On January 22, San Diego Opera will burn a witch

John David Peters
  • John David Peters

A cockroach looking down toward the empty end of a cereal box — that’s my sense of the bare stage of the San Diego Civic Theatre viewed from the first row. No trace is left of its last production, a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1859 opera A Masked Ball, directed by the famous Italian conductor Edoardo Müller.

It’s a great barnlike space, gray floor, bare walls, while high above are dozens of pipes extending from one side of the stage to the other, which support a system of pulleys and about 30 bags of sand to raise and lower the scenery and position the lights, to create the vast illusion of other worlds, to make the magic. No phantom could hide himself in this airplane hangar, this mammoth and empty cereal box, unless he were invisible or very small. Behind me in the theater are 2992 red plush seats, though for the opera they take away the first row of 90 to make room for the orchestra. Above the stage is a screen that gives the supertitles (as opposed to subtitles) of the opera in English.

“Io moro!…miei figli,” sings Gustavo III, King of Sweden, at the end of A Masked Ball as he staggers forward, stabbed by an assassin.

“I am dying, my children” flashes across the screen.

Moments later the curtain descends to wild applause. The audience exits the theater, some suffering from a mild case of whiplash caused by several hours of rapidly raising and lowering their heads from the supertitles above to the stage below — one more version of suffering for the art one loves.

The performances begin with a piano dress rehearsal on a Monday, followed by an orchestra dress rehearsal with the singers on the stage on Tuesday, a full orchestra dress rehearsal on Wednesday, and dress rehearsals for students on Thursday, which include tours and talks about the opera. Between 1500 and 2000 students from area schools attend the dress rehearsals and about 10,000 attend each season. This is one of the San Diego Opera’s cleverest programs because it creates future opera fans. During ten days of talking to men and women who were passionate about opera, I spoke with several young people who were first introduced to opera in this program and had become major enthusiasts.

A Masked Ball or Un ballo in maschera or Ballo, as it was called by all I talked to, had five performances and was the last of five operas performed in 1999. Sixty thousand tickets were sold during the season. Ballo closed on Wednesday, May 12. The sets included a gallows scene with the gallows in the foreground and a rocky cliff, a warehouse by a harbor where a witch told the future in a great crystal ball on a raised platform with a ghostly ship in the background, and, most sumptuous of all, the king’s palace with great columns and a classical motif — an exact replica of the original Gustavo III’s palace in Sweden. And of course there were the costumes and properties (swords, goblets, candelabras) — all of which added up to a fair amount of baggage. The morning after the closing two semi-trucks backed up to the rear of the theater. At 8:30 the dismantling began and by 6:00 p.m. it was finished. The trucks were locked up, the drivers started the motors, and the trucks hit the road to Dallas. The sets, costumes, and properties of Ballo are owned by the Dallas Opera, which bought them from the Cologne Opera in Germany and then modified them to fit its own stage and needs, after which Dallas recouped its expense by renting them out. It is too expensive for most opera companies to build all of their own sets, so there is a certain amount of wheeling and dealing among the American and European companies. The San Diego Opera’s production of Aida was rented for $50,000. The 1999 season production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte was built quite inexpensively by the San Diego Opera Scenic Studio, an arm of the San Diego Opera, for $130,000 by using bits and pieces from other stock. They now rent out the production, and by the fifth rental Così will become a moneymaker, helping to support San Diego Opera productions. The opera’s costumes, properties, and sets — the production — of La Bohème has already been rented eight times and will probably have a lifetime of 25 years. On the other hand, the production of last season’s Falstaff was rented from the Florida Grand Opera in Miami, the production of Of Mice and Men came from the New York City Opera and the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, right down the street from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But it’s not opera production that interests me; rather, it’s passion — the way opera can get inside people and rule their lives. Here is an art form — by far the most complicated, expensive, and ornate — that appears to over-sweep the people who love it in a way not found elsewhere. And it isn’t just the music but the whole mix of which costumes, sets, and properties are a part, along with the drama, acting, singing, performers, lighting, even the makeup, even the audience. And those who are passionate have stories going back to the first opera for which music exists, Jacopo Peri’s Euridice, produced in Florence on October 6, 1600, for the wedding festivities of Henri IV of France and Maria de’ Medici. Competing with the stories of the operas are those about the singers — first the castrati, those male sopranos who began singing in opera and for the church in 1600 as well. Think of all those lopped-off testicles. Although castration was illegal in Italy, when the castrati were most popular in the 18th Century it is estimated that 4000 boys were castrated each year, despite the fact that few found jobs as singers. The last castrato retired from opera in 1824, but the last church castrato retired from the Sistine Chapel in 1913 and can be heard on records. Perhaps the castrato we know best is the 18th-century Farenelli (the name meant rascal) because we can rent the movie about him from the local video store. For ten years he worked to soothe the crippling melancholy of King Philip V of Spain by singing him the same four songs every night.

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