VI Perils and Pitfalls

[Interview 7: October 8, 1997] ##

The First Offenbachanalia, 1984; Enter Dino Di Donato; Difficulties with Critics and Bookings; Outings with Jerome Kern and George Gershwin; A Disastrous Second Offenbachanalia; The Waterfront Theatre: Hopes for a Permanent Home; The Loan of Yanked from the Harem; The Waterfront Closes Its Doors; Dark Days and Recovery; Thoughts about Directing; Merola Opera Program Uses Translation of The Secret Marriage; Smooth Sailing at Last: New Homes, New Repertory, New Directions; Thanks, Lists and Lyrics


I don't remember exactly where we stopped. Was I getting my first bicycle? But let's begin with a new venture, a new departure--our first Offenbachanalia. This was the summer of '84.

Up to this point we had done four of Offenbach's full-length operettas and one one-acter. Offenbach was an inexhaustible treasure trove, with about forty full-length operettas and about seventy one-acters. Of these forty, only two or three are performed with any frequency. This does not include The Tales of Hoffmann, which is not an operetta but a full-fledged opera.

We had made a start with these four, each of which had been greeted with a chorus of delight. The spirit of Offenbach is so infectious, and it fits so perfectly with the spirit of Pocket Opera. It was the idea of Dino Di Donato, our company manager, to bring the four together for a concentrated season and to call it an Offenbachanalia.

I had first been hesitant at the very idea of doing pared down operetta, a theatre style that was so identified with spectacle, opulence, glamour, gorgeous costumes and all the

trappings of the stage. We were offering skeletonized productions with a small cast, no scenery whatever, no special effects, but relying entirely on the music, the lyrics, the dialogue, the narration, and the talents of the performers. Our trust was put in the right place.

Dino, an enthusiast by nature, was especially rhapsodic about Offenbach. For him it was a discovery, as I'm sure it was for many people, including myself. And he was convinced that an entrepreneur had to take risks.

With characteristic energy, he set about raising funds, and quickly met with disappointment. Answers from likely sources all came back with the same answer, wishing us all the best, but suggesting that we seek funding elsewhere. But where was elsewhere? Ah, inspiration! Our loyal audience, none other. An appeal was sent out, and thus was the Elsewhere Foundation born--consisting of our generous friends and contributors.

The summer season proposed might seem modest, a mere fourteen performances. But for us, fourteen performances in four weeks of one famous but in fact little-known composer was a gigantic leap. We had never before done four performances in a week, and we were about to move into the Herbst Theatre, twice the size of any we had yet performed in. Bear in mind that our nonprofit world was light years away from the world of commercial theatre with its backers and big budgets for promotion.

Like Cinderella going to the ball, we were planning to dress up for the occasion. The operettas were to be fully staged and costumed, not, certainly, in the traditional grandeur, but a considerable advance over the prevailing Pocket Opera style. Dino was determined to raise the performance level by establishing a more polished, consistent look. He commissioned a handsome set, on Shakespearean lines, a basic set which could be altered and decorated to suggest changing times and places. A picture frame, so to speak--nonrepresentational, nonspecific, consisting of arches, doorways and porticoes. The kind of setting that I had always favored. Cal Anderson provided just what we wanted. Unfortunately, though, it was not portable, and migrants that we were, we eventually had to abandon it.


Herbst was large for Pocket Opera--about nine hundred seats?


That's right. Which meant that a lot of tickets had to be sold. A few hours before we opened, Dino called in despair. We had sold only 15 percent for the season. This was alarming.

God knows what it would mean to the future of Pocket Opera if we were to go broke, as appeared likely. Needless to say, there was no money in reserve. I should add that Herbst is an extremely expensive theatre to perform in, which I think is tragic and--I'm trying to think of a synonym for obscene.


Well, go ahead. [laughter] Blood money, maybe.


That will do. Ironically, it was my understanding that Herbst was a city-run enterprise whose purpose was to be accessible to nonprofit groups like Pocket Opera.




Instead, it is practically prohibitive. This is puzzling, considering how supportive and generous the city is to the arts in other respects. The Grants for the Arts, for instance. The program that keeps so many of us alive.

We were starting with La Belle Helene, an old friend. We had sold only 15 percent of the tickets. Disaster was looming. But that evening the miracle happened. To our amazement, the line at the box office stretched around the block. To such an extent that we were half an hour late in starting--a most agreeable half hour! [laughter] Such a relief! A reprieve from the death penalty. We announced to the audience the reason for the delay and people took it in good stride. The performance was exhilarating, and we got glowing reviews that started us out on a four-week crescendo and accelerando.

The big hit of the season was La Vie Parisienne. Over the years, we've done several productions of this operetta--both before and since--but none that seemed to capture so perfectly its special quality of delirious exuberance. Chemistry is a mysterious thing.

The season also included The Bridge of Sighs, an almost totally unknown operetta set in Venice, a parody of Gothic horror, and the epitome of Offenbach lunacy and gaiety. It's one of my own favorites. Here I go again! [laughter]


Do you want to talk a little bit about the person who staged the works?


I mentioned Tom Fleming. Dino found him, and struck gold. Tom was a marvel--quiet, intelligent, quick, precise and efficient. Like Dino, his background was in theatre and literature rather than music. He had a deep love of language and was sympathetic to the Pocket Opera lean approach, aiming

for elegance through simplicity, suggestion rather than elaboration. Intent on cleaning away excess and clutter so that the work at hand could speak for itself. Tom left us a couple of years later. He got a job in Hollywood. Not a glamorous job, he said, but I teased him about it--selling out to Hollywood!

But his departure was a great loss. He worked with so little fuss and made things happen so easily that it threw us a bit off balance. It gave me the deluded notion that it really was easy. Our later directors all required more rehearsal time. It took several seasons for us to find a comfortable working relationship--a comfort that I had mistakenly taken for granted because of Tom.

Enthusiasm created by the Offenbachanalia carried over into the new season at the Theatre on the Square, another new and fairly large theatre. How could we start with anything but Offenbach? We opened there the following February with The Bandits, another relatively unknown operetta and one of his most elaborate. It had been performed originally with a cast of three hundred! Even Pocket Opera succumbed to the lure of grandiosity with an unprecedented, record-shattering cast of nineteen.

Imagine, four separate casts colliding! The notorious bandits, envoys from the Spanish court, envoys from the Mantuan court, and the staff of a deluxe hotel located on the border of Spain and Italy. Think that one over! [laughter] Excessively modest of the French, don't you think? Quite a handful for nineteen to manage, but that became part of the fun.

The other offerings of that spring season were Mary Stuart, my favorite of the Donizetti trilogy about the three Tudor-Stuart queens, and also Auber's Fra Diavolo, another story about bandits.


Whoever did you get to sing Mary?


Ellen Kerrigan, an inspiration, as always. Stephanie Friedman was our anguished, indecisive Queen Elizabeth, equally inspiring. I listened to a tape of the performance not too long ago, twelve years later, and was again dazzled by the high quality of the singing, by the expressiveness of the words, by their mastery of the bel canto style.


Do you have tapes of most of your performances?


Of quite a few. In those days station KQED was taping them regularly and they were being broadcast. In fact, we were told that we had an estimated audience of between ten and twelve thousand people a showing. Ironically, this meant that we had a larger audience than the big opera house, which was not being broadcast.


How did it come about?


Simply because someone at KQED who liked Pocket Opera became interested. But after a few seasons KQED underwent a radical change of policy, eliminating practically all music, not only live music but recorded music as well. We've never been broadcast since.

In all candor, I was not entirely happy with the tapes. Some qualities came through well, but to get a good balance and blend takes a lot of doing, as I'm sure any recording company would be quick to point out. We didn't have the time or the equipment.

Fra Diavolo was next in line. Now, I've promised that I'm not going to rave about all of our operas [laughter] and I would not rave about Fra Diavolo as great music. It's very agreeable music, and Mozart summed it up well in speaking of another composer: if you want music that is merely entertaining or pleasurable, you could do no better. But if you want music that goes further, music that shows depth, profundity or striking individuality, you have to look elsewhere.

This judicious critique brings to mind one of my pet grievances. There seems to be a school of critics that enjoy knocking down idols, and they've chosen Mozart of all people. They gleefully claim that his sometimes sharp criticism of other composers was based on petty spite and jealousy. These critics should check out what he said about Haydn, or about Handel, about J. S. Bach, about Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach...


All gods.


Yes, and every single one of them he revered and praised without stint. The composers that he did put down--in presumably private letters to his father--were the ones that we acknowledge now to be second-rate. In short, he was giving voice to judgments that posterity has confirmed. Petty, forsooth!

Getting back to Fra Diavolo, it is not the greatest opera or operetta, but it's a great show. Though, in fact, the

original story is not all that great. I was lucky. I happened to come across a German version that changed the original story considerably and improved it enormously, giving it the missing ingredients that it needed. It tightened the plot, clarified the characterizations, and even gave the story a surprise ending. This was more or less the version that I translated, and in some quarters I was given credit for having at last given Fra Diavolo a worthwhile libretto. I trust you not to divulge my secret. [laughter]


Has anyone used it since?


A few times. But summer was again approaching, and a second Offenbachanalia. And here I'm afraid the mood turns darker. Buoyed by the success of our first season, plans for a second were even more ambitious. In fact, more ambitious than we would have chosen. We wanted to continue at Theatre on the Square, doing four performances a week for six weeks.

But the theatre managers held out for six nights a week. Much haggling ensued. They no doubt detected that we couldn't bear to say no, and so they continually tightened the screws, to extract as much blood as they possibly could. For example, Dino negotiated with them for weeks to work out an arrangement for sharing the theatre with another group that would take it on our off-nights. They said fine, but this in no way diminished our rental obligation. We were still charged for the full week.

The upshot was that we did end up by getting the theatre for six nights a week, which for us was a huge expansion, a leap into the unknown. Bear in mind that growth generally has to be gradual. Unless you have a lot of money to spend on publicity, unless you can promote the expanded season in a big way, you're probably headed for disaster. We were on relatively safe ground in starting out with La Vie Parisienne, which had been such a hit the summer before. But followups are notoriously dangerous.

It is always awkward, probably foolish and certainly futile to argue with one's critics, but here I think we had a case. Our opening performance was reviewed by a critic on the Chronicle who boasted that he had attended only two performances of opera in his life, both of which had put him promptly to sleep. In earlier columns he had expressed equal pride in his ignorance of literature, boasting of the classics that he had never subjected himself to the tedious task of reading.


Do you want to say who that was?


With pleasure. His name was Gerald Nachman.


Strange selection.


Nonetheless, I would have thought that if any opera or operetta could have converted him or won him over, La Vie Parisienne was the one to do it. It had all the elements that he was likely to respond to. God knows, it's tuneful, light, colorful, lively, and funny. It has everything, most of all the sheer exuberance of life in Paris à la Offenbach.

He remained immune. The tone of his review suggested that he had been unwittingly transplanted into an exotic, rarified, alien atmosphere inhabited only by snobs, eccentrics, aesthetes, and poseurs--pretentious people who acted as of they were enjoying themselves in order to impress their inferiors.

Now many people, including us, have ruefully noted that good reviews are often not as helpful as one might hope, but bad reviews can be poison. Poison that kills. The worst possible way to begin a season where everything depends on generating interest and enthusiasm.

Our next performance made matters even worse. It was a double bill of operettas by Jerome Kern and George Gershwin: Oh, Boy! and Oh, Kay! A neat pairing, don't you think? Something of an innovation for us.

Again, Nachman reviewed the performance. This time I would have thought that what we were doing was right up his alley, because in all sincerity, his taste and interest seemed to begin about 1920 and end about 1950. Well, our double bill just barely fitted into that narrow time span. [laughter] He truly loves the plays and musicals of that period, so he should have felt quite at home with Kern and Gershwin. But what he objected to was the voices.


Too operatic?


Absolutely. He was used to hearing voices on records--at least that is what he unfavorably compared us to--where singers can abandon legitimate singing altogether for whispering and crooning. He was unaccustomed to the straightforward sound that is essential if it's to carry in a theatre without a mike. To him, this was operatic. How damning can you get?

Furthermore, he likes the gooey, sentimental, nonrhythmical style that I detest--as did Gershwin.

So once more, his review was decidedly negative. To overcome two bad reviews in the very first week would have required a miracle--a miracle that did not happen.

Despite the bad start, our two premieres, Orpheus in the Underworld and Oh, Boy! Oh, Kay! did well.


Had you ever done an American musical before?


No, this was a departure. With both musicals, I was quite surprised to find that if you extract the music, each one lasts less than an hour. The rest is all dialogue, and lots of it. Essentially they are plays with music, and more than half the evening would be the play, punctuated by a song here and there. That's why we could perform all the music, compress most of the dialogue into a crisp narration, and do both of them in one evening.


You did the narration?


Yes, and frankly I can hardly imagine either of them being revived in its original form. The music in both is thoroughly delightful, but the dialogue is hopelessly inane, unless taken in very small doses. Now this was a nasty surprise, because both of them were written by P. G. Wodehouse, and I happen to be one of Wodehouse's most avid admirers.


I am too.


Well, one of the endearing things about Wodehouse--a reassurance to us all--was that he really didn't hit his stride till he was about fifty. I love him, but his earlier novels fall rather flat. In these musicals he had not yet reached that golden age. Still, even then, he was a damn good lyricist.


Are the Cole Porter musicals also dated?


I'm not familiar with any of them as a whole. If access is anything like that to Kern and Gershwin, it would not be easy to get to know them. We got the libretti and vocal scores for Oh, Boy! Oh, Kay! only because we rented them for what seemed an exorbitant fee.


From the estates.


The estates. I take serious issue with U.S copyright laws which, needless to say, reap no benefit to the composer. With Oh, Kay! we are talking about a piece composed more than seventy-five years ago by a composer who has been dead for sixty-five years. Why should it not be in public domain? Why should performance rights be prohibitively expensive? I can't imagine that any creative artist would want this.



For several months we were reeling from the financial debacle of the second Offenbachanalia. We had lost fifty thousand dollars. I was exhausted and somewhat depressed. To make matters worse, I had started work on an opera that--I think for the first time--I was not warming up to, Rossini's Count Ory. Oh, I eventually changed my mind and enjoyed it very much. Silly and artificial as it is, it contains some of Rossini's finest music, and the story allows one to have lots of fun with it. But my initial displeasure was no doubt a projection of my downcast mood.

Another setback was around the corner. The California Arts Council, which had been faithfully supporting Pocket Opera, suddenly rejected us. They showed us the letter from one of their evaluators on which their decision was based. It was the most scathing, vitriolic, personally aimed document I have ever seen. Two closely typed pages of insult, and almost all of it aimed directly at me. A sample remark: "Pippin tries to play the piano but my dog sightreads better." The writer conceded that I surrounded myself with first-rate musicians, but my presence was so disorienting that they were rendered incapable of playing in tune or in rhythm. And that was just the first paragraph! It warmed up.

Evidently they took this seriously. Dino protested, and appealed the case. We attended a meeting of the CAC in Sacramento, where we heard more of the same from people who admittedly had never attended a Pocket Opera performance.

I remember one remark: "The state should not support a group whose sole aim is to make fun of opera by making it sound stupid or boring." Can you imagine? Could anything be further from my intention? However, Dino had also started his own letter campaign, by calling a number of our staunch supporters and asking them to weigh in.

Well, I want you to know that our supporters are nothing if not verbal! We were privately informed by a member of the Council that they had never seen anything like it. Eventually

the grant was restored, thanks to Steven Goldstein, president of the Council, who was much impressed by the quality of the response. But it was a nasty experience, and it came at a low point.

Dino's immediate problem was how to launch the next season, with a deadline approaching and virtually no money. Not a dime, even for printing and postage. It was time for the guardian angel to reappear, and so it did: an unsolicited and totally unexpected check from Gordon Getty for ten thousand dollars arrived in the mail one day. We were again off and running.

What really kept us going, though, was a long-range hope that was dimly appearing on the horizon--the possibility at last of a permanent home base, a theatre of our own, without which it is so difficult to establish an identity. A place where we could at last take roots. This had long been Dino's dream: a crossroads where theatre, opera, and dance could meet and mingle. The Waterfront Theatre at Ghirardelli Square was the answer. It was the right size, affordable, congenial, and located in an attractive, pleasant part of town. It had briefly been home to the enlarged hungry i, but had not been used as a theatre, I believe, for twenty years.

I do not know the details of how Dino became manager--no doubt the result of tireless effort and endless negotiation. But through sheer determination, he succeeded. As he later said, "This was the thing I wanted most in my entire life."

Pocket Opera opened the Waterfront Theatre in the spring of '87. Much excitement! We had arrived at the Promised Land! Another little known but delectable operetta by Offenbach, The Princess of Trebizonde, was our first presentation, followed by The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Italian Girl in Algiers, Don Pasquale, La Belle Helene, Semele, Ariodante, and two premieres: Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, and Bellini's Norma.

Now a word about the Mozart. This is the first and only opera that I have updated, transporting the action into twentieth-century Turkey--I hope the Turks will forgive me! The story is about four young American tourists, three of whom are being held captive by a charming but iron-willed local big shot for whom "The law is what I say it is." They are arrested presumably on a trumped-up marijuana charge, but in fact because the Pasha has taken a fancy to Constanza, one of the American girls. And of course her sweetheart Belmonte comes to their rescue.


The adaptation, rechristened Yanked from the Harem, closely follows the outline of the original, but it does flesh it out a bit, and makes it far livelier. Updating Mozart seems to be the fashion, but please! Let me distance myself as much as possible from the highly touted work of Peter Sellars, which I loathe and abhor. He seems to take all that is repellent, degraded and disgusting in the twentieth century and pass it off as profound insight into Mozart. Believe me, I aimed at no such profundity!

It was our next opera, though, that opened the doors of controversy. Norma has long been regarded as a sacred icon that one should approach with the utmost caution. True enough. We were harshly criticized for taking on such a difficult opera, such a big opera. One critic put it down to "megalomania" and so it might seem. But the only way you can find out your limits is by sometimes going beyond them. And by testing your limits you sometimes find that you can go further than you thought you could. Had I stayed from the start within plausible limits, we would still be doing only charming little one-acters for three singers. Many, if not most, of the operas we have done over the years seemed at the time a leap into the unknown. You jump and hope that the parachute opens.

Norma is of course a big opera, but the real bigness, the grandeur, is in the core, in the most intimate scenes: Norma's famous aria "Casta Diva," her two extended duets with Adalgisa, the trio where the three leading characters have a dramatic confrontation.

The story of a woman of heroic proportions is one of the strongest in all of opera, and a powerful reason for doing it in a language that speaks directly to the mind and heart. The title role has long been considered the ultimately demanding role for a soprano. The sheer fact of having on hand a soprano worthy of the part is a strong enough inducement for putting on the opera. Vicky Van Dewark did indeed give a stunning performance that in the opinion of at least one critic "approached greatness."


Why were you attacked?


For presumption, I suppose. But God knows, I had been equally presumptuous many times before. But this was blasphemy. Violation of a sacred shrine. But it was Heuwell Tircuit in the Chronicle that mystified me.


How so?


He ridiculed the opera, and ridiculed us for taking it seriously. The absurdity of a woman having two small children unknown to anyone else!


I hate to be unkind, but perhaps he didn't attend.


How can you think such a thing! [laughter] Well, opera plots are often unfairly ridiculed for the simple reason that opera allows no room for explanations. There are dozens of plausible explanations for Norma's perilous dilemma, and another opera could be written about the years in which she concealed the existence of her two children and why it was necessary, but that's not what this opera is about. It is simply a given fact. Opera is not about past tense; it's about the present and what happens now.

Honesty compels me to mention another review that appeared in the Sacramento Bee. The reviewer went into raptures about the sublime music and glorious singing, and went on to describe the story as "something about a goddess who comes down to earth and is punished for falling in love with a mere mortal." So much for speaking directly to the mind and heart! I can only hope that some minds and ears are more open and alert.

All in all, though, '87 was a great year, which included a weeklong tour of Hawaii with Cosi fan tutte. But the outstanding event of our week on the islands was a Pick of the Pockets performance at a grade school to the most responsive, enthusiastic audience we have ever had.

Equally welcome was a call from Peter Mark Schifter, a marvelously gifted director who was opening the Houston Opera Center's new theatre complex with a production of Abduction from the Seraglio. He wanted to use Yanked from the Harem. I was more than delighted.

He had used one of my translations before, when the Washington Opera did La Belle Helene in '83 at the Kennedy Center. So please pardon another digression. [laughter] I went to Washington to see the production, which I enjoyed tremendously. One could not hope to find a more inventive, animated and unpretentious director than Peter, whose personality perfectly matched the exuberance and geniality of Offenbach's.

But he was frustrated by the conditions that he had to work under, and for good reason. I arrived about three days before the opening, and Peter had still been granted practically no time to work with the entire cast--an operetta where the entire

cast is on stage most of the time. And this was an elaborate production. The day before the opening, a preview was given for an invited audience--the theatre was packed--and they had to stop about fifteen minutes before the end because they'd not yet had time to stage the finale. I repeat, this was one day before the opening.

I had attended one prior rehearsal--the first orchestra rehearsal. After things had been going for about forty-five minutes, everything came to a stop. The orchestra, by union contract, was taking a well-deserved twenty-minute break. The orchestra returned, but now there was another twenty-minute break for the singers, also under contract. The breaks were not synchronized.


But that's crazy!


Remember, this is Washington. [laughter] Please, no cynicism. But it was somewhat reassuring to find that some companies had to cope with even worse problems than we did. When and how Peter choreographed the last fifteen minutes before the opening the following day, I have no idea.

But I had my own little gripe with the production as well. Some companies employ what is called a dramaturg, somebody that goes through the script and makes adjustments. Well, I don't like it when people do that to my work.


Did he do that?


That was his job. And it seemed to me that he did it with a tin ear. Just to give two examples that come to mind: the opening line of one song goes, "Dare you accuse a man of Zeus?" This is sung by a corrupt priest, "a highly holy man," and the sound, often as important as the sense, is meant to convey an oozy, sleazy feeling: "Dare you accuse a man of Zeus?" The line was changed to "Dare you attack a man of Zeus?"


No poetry there.


Another example, from the duet between Helen and Paris. Paris has showed up at her bedside, and Helen is convinced that she must be dreaming: "A dream of love too sweet to stay, a dream that dawn will snatch away." The line was changed to: "A dream that dawn will steal away." It sounds as if dawn is creeping out.

Such changes may seem of minor importance, but there were lots of them and they do add up. Style depends on precision.


Your translation wasn't copyrighted?


It was, and I was tempted to make a fuss about it. But the singers already had quite enough to cope with in those last three days.


It must have changed it considerably.


Dozens and dozens of lines I thought were weakened. The very last line in the play, when I heard it I thought, "How could I have written such a pointless, feeble ending?" I was at least relieved to find out later that I had not written it. It had been tacked on by the dramaturg.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the production, thanks largely to Peter's work, for which I have total admiration. This was in '83. Tragically, he died a few years later while still in his thirties. His death was preceded by another, equally tragic.

I was invited in the summer of '86 to do a translation of The Merry Widow. The invitation came from Gil Russack, the artistic director of the Lamplighters--another wonderfully gifted person, as singer, actor, stage director and conductor. A person who truly loved operetta and the vanished world that it represented. He was also extremely knowledgeable.

He had done The Merry Widow before, but was dissatisfied with the translation he had used as well as with others that he had perused, and so he called to ask if I were interested. Oddly, I had never heard The Merry Widow. I had a recording of it, and had listened to about two minutes of the overture and was so repelled that I turned it off. The lush, gooey Hollywood sound was not for me. So when Gil suggested it, I was not enthusiastic, but I said that I would listen to it.

To my great surprise, once past the overture, I was thoroughly charmed by the music. I then discovered that the overture had been tacked on by a later hand.




Oh, yes! Léhar gave it the briefest of preludes, before it dives into action. Delectable music! I greatly enjoyed writing the lyrics, but a serious problem was looming--I could not locate the libretto that contained the copious spoken dialogue.

I called the Library of Congress. I called all the individuals I could think of who might have a collection of

opera libretti. No luck. Gil was also exploring on his own, but the best we could come up with were the highly abridged versions given on record jackets. So much abridged that they barely let you know what the plot is. As a result, my libretto is somewhat more "original" than I would have chosen.


How could there not be a libretto for such a famous work?


I daresay that the publishers are doing their damnedest to keep it to themselves. It must be one of their most valuable properties. Though bear in mind, The Merry Widow dates from 1906. It surely must be in public domain by now.


Wouldn't the San Francisco Opera copy it for you or let you see it? They performed it about that time, didn't they?


I would guess that they were also working from translation. There have been many adaptations. The original German libretto was what I wanted to see, in order to have a solid springboard to take off from.

Our efforts to find it were unsuccessful, but this turned out to be something of a liberation. I was free--compelled, rather--to go my own way, though as with Yanked from the Harem, I stuck close to the basic outline, as best I could make it out.


Have other companies performed it?


The Lamplighters were first, but since then, it has been performed by a good many companies. In fact, it has been the most widely performed of all my translations.

Before the first rehearsals, something truly terrible happened. On a Thursday afternoon, I went to the Lamplighters headquarters to read my lyrics to Gil and to Stuart Beaman. But I'd not yet started on the dialogue, and I was still baffled as to how to go about it. However, I promised to cobble something together immediately, because they were holding their auditions on the following Tuesday night and wanted to have something on hand for the singers to read from.

We planned to meet again on Monday. Gil said, "On second thought, let's make it Tuesday. I have to go to the hospital on Monday for some routine minor surgery." I called Tuesday morning to verify the appointment. The person who answered the phone said, "I'm sorry. Gil died yesterday." The surgery had gone horribly wrong.


Despite the shock, they proceeded that night with the auditions. I daresay that Jonathan Fields, the director, was disappointed with the dialogue that I had hastily put together. We got together, and he talked to me at some length to express his own feelings about the operetta, derived from a much longer familiarity than mine. He spoke eloquently, and I am greatly indebted to him for the improvement that followed.

Under his direction, the Lamplighters gave it a beautiful production. Lenore Turner and Baker Peeples both gave exquisite, genuinely moving performances in the two leading roles. And there was a stunning comic performance by John Gilkerson in the role of Baron Zeta, the pompous and fat-headed diplomat who is self-assured and mistaken at every turn in the road.

This role was built up considerably more than usual in my libretto, providing a large percentage of the comedy as well as the motor power. To say that John did it to perfection would be an understatement. I had never dreamed that the role could be so rich. Rick Williams was marvelously funny, too, in a smaller role.

I was so enamored of the operetta by this time that we decided the following year to do it ourselves for the Christmas season. Despite the excellent direction of Stephen Drewes, and despite the presence of some of the original cast, including Baker Peeples, John Gilkerson and Rick Williams, our production had some major shortcomings and on the whole was a disappointment. Plus the fact that the Waterfront Theatre had a primitive heating system and the ten days we were there was a period of record cold. The audience shivered, and not even Léhar could warm them up.

Shortly afterwards, disaster struck. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Waterfront Theatre, our new and supposedly permanent home, was shut down. The dream collapsed. Dino, who had resigned as manager of Pocket Opera in order to become manager of the Waterfront Theatre, which he had been largely instrumental in bringing about, could no doubt tell the story in far greater detail and more accurately than I.

It was the result, I gather, of opening on a shoestring, operating with no margin for error, a series of sudden cancelations, unkept promises and funds that failed to materialize--all of it compounded by an acrimonious and undependable board which abruptly decided to take over. A short-lived endeavor! The doors were soon closed permanently.


This was a devastating blow to Dino as well as to us. Our permanent home had lasted less than a year. We were again out on the streets, searching. Where to go next?

To my amazement, the On Broadway that I had always been so fond of was again available. But now, seven years after we had last performed there, it was the grim ghost of what it had been. The seats had been removed, as well as the raked floor. The florid decor, all the trimmings were gone. The walls were covered with graffiti. It looked like an old house in shambles, after years of abandonment. Fellini would have probably loved it.


Who was responsible?


It had been through many hands, many transformations, and probably a number of vandalisms. I was shocked to see my theatre--a dear old friend--in this horrible condition. Nonetheless, it was our best shot. Even in its heyday, people had been leery of the neighborhood. Some of our clientele disliked climbing the stairs leading up to it. Once inside, many felt that it was a firetrap, which it was. But what was the alternative? We tidied it up as best we could and brought in folding chairs that made our longtime supporters yearn for the comforts of the Old Spaghetti Factory.

We had already lost much of our audience in moving to the pleasant Waterfront Theatre, far away from the central theatre district. We lost still more in returning to the dismal On Broadway. Our audiences now were a fraction of what they had been. And the dispiriting atmosphere of the On Broadway was anything but conducive to rebuilding an audience.

And yet, despite all, there is something about that room--the balcony is indestructible. It seems to enfold the room. The acoustics are excellent. Perhaps the discomforts bring out the pioneer spirit. The sense of roughing it can make an audience good-naturedly alert. And no doubt we were by this time reduced to our most devoted, loyal supporters. For whatever reason, audiences there have always been exceptionally responsive. And this was true in '88, just as much as it had been before.

That season we added Bluebeard to our Offenbach repertory, as well as a double bill of two one-acters by Weber and Donizetti Abu Hassan and Betly. All in all, there were enough outstanding things about the season to make us feel good, including a return of Luisa Miller with Miriam Delevan and

Michael Licciardello, but the future was even more clouded than before. And things were soon to go from bad to worse.

At the end of the season I went on unemployment insurance for the first time in thirty years.



Despite the dire circumstances, I still felt that we were in capable hands. Our new manager's attitude was positive, and he was full of plans for lifting us out of the wreckage--plans that were creative and exciting, but which remained in the visionary stage.


What was his name?


Because of later developments, I'd rather not say. He had been hired by Dino on the strength of some golden words that he uttered, words that fell on the ear like celestial music: "A board should not be expected to raise funds. That will be my job."


The board must have loved hearing that.


They threw their arms around him and cried, "Don't let him go!"

Well, this person let it be known that he was taking on the job entirely out of the goodness of his heart and his vast respect for what we were doing, because he did not need the salary he was being offered. Another astonishing plus! He was indeed full of grandiose schemes for raising funds and for pulling the company back together again, but for some reason nothing seemed to materialize.

And two days before Christmas, I and several board members received an irate letter of resignation. Not only was the resignation immediate, but he was demanding four weeks severance pay. Furthermore, because someone had casually mentioned at some time or other a possible raise in salary, he was now demanding a six-month retroactive raise, with health benefits.

That was not all. For a year, he had been storing some Pocket Opera supplies in his home basement. Now he was retroactively charging two hundred a month for storage space. He was confiscating the rest of our office equipment, and said that unless his demands were met within thirty days, he would be compelled to sell off the equipment.


All told, his demands ran into thousands of dollars. He also threatened to sue for additional thousands. What he hoped to gain by this I cannot imagine. No one knew better than he the state of our finances--flat broke and overwhelmed with massive debt, a debt of over a hundred thousand dollars. Merry Christmas, everybody!

On top of that, we had recently found out that we owed the U.S government twenty-six thousand dollars in payroll taxes, which a previous manager, his predecessor, also nameless, had failed to pay or to mention to anyone else. This was discovered, I believe, when a lien was placed on the meager Pocket Opera bank accounts. It is hard to understand how an intelligent, conscientious person (which I think he was) could have done this, knowing it to be the fatal bullet that has killed many an arts organization.


And of course no one else knew about it.


Yet it was even harder to understand how or why someone who had presumably been laboring for a year to keep the company afloat could suddenly become so vindictive, now doing everything in his power to bring the company to collapse. My guess is that he was enraged at finding himself in a hopeless situation that, to his thinking, was none of his own making, and which, despite his previous boasts, he was powerless to fix. Perhaps, more simply, his bluff had been called. At any rate, he lashed out.

In the early 1960s, I had undergone a cancer operation from which, I learned afterwards, my chances of survival were rated at 2 percent. I think that any objective, reasonable person would have placed the same odds now on Pocket Opera.

Yet the cancer operation was a positive experience, because I did survive, and because I learned from it how many people cared and how deeply they cared. Pocket Opera's crisis brought about the same revelation, and it survived only because of the people that cared.

First of all, the board rallied around. There were numerous meetings to which, to my chagrin, I was not invited.


Maybe they wanted to spare you.


Exactly. That was certainly the reason, but as a result I am rather vague about what went on. Among themselves they contributed the money needed to meet the demands of the letter, and they devised a way to get the government off our backs at least temporarily.


Jim Erhart, a new member but a longtime supporter, volunteered to serve as acting manager for no salary, and our survival is largely due to his determination, his remarkable talents and good sense. Suzanne Gump, another board member, volunteered to work in the office for at least forty hours a week, also for no salary. Marilyn Erhart, Jim's wife, made a similar offer. They did so, and continued to do so for more than two years. Christine Hardy also gave full time to put the chaotic books in order, and eventually took on the role of manager herself. The Hewlett Foundation gave generous emergency support.

Because of them, the season went ahead as planned, and a year later, amazingly, we were out of debt. It proves that miracles can happen--with more than a little human help.

[Interview 8: May 20, 1998] ##

Well, I believe we left off in the dark days. And they were dark indeed. It looked as if we were surely going to go down in flames, but instead, the phoenix emerged from the fire.

I wish I could say that the new offerings of that season of '89 were a brilliant reaffirmation of all the best that Pocket Opera stood for and a grateful tribute to those who were working so hard to make its survival possible. But in fact the list was weak, certainly lightweight, and probably reflected my own months of anxiety and distraction.

Still, it had its points. It included four shorter operas which combined into two double bills. One of them was Bizet's early opera Don Procopio, which has something of the spirit and even some of the tunes of his even earlier Symphony in C, composed at the age of seventeen. The score is on a consistently high level, but Bizet had notoriously bad luck with his libretti before he came upon Carmen a point well illustrated by Don Procopio.

The story is that of a young lady being forced by her avaricious uncle into marriage with a rich old man, Don Procopio. Opera has never been the same since women won the right to control their own lives! [laughter] In this case, the situation is resolved near the beginning of Act I--not the best way to maintain dramatic tension. From that point on, the opera merely spins on. But it spins on with colorful characters, lively and often lovely duets and trios, and music that is sparkling, inventive and even ravishing.


Another piece in which I liked the music unreservedly was a one-acter by Chabrier called An Education Incomplete. In terms of the book, it is the flimsiest trifle imaginable: a totally naive young couple on their wedding night, neither of them having the slightest idea of what marriage implies or what they should do about it. An oversight in the young man's education for which his scholarly professor is entirely to blame. You will be happy to know that by the end of the act they have satisfactorily figured it out entirely on their own.

The young man, incidentally, is performed by a soprano, and in our case most charmingly performed by Marta Johansen. She's a lovely lady with beautiful blond hair, and she wore a most becoming mustache for the occasion. And with her trim figure she was very appealing, very convincing.


A trouser soprano?


Instead of the usual trouser mezzo.

As in the Bizet, Chabrier's music is distinctive from beginning to end and even more sophisticated stylistically. But to my surprise, several friends whose opinions I tend to listen to hated it. Nothing like frankness! They called it the worst thing we had ever done. I could only guess that they were so turned off by the foolish story and found the joke so insipid or labored or God knows what that they paid no attention to the music. At any rate, I was taken aback by their vehemence.


How was the audience response?


It seemed all right, but less than overwhelming. However, it was done on a double bill with My Fair Galatea by Franz von Suppe, and everybody, including my affronted friends, loved My Fair Galatea. I did, too. The music is captivating, and in this case the book is a worthy match. It's the story of Pygmalion, the sculptor who falls in love with the statue that he's created. Miraculously, in answer to his prayers to Venus, the statue comes to life. But Galatea turns out to be quite a handful--gorgeous indeed, but capricious, difficult and demanding. By the end of the one act, Pygmalion is quite happy to have her turned back into a statue.

In this double bill, Marta Johansen underwent a striking transformation herself, from the naive young man of An Education Incomplete to the divinely beautiful but all too human statue.


Von Suppe is little done nowadays.


True, but he was among the first of a long line of gifted composers who seemed to be blessed with an endless, effortless flow of enjoyable music, which they turned into operetta. In fact, he was known as the father of Viennese operetta. The list would include the likes of von Flotow, Auber, Nicolai, Johann Strauss, Arthur Sullivan, LeCocq and Léhar. Their music was aimed primarily to give immediate, spontaneous pleasure-- charming, polished, ingratiating, yet sometimes rising to heights of real lyric beauty.

These were composers who had mastered the language and made no great effort to extend it. This language was easily understood and born out of a comfortable rapport with their audience. I doubt that any of them had a great horror of sounding like someone else.


What about Offenbach?


I would put him on a higher level. And certainly Bizet, who often spoke the shared language, but couldn't help sounding like no one else.


You don't do American musicals, but are any of them--we've talked about Gershwin--are any of them on a comparable level?


I have to plead ignorance. I've not had all that much exposure. Though I would unhesitatingly add Bernstein's Candide to the list of great operettas. Generally, I don't like the Broadway style of singing. I loathe the sentimental crooning, and I also dislike the brassy, belted out sound that seems to be the accepted alternative.


And the amplification. But couldn't some of these be done operatically?


Well, I shy away from the term. Too suggestive of Aida or Brunnhilde. But in the premicrophone days, they had to be legitimately sung. To fill a theatre, a voice has to be reasonably well-produced--or call it operatic. You remember, we did experiment with American musicals once, with a double feature of Oh, Boy! and Oh, Kay! I enjoyed them very much, sung in a straightforward style by trained voices. I would love to do more. But we've not done so. Not yet.

What we did do that season was Flavio, a new Handel opera, the first in a number of years. I used to do new Handel regularly, but as I became more and more interested in

translation I neglected Handel, whose operas I would not care to translate.


Why not?


The reason for translating an opera is to bring the drama to life through immediacy, by connecting the listener with what is going on moment by moment. Handel's operas consist almost entirely of solo arias separated by stretches of recitative. The arias, awesomely great as they are, are not dramatic. They usually express a single thought or feeling which the singer simply stands and sings, and then repeats with ornamentation. The gain of knowing precisely what is being said does not make up for the loss in purely musical values. There's no getting away from it. Italian is the language of choice for sheer vocalism. And in my narration I do try to make abundantly clear what each aria is about, so that the audience is never left in the dark.


Yes. Well, we haven't talked much about your audiences, but do they know when they hear a good performance?


Absolutely! To such an extent that I feel a certain dread for the singers when they take their solo bows at the end. It's like being judged at a contest, or worse yet, appraised at an auction. The dreaded applause meter!


Well, it's a sign of respect, isn't it?


Yes, but I would hate to be the poor singer that comes out meagerly on the applause. On the other hand, I'm reminded of a story about Pavlova, who was unhappy after a performance. Her confidante or whoever said, "But you heard the audience go wild. How can you be unhappy?" She said, "I danced much better yesterday. I would have been pleased if tonight they had applauded a little bit less."




One appreciates the nicety of feeling, but I must say that I have heard few complaints about too much applause. [laughter]


It seems to me that audiences respond inappropriately at times, at something awkward or just unfamiliar. Do you ever ask, "Why did they laugh at that?"


I'm more likely to ask, "Why didn't they laugh at that?" [laughter] Seriously, though, too much laughter can be as unsettling as too little. And I am sometimes mystified. But

laughter in the right places is like mother's milk. And an appropriately responsive audience is like having good acoustics. It allows you to give easily, like conversing with someone that you feel comfortable with.



The season also included an old friend, Handel's Giulio Cesare, one of his greatest and one of the few that could remotely be called well known. Aside from sublimely moving moments, like the forced separation of a mother from her son, it has its share of melodrama and comedy. The petty warfare between young Cleopatra and her sibling brother Tolomy, Cleopatra's wooing of Caesar, when she casts a spell so potent that she falls in love with him. And the ending where Caesar, triumphant, crowns Cleopatra Queen of Egypt: "Who else has such lovely hair?"

We, too, had our own dramatic crisis. The day before the performance, Sara Ganz, our Cleopatra, whispered over the telephone that her voice was gone. And so it was. She could barely speak. Somebody suggested Judith Nelson, a thoroughly experienced Handelian singer of national reputation.

Miraculously, she just happened to be available, though entirely unfamiliar with the part. But she picked up the score that evening, we got together the next morning to go over the arias at the piano, and two hours later she gave a performance that most singers would be happy to achieve after months of work.

As you know, singers are often put down for being poor musicians or even nonmusicians, but the opposite is generally the case--certainly with the fine singers. Handel poses the supreme test. Singers not only have to sing the printed notes impeccably with all that this implies in terms of virtuosity, nuance and expression, but also they are expected, obligated to improvise, to elaborate, to add ornaments and cadenzas, which should sound as if the composer had written them. It requires that they feel completely at home with the style and bold enough to play with it.


You've said before that we have such a pool here of wonderful singers. Would you find that elsewhere?


I doubt it, except for a few major metropolitan centers. Of course, I've never been elsewhere. [laughter] But no, I would guess that we are particularly lucky.


In casting, do you have covers? Do you know who else can sing or is currently singing a role?


Almost never. Not through choice. Perhaps through delicacy, I would hesitate to ask it especially of a singer who was up to doing the role. Occasionally a singer has volunteered.

On the whole, we've been miraculously lucky, but there have been a few close calls. At a performance of Roberto Devereux the mezzo lead got laryngitis, the singer's nightmare. Heroically, Tracy Tornquist, one of the singers from the ensemble who had become reasonably familiar with the whole opera, stood by the piano and sang with apparent ease and confidence from the score while the mezzo went silently through the motions on stage, acting out the part. Such emergencies have been blessedly few.

So, onward! We are up to '90, and as usual, homeless. The Waterfront Theatre had briefly reopened under new management--we were there for the '89 season, in fact--but its doors were now closed again, this time never to reopen. We seem to have left behind us an impressive wake of destroyed theatres. [laughter] Like General Sherman marching through Georgia. Please, don't let the word get around!

We found a place on Sutter Street called the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. We were in no position to quibble, but the Lorraine Hansberry had a tiny stage, and in order to get back and forth backstage from one side to the other, singers had to run downstairs, cross an indoor swimming pool, then through the ladies' dressing room, and race back upstairs. Oh, the naked ladies that were periodically startled by an onslaught of opera singers charging through their quarters!

Again, the familiar problem of sharing a theatre with another company. In this case, the other company used a set depicting the skyline of Manhattan, which meant that we had to use it, too--not exactly our concept of Cosi fan tutte. One might suppose, heaven forbid, that Pocket Opera had been taken over by Peter Sellars. You know what I think about that! Furthermore, the stage was so cramped that the piano and orchestra had to be placed in a strangely contorted position where contact was difficult. No, the Lorraine Hansberry was not the home we had dreamed of.

Partly because of the awkward conditions, the season was a mixed bag. Still, the two new operas were interesting. One was The Daughter of Madame Angot, by LeCocq, a prolific and gifted operetta composer with whom I would like to get better

acquainted. His contemporary reputation eclipsed even that of Offenbach. Madame Angot is reputedly his finest operetta. For us, it was fortuitously timely--set in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the collapse of the old regime.

Well, think back. In 1990 the Berlin wall had just fallen, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and the Cold War had ended. One did not have to reach far for parallels. In Madame Angot, the euphoria of victory has worn off. The atmosphere is one of restlessness, uncertainty and suspicion. Something new is in the process of emerging, symbolized by the coming of age of Madame Angot's daughter who finds wisdom in disillusion. Not the usual operetta fare!

The other new opera was an early work by Wagner, called Das Liebesverbot, The Ban on Love. I translated the title No Love Allowed. I do have mixed feelings about the opera. It was a total fiasco when first produced--a fiasco rivaling that of Verdi's King for a Day. Wagner himself later on vehemently disowned it, I daresay because it was written in an Italianate bel canto style. It was precisely what he revolted against in his later years, but a style in which he was remarkably adept. No Love Allowed is bel canto on a very high level indeed. The individual scenes are extraordinarily beautiful.

But I've always had problems with Wagner as a dramatist, and with No Love Allowed, especially so. He took a richly blended play by Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, and managed to make it simply disagreeable and distasteful.

Shakespeare's hero, anti-hero rather, Angelo, is a deputy viceroy, who is suddenly given the tools of absolute power which he uses to impose his own brand of rigidly severe, tightly Puritanical morality on his lax subjects. He discovers to his own dismay that he is driven by the same inner demons for which he has just sentenced a young man to death, demons that he is powerless to control in himself. He is tormented by the tension between the puritan and the lecher within. Anguish pulls him to ever greater extremes in both directions. But in the Wagner opera, he is simply a scoundrel and a fool. Interestingly enough, though, he is turned into a German fool, out of his element in the sun-soaked land of Sicily.

I don't much like what Wagner did with the heroine, either. I presume that this was his own adaptation. The chaste, high-minded, passionate novitiate of a nunnery comes across as callous and manipulative, someone who seems to enjoy prolonging pain in order to test a person's character.


It also seems to me that Wagner had no sense of proportion as a dramatist. Odd, when you consider that in music, proportion is everything. His incidental scenes go on forever. And the few attempts at humor strike me as crude and off-puting. Still, I think that the opera is redeemed by the quality of the music.

As you can imagine, both the LeCocq and the Wagner were huge, large-scale productions for Pocket Opera, and the restricted space at the Lorraine Hansberry was but one of many frustrations for our stage director, whose role in the company was becoming increasingly important.

My own inclination was to choose a director for each production, but several persuasive people on the board felt that it was far better to have a single director for an entire season for consistency of style. I was mindful of the warning about putting all your eggs into one basket, but cravenly went along with the idea.

In hindsight, it was clearly piling too much responsibility onto a single person. The directors that we found were talented and dedicated, but we were asking too much of them. They were put in an impossible situation, partly by my own inexperience with staged productions. I'm not sure how much longer I can fall back on the excuse of naivete, but bear in mind that at the time I was a mere sixty-three. [laughter]

I still did not realize the vast difference between our previous semistaged productions and the demands of the fully staged productions that we now aspired to. I did not allow the directors nearly enough time to do their work, and they were not experienced enough to demand it. Nor did any of us realize the complexities of planning a rehearsal schedule.

In the real world that we live in, most of our singers have outside jobs that provide their livelihood. Often they have regular commitments to other musical organizations. A director cannot simply call a rehearsal for two in the afternoon or seven in the evening, even with several weeks notice, and expect many people to show up. In more recent years, we've engaged a full-time production manager. Negotiating rehearsal times is by far the most arduous part of the job, like juggling ten balls.


It sounds like a huge job.


And enormously frustrating. Rebecca Nestle, through dogged persistence, later got the process under control. But until

then, our directors tended to take the high-handed attitude: "They signed up for the role; it's up to them to make themselves available." The result: endless wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Because of scheduling conflicts and complications, operas usually have to be staged the way a movie is made. You work with the people that are on hand. If you have two people who sing a duet in Act III, that is what you start with; then you go back to the quartet in Act II, and wind up with the finale of Act I. Not exactly ideal, but nothing unusual about that.

One of our directors held valiantly to his conviction that opera, like all drama, should be staged strictly in sequence from beginning to end. At the first rehearsal he might perhaps have three people on hand. After tearing his hair out for half an hour, he would proceed to stage the big opening ensemble. At the next rehearsal, fifteen people would show up. Ah, time for the duet! While the other thirteen are sitting around chewing their nails.


I would guess that you didn't invite him back.


I'm afraid not. I should have taken a firmer stand and at least insisted on more careful advance planning. But I, too, had to learn the hard way.


Did you ever do any directing yourself?


Only the most rudimentary, and mostly back in the early days. I can't do much, of course, while playing the piano, which is probably a damn good thing, as I suspect that I have little talent for it. One exception, though: I do like to direct the dialogue. At least I have strong ideas as to how it should be spoken, and sometimes get good results. Though at times I can't help recalling a remark by Gibbon to the effect that the only people you can teach or direct are those that have practically no need of it.

After a few seasons of one director for the entire season, we went back to the far more sensible practice of engaging a director for each production, and usually the director was chosen from our corps of singers. What a difference!


Are there any who stand out in your memory?


Shall I name names? Very well. Debra Lynn, one of our fav-orite mezzi, came on board to direct La Belle Helene in '92, and it was all suddenly so easy! After trudging across rugged

mountains we were on the smooth open plain. She did her homework, her planning was meticulous, and she knew who was coming to rehearsal and who was not. On top of that, she was talented and understood how to work within the Pocket Opera style. She directed a good many productions, of which about half a dozen Offenbachs were particularly outstanding.


Who else?


Several of our singers had a genuine gift for directing: Michael Taylor (Bartered Bride, Barber of Seville, Elixir of Love, Don Giovanni, Lucrezia Borgia, La Cenerentola, Marriage of Figaro); Madeline Abel-Kerns (Tales of Hoffmann, Marriage by Lantern, Don Procopio, Soldier's Tale, Alice in Opera Land); Andrew Morgan (The Doctor in Spite of Himself, Yanked from the Harem, Magic Flute, Ernani); Eileen Morris (Mary Stuart, The Two Widows); Jane Hammett (Orpheus in the Underworld, Roberto Devereux); Richard Cohan (La Cenerentola); Rod Gomez (Martha).

Of the directors that have come from outside the company, as it were, I have been very happy with Russell Blackwood (La Vie Parisienne, Merry Widow, Carmen, La Traviata); Jenny Lord, actress-dancer-choreographer (Daughter of the Regiment, Grand Duchess of Gerolstein); and Rick Dougherty (Rigoletto, Merry Wives of Windsor, Don Pasquale, King for a Day).

I had, and continue to have, the utmost confidence in each one of them. That confidence is absolutely essential, because both in rehearsal and in performance I'm busy with my own thing and I've found out that paying too much attention to what's going on behind my back can invite disaster. My focus, of course, is on listening to the singers and on leading the orchestra, not to mention my own playing. So you see, I'm often the last person to know. [laughter]



I return to the recurrent theme of this lengthy saga, Pocket Opera's search for a home. In twelve years we had not performed in the same San Francisco theatre for two consecutive seasons. In '91, still looking, our eyes lit up: a five-hundred seat PG&E theatre--did I say something about lighting up--a great location on lower Market Street, and suddenly available. We moved in, intending to settle down for life, but less than a year later God decided otherwise. Pocket Opera was getting too comfortable. He sent an earthquake. And once again Pocket Opera in its ruthless forward march left behind it a devastated theatre. It has never reopened.


But we were allowed one outstanding season. One of its high points was the return of Kaaren Erickson in a solo recital of songs by Mozart and Strauss, in which I got a rare chance to accompany in a repertoire that is still closest to my heart. As usual, her artistry was ineffable. This was her last appearance with us. She died of cancer a few years later, while still in her early forties.

Her recital was part of a double bill with Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale, one of my favorite works of the century, but as an opera something of an oddity. No singing! Instead, narration, dialogue, pantomime, choreography and incomparable music for a small, oddly matched chamber orchestra.

It demands first of all expert players--on violin, double bass, clarinet, trumpet, trombone and percussion. Plus a skilled conductor, larger-than-life actors, an accomplished dancer and an imaginative director to bring it all together. At the first rehearsal we discovered that, through a misunderstanding, we had no director at all! The presentation, I'm afraid, left something to be desired, though the work itself is strong enough to leave a profound impression. We did it again six years later, under the direction of Madeline Abel-Kerns, and this time the production, in my humble opinion, was magnificent. Michael Mendelsohn was spectacular as the devil. Hold on! Michael Mendelsohn as the devil was spectacular. [laughter]

The piece was a joy to translate--five or six hundred lines of rhymed couplets, mostly in an ironic comic style that I feel particularly at home with. But for me the real novelty was in being for once released from a straitjacket! For once I was not setting words to music, where one is absolutely bound to the rhythm and shape of the musical line, where not a syllable can be added or subtracted, and where the length and weight of each syllable is rigorously preordained. Suddenly free from captivity! Since most of A Soldier's Tale is spoken independently of the music, you're on your own. Enjoy! Live it up! Such a luxury I have never had, before or since.

One of our best seasons! La Vie Parisienne, Xerxes, Ariodante, The Secret Marriage, Don Pasquale, Yanked from the Harem, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, besides the double bill. The Secret Marriage and The Barber of Seville were both new. I thought The Secret Marriage charming both dramatically and musically, but still a vivid reminder of what makes Mozart and Haydn great, in case one has forgotten. [laughter] The Barber needs no further endorsement from me. I

do love comedy! And both The Secret Marriage and The Barber provided the sort of playground that a child might dream of.


Might your audience, seeing the season brochure, think "Cimarosa? Handel? Stravinsky? I don't know." Or do you find that they will take the unusual along with the standard fare?


Well, there's no question that the better known an opera is, the bigger the audience one can expect to attract. This is especially true when you get away from the big city. So that one is constantly hoping to put on an opera that everyone knows and no one else performs. [laughter] In fact, we have to plan carefully, as to whether to do one, two, or three performances. It would be a great luxury to do half a dozen, but I'm afraid our audience has not expanded to that extent.

Incidentally, the following year the Merola program chose my translation of The Secret Marriage to perform in their annual outdoor program at Stern Grove. In truth, I thought it an odd choice. It's such an indoor opera! I was apprehensive about the result. And I was dead wrong. It came off marvelously, thanks to the inventive direction of Chad Raber-Shieber and a strong cast of singers. In subsequent years they've also done Perichole, Elixir of Love, and Cenerentola. Very happy experiences, all. Now they don't seem to have any trouble drawing a crowd!

But here we are again! Another season looming up and no place to go. After inspecting every conceivable alternative, even the On Broadway looked attractive. And that was where we landed, though most people regarded this as a huge step backward--an opinion they expressed in large part by staying home. We lost much of the audience that we had built up at the PG&E. Its condition was in an even more advanced stage of deterioration than before. Despite all, I was happy to be there, though I, too, can be realistic at times.

But once again the good Lord intervened to make any thought of returning out of the question. A huge hole in the roof was discovered. In June and July this made for pleasant ventilation, but it made the theatre somewhat less desirable in the rainy season. [laughter] Of course, nobody wanted to put up the considerable amount of money to fix the roof. And once again Pocket Opera leaves behind a theatre in ruins.


Who owned the theatre?


According to rumor, the Philippine mafia. True or not, I don't know. Inquiry was not encouraged. [laughter]

So next season, where do you think we were? That's right! Square one. Stuck with our perennial question, where to go next? It seemed that we had investigated every conceivable venue in town for the least bleak alternative.

Judith Whitney, our new and highly capable and trustworthy manager, finally set a deadline. If we were going to have a season, announcements must go out, plans must be set in motion. One day away from the deadline, we had grimly decided to use a space--I'll not dignify it by calling it a theatre--which I was convinced would lead to certain disaster. And then somebody suggested the Martin Mayer auditorium in Temple Emanu-El.

Judy and I went to look at it with a feeling of weary resignation. If it were remotely suitable, we would surely have heard of it before. Lo and behold, it turned out to be very much what we were hoping for but dared not expect. We looked at each other with a wild surmise. The Promised Land lay before us, and there we have dwelt happily ever since.


Didn't you say something about problems next year? Will it still be available?


Well, turning a few more pages in the Old Testament, we reach Ecclesiastes. Nothing in this life is permanent. We live in a state of flux. All is change. Fortune is an ever-turning wheel. [laughter]

But while the wheel is temporarily suspended, before it takes another spectacular spin, perhaps this would be a good time to bring this narration to a close. We have found a home at last. Six years of relative peace and prosperity have followed, thanks to the smooth management of Judith Whitney and the persistent care and long hours of both Rebecca Nestle and Laurel Vaughan as production manager. A couple of generous bequests, on top of many, many individual contributions, have brought us a period of unprecedented financial stability. So we've had a good long stretch of smooth sailing. May the voyage continue!

The repertory has continued to expand. The new translations include The Bartered Bride, Rigoletto, The Star, The Elixir of Love, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, Don Giovanni, The Tales of Hoffmann, Lucrezia Borgia, The Magic Flute, The Gang of Bandits (I Masnadieri), Ernani, The Daughter of the Regiment, and Carmen. A list that I'm very proud of.


Thanks to the prodding of Russell Blackwood, the productions have also expanded in terms of purely theatrical values, while retaining the basic simple Pocket Opera style. The Pocket Philharmonic, painstakingly hand-picked for each performance by Diana Dorman, who also plays clarinet in most of the performances, is still seated onstage behind the singers, while I conduct from the piano.


Any new directions?


Well, we've gone back to school. In coordination with a fine national organization called Young Audiences, we have devised a program to present mostly to children in the lower grades. It's called Alice in Opera Land. Having lost her way, Alice stumbles upon Opera Land, where she meets four friendly singers who take her in hand and show her around this exciting and not too distant land, and introduce her to some of its colorful inhabitants: Figaro, Cinderella, Carmen, Lucia, two coloratura cats and even a wicked witch. Incidentally, we have a new and different Alice for each performance, a girl chosen from the school itself.

This evolved into a longer holiday show that we've been doing every year during the Christmas season, for children of all ages.


After I saw it, I thought every child in the audience would demand a life in opera.


Let's hope that opera will become at least a part of their lives!


Any other new projects?


There's one that is especially close to my own heart. With the help of the Haas Foundation and the Fleishhacker Foundation, Judy Whitney started us on what we call the Libretto Project. The aim is to create cleaner, more legible, more usable scores, via computer, that incorporate my translations into the vocal scores. In doing so, we hope to make the translations widely available to other companies. It's quite an undertaking. To date, there are over fifty full-length translations, plus fourteen one-acters. So far we've computerized about half.


And are other companies using them?


Increasingly so. About two hundred rentals to date. But as my translations are becoming better known, the market itself is steadily dwindling. Thanks largely to supertitles, opera

companies are going more and more into original language productions. I would like to think there is room for both. Consequently, my work has taken on the urgent quality of a crusade, possibly a last chance to preserve an endangered species--opera in English must be kept alive! It's up to us translators to come up with words that are worth singing.


So important. Well, what would you say about the Pocket Opera audience at this point?


One could hardly hope for a more enthusiastic or a better informed audience. But still, it's a relatively small one. Through careful planning, we manage to fill up the theatre for almost every performance. Thank goodness, we have a core of supporters whose loyalty has been heartwarming. I am constantly meeting people far from ancient who introduce themselves: "I've been following you and Pocket Opera since the Old Spaghetti Factory." Which leads me to realize that the audience back then, twenty years ago or more, was surprisingly youthful. Our audience has grown older, along with me. Also, one might suppose that that run-down back room was about the size of the Cow Palace.

Needless to say, we would love to reach out to a larger audience. This has become much more difficult because of an unfortunate change of policy on the part of the San Francisco daily papers. Both of them have drastically cut back on their coverage of the arts. During the seventies and eighties, the Chronicle employed three or four music critics; in the nineties they are reduced to one. This is a body blow to small arts organizations like ours and a disservice to a city that prides itself on maintaining a lively cultural scene. It has made us invisible, irrelevant, marginalized, no longer part of public discourse. And the smaller papers seem to have followed suit. Ten years ago we had about a dozen Bay Area critics who were vigorously, enthusiastically on our side. Since then, their reviews at best appear sporadically and rarely. Other groups, of course, suffer the same neglect. But it is cold comfort to know that we are not alone.

One happy event that I should mention. After being closed for several years of earthquake reinforcement, the marvelous, Venetian-like Florence Gould Theatre at the Palace of the Legion of Honor was reopened. Pocket Opera was invited to inaugurate the reopening--an event, let me add, that was not covered by either of the San Francisco dailies. Since then we have divided our season between the Temple and the Palace. From homelessness to two homes! What luxury! The Palace is surely one of the most spectacularly gorgeous, breathtaking

locations on the face of the earth. Just going there each week is an unfailingly exhilarating experience.


Further goals?


Perhaps not a goal, but a dream. In at least one major American city, I would someday like to see an opera house comparable to the English National Opera in London--an established company whose stated purpose will be the performance of opera in English.

In the meantime, I can be overwhelmingly grateful for the privilege of going my own way and doing what I love best to do. If it has fallen short of what could have been achieved--what hasn't?

There are so many people to whom I owe thanks, the list goes on and on. But let me single out a few. I want to thank Joan and Bob Shomler, who for years have turned out computerized printed editions of my translations, plus thousands of photographs taken at dress rehearsals and performances. Also Ted Helminski, who has made archival videos of most of the productions of the past ten years.

I want to give special thanks to Willa Berliner Anderson, our wardrobe coordinator, who insists that she is not a costumer. With lots of imagination, infinite care and practically no budget, she has always managed to come up with the look that connects with the spirit of the opera.

Special thanks to the staff and to the board members who have helped us weather the storms and crises. And to the hundreds of volunteers and Elsewhere members who have contributed so much in both time and money.

But most of all, I want to thank those who have worked the hardest and contributed the most--our singers. Let me mention a few of the outstanding performers of the past few years alone:

  • Karen Anderson (Maria Padilla, Alcina, Agrippina)
  • Andrea Baker, (Ariodante, Xerxes)
  • Elin Carlson (Yanked from the Harem, Gang of Bandits, Ernani)
  • Marcelle Dronkers (Don Pasquale, Martha)
  • Elspeth Franks (Teseo, Agrippina, The Star)
  • Sara Ganz (Ariodante, Teseo)
  • Margaret Genovese (Bridge of Sighs, Abu Hassan)
  • Jane Hammett (Merry Widow, King for a Day, Tales of Hoffmann)
  • Marla Kavanaugh (Merry Widow, Orpheus in the Underworld)

  • 195
  • Ellen Kerrigan (Rigoletto, Lucrezia Borgia, Mary Stuart)
  • Estelle Kruger (Daughter of the Regiment)
  • Margaret Lisi (Teseo, Cenerentola, Cosi fan Tutte)
  • Rachel Michelberg (Barber of Seville, Belle Helene, Carmen)
  • Eileen Morris (Don Giovanni, Magic Flute, Giulio Cesare)
  • Svetlana Nikitenko (Magic Flute, Agrippina)
  • Donna Petersen (Orpheus, Daughter of the Regiment)
  • Emily Stern (Martha, Tales of Hoffmann, King for a Day)
  • Vicky Van Dewark (Mary Stuart)
  • Darla Wigginton (Bluebeard)

And some of the men:

  • Richard Cohan (Merry Wives of Windsor, King for a Day)
  • Todd Donovan (Don Pasquale, King for a Day)
  • William Gorton (Rigoletto, Lucrezia Borgia, Mary Stuart)
  • David Gustafson (Martha, Magic Flute, Cenerentola)
  • Mark Hernandez (The Star, Bridge of Sighs, Hoffmann, Merry Widow)
  • Michael Licciardello (Gang of Bandits, Hoffmann, Ernani, Carmen)
  • Roger McCracken (Don Pasquale, Bartered Bride)
  • Michael Mendelsohn (Bluebeard, Bridge of Sighs, Soldier's Tale)
  • Joseph Meyers (Bartered Bride, Belle Helene, Abu Hassan)
  • Shouvik Mondel (Don Giovanni, Elixir of Love)
  • Andrew Morgan (The Star, Tales of Hoffmann)
  • Baker Peeples (Merry Widow)
  • Robert Presley (Barber of Seville, Lucrezia Borgia, Cenerentola)
  • Ethan Smith (Don Giovanni, Magic Flute, Martha)
  • David Taft-Kekuewa (Barber of Seville, Tales of Hoffmann)
  • Michael Taylor (Marriage of Figaro, Barber of Seville, Cenerentola)
  • David Thompson (Yanked from the Harem, Gang of Bandits)
  • Richard Walker (Tales of Hoffmann, Elixir of Love)
  • Ralph Wells (Gang of Bandits, Ernani)

Let's let them have the last word.



From THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, Cherubino, the pampered young page, heads off reluctantly to join the army. Figaro points out a few contrasts between the life he is leaving and the life that lies ahead.

Time to throw off the role of the lover;
Play no longer the fair young enchanter.
March away from the pastime and banter
Of the darling, the court cavalier.

Feast no more on a diet of dainties;
Leave behind masquerades and cotillions,
Conversation of sparkle and brilliance,
As you head for a soldier's career.

Say goodby to fair complexion,
Pretty phrases, soft affection
And secret embraces.....

Time to throw off the role of the lover,
The despair of the fair and the bonny.
Drop the role of the young Don Giovanni,
Say goodby to the court cavalier.

Into battle goes the dandy,
Sword at side and pistol handy,
Beard unshaven, pack on shoulder,
Weather freezing, getting colder,
New fiasco by the minute,
Leather purse but nothing in it.

Little need for velvet breeches
In the swamps and frozen ditches,
Ice and sweat upon your forehead,
Toil abundant, diet frugal,
Blare of trumpet, call of bugle.
Round your head the bullets whistle
As you plod through thorn and thistle
Toward the enemy frontier.

Say goodby to silk and satin,
Sparkling wine, foods that fatten,
Dainty hands, smiling faces,
Tender words and secret embraces....

Time to throw off the role of the lover;


Play no longer the fair young enchanter;
March away from the pastime and banter
Of the lad whom the girls all adore.
Cherubino's off to battle!
Cherubino wins the war!

CHERUBINO in days of happier confusion:

I forget who I am, where I'm going,
Back and forth, cold and hot, never knowing.
With the girls I'm a ball of confusion;
With a woman I fall all apart.

Words of love or desire or affection
Stir my pulse and enflame my complexion.
And I've no choice
But then must give voice
To that yearning,
That sweet hunger dwelling deep in my heart.

Love, only love while waking!
Love, only love while sleeping!
I cry to meadows, mountains,
To flowers, fields and fountains,
To echo, breeze and zephyr.
My amorous song floats ever
And fades in the distant air.

And if there's no one near me,
With none around to hear me,
I speak to just myself of love,
Even if no one's there!

DON GIOVANNI at his most seductive:


Melting in soft surrender,
Your pretty hand in mine,
Not far away, in splendor,
We there shall blend as one.


I would, and yet I wonder.
Your words that flow like wine,
So soothing, smooth and tender,
Are spoken perhaps in fun....


As one, we go invited


Along a pathway lighted
By love and love alone.
By love! By love! By love!

So hand in hand, as one,
We're off to lands unknown
Of love and love alone.

In RIGOLETTO, meet the ultimate male chauvinist. AKA the Duke of Mantua:


Women are one and all
Off again, on again,
Here now, then gone again,
Ruled by caprices,

Though I would credit all
Creatures of beauty,
Mozart once said it all:

Each a mere weathervane,
Spun by the breezes,
Shifting and turning,
Loving, then spurning;

Pity the worshipper
Prone to surrender;
Shame on the featherbrain
Stung by that gender.

Burning, then freezing,
Taunting and teasing,
Fair but most pleasing
Seen from afar.

Though I deplore them,
Try to ignore them,
Still I adore them
Just as they are.

In ORPHEUS IN THE UNDERWORLD, Public Opinion demands that Orpheus do the right thing:

Mad musician, cringe and cower!
Public Opinion is on your case.
Behind the scenes, I wield the power
From inner circles to outer space.

My counsel only fools dismiss 'n
When I speak the mighty listen:
Hold on, husband! Make no move
Until you know that I approve!

Rebellious poet, expect no mercy!
I shall haunt you and hunt you down.


With bad reviews and controversy
I'll drive you snivelling out of town.

On the road, though not by choice,
Night and day you'll hear my voice:
Hold on, husband! Make no move
Until you know that I approve!

Eurydice, abducted by no means unwillingly by Pluto, is finding Hades a decided disappointment:

My days are unbearably boring!
Has Pluto become so blase?
How long can he go on ignoring
A girl who came such a long way?
My spirits are sinking, not soaring.
I notice in fact with dismay
My husband looks better each day.

A word of advice to you ladies:
Think twice before coming to Hades.

So eager to please as a lover,
He promised to show me around,
But now that the novelty's over
He's nowhere in hell to be found.
They say I have gone to the devil,
Where sinners and satyrs abound.
Believe me, it's not such a revel.

A word of advice to you ladies:
Think twice before coming to Hades.

In THE MERRY WIDOW, the intoxication of Paris takes over:

To melody in waltz time, come recapture
Days of springtime, wine of rapture.
As the twirling progresses, the dancing floor spins
To the silken caresses of violins.....

As you glide in a dream, in a trance,
On a tide, flowing on with the dance,


You're atwirl in a world ever thrilling,
Filled with the lift of romance.

To a tune sweeter yet than before,
Arm in arm with the girl I adore,
With a smile, with a sigh,
In a spell, you and I
Are alone on a crowded floor.....

In LA VIE PARISIENNE, the glamorous Metalla introduces the Swedish baron to the dangerous attractions of the Left Bank:

At the midnight chime the revelries start.
As carriages empty the passageway fills.
Young dandies and ladies, both equally smart,
Come seeking adventure, excitement and thrills.

The flower of youth, a varied bouquet
Of blonde and brunette with splashes of red,
The plush and the plain, naive or blase,
They flock here to savor the banquet outspread.

Some are bold and brassy, other pretend--oh!
Who's the shy lassie that hides in the hall?
Adagio at first, then rapid crescendo,
The overture builds to a wild bacchanal.

Laughter and dance! Champagne poured in quantities;
Couples crowd on the floor with space getting scarce.
A few gather round the piano that accompanies;
A grim game of chance is unfolding upstairs.

And the noise ascends, the tempest mounts higher
As youth in full frenzy rides over the top.
Is it pleasure or pain, this fury and fire,
This fever that burns as if never to stop.

But all things must end; it's long after four.
The sparkle and sport have turned bleary-eyed.
Some stand half asleep, others sprawl on the floor;
With yawns and long faces the revels subside.

Pale morning arrives, and welcome the dawn!
The stragglers remain, but gone is the glee.
The gallant full of swagger looks ashen and drawn;


The pert little number is gasping for tea.

The candle burnt out, they leave Mt. Parnasse,
Hung over alike with love and champagne.
The street-sweeper stops and stares as they pass,
And he cries, "Oh, joy! To be young again!
Oh, joy! Oh, joy! To be young again!"


Bring on the barber, the man for the job! Make way!
Rested and rollicking, ready to go! Nice day!

Ah, life is good to me, all milk and honey,
Prestige and money,
Scaling the ladder up to the top.

Hand is to Figaro, bravo, bravissimo, bravo!
Versatile, vigorous, much in demand, hi ho!
Favored by fortune and blessed by the gods,
Bound for success, overcoming the odds.

Scissor and razor ready as needed,
I am stampeded,
Run to the ground.
Ever at home with curler and comb,
A finer profession is not to be found.

A generous ration of free conversation
I give on occasion
Trimming the hair.
Soaping or lathering,
I am for gathering
Gossip and news for others to share.

Higher rewards come with the client:
Gentlemen cordial, ladies compliant.

People pursuing me,
Hailing, yoo-hooing me,
Gender or station
No limitation:
Shorten the beard, heighten the color.
Service outstanding
They are demanding.


Falling all over, the public is calling.
So highly regarded, the barber bombarded,
Customers clamoring,
Hounded and hammering,
Ever so eager, oh!
Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!....

High over all, even bigger than Figaro,
Destiny favors the day of the dynamo.
Business booming, flowers are blooming,
Opening out.
Welcome the barber up and about.
Man of renown,
I'm talk of the town.

CARMEN gives the inside information about love:

Love at best is a bird in flight
That cares not what you do or say.
Call it back, and it's out of sight;
You point, it flies the other way.

Flatter, threaten or beat your breast,
No tears will make that bird obey.
When it's ready to leave the nest,
Nor you nor I can make it stay.
That's love! That's love!

A wayward child, a gypsy, too,
You men will meddle only if you dare.
Be cold to me, I burn for you,
But when I smolder, oh you men, beware!

Taken prisoner by surprise,
The startled bird will spread its wings.
Try to hold it and off it flies,
But when you want it least, it clings.

See it circle and circle round,
So often sought but seldom found.
Hold it fast and it flies away;
When wanted least, it's there to stay.
That's love! That's love

Transcribed by Amelia Archer

Final Typed by Shannon Page