to be supportive in every possible way, and it was through her prodding and encouragement that we decided to do our first full opera season in the summer of '78.

By a full opera season I mean an opera every Sunday night for sixteen weeks. The original plan was for twelve weeks, but because it was so successful we added four more. Bear in mind that our repertoire at this point was small, to put it mildly. There were the three operas I had translated, King for a Day, Don Pasquale, and Tutor in a Tangle, plus Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, which of course I didn't have to translate. To inaugurate the season I did a new translation of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, which was by far my most ambitious project to date. Luckily, we had a good many Handel operas to draw on.

Samira stepped in and took charge. She had grasped immediately what Pocket Opera was about and warmly embraced the concept--Lord, I hate that word! Her enthusiasm was boundless, as were her resources of energy and commitment that went with it. She turned her home into an office and got us a manager, Peter Jacoby. Certainly at first they were working gratis. I'm not sure at what point, if ever, they were paid.


Labor of love.


A labor of love. Well, also a labor of hope. I think especially Peter believed that Pocket Opera could some day flower financially. We are still waiting for the day! [laughter]



Was Pocket Opera ever self-sufficient?


Oddly enough, in the early days you might say that it was, but bear in mind that singers were paid either twenty-five or thirty dollars a performance, a fee that included all rehearsal time, all preparation time. Call it twenty-five cents an hour. And this was towards the end of a decade of rampant inflation! The orchestra players were paid at the same rate, thanks to a union that was cooperative, to put it mildly. So Pocket Opera's self-sufficiency was due almost entirely to the generous contribution of singers and players.

Towards the end of the year, Peter and Samira got a grant that was given specifically to allow me a salary of seven thousand dollars a year--my first salary in eighteen years. They themselves were working for little or nothing. Oh, yes, we were self-sufficient! [laughter]


Could you have continued on this level?


Certainly I could have continued indefinitely, or so I thought. In fact, the gave me greater financial stability than I had known in my entire adult life. But of course that was not the reason. I had found my calling! I knew now what I wanted to do! The opera performances that had been scattered through the years had been wonderfully ebullient experiences, and the idea of regular performances week after week was like stepping into paradise. And that was just what the summer felt like, way up in the clouds, one of the happiest periods of my life.


And full time, I'll bet.


Very much so. I handled the tickets, incidentally. [laughter] My favorite job! Orders were sent to my home address. The plan was to cordon off one hundred and twenty-five of the best seats for advance sale. But we also wanted to save a certain number of seats for people who showed up at the door. My job was simply to mail out one hundred and twenty-five tickets for each performance. And I loved every minute of it! After all

the years of uncertainty as to how many people would show up for a performance!

Incidentally, this led to an unforeseen complication. As I told you, we reserved the central part of the room, first come, first served, for people that ordered tickets in advance. Those that came at the last minute got the side seats, but often these people would arrive at 5:30 for a 7:30 performance. We didn't want them to have to stand in line for two hours, so we would allow them to stake a claim to a seat and then they were free to go off and have dinner.

The rather confusing result was that the reserved seats were unreserved but the unreserved seats were reserved. Some people found this difficult to grasp. [laughter] All in all, a lovely summer!


How did you put your week together? The rehearsal schedule must have been rigorous.


There were daily rehearsals, of course. But bear in mind, the way we presented opera in those days was far simpler than now. As I've said before, singers were singing from scores, and there was little premeditated staging, only what the singers improvised. Virtually all of our principal singers were expert musicians--another way in which singers are often maligned. Rehearsals were focused almost entirely on the music. From the beginning, Pocket Opera has attracted dedicated artists. We were able to start out with a group of extraordinarily gifted singers.


Would you like to name some of them?


I certainly would. Our opening production was Cosi fan tutte, with Francesca Howe, who by that time was sort of our house soprano. [laughter]


She was, wasn't she? A fine Fiordiligi.


One of her many roles with us. Stephanie Friedman and Vicky Van Dewark alternated as Dorabella. We were giving a number of performances, and neither was free for all of them. Marvin Klebe and Walter Matthes alternated as Don Alfonso for the same reason. Elwood Thornton was a wonderful Gulglielmo and Diane Gilfether was an ideal Despina. You couldn't have asked for a cast of finer singers or finer musicians.

Whether all of them would have been equally fine in an enormous opera house is another question--a place where the

size of the voice seems to outweigh almost every other consideration, like subtlety, musicality, nuance, inflection and word-coloring. But my bias is all too evident.

With Cosi I again faced the problem I had with Don Pasquale, but the problem seemed even more blatant: with an opera so frequently presented by the finest companies, so frequently recorded by the finest artists, how dare we presume? And why?

So I took the bull by the horns with an introductory speech, noting that Pocket Opera up to this point had done mostly operas that were never done by anyone else, and that until surprisingly recently we could have made the same claim for Cosi fan tutte. In fact, throughout the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, Cosi was considered too indecent for public consumption and it says much about the moral fiber of our ancestors that this did not make it an instant hit.

But times change, and lo and behold, Cosi was now one of the most popular and beloved of all operas, and frequently performed by "the other company in town"--my pet name for the San Francisco Opera.

The unavoidable question was bound to arise: should they attempt it? The answer: by all means, yes! Despite the many disadvantages they were laboring under. And the conclusion: go hear them, go see them, enjoy them, but judge them on their own terms.


There was a real message here.


Well, the audience had no trouble getting the joke. [laughter] And the message evidently got across, because people decidedly did judge us on our own terms, and Cosi was our biggest success yet.

The opening performance was reviewed by Alfred Frankenstein in the Chronicle. Although it was a highly favorable review for all concerned, his major point was how insufferably hot the room was and how tortuous it was to sit there for three hours on the hard, straight chairs, and how only people with the utmost stamina should risk it.


But he knew that by then, didn't he?


Well, no, actually he didn't. Because he had not been to one of our performances in more than fifteen years. But the truth is that his description of the rigors and discomforts of the

room were all too well founded. And it says a lot about the stamina of our audiences that kept coming back for more punishment.


It's amazing that you didn't lose any singers.


We did not, and I'll tell you why. The audiences may have been uncomfortable, they may have been near collapse, but they were the most alert, responsive audiences one could possibly ask for. You have no idea what this does for singer or player alike. Pass out? Collapse? Not on your life!


I notice in your printed libretti that you never refer to them as translations. Why?


Because that really is not quite what they are. A translation means just that--a literal, word-for-word account of exactly what the original is saying. Although this is important, it is not the first concern of an opera translator. His primary duty is to the music, to find words that fit the exact pattern of the music. It means going at it backwards: the composer was presumably inspired by the original words to create a melody.

The translator starts with the melody and then hunts for the words that will do it justice, words that will clothe it in garments not unworthy. It is my hope and intention to express the meaning of an aria or ensemble as a whole, but not line for line, word for word. I call them English versions. I've thought of calling them interpretations, but fear that this might suggest a more radical departure from the original than I intend.


Did anyone inspire you along these lines?


Yes. W. H. Auden became interested in the subject toward the latter part of his career and wrote an extended essay in which he made a strong case for these principles.


I take it, then, that you admire his translations?


I like his principles, but I really don't like the way he applied them. I've studied two of his translations, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, and to my great surprise found them painfully literary, high-flown, artificial--just the qualities I would have expected him to avoid like the plague. He frequently made what I consider an egregious mistake. Instead of "translating" an aria, he would substitute a lyric poem, a subjective meditation on the feeling of the moment.


For example, near the end of Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira, in the midst of raging coloratura, is made to pursue a subtle, intricately reasoned speculation on the nature of hurt and betrayal. This is supposed to be drama!

My conclusion is that there is a basic difference between writing poetry and writing lyrics to be sung. Lyrics are not poetry. They seldom reach for the unusual, distinctive, unique, original word. They go rather for the conventional, easily understood, expected word: tender care, fatal card, manly stride, et cetera. Let the music take over.

For a model, I would look to some of the modern masters of musical theatre: Ira Gershwin, Sondheim, Cole Porter, Hart, Hammerstein, et cetera. They prove that it can be done, with words that are simple, direct and moving. Or witty and clever, as the case may be.

I like what Ira Gershwin said, to the effect that cliché and common daily speech, used with the utmost economy and finesse, are what lyrics are made of. Simple and precise, the arrow directed straight at the target.


Could you give me an example?


Oh, dear! I hate to hold up any single one as a model, but here is a sample that might illustrate the difference between literalism and a translation that must fit the music. From Cosi fan tutte, Despina, the worldly wise servant, advises the two sisters who are grieving over their absent lovers:


Believe a man? Trust a soldier?
Expect for love to last?
Believe a man, and look for
love to last?
Trust a soldier, and look for
love to last?
Heaven help us, you're living in the past!

In men, in soldiers
You hope for fidelity?
Good heavens, don't let anyone hear you!

Men are identical, birds of a feather.
Ever in motion, April leaves fluttering,
Waves of the ocean,
Even the weather
Turns less than a man.

Men are all alike;
Fluttering leaves
And inconstant winds
Have more stability.
― 121 ―

Vows of fidelity,
Rapturous gazes,
Flowers and flattery,
Warmed-over phrases,
These are their standard fare
Since time began.

Pretended tears,
False glances,
Deceptive promises,
Charming lies,
These are their favorite tricks.

All they see in us
Is their own reflection;
Soon as they win us
They turn their affection.
Kindness and pity Are notions taboo.
Sooner is sympathy Found in a zoo.

They only use us for their pleasure; then
they despise us and
deny any affection.
Expect no pity from these monsters.

Men are no good, but come ladies, repay it!
Master the rules of the game as they play it.
Shame on the girl who is simple and true!
Do unto them as they do unto you.

Men are evil and indiscreet.
Come, let's pay them back with the same coin.
Let's make love for convenience, for vanity.

Love is a holiday over by dark.
Follow the leader and love is a lark.

As you can see, the literal translation is dull and lifeless. The translator has to reinvent, using the tools of his own language. You may notice that the English uses a lot more words than the Italian. That is because English words tend to be shorter, but we have to keep the same number of syllables. So that means more words! But this is the golden opportunity--to clarify, to expand, to invigorate. And much as one envies the obvious musical qualities of Italian, English has the edge in agility, vigor, and variety of color.

Even before that first season was over, Samira, Peter and I were all heated up to start the next. But we faced one small obstacle: we'd used up all our repertory. We had shot our bolt. We had had it. [laughter] There was no time to lose. I had to get to work.

I had three new operas in mind for the new season: Rossini's La Cenerentola, Verdi's Stiffelio, and Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. The Rossini was a natural. It was well within the bounds of what we had shown we could do well,

especially with Stephanie Friedman on hand, who had been so wonderful in many Handel roles, and who was indeed sensational as Cinderella. But both the Verdi and the Stravinsky were decidedly pushing the limits.

In subsequent years, I have continued to shy away from twentieth-century opera, largely because the orchestration is usually so dependent on orchestral color which cannot be reduced to a chamber group. But I hoped that The Rake's Progress would prove an exception, because of its eighteenth-century affinities. It is perhaps my favorite twentieth-century opera. Stravinsky would hardly have frowned on transcription per se, as he had done any number of them himself.

I followed the original orchestration as closely as possible, but had to make a few important changes. For example, the bordello scene calls for an extended trumpet solo which I gave to the saxophone, an instrument that many clarinetists can handle. The substitution was dictated by necessity, but in fact the saxophone suggested the sleazy atmosphere of the bordello even better than the trumpet.

Another reason for choosing The Rake's Progress was less starry-eyed: I wanted an opera that I didn't have to translate! I could see doing two new translations for the coming season, but not three. But if I envisioned The Rake's Progress as a timesaver, I was sorely misled. It was far more difficult than any opera I had worked on previously. And furthermore, because I didn't have orchestra parts, I copied them out by hand from a miniature score--the most laborious task I have ever undertaken. Laborious, yet interesting. By the end of it, I felt at least that I knew the opera quite well.


You couldn't get the parts?


I didn't even know how to go about getting them. And perhaps I didn't want to know, as renting or buying them would have cost money that we simply didn't have. I daresay I was like the deaf person that hears only what he wants to hear.

Aside from the copying, the preparation of The Rake was difficult but rewarding. We were extremely lucky to have both Baker Peeples and John Trout appearing with Pocket Opera for the first time as Tom Rakewell and Nick Shadow. Baker has continued with us ever since, as one of our most treasured singers. John left the area the following year, and I've not been in touch with him since. This so often happens when people go away!


For some time, I had been hankering to translate a serious opera. I knew by now that Pocket Opera was fine for comedy, but I wanted to test the deeper waters, and the opera that appealed to me the most was Verdi's Stiffelio. It has recently been revived by the Met and hailed as a rediscovered masterpiece, but that was fifteen years later. In '79, it was practically unheard of, and for a peculiar reason. Verdi himself revised the opera and renamed it Aroldo.

One would assume that Aroldo is a riper version of Stiffelio, and that if it were a question of performing either, one would naturally choose Aroldo. As for Stiffelio, the score was long thought to be destroyed or lost. But as so often happens, the very qualities that were objectionable to its first audiences tend to make it all the more interesting to audiences a hundred and fifty years later.

Stiffelio was a failure when first presented because Italian audiences at the time were unwilling to accept the premise of a priest who is married, a priest who has an adulterous wife, a priest who demands a divorce, and--most astonishing of all--a priest who forgives her for her adultery instead of killing his rival.

Though too much for Italian audiences to swallow, this clearly has the makings of grand opera--the conflict between the priest's natural hurt, his sense of betrayal, his jealousy, his anger, all of which are given full play, and his larger conscience as a Christian, which eventually prevails. In fact, the opera ends with a reading from the Bible, the story of the woman taken in adultery: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Lina, the erring wife who has soon regretted her terrible mistake and implored to be forgiven, has taken an odd step: she accepts his demand for a divorce in order to confront him as an equal, which she can do only when the marriage bond has been discarded. You modern wives, take note! Very Ibsen-esque!


Did he transplant the story to some other place when he revised it?


Certainly to another place in time. The hero is returning from one of the crusades!


Something like the Italians not being able to accept regicide in Un Ballo in Maschera, isn't it?


Right, indeed. It had to be safely distanced. So what did Verdi do with Aroldo? He kept most of the basic story, but split the hero in two, as it were, and gave his conscience to his companion, a spiritual adviser.

It was a deathblow! Fatal to the drama. Furthermore, the ending is postponed till twenty years later--a miraculously coincidental reunion following a scene on a boat, a storm at sea, an accident and a rescue. All highly operatic, but operatic in the worst sense, at the expense of credibility and coherence.

So I was drawn to Stiffelio rather than Aroldo. Much of the music is identical, but there were places that Verdi changed or rewrote entirely, and in changing he improved them.

For example, in the second act, Lina, the adulterous wife, is having her own spiritual crisis. She realizes what she's done to her husband and regards the episode as a fit of madness that she must atone for. And so she visits the graveyard at night where her mother lies buried, to commune with her mother's spirit. A similar scene takes place in Aroldo, but Verdi has rewritten the music. The new music is more tortured, darker, a truer reflection of her inner turmoil.

Likewise, at the end of the first act, when Stiffelio realizes the betrayal, realizes that his wife has actually given the ring that he gave her to someone else, he sings an impassioned aria. I greatly prefer the aria from Aroldo to that from Stiffelio. In short, what I came out with was basically Stiffelio with a few transplants from Aroldo that seemed to express Verdi's riper thoughts.


It had never been done before.


No, and it's never been done since. I presume that the Met stuck close to Stiffelio. But I would stand up for my version.

The real challenge was to do a translation that was entirely serious, without a trace of comedy. You know that nineteenth-century libretti--comic, romantic or tragic--invariably are written in verse, meaning rhymed verse. This is relatively easy to do in Italian, because Italian is a very rhyme-y language.


All those feminine endings.


All of those feminine endings and all of those verb endings. If you end a line with a participle, there's your rhyme. If

you end a line with a verb, there's your rhyme. This has its good side and its bad side, the good being that the rhyme happens almost inconspicuously. It's built into the language. It feels natural. Incidentally, that's the way rhyme ought to be used in English as well, but it's oh, so much harder!

In English, rhyme is a far more powerful weapon than in either French or Italian. Or to change metaphors, it is an herb that should be used in discreet quantities. The use of rhyme overpowers every other flavor! Now the good side of this is that rhyme can be used in English to very striking effect, especially for comic effect, which it is not likely to have in French or Italian. There, rhyme can be melodious, it can be lyrical, it can be apt, but it can also be bland.


Molière used rhyme.


Yes, and Molière's lines are wonderfully lively, but it's not the rhyme that makes them so. The rhymes give them shape and equilibrium.

In Stiffelio, leaning hard on the original, I used rhyme much more abundantly than I would have later on. The effort was to make the rhymes, particularly the feminine rhymes, not sound comic. Participles are useful, words like attended and befriended, parted and started, et cetera, which no one could accuse of being hilariously funny. But were I to rewrite it, as I would like to do someday, I would delete many of the rhymes, for the sake of simple dramatic utterance.

But heaven knows, rhyme is not the only pitfall to be avoided. One bleak day, I listed some of the adjectives that I most dread being assailed with: turgid, bombastic, pompous, inflated, stilted, grandiose, ponderous, fancy. The battle goes on!


What about Rigoletto, which is so tragic--how did you handle that?


Rigoletto is certainly tragic, but not all of it is grim and gloomy. The Duke's opening aria, "Questa e quella," in my version, "Does it matter that love is the game I live to play?"--would sound perfectly at home in a comic opera. I think it quite legitimate to give it all the brio and liveliness of light verse that you can muster. Its sinister implications are revealed later on.


What about the tragic parts?


There you try to do them full justice, with words that resonate, words that are vocal, words that are evocative, but also words that sound direct and spontaneous. One tries to catch the tone of each scene. For example, when the Duke, romantic yet cynical at the same time, woos Gilda, I do fall back on rhyme to make the wooing sound more formal and mellifluous, less sincere:


Soul of the universe,
Love holds the center,
A secret garden,
Few dare to enter.

Love is the sun of the soul,
Love is life,
Its voice the beat of our hearts.

Love is transcendent,
A halo of glory--
The rest is shadow,
A mere passing story.

Fame, glory, power, throne
Are mere human, fragile things.

Close to divinity,
Ours is the portal
That opens paradise,
The mystery of life immortal.

One thing alone is divine:
Love that brings us closest to the angels!

There, that should impress a naive, sentimental teenager, don't you think? Yet I suspect that the deceitful Duke almost believes it.


How did Stiffelio turn out?


Well, our serious operas have almost been more controversial than the others. Stiffelio was reviewed by several critics, most of whom appreciated it as vital, significant drama, and hailed it as a major discovery. All of them were bowled over by Kaaren Erickson's performance as the remorseful wife, her Pocket Opera debut. I hear some comment from those who think it a mistake for us to attempt grand opera on this level, but they are balanced by those who find them inspiring and revelatory.


Which on balance do you prefer?


No question, comedy is more fun to write. But romance and tragedy are where the soul of opera lies! I've come more and more to lean in this direction.

My sense of the possibilities, the importance of opera in English was not an instant revelation. Starting with comedy,

it gradually broadened and deepened, along with my respect for these overblown dramas with their outmoded theatrical conventions and often quaint codes of morality.

But human passions remain the same over the course of the centuries, even if in art, at any rate, they constantly crop up wearing new and different disguises. And every work of art or literature, I believe, should be approached in its own particular setting of time and place, there to discover its universality--be it Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Bach or Titian.

As for opera, where else, in theatre or life, do people let go with such total lack of inhibition, holding back nothing? This is the glory of opera, life in its fullest color. Beside their operatic counterparts, even King Lear, Othello and Lady Macbeth are soft-spoken. What would happen if we were all suddenly free of all reticence and restraint, and simultaneously endowed with musical genius? For the answer, go to the opera!

What woman would not yearn to speak with the voice of Donna Anna, Fiordiligi, or Susanna? What man would not yearn for that of Figaro or Don Giovanni? It's not enough to know merely what their words mean. In order to resonate, the words must be those that you use yourself, part of your own daily language, part of the fabric of your own life.

The word is the core at the center of the music, the seed from which it sprouted. "In the beginning...." Unimportant? I don't think so. But language has its problems.


Such as?


Oh, yes, do let me tell you about my problems! [laughter] Part of the trouble lies in the original. As in Handel, the language tends to be florid and convoluted. I can't swear how Italians would react to it. It may seem more natural to them than to me, a foreigner.

Take the word order, for example. Let me read you a not untypical specimen. "Here night and day the lion of St. Mark keeps constant watch over the fate of Venice." Oh, fine. Now in the original language the word order is this: "Here watches constantly night and day over Venice the fate of, of St. Mark the lion." [laughter]


That's very interesting. Do you think an Italian audience would be able to make sense out of that?


They must be used to it, because that is the conventional order. And yet from what I've read of Italian prose, they use for the most part the same word order that we would consider natural.


Are there some librettists that are clearer?


Not that I know of. No, the sentence that I quoted is thoroughly typical.


Some say Boito enhanced the Shakespeare version of Otello.


I've not yet looked at either of the Boito translations all that closely, but I'm skeptical. I seriously doubt that any mortal man could improve on Shakespeare. No question, though, he did a masterful job in cutting and reshaping the play. A libretto has to be far shorter than a play, to allow time for the music to spread its wings.


Is there a librettist that you consider far above the rest?


Well, I think that Da Ponte was marvelous. He used the inverted language to some extent, but always with elegance. Trying to find words that are comparable can be heartbreaking. I've tried my hand at all three of them Cosi, Marriage of Figaro, and Don Giovanni.

But let me get back to my story. Come '79, both Peter and Samira had been pressuring me for nearly a year to leave the Old Spaghetti Factory. Pressure came from plenty of other sources, too--people who found the discomforts and, by this point, the dilapidation of the Spaghetti Factory intolerable.

I was reluctant to move. Despite the chorus of complaints, I am certain that part of the charm of these early presentations at the OSF was due to the total surprise of the experience, particularly to people who had not attended the previous concerts. To encounter in such a wildly improbable setting performances of truly top-notch caliber. To experience opera almost at one's fingertips, and--I like to think--the revelation of hearing it in words that made it come freshly alive.

The crowds generated their own excitement. I must admit that the only times I enjoy throngs of people jammed together are at my own performances. And I still find the chatter and buzz of an audience before the performance starts my favorite sound in all of nature--sweeter than the murmuring brook.


Was the charm portable? Furthermore, the OSF was home, after all, and had been so for nineteen years. And I was more pessimistic than they about finding an alternative. This pessimism was amply borne out by the next fifteen years, when we were wandering without a home. Wandering in the wilderness, it often seemed.


Yes, you've been to a lot of places.


Eleven theatres in San Francisco alone, four of which no longer exist and four others that are no longer available. Even when we were lucky enough to land in a suitable place that we really liked--Marines Memorial, the Alcazar, Theatre on the Square--there were huge drawbacks.

These were all commercial theatres, and their managers naturally wanted to rent to a company that intended to use the space seven days a week. They were reluctant to accommodate us for even a single afternoon a week for fear of jeopardizing their chances for a full-time occupant. So even when we had the good fortune of being accepted, it never happened until the last minute, until they had despaired of a suitable alternative. [laughter] Of course, this meant that advance planning and scheduling were impossible, not to mention advance publicity.

Another major drawback: in a commercial theatre we were always at the mercy of the larger company that was performing at the same time. This meant, for one thing, sharing whatever stage set they happened to be using. A few times this worked out to our benefit. Our first season at the On Broadway, we had the good luck of sharing a setting that might have been ordered just for us: simple, elegant, nonspecific, with a nice architectural design. Just the kind of framework that we had always wanted but could never afford.

The same thing happened a year later at the Alcazar. But the reverse happened much more frequently. We often had to perform in a set that was grossly inappropriate. At the Marines Memorial, we were with Cloud Nine, a play with a semi-oriental setting, lots of bamboo.


The Caryl Churchill play? How bizarre!


But the ultimate in bizarreness was reached at the Alcazar, when we shared a stage with a play called Women Behind Bars. We did Der Freischuetz--that folktale of the German forest-- set in a women's penitentiary. Talk about weird concepts! [laughter] We once shared a stage with Torch Song Trilogy. We

managed to get the set out of the way, but since they used a revolving stage, getting the set out of the way left us about three feet of performing space.


I remember the play. The set was quite striking!


It was indeed. The middle scene consisted of a huge bed that covered almost the entire stage. Well, the bed didn't simply disappear. It was rolled around to the backstage, and it was the stage that disappeared. Oh, yes, for us these theatres could be hazardous.

So we left the Old Spaghetti Factory in the summer of '79 in a state of innocence. The first theatre that we moved into was called The Little Fox--one of our theatres that no longer exist. It was a lovely little theatre, but hardly ideal for performing. It was shaped like a shoebox, but placed the wrong way--fewer than ten rows, but each row stretching far to left and right.

It was great for the few that sat in the middle, but for the rest--at any time, half of them were unable to hear. When a singer turned in your direction, you heard beautifully; when the singer turned the other direction, you heard very little. So as I said, one third of the audience was always excluded.


Is that why the theatre was discontinued?


Oh, I don't think for anything so trivial. [laughter] Seriously, the economics of theatre management are complex and perilous, and the survival rate is not good.


Are these all about five hundred-seat theatres?


No, no, The Little Fox was only about three hundred. But still, going from two hundred seats at the Old Spaghetti Factory once a week to three hundred seats three times a week was a huge leap.

This was the summer that introduced The Rake's Progress and Stiffelio, and included Cosi and Cenerentola, and three Handels: Giulio Cesare, Alcina and Agrippina.

Mainly because of the awkward seating arrangement, after just the one season we left The Little Fox for the On Broadway, which I much preferred, only a block away. In fact, of all the theatres that we've performed in, this is where I felt most at home.


Unfortunately, it no longer looks at all the way it did then, but in 1980 it had a lovely, faded elegance. Covered with red brocade, to some it suggested a classic nineteenth- century jewel box, to others a bordello. It was located in one of the sleazier parts of North Beach when North Beach was going through one of its sleazier phases. It was upstairs, directly above a popular club that was considered the rock capital of the western world. Through bargaining, we finally prevailed on them not to begin performing until 10:30.

They didn't always keep to the agreement, and when they performed you knew it. Great booms, like something from the netherworld, would make the walls vibrate. These volcanic explosions would send the whole theatre into spasms. Each night around 10:15 I would get nervous. Approaching the end of Figaro, as the Count implores the Countess for forgiveness-- what will erupt from below? [laughter]

But even at the On Broadway, our tenure was always chancy. Typically, we could return for another season only if an out-of-town show went bankrupt before reaching San Francisco. For years, in fact, it seemed that our survival was entirely dependent on the failure of others--in the theatre, a fairly safe bet. [laughter]

Samira and Peter and most of the board members were far less enamored of the On Broadway than I was. They hated the neighborhood and thought the theatre rundown and shabby, which I suppose it was.


But you like shabby. I remember you said once, "I never want to compromise our shabbiness." [laughter]


Did I? Well, no one could reproach us for having done so at the On Broadway. But I found it elegant and evocative as well. At any rate, after two years at the On Broadway we went to the Alcazar, and from there to one place after another.


So you've not found the Old Spaghetti Factory of the nineties.


Well, I don't think I would want the Old Spaghetti Factory back. [laughter] No, Pocket Opera has changed. We've made our point, and now, though few would accuse us of going in for spectacle, we do pay a lot more attention to staging and production values, and we really need and want the resources of a theatre.


And now you're venturing out into suburban areas, some new theatres.


Yes, but it has been a mixed bag. I'm afraid that suburbanites are more drawn to extravaganza. We've recently canceled a performance at Dominican College because ticket sales were so sparse.


How do you explain that? They have no opera company in Marin, do they?


Maybe that's why. But there was a Marin opera company for several years. I suppose they found it rough going, too.

Our failure didn't surprise me altogether, though I was hopeful. But to make something like this go, I think you might have a better chance by doing what we did in Berkeley in the early eighties--a season with six productions. To offer just one is like a cafeteria that displays only one dish. By putting up a display of varied dishes you make each of them look more appealing. You also run the risk of losing your shirt. If it should happen not to work, it could be suicidal. Whereas you can perhaps lose out on one performance and the blow is not lethal.

We have been to the Carriage House at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga for several years, and that's been quite successful. I hear that they have completely renovated the theatre this past year. I've not seen the renovation, but I also hear that they've ruined it, destroyed all its charm. So it goes.

[Interview 6: July 10, 1997] ##

I hope that you won't think it contemptible, but I've made some notes.

As I recall, when we broke off, we had finally left the Spaghetti Factory after nineteen years. Not all of that time of course was with Pocket Opera, but with the success of Pocket Opera the pressure was great to move to bigger quarters, to something more like a theatre. I felt that a move would be risky. It was like transplanting a delicate plant. The trouble was, I had no idea how delicate it might be. Planted and nurtured at the Old Spaghetti Factory, would it adapt to a new, alien environment?

For one thing, Pocket Opera had evolved on a stage about the size of a kitchen table where there was no room for staging, even if one had so desired. But if singers cannot move, one does not expect them to move and so one concentrates on what they do do, rather than on what they are not doing.

Watching a performance on a real stage, an audience would naturally have different expectations, different demands. People might not be so indulgent. I was leery.

But by this time other people had become involved with Pocket Opera. They had put in much time and energy, and I felt that they had a well-earned vote. They were all for moving.


You've spoken about Samira.


Yes, Samira Baroody came to one of our first performances as Pocket Opera. I believe it was Tutor in a Tangle. She was captivated by the performance and by the basic concept of Pocket Opera, and showed herself eager and willing to help out. She and Peter Jacoby pitched in together, and he became our unofficial manager, on a volunteer basis, because there was virtually no money. It was their work that made our first season possible, in the summer of '78.

The season was a glorious success, exhilarating for all. We were packed to the rafters every single night. I'm not sure how we placated the union, but neither players nor singers were paid for rehearsals, just for performances. Now, twenty years later, that sad fact is still true for our singers.

Despite misgivings, I decided to go along with the tide and, sure enough, the following summer we moved to The Little Fox, an ornately decorated room that suggested a private theatre in a royal palace--a noticeable change from the Old Spaghetti Factory. [laughter] It was embellished, by the way, with trappings that were salvaged from the real Fox Theatre. This was the grand rococo theatre of downtown, unfortunately torn down after a valiant but failed drive to preserve it. Plush chairs, gilded mirrors, scrolls and spirals with ornate filigree. Now torn down as well, or perhaps transformed into a mundane office building. The march of progress.

At the time, incidentally, it was owned by Francis Ford Coppola, whose office was in the building. He never attended a Pocket Opera performance, but I was told that one night, in the middle of Cosi fan tutte, he walked down the center aisle slowly to the front, faced the audience, nodded a few times and went out. Royalty surveys its domain.

Aside from Verdi's Stiffelio, the other project for the summer was The Rake's Progress by Stravinsky, which of course didn't need translation, although I couldn't help thinking that some of Auden's lines could stand a bit of translation into more comprehensible English.


With Baker Peeples, Francesca Howe, John Trout and Margery Tede all superb in the four leading roles, I liked the result enormously, and please don't think I'm going to say that about every opera coming up. There are certainly some that I have liked less than others, and even some performances that left something to be desired. So if I start to gush unremittingly, be patient. There will be a few notes of restraint. [laughter]


Good, good. Well, I'd like to know what you consider your best successes.


They are yet to come. Much as I liked The Rake, I would not put it near the top of the list. Maybe Pocket Opera had overstepped a bit.

From The Little Fox, leaving Francis Ford Coppola, we moved to the On Broadway--located guess where--and a theatre that I still remember with special fondness. Its atmosphere of faded elegance was very nineteenth-century in character, something that one could imagine in a movie like Les Enfants du Paradis.

It seated four hundred people, with a balcony that went all the way around, and it was thoroughly charming, but in a scruffy, run-down neighborhood, surrounded by porno palaces, strip joints and everything else you could, or possibly could not, think of.

Introducing Cosi fan tutte, I noted the opera's scandal- ridden history, where for over a century it was neglected on grounds of indecency, despite unsuccessful efforts to tamper with it, to make the plot more acceptable. But standards have changed. Finally, we can perform Cosi fan tutte without fear of lowering the moral tone of the neighborhood. Big laugh!

Of course, many people objected to the neighborhood. And the old refrain, "When are you going to leave the Old Spaghetti Factory?" became "When are you going to leave the On Broadway?"


But they came anyway?


They did come. That season at the On Broadway we did three premieres--"premieres" meaning, of course, a first performance for us, and almost always this meant a new translation. Plus nine "revivals." With this vast number of productions it was essential to expand the repertory, and fast!

We started the season with Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers, a sparkling comedy with a first act that's practically

perfect. The second act unfortunately loses focus and goes into too many different directions. But the music bubbles throughout.

I was always slightly fearful that we might have some Turks in the audience who would have every right to howl in protest. Pitted against the Italian girl, they do not come off well. The two cultures collide: the hidebound, chauvinistic, barbaric and monumentally stupid Turk--who no doubt has many a prototype in Italy as well, not to mention elsewhere--versus the fearless, liberated and outspoken Italian girl.

It's a curious reversal of the standard rescue motif, as exemplified by many an opera where the brave hero comes to rescue the captive maiden. Note The Barber of Seville. Here the girl survives shipwreck and braves danger to rescue the young man from captivity, and succeeds in doing so by twisting the tyrant Turk around her little finger. It ends in their glorious escape.


Wouldn't the title role be difficult to cast?


Not if you already have the right person! It was just the role for Vicky Van Dewark, who has such an exciting, positive, and clearly focused sound, plus the endless agility that Rossini's music requires. But we were lucky with the other three leads as well: Robert Tate as the captive hero, David Tigner as the overbearing and gullible Mustafa, and Marvin Klebe as the less-than-heroic uncle, her companion.

By this time, I'd made the breakthrough discovery that one could rent orchestral parts. This fact may be of minor interest, but I can't tell you how many weeks, months, years it has added to my life! Up until then, I'd laboriously copied them all out by hand. Adapting the parts to Pocket Opera still required a good deal of work, but nothing like starting from scratch.

Our second premiere remains to this day one of my own particular favorites: Smetana's little-known comic opera, The Two Widows, which, like The Bartered Bride, seems to embody the very heart and soul of central Europe with its rich folk tradition.

You find it not only in Smetana and Dvo k, but in Brahms and Mahler as well. And here it's harvest time to boot! Life is good, the feast is abundant, and love is in the air--though it takes some curious, unexpected turns before reaching a radiant conclusion. One of the singers broke down in

rehearsal, almost in tears, and said that the music was "achingly beautiful," and so it is.

For this particular opera I took a radical step with the orchestration by turning it into a string quintet, using two violins, viola, and two cellos, with piano, and simply leaving out all the other instruments, which were replaced by the piano. This made the piano part a good deal more prominent than anything I'd ever done before. But the result sounded so like a genuine piece of chamber music, with a warm, rich consistency of texture, that even the other players were surprised to learn that Smetana had intended it for a much larger orchestra.



Why has The Two Widows not become better known?


I think partly because it's more effective in a small space. Subtlety, warmth and intimacy are the key words. A spirit of gentle, good-natured fun that conceals a tormented story of forbidden passion! What more could one ask for?

Yet overriding its strong appeal, I think most opera companies would think twice about doing an opera in Czech. Pity the poor singers who would probably have to memorize and mouth it syllable by syllable. Of course, I think it's a great loss that such operas are not performed in English. Not the first time that I've given utterance to this thought.


Could you give us a sample lyric?


Now isn't that odd? I have one right here. It's from near the beginning, when Carolina, one of the widows, owner of a large estate in rich farmland, introduces herself as a thoroughly happy, supremely contented person:


Lady of the land, I reign
Over field and country,
Queen of an entire domain,
Served by all and sundry.

Independently I rule my large estate,
Wielding supreme power over all my servants.

Time to sew or time to reap,
Mow lawns, trim the borders,
Shoe the horses, shear the sheep,
I give all the orders.

Whether sewing or reaping,
My orders are carried out.
Just as the great lady wishes.
― 137 ―

Prima donna of the dairy,
Autocrat of sty and stable,

I preside, command the harvest,
Like the goddess Ceres herself.

My cuisine is legendary,
And my brew a thing of fable.

Over stables, fields and forests
My rule is absolute.

Famous for my bees and honey,
Healthy flocks and flax and linen,
When the sky's serene and sunny,
I'm the happiest of women.

Far and wide, people praise
My beehives, my fields of flax,
My sheep and poultry,
My model domain.

Who is better off than I?
Weigh the evidence presented.
Think it over, then reply:
Lives there widow more contented?

What more could I want?
Answer me:
Is there a widow in the world
Who lives better than I?

At the county fair I star,
Winning all the glory.
My displays are best by far
In each category.

I send my produce
To the county fairs
Where everyone praises
My animals and equipment.

Then my name is in the news,
Sometimes half a column,
And I comfort those who lose,
In words wise and solemn.

I win all the prizes
Along with much praise;
The newspapers print my name,
Spreading the glory.

I complain and pay my taxes,
Read the journals, duly noting
How the market wanes and waxes,
Ever first in line for voting.

I promptly pay my taxes
And never fail to vote,
And like all malcontents
Keep up with the news.

I speak out on matters local,
Claim our mayor's but a novice
And the governor a yokel.
Throw the rascals out of office!

I strongly oppose the mayor,
That old philistine,
I agitate, I petition,
Et cetera, et cetera.

Who is better off than I?
Weigh the evidence presented.
Think it over, then reply:
Lives there widow more contented?

What more could I want?
Answer me:
Is there a widow in the world
Who lives better than I?


[applause] How's your Czech?


Nonexistent. Instead, I have a marvelous record jacket that translates into French, German and English. By comparing the three translations I presume that one gets a fairly accurate idea of what the Czech is saying. But let me emphasize again that what I'm doing is not strictly speaking translation, nor should it be, in my opinion.

In a translation of Tolstoi or Flaubert, for example, I would suppose that one tries to get as close to the specific meaning of the original as possible, adding or subtracting nothing. In opera translation, I think that this is not the proper goal, nor even a possible goal. Other considerations greatly outweigh it. I would certainly want the total translation of an aria to reflect what the original is saying, but I do not attempt to match it line for line. A lyric cannot be paraphrased; it must be reinvented, woven out of the material that one's own language provides. I aim for the essence, but clothe it in new garments.

There is one area, though, where one has no freedom whatever. The translator is absolutely bound to the rhythm of the music, nor can he add or subtract a syllable from the original text. Italian presents a special challenge, being blessed with long, mellifluous words. A classic example would be "la primavera," which means "spring." A translator is confronted with four extra syllables which he must use to some effect. But this is the golden opportunity--to say something about spring, to clarify, to expand, to illuminate, to create a phrase that will make it more vivid and specific. And this is what is exciting about the process. It demands that you probe, explore, and discover what the opera is all about.

Don't get me wrong. English also has its share of gorgeous, mouth-filling words, but they are usually about the wrong thing: oleomargarine, orange marmalade, wall-to-wall carpeting. Where one truly longs for resonance, for sheer liquid beauty, what do we get? Bliss. Sweet lips. Spring buds. Very frustrating.


For you, opera in English is a real cause, isn't?


A crusade, no less. And it's taken on the urgency of a fight to preserve an endangered species, as more and more companies turn to supertitles.


A distraction?


They are certainly better than leaving the audience totally in the dark, but you're right. They are also a distraction. For one thing, in most opera houses your attention is drastically divided between the titles far above and the stage far below. The people on stage, who after all should be of supreme importance, tend to get dwarfed. The words are remote from the people that presumably are uttering them and disconnected from what is actually coming out of their mouths. The actual words become lifeless, or even nonexistent.


Certainly composers wanted the words to be meaningful.


Absolutely. Verdi, for example, was fanatical about dramatizing the words, often emphasizing this over beauty of voice. Well, I intend to carry on the struggle.

From there we went on to Anna Bolena, the first of a Donizetti trilogy on the three queens: Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth, her daughter, and Mary Stuart, Elizabeth's ill-fated rival.

Anna Bolena was Donizetti's first big international success, and I would presume the first of his mature operas-- a bold presumption indeed, considering that of the twenty-two full length operas that preceded it, I was familiar with only The Tutor in a Tangle. Certainly by this time he had found himself. His form and style had crystallized, though it continued to mature and ripen throughout the thirteen years and thirty-some operas that he completed before his career was tragically cut short.

As a composer, I think that he is generally much underrated. Possibly because no other composer's music is so dependent on the interpreter. It demands the human voice, with its coloring and nuance, its warmth and passion, to bring it to life, to transform what appears to be dross into gold. Donizetti, who wrote almost entirely for the theatre, understood this like a playwright who knows how and when to let the actor take over.

Few composers had his gift for melting lyricism, for expressive and powerful ensembles from which Verdi surely learned a thing or two. And furthermore, he had a strong instinct for what is theatrically effective, and a gift for choosing well-crafted libretti, often taking an active role in shaping them. Some of them I believe he wrote entirely by himself. This takes enormous skill.


You have said that librettists are often unfairly criticized.


True. I've come away from almost all the libretti I've worked on with nothing less than fervent admiration. The formal demands are so stringent, so precise. But in fact the tightest restrictions often produce the greatest art. Witness the sonnet, the fugue.

But back to Anna Bolena. This was the opera with which Maria Callas in Milan singlehandedly, so the report goes, inaugurated a great Donizetti revival in the fifties. I was excited to discover that the performance had been recorded. I turned it on, eager and expectant. What a disappointment!

Not that her singing was bad. But the conductor had no feeling for Donizetti's style, and this must have greatly restricted what she could do. The tempi were all wrong. Quick movements that should have sparkled with verve and vigor were soggy, lugubrious and lifeless. It was hard to imagine how such a performance could have sparked interest. I should think it would have snuffed it out instantly.

Callas must have been supremely impressive as a performer, but I can't imagine that anyone's presence could be so awesome that one could overlook the surrounding musical deficiencies. Fortunately, Beverly Sills made a recording later on that showed how it ought to go. Which goes to show that music really is the universal language. [laughter]

Frankly, though, I don't think many opera companies could have offered a stronger cast than ours: Kaaren Erickson at the height of her glory in the title role, Stephanie Friedman, Robert Tate, and in the smaller role of an innocent young page, Lorraine Hunt, later Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I believe this was her first performance in an opera.

As for what happens in Anna Bolena, King Henry VIII, all-powerful and unscrupulous, is eager to find a pretext for getting rid of his vulnerable queen, who interestingly is by no means spotless.

This is contrary to most melodrama. Ordinarily, it is unthinkable for a heroine to be anything less than a goddess on a pedestal, but Donizetti dared show her as a woman. She had indeed sinned, and her original mistake was in putting worldly ambition over love by marrying Henry. Though by now she's had ample opportunity to regret her mistake, she has made her choice and, to Henry's consternation, she is determined to stick with it.


Henry has brought back her former lover on purpose to tempt her, to get her to fall, so that he'll have an excuse to get rid of her--in his own way. Unaware of Henry's conniving, she is nonetheless determined to live up to her obligations as a wife and as a queen. She is not going to have an adulterous relationship, however much her heart longs for it.

So the king sets up a snare that entraps Anna, the lover that she's renounced, and a totally naive, innocent young page, a Cherubino who is in love with her, and who unwittingly betrays Anna with a false confession that he is told will save her.


I can just hear your narration.


Oh, yes, there is much to tell! [laughter] Another dramatic highlight is when Anna discovers that Jane Seymour, her closest friend, is in fact her potential replacement, a discovery that unfolds in the course of a powerful duet.

Above all, there's the final mad scene where Anna falls apart. Like Lucia, like Ophelia, her scene is full of fragments of the past, but they eventually cohere into an otherworldly tranquility and a simple, discreetly ornamented melody that goes straight to the heart. The melody is Home, Sweet Home, thinly disguised and exquisitely set. Who else could have used it so beautifully, so movingly?


Lucia is a standard in most big houses, yet Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena aren't done a lot. Is that because of the demands on the soprano?


Well, I doubt that many soprano roles are more demanding than Lucia. But except for Lucia and some of his comedies, Donizetti suffered about a hundred years of condescension and neglect. Until that infamous Callas performance! But I believe that more and more of his operas are being rediscovered and reevaluated, thanks largely to recordings.

Here again I become a broken record. A huge opera house is not friendly to the bel canto style, which is subtly nuanced, gracefully ornamented, of the utmost expressiveness and refinement. There are few singers that can achieve this and yet have the power to fill the big spaces. Usually it's one or the other.


Yes, after Anna Bolena was done last year, someone wrote: "The soprano can belto, but there was no bel canto." [laughter]


Well put, but unfortunately the soprano probably had no choice but to belto. Pocket Opera is most fortunate to have Ellen Kerrigan, whose feeling for the style is a constant revelation. She has wonderful floating pianissimi on top, besides a seemingly infinite resource of dynamic variety. Yet I wonder if she could do nearly so much by way of subtle color in the bigger space.

I will concede one flaw in Donizetti, a criticism others have also made and that I think is thoroughly justified. Almost every aria, every ensemble, every duet, on however high a level it begins, reaches a point where it goes into formula, something from a cookie cutter, something that scads of pupils or anybody else for that matter could have supplied with ease. For only a few measures, mind you, but always at the climax.

This consistent weakness I find unfathomable, a single formula mercilessly repeated. Here I have to admit that we take things in hand and do a bit of trimming. The term trimming the fat has never been more apt. [laughter] I also think that one can do no greater service to Donizetti than to shorten some of these mechanically contrived, thoroughly conventional endings. I can't imagine why he didn't break the habit. This may be one reason why he is put down as a composer. Critics look at these endings, recognize the routine mechanism, and then dismiss him as a formulaic composer, ignoring the beauties that went before.


Can you be a little more specific about that?

Pippin: [plays an example, a repeated harmonic pattern] Look at every single number, about twelve to twenty bars from the end, and you'll find the same pattern.


And your soprano doesn't resent your cutting her role?


Far from it. They usually insist on it. They can recognize formulas, too. Furthermore, these places are especially wearing on the voice. In fact, most often, they will simply stop singing for a few bars and let the orchestra go it alone. Then they return refreshed for the high note at the end.


Do other companies cut in this way?


I think most of them do. But some do not, and no doubt consider themselves morally superior. [laughter] I think they are vastly deluded in this particular piety.


Isn't that a very time-consuming process, trimming that way instead of making large cuts?


Nothing easier, nothing quicker. It's not hard to tell when Donizetti goes into empty repetition. I should add, though, that aside from this we do very little cutting, which brings up a small point of chagrin. Reviewers have said from time to time that our operas are drastically trimmed and cut. Well, they are not! Perhaps we should take it as a tribute--the operas seem short!


Because they hold the interest.


That's right. When you get involved with what's going on, it doesn't drag--it moves along.

So that takes us to the year '81 and three more operas-- The Marriage of Figaro, La Belle Helene and La Vie Parisienne.

I had approached almost every opera with doubt and trepidation, but none more so than Figaro--an opera of universally recognized greatness, well known, to put it mildly, performed frequently by every company on earth, and full of scenes that demand staging. What on earth could we give to it? A new translation, for one thing. My translations had in fact been praised extravagantly, and I hoped that this might be a good enough reason for taking it on. And if for nothing else, I looked forward to the pleasure of spending several months in daily contact with such a radiant masterpiece.


Why were you so worried?


At that time, our style of presentation was still extremely modest. Simplicity could go no further! From the beginning, Pocket Opera has performed for the most part on small stages. The orchestra is seated onstage, behind the singers. Two rows of players plus a grand piano usually stretch across the entire stage. From the piano, where I conduct the orchestra with head, shoulders, elbows, et cetera, my back is to the singers as well as to the audience.

For the first few years, singers performed on book. We had no stage director. Stage movement and stage groupings were devised entirely by the singers, with me putting in my two cents here and there. Some attempt was made to coordinate dress, but there was no costuming in the theatrical sense. If a stage set was needed, I would simply step forth and describe it--the opulent palace of Mustafa, the haunted fountain in

Lucia, the tavern at the opening of Cosi, that changed effortlessly into a garden with a view of the sea.

We made minimal use of props. Literally everything depended on the performance of the music itself and the singers' ability to project words and character and to relate to each other through suggestion.

It had worked well so far, but we were getting into more complicated territory. It was somewhat like adapting a novel into another medium. But I thought that our version of Figaro would at least give a view through a different lens, a new way of looking at it without resorting to the drastic reinterpretation and shock treatment that I personally find offensive. Trump Towers indeed!

Well, the faith turned out to be justified, thanks to an extraordinary cast: Kaaren Erickson, our Susanna, did the same role a year or so later with the Met. Francesca Howe was a warmly radiant Countess, though one critic wrote, "I can't believe that the Count would ever grow cold to this woman." Elwood Thornton was imposing, which made him all the more comical as the constantly thwarted Count, and Larry Venza was a delightful Figaro.

Secondary roles were equally outstanding: Donna Petersen and Marcia Hunt (Lorraine Hunt's mother) alternated as Marcellina; Walter Matthes was a blustering Bartolo, William Coburn an unctuous, oily Basilio. What a range of characters this opera does contain! And despite the elements of confusion in the story, it's one of the best libretti ever.

I faced one stumbling block--the overture, which I was tempted to omit altogether, out of deference and trepidation. After all, one of the most famous pieces in the orchestral repertoire. How dare we attempt it with the Pocket Philharmonic? Well, by rare chance, because I almost never turn on the radio, I happened to hear it on the radio played by a group of instruments consisting of a few horns, a couple of tubas and trombones. The most bizarre combination imaginable for this light-winged music, all brass and mostly bass. By George, the overture emerged with all of its energy and sparkle intact. Not at all the sound that one expected, but the novelty if anything added to the delight. And I thought, if they can do it with their instruments, we can do it with ours. And so we did!


It has been said that it wasn't until The Magic Flute that Mozart could really control his librettist, that Da Ponte kind of ran away with things. Do you have any feeling about that?


Well, if what you say is true, I think it may be a good thing that Mozart didn't have control. [laughter]


Did he bully Schikaneder?


I wish he had bullied him more. Though I don't know. I've

not yet gotten that far into The Magic Flute libretto, so it may turn out to be more coherent than I think it is. But I doubt that it compares with Cosi, Figaro, or Don Giovanni.



From there to La Belle Helene. Pocket Opera discovers Offenbach!

La Belle Helene was a propitious introduction. It is a divinely comic operetta in an oddly literal sense, because one of its most touchingly comic elements is Helen's ambivalent relationship to the goddess Venus.

Venus, moody and capricious, is in fact the leading comic character, though she does not actually appear. Nonetheless, she dominates the plot, permeates the atmosphere, radiates the stage. And Helen, Queen of Sparta, wife of King Menelaus, is comically helpless in her obviously doomed determination to remain a loyal wife even while caught in the firm grip of Venus' unyielding demands--a rather ponderous way of saying she's in love! With handsome young Prince Paris, no less.

Her dilemma is summed up in her second-act prayer to Venus when she is essentially telling Venus to lay off, to leave her alone. True enough, she has sinned in the past. Rather frequently, in fact. With a blush she recalls the hours of ecstasy, the nights of rapture, but all of it entirely against her will. Venus gave the orders; Venus laid down the law. What could she do but obey? And so the prayer ends, "Venus, what next? Am I just oversexed? [laughter] Venus, for me, go back into the sea. Return to your shell'n leave Helen alone." Well, Venus is not about to take orders from Helen.


A mere mortal.


Right, indeed. Well, despite the appeal of the story, I had another attack of trepidation. An operetta without spectacle, an operetta without dance, without visual allure, without

lavish costuming? Could it survive solely on the loveliness of the music and on the sparkle of the story itself?

Well, survive it did. And La Belle Helene remains not only one of my fondest memories but a harbinger of things to come. Eleven more Offenbach operettas have followed to date.

With La Belle Helene I also rediscovered how useful narration can be. All of Offenbach's operettas contain a massive amount of spoken dialogue. His operettas are in fact plays with music. So much so that the long, long dialogue scenes almost dwarf the music. Here the scissors can get a vigorous workout. The dialogue is not only lengthy, but much of it is insipid and dated. Or perhaps it is so quintessentially French that it defies translation.

But with crisp narration one can telescope, compress. Narration also gives an opportunity to slant, to shape and give perspective to the plot, to point up ironies. And you can always retain the dialogue scenes when you want the characters to speak for themselves. A couple of years later when the Lamplighters presented it, the performance of Rosemary Bach as Helen was a revelation. In writing the dialogue, I had no idea how funny it was until I heard her speak it. What a talent! I still don't know how she did it.


With Offenbach I suppose you could go crazy with rhyme.


With Offenbach rhyme is in its element. Allow me. King Menelaus has just returned from a reluctant trip abroad to find Helen in the arms of Prince Paris. In the sassiest tune imaginable, she turns the situation around and points out how he is the one to blame:

A man if smart
About to start
A homeward trip aboard a ship
Will show good breeding
Before proceeding
And send his wife a friendly tip.
And thus prepared
A scene is spared
And she awaits with sighs of bliss.
In that way can
The married man
Receive a fond and tender kiss.


But if perchance
With no advance
He barges in despite the lock,
So impolite,
It serves him right
If he becomes the laughingstock.
The only cure
For such a boor
Is from the treatment known as shock.
So I advise
The man that's wise
To give at least a gentle knock.

But I want to go back to the fact that Pocket Opera productions at this time were undirected. This might suggest a gaping void. But this was not the case. It meant that the challenge went straight to the singers. And when they are not directed, when they are on their own, they do respond. They take over.


I'm not surprised.


They know that they have to do the creating themselves, and they love it. They don't have to kowtow to anybody else's concept. They can relate to each other, they can play off each other.

Now, a really fine director will stimulate and use this talent; he will in turn be stimulated by what comes from them. But creativity often doesn't spring to life until it's forced to, or until circumstances demand it. "Necessity is the mother...."

So even though a production like La Belle Helene was done with score in hand and with no outside direction, the individual singers, working with each other, contributed so much that the effect was ebullient and contagious.


Were all performances done with scores?


Without exception. Figaro, Anna Bolena, all of them.


How did that affect the performances?


I was more than pleasantly surprised that audiences seemed to accept it immediately. They saw the eyes, they saw the faces, and the fact that the singers were holding scores was immaterial. Many people commented about this, saying that they

themselves were surprised at how quickly they stopped even noticing.

I have to admit, though, that while this was true of our best performers, it did not work with everyone. Some singers used the book as an excuse not to perform. This seldom happened in a major role, but even when it happened in a minor role this would be a major distraction. The person buried in the book would be the person noticed. The aching tooth tends to get one's entire attention.

Pocket Opera casts were and still are small enough that every person counts. I also have to admit that when the policy changed, when we decided to drop the books, even though this meant an enormously greater amount of work, singers felt relieved and liberated. I daresay, like a person discarding crutches.

Having broken the ice with La Belle Helene, I felt far less trepidation about La Vie Parisienne, which followed soon afterwards. A more irresistible piece would be hard to find-- literally intoxicating. The centerpiece is a wild, zany party where servants are posing as aristocrats for the benefit of a visiting Swedish baron who is eager to connect with the upper echelons of Parisian society. The party culminates in an extended finale that graphically depicts the progressive stages of intoxication.

In fact, though, I would not have turned again to Offenbach so quickly except for a surprise phone call that I received in early '81. It was from a man named Bob--I forget his last name. He represented the Belwyn Mills Publishing Company. He explained that they were planning to publish the collected operettas of Offenbach with English translations, and that I had been highly recommended.

They wanted me to start out with La Vie Parisienne. I don't remember if I even tried to sound nonchalant. I was tickled pink. They gave a rather early deadline, which meant that I had to drop everything and dive into it immediately. Fine. I was all enthusiasm. And I did particularly enjoy the work. So nice to feel wanted. Of course, I met the deadline. And then the waiting game began.

A year or so later I got a second call, complaining that I had copied the text into the wrong edition. It was true. I used a German edition because it was legible, as opposed to the old, crumbled and faded French edition they had given me. I was more tactful in explaining my reason. The notes were the

same, and since it was to be recopied anyway, I didn't see that it made any difference. But no, they insisted that I recopy it into the French edition and get it to them within a week. So of course, I did.

A few months later they phoned in alarm to say that they did not have a typed copy of the translation. They needed it immediately, and it must follow their format: the lyrics should be in capital letters. Weeks after I sent it in, they phoned to complain that my copy was unusable because the lyrics were in capital letters. Would I please make another copy and send it without delay?

Meanwhile, I had met with Bob several times and we had delightful conversations. He was full of enthusiasm about the project and delighted with my work. But he warned me: they would send me a contract and I should have a lawyer look it over. The company's attitude to aspiring lyricists was not philanthropic.

We found a lawyer with a brilliantly creative imagination, who came up with a document that would have made the START treaty look like child's play. Every conceivable contingency that the mind of man could envision was exhaustively explored. This time it was no wonder that months went by before we got a response.

Finally, three years after the initial phone call, I received a copy in the mail of the first two acts for proofreading. The text was exquisitely hand-copied. Two weeks later, I got a brief letter informing me that the project was canceled. They had been unable to locate orchestra parts for one of the five acts. Shortly after that, Bob died, and I suppose that the Offenbach project died with him.

Frustrating, disappointing and sad as the experience had been, at least I got introduced to La Vie Parisienne, and that makes up for a lot. As with Donizetti, I would consider Offenbach generally underrated. He had an even greater gift for individual, distinctive melody than Donizetti. And unlike Donizetti, he never fell back on formulas.


No cutting necessary?


No, Offenbach has done all the cutting himself. In fact, the vocal scores often have asterisked footnotes that say, "This number is skipped in performance."


Is it true that he so scandalized the French that he never had the reputation for the quality composer that he was?


Oh, the French loved him while he lived--at least they loved him for fifteen years. His last ten years were more problematical. But operetta was generally looked down upon as a secondary form of opera--a viewpoint that was evidently shared by Offenbach himself.

Towards the end of his life, he yearned to leave a more lasting imprint, with a real opera. This goal he amply achieved with The Tales of Hoffmann, which he did not quite live to finish. But whether he was aiming high or low, he never ceased to be an artist. He wrote for the theatre, he wrote to entertain, and he never rode on a high horse.

He composed naturally, easily and copiously. I would suppose that the gift of melody tends to be effortless; either one has it or one doesn't. Schubert had it; Verdi had it; Offenbach had it. Shakespeare was sometimes criticized for writing with too much facility, to which it was Mark van Doren who made the reply, "If it were not easy, it would be impossible."

Mozart expressed it vividly, if inelegantly: "I write music the way a sow pisses."

Evidently Offenbach's flow of melody was endless. Rather than revise, he would simply start all over with something new. According to reports, the tenor was unhappy with his aria in the first act of La Belle Helene, so Offenbach nonchalantly dashed off three others from which he could choose. [laughter] Offenbach said, "No doubt I shall die with a melody waiting to come out."


That's so sad.


But can you think of a happier way to die? And to think that Hoffmann was composed in the last months, weeks, days of his life.


The recitatives were added, weren't they?


They were added posthumously, and I think mistakenly. Toward the end, he was drastically enfeebled. He had to be carried from one room to another. But for decades he had endured excruciating, chronic pain, all the while composing some of the most buoyant, effervescent, exhilarating music ever set down on paper.


A program of highlights called "The Pick of the Pockets" ended our second season at the On Broadway. Although I've spoken only of the premieres, bear in mind that each season consisted of twelve or fourteen different operas, most of them rotating from previous seasons. We were a true repertory company, and by this time we had accumulated a considerable repertory. Though far from enough to allow me to slow down.

As I've said, I was particularly fond of the On Broadway, and felt that this was where Pocket Opera belonged. Part of its appeal for me was that it represented almost the opposite of the clichés often associated with opera--lavish, ostentatious, exclusive and snobbish. Perhaps I still had Les Enfants du Paradis in mind.

Nonetheless, the pressure was on to leave--and there were many valid arguments--and so we moved to the larger Alcazar Theatre. It was a wrenching separation, a giving up of identity, but the move taught me that our identity was not so easily shattered and that we functioned quite effectively under many different circumstances. And the Alcazar was by no means the worst.

Three more premieres: Verdi's Luisa Miller, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, and Von Flotow's Martha. I'm afraid that I'm in greater danger than ever of sounding gushy. I really will get eventually to some of the operas that I like somewhat less. [laughter]

But not with these three. Both Luisa Miller and Lucia represent Italian romantic-tragic opera at its very best: powerful conflict, well-shaped libretti, firmly drawn characters, inspired music within somewhat conventional boundaries, and in each a highly vulnerable, sympathetic but strong heroine in truly desperate straits. And both of them take a desperate way out. Both operas, in being so moving and so dramatic, make a strong case for opera in English.

By now I was thoroughly convinced that Pocket Opera could and should take on these grand and tragic themes. I was a bit shaken, however, by a small incident a few days before our first performance of Luisa Miller. I ran into a very nice lady who worked with the San Francisco Opera. She asked me what we were doing next. I told her. "Wonderful!" she cried. "I'm sure it will be hilarious!"

Was this what our audience would expect? The truthful answer is--well, yes. For the most part. No question, we had work to do.


Perhaps you can say what kind of person you were looking for for Luisa Miller.


Kaaren. [laughs]


So she was still here.


Yes, but her life was soon to take a new direction. In just a few weeks she was to take first place in one of the most prestigious of European competitions, in Munich. This was to launch her into a much larger career. It was her intense musicality that made her ideal for the role. This musicality was as much in evidence when she "marked"--which she often did in rehearsals--as when she sang full out. Diane Gilfether was also a superb Lucia, a role that, like most coloratura sopranos, she deeply cherished.


Would the demands of coloratura be difficult for someone so young?


Difficult, I daresay, for a soprano of any age. But here I may be just spouting. I know little or nothing about the mechanics of singing, other than a few obvious precepts. There is no doubt that such a role requires years of training and preparation. But when you are ready for a role, when the time comes to perform it, it has to be easy. I would guess that this applies to all performances. My only first-hand knowledge comes from the piano.

The world of Martha is far removed from that of these two tragic heroines. Here the heroine, another coloratura soprano, leads a sheltered life with all the privileges of the high-born: the world is at her feet, she is surrounded with suitors, and she's bored--bored to death. [laughter]

She's looking for something that will touch her heart, although she doesn't quite put it that way; she is unaware that she has a heart to be touched. Nonetheless, she feels a restlessness, a discontent--and we know. We know what is missing, as does her good friend Nancy.

On an impulsive visit to Richmond Fair, from this impregnable height she is suddenly plunged down into the crudities of farm life. To her horror, she finds that she has unwittingly hired herself out for a year as a servant girl, and there is no way to get out of the contract.

Of course, her life really starts with this adventure, and she discovers herself. It's a charming story--one that even

George Bernard Shaw gave his rare stamp of approval to--and an even more charming score. Oddly enough for being a German opera, it's full of English rusticity and the flavor of Richmond Fair. A recurrent theme song, coming back in various keys, is the folk song "The Last Rose of Summer," which Martha herself sings at several crucial points, always lovely, always touching.


Was there anything thematic about your choosing these heroines?


No. I would like to imagine that I had some grand scheme in mind, but no, it's all happenstance. If there is a pattern, I don't find it out till afterwards. But isn't that the way creativity is supposed to work? It starts with throwing things out at random.


And Martha was well received? Again, it's not often done.


Very well indeed. It helps to have singers like Ellen Kerrigan, Baker Peeples, Ed Cohn and Vicky Van Dewark. And such an appealing, tuneful, well-written score! It makes me wonder what on earth happened to von Flotow, because he had a long life and went on to write many other operas--all of them, as far as I know, consigned to oblivion. I've been curious to explore them, but haven't yet gotten around to it.

In Martha, not only are there great solos, like the famous tenor aria, but enchanting ensembles as well: a spinning quartet for example; a "good night" quartet; a quartet where the two girls first meet the two farmers at the fair. Not to mention four duets, one of them tender and nostalgic, one tantalizingly romantic, one bitterly passionate. I'm not quite sure how to characterize the fourth!

I've read, incidentally, that Offenbach lent von Flotow a hand with the orchestration. They were good friends. What was the extent of Offenbach's contribution I have no idea, but certainly the orchestration has all the mastery that one would expect of Offenbach, or Donizetti, too, for that matter.

We left the Alcazar in '82 after just one season. It was the same old story that would become even more tiresomely repetitive in the years to come. We were simply not what theatre managers wanted, except as a desperate last resort. In six years we were bounced around to six different theatres.

Fortunately, one of the nicest of them all, the Marines Memorial, was suddenly available, no doubt through someone else's downfall. We opened there with Eugene Onegin. Talk

about trepidation! First of all, I have to say that the great Vladimir Nabokov, supreme authority on Russian literature, abhorred the libretto. Wretched and execrable were some of the gentle adjectives that he used. How can I pit my own frail intellect against his? I would sooner take on Goliath. [laughter]

But he is absolutely wrong! And his opinion is unfathomable. Perhaps he was put off because the tone and spirit of the opera are very different from that of the Pushkin poem on which it is based. The poem, several hundred pages long, is far more comic and satirical. But taken on its own terms, the opera libretto is one of the most beautiful and moving that can be found anywhere.


Did Tchaikovsky do the libretto?


He is listed as a collaborator, whatever that means. Though it predated Chekhov by several decades, the Chekhovian atmosphere is striking--an atmosphere that I had presumed to be unique. The pace is leisurely, but it doesn't drag--it floats.

Like Chekhov, so full of love! Love permeates the air. The mother's affection for her two daughters, their affection for each other, Tatiana's closeness to the old nurse, the old general's love for his wife. And the love that's unreciprocated! Lensky's passion for Olga, Tatiana's passion for Onegin, and in the end, ironically, Onegin's passion for Tatiana.

In contrast to them all is Onegin, the hero, who feels nothing, until too late. Arrogant, self-centered, politely condescending. And for Tatiana, irresistible! Tatiana, the dreamer, reaching out. Like so many in Chekhov, she yearns to leave an existence that to most of us would seem idyllic, at least externally, but to them is stagnant, isolated, cut off from the pulse of life.

I come back to the word "intimacy": Tatiana writing her passionate letter to Onegin, Lensky's song before he is killed in the duel, the mother and the old nurse reminiscing together about old times, Olga cheerfully explaining her placid disposition. And the duets: Tatiana and the old nurse, Tatiana and Onegin. These are truly the big moments in the opera. Though there are a few spectacular scenes as well. Two big parties.


What about the Cossacks?


Yes, the Cossacks do appear. They sing from offstage, they march on, but then they are sent right back off. And a chorus of eight good singers can make a most impressive sound.

We were again lucky in casting. Francesca Howe was devastating as Tatiana, well matched by Jeffrey Kearny as Lensky. Donna Petersen was the nurse, Marcia Hunt was the mother. The bass role of the general was sung by Monte Peterson, whose subsequent career I believe has been mostly in Europe.

Surprisingly, although the orchestration has moments of overwhelming richness, most of it is more like chamber music in texture, where the clarity of individual lines compensates at least in part for the less than massive sound. But the play is the thing--so touching, so moving, so real. This I felt we did full justice to.


Did you do any staging?


Like everything at that time, it was undirected. But that doesn't mean that it was unstaged. Left to their own devices, singers usually figure out what to do. You have said how beautiful it was when sung in Russian, and I agree. Certainly the Russian language has a color that English cannot duplicate. Yet I would rate the virtues of intelligibility, of communication, still higher. Tatiana writing her letter is heart-wrenching, but it is not heart-wrenching if her words have no meaning. And English need not be unbeautiful.



Do you read Russian?


Not at all. But as with Czech, I was working from trilingual translations. The translation into French was the most useful --whether because of the natural grace of the language or because of the skill of the particular translator I don't know.


Better than the translation into English?


By far.


Have you done Onegin since?


Just once since then. When you feel attached to a former production, particularly with an opera so personal, it's sometimes hard to let go and do it with new faces. Infidelity! But I'm still hoping.


So what came next?


Donizetti's Maria Padilla, another great opera, and almost entirely unknown. It's one of his last operas, and another indication and proof of his steady ripening. I got acquainted with it through an underground recording which I defy anyone to listen to and not be captivated.

A commercial recording came later, with some of the same cast, but it doesn't have nearly the heated excitement of this recorded live performance in London.

The opera has a Spanish coloring, unusual for Donizetti. Not untypically, it also has some powerful duets. For example, an idyllic duet between Maria, the rebellious heroine who dares defy social convention, now reunited with her level-headed, less passionate sister Ines. A curious parallel between Tatiana and her sister Olga, one that eluded me at the time. [laughter] Until this minute, in fact.

There's an even more powerful duet between Maria and her father, a stern man of rigid, military discipline who has gone mad as a result of the humiliation inflicted upon the family by his daughter's flouting of traditional morality. For once, the tenor, not the soprano, has a mad scene! While Maria pleads for forgiveness, he is floating off in his own world, dreaming of the daughter he once knew, unaware that she is there present beside him.


It sounds almost Lear-like.


Very much so. And the music rises to the dramatic occasion.

Don Pedro, king of Spain, is the reason for Maria's downfall. Having seduced her and promised to marry her, he has taken her with him to his court where they are living in scandalous openness. But much as he is inclined to fulfill his promise, the demands of state, calling for a royal alliance, after all come first.


And I thought Pinkerton was the biggest operatic cad!


Well, Don Pedro gives him a close runup. And with a lot more dash and flair. However, Don Pedro does eventually capitulate. Maria triumphs! I've read that Donizetti wrestled with several alternative endings. Hollywood prevailed!

Our third new opera of the season was Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor, and I am still in gushing vein. [laughter]

Another underrated opera, for which one person alone is to blame--Giuseppi Verdi, whose Falstaff is undoubtedly superior. But the two operas are quite different, and on its own terms, The Merry Wives is a wonderful comic opera, abundantly melodic, every scene a fresh inspiration, and I still have a special affection for it. There's room for both. Alas, Nicolai did not live to write another. He died at the age of thirty-eight, the same year and about the same age that Chopin died.


How did it feel, turning from Italian to German?


A vast relief! For a very simple reason: the rhythm of German is much closer to that of English. And in lyrics, of course, rhythm is king. The typical Italian rhythm is anapestic--deDAdum, deDAdum. It's hard to string together English words that convincingly fit that pattern. The language of plain speech in English tends to be monosyllabic. The words are short. And the rhythm tends to be iambic: "To be or not to be..." A famous line, converted into Italian rhythm, would have to become: "Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow." [laughter]

I remember a line from Norma, where Bellini for once does give you the desired rhythm: "Delay would lead to death." Good English! But in the more typical Italian rhythm, you'd have to say something like "To linger here longer is fatal." Let's hope that with work I would come up with something less artificial, less "literary."


Something with more dramatic thrust.


Exactly. But Italian constantly tempts you into a language that is literary and lifeless because of the rhythm. Oh, let me give you one more example, though I forget from which opera. "Io voglio cantare!" "I want to sing!" But to preserve the Italian rhythm, which one must do, and remain literal, you would have to come up with something like, "I am longing to warble!" Try that out as an expression of spontaneous joy. No, I don't think it will quite do. But it does indicate why one has to go sometimes far afield to get back to the essential meaning of the original. The work begins!

I must admit that the originals often do sin in precisely the way that I try hardest to avoid, tending to be florid and convoluted, and making the feelings expressed sound inflated and merely theatrical. I try to bring them down to earth by making the language as simple and straightforward as possible. By making rhymed verse as well sound as much as possible like natural speech.


So the German was refreshing.


Very much so. Ironically, The Merry Wives is based on a Shakespeare play, but hardly any of Shakespeare's words fit the musical pattern, though I did find a few. Still, to my amazement, The Merry Wives was the first translation that seemed to come easily. A good sign!

For the final opera of the season it was back to Offenbach, but Offenbach with a difference: La Perichole, the story of two struggling street singers unable to marry for want of the forty pesos or so required for a license. Bizarre circumstances catapult them into a world of crazy nobility ruled by a viceroy whose passion is to find the ultimate disguise.

Their fortunes take a roller coaster ride from palace to prison and eventually back to the streetcorner where we first met them--but now with considerably more than forty pesos in pocket. It's an endearing story, and musically it is my favorite of them all.


Set in Peru?


Yes, and like Maria Padilla, it has a strong Spanish flavor. It came somewhat later in Offenbach's career, when he was turning to a new style: less parody, more genuine feeling, like the famous letter song where Perichole bids her beloved Piquillo a painful farewell.


Let's hear it.


Perichole writes a difficult letter:

I adore you, my love, now as ever,
And for life will that love endure.
But too long we've struggled together;
Too long we've been ragged and poor.

No use to deny or delay it--
The words I must wring from my heart.
The time has come--how can I say it?--
Perhaps we'll do better apart.

Can lovers remain fond and tender
When forced to go hungry to bed?
Who can embrace in shared surrender
When craving a morsel of bread?


I am weak and only human.
I had hoped with my final breath
To bear out my pledge as a woman,
My hand in yours unto death....

So our dreams lie torn now in tatters.
I know it well...what can I do?
Within my own heart where it matters,
Forever I'll belong to you.

Oh, my darling, I share your sorrow,
And can find no words to console.
Far apart though we be tomorrow,
Think kindly of your Perichole.


Do you want to say who your Perichole was?


Indeed I do. Wendy Hillhouse was Perichole, and Baker Peeples was our Piquillo. And with them we took another major step forward: our first production entirely off-book. This was their wish. So let me now do an awkward about-face.

After ardently defending the use of scores in performance, I must admit that abandoning them opened doors that led to an altogether new and different domain, the full implications of which it took me some time to grasp. It certainly led to greater freedom, but with freedom comes the need for a guiding hand. This was when Tom Fleming came into the scene and became our director for several seasons. I soon started to wonder, how had we ever done it without him?

An important landmark that I've passed over completely was the separation from Samira following a clash with the board, and the entrance of Dino Di Donato as our new company manager. She gave so much to the company that she had been so instrumental in starting, and I shall always be grateful to her.

You have no doubt gathered that almost my entire story of the past few decades has been about the work itself, which has indeed been my life. But the story of Pocket Opera, like that of many an opera, is soon to become one of perils and pitfalls, crisis and suspense, a winding road leading--where? What act are we in? [laughter]


Well, certainly not the finale.