We chat with three women in classical music with notable events this weekend. First Susan Graham, who will sing Cleopatra in a Berlioz cantata with the SF Symphony and MTT. Then Celine Ricci, whose Ars Minerva is presenting the second staging ever of a 17th century Baroque Venetian opera. Finally, Ruth Felt is retiring from the helm of SF Performances, which she founded in 1979, at the end of this season.
Susan Graham’s long history with the SF Opera started in the Merola program in 1987, and reached a wondrous high last year with her tour de force in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, a performance she describes as “the best thing I’ve ever done in my life musically, the culmination of 25 years of being a professional singer”. She is coming back singing more Berlioz, this time the cantata La Mort de Cleopatre, with the SF Symphony, a piece she has recorded with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. With a title like this, you’re in for an emotional ride.
How is La Mort de Cleopatre related to Les Troyens?
Where does one start It’s rather operatic in scope; it happens at the end of Cleopatra’s life. She’s reflective on her lineage and her life and her destiny, and the fact that she was a queen, and widow of Marc-Anthony and Caesar. She recounts her past victories and talks about all of her assessment and feelings about all of the things that went on in her life. She’s basically at the end of her life. It’s in several sections, that go through different kinds of emotions, from exuberant and exalted to very fearful and dark. Then she makes the decision she’s going to end it all and she does so in quite somber tones, but the orchestration for that section is very brilliant. Berlioz shows her anxiety and her resignation and he also shows the snake that she uses, the snakebite she dies from, the poison. All that is in the orchestra with her failing heartbeat at the end. When she talks about her decision, she says (in French) “my only recourse an evil snake,” there’s a cello line that sounds like a snake slithering, and at the end of the snake motive, there is a sudden uncoiling and a bite you really hear in the orchestra.
As is pretty typical of Berlioz, his text’s meter is irregular. There’s nothing predictable and calm about Cleopatra. Maybe it’s an intentional part of irregularity and unpredictability. He wanted to win the Prix de Rome with this cantata. He entered it as part of the competition. They rejected it because it is so out there and bizarre. I can understand that, he was way ahead of his time. It was written in 1829 in Paris, and he was very young, and quite forward-thinking for his time.
Compared to Les Troyens, I wouldn’t say that Didon is more of a victim than Cleopatra. Cleopatra is more banished away, but she is defiant and angry and shamed. But like Didon, she is left alone and decides to kill herself. They are both queen, they both loved and it went badly, so yeah, there’s a parallel. In the music: it’s all Berlioz. La Mort de Cleopatre is a miniature version of the whole role of Didon, without the angry vengeance outcry. The whole beginning of Act V is a mad scene, and this piece does not have that. She never screams at Octave, Antoine or Cesar.
We’d like you to respond to this quote from the NY Times: "Berlioz's ''Death of Cleopatra,'' is a problematical piece that demands for its success a great singing actress with an innate feeling for the French dramatic and vocal style. Much of it is declamatory in the exalted manner that can be heard in pure form at the Comedie Francaise. It is a style that in the wrong mouth can turn intolerably artificial and false, which is why many singers find it safest to aim elsewhere."
I guess I’m not one of these singers then. If you are writing about Cleopatra, you have to use that style. She was a very very powerful woman from a long line of kings and nobles, and it was her fate, her destiny to be among those. She wasn’t anything resembling a meek wallflower, so there is a lot of declamatory dramatic necessity. Plus, that’s probably Berlioz’ style. Berlioz always has his detractors. People either love or hate Berlioz. I’m one who loves it.
In the style of writing, it has very varied musical phraseology and dynamics and orchestration, including some that is very declamatory. Sometimes it’s very triumphant, like singing high B flats, it’s always a big emotion. Then in another section, it’s somber, like you are hiding in the darkness in a tomb. That’s what she’s doing: she’s talking to the Gods and asking if she’s worthy of being buried in the tomb of her ancestors. That’s meditative.
You are coming back for retiring SF Opera general director David Gockley’s farewell, who cast you in Gluck, Berlioz, Handel . Do you have thoughts on his tenure at SF and career in general?
He was hugely influential on the direction of opera in America. He created the Houston Grand Opera and made it what it was, and brought his expertise and wisdom and vision to SF Opera. I have an enormous respect for him, he has great vision, great ideas, great knowledge and he respects singers and he respects the art form in the way that we always like to see in someone who runs an opera company. He has enormous respect and experience with the art form and the people who create it. That’s something I’ve always loved about him.
You had the honor of singing at the inauguration of George W. Bush. Would you sing at a Trump inauguration?
I would have to think very, very, very hard on how to get out of that.
Talking about Cleopatra
Celine Ricci’s art organization, presented last year La Cleopatra, a new world premiere of an opera presented once in 1662 during Venice’s Carnival. This year, strong from the success of that experiment, they are doing it again, with two performances at the Marines’ Memorial Theater this weekend of The Amazons of the Fortunate Isles, another forgotten Venetian jewel from 1679. Celine Ricci, a mezzo-soprano who specializes in Baroque music, is conducting the production.
What is Ars Minerva?
It’s a non-profit art organization I created in 2013. I am mostly a Baroque singer, and for years I had the opportunity to recreate operas as a singer, I was hired to sing and record operas that had not been performed for several centuries. I have a strong affinity for re-creation, to bring music to life, but also to consider the human adventure across centuries, to understand ourselves better. Musically, it helps to understand the link between the composers at that time.
With the opera we did last year, and the one we do this year, we can see more links in the 17th century between the composers that we know, how the music evolves. We try to bring back the mentality of the time, it’s almost sociology, anthropology, archeology, not only music. For example, in this opera, there are two Amazons, two women who have an explicit love story together. For me it’s the first time I see this in an opera, it’s 1679 and it’s incredible. It shows the freedom of Venice at the time (even though Venice was contradictory, it was a rigid Republic, but also open-minded and the place of Carnival, where more things were allowed). It was quite an extreme place to be. I think in the opera that we revive, we can see that. By what we discover, this story between two women, but we can also understand by this way of doing tragicomedy (that is comedies with a little bit of tragedy in) that they wanted fast entertainment. That is: brief scenes that are very different one from another with a lot of “coups de theatre” (plot twists). It’s something that I think is very particular of Venice of that time. That’s the reason why bringing music to life, it’s more than just music.
The way people consumed opera was different, people could eat and drink at the opera. Opera as a commercial endeavor was born in Venice in 1637. It was a new form of art and had a lot of success. So many theaters opened in Venice. Opera was born in the 1600s, not in Venice, but the first opera house was built in Venice. It had a lot of success, especially during Carnival time. People were really experiencing the opera in a different way, eating, drinking, coming and going. The audience was experiencing opera differently. Apparently, at the Marine’s Memorial Theater, you can bring your drink in the theater.
Are there operas that are forgotten for the wrong reasons, that were forgotten through not fault of their own and need to be re-created?
Let me answer this way: in Venice, there was Marco Contarini, who was a famous procurator. He was very rich and fond of arts and opera. He was a big sponsor for opera in Venice. The Amazon in the Fortunate Isles was written for the inauguration of his own theater at Piazzolu sul Brenta, it was a big deal. Marco Contarini collected many many scores and manuscripts of that time. These scores were in the family for several centuries. In the 19th century, someone in the family donated all his collection to the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. They had all his manuscripts, including those of Cavalli, or Monteverdi’s Coronation of Popea. They are still there.
With the revival of Baroque music that started roughly thirty years ago, it started to garner more and more interest. No one was doing them, and it was contemporary creations. Now that we start to revive Baroque music, people also started to go to the library in Venice and revive these operas. There are many revivals of Cavalli’s forty operas. It was more about the fact that they were there. People were not interested in doing what’s in the past for a long time. This revival started thirty five years ago, also with French Baroque music. This is the reason why. For example, after Cleopatra, many people were asking me: if the music is nice, why wasn’t it revived? It was gorgeous, I hope we will record it one day. That’s the circumstances of these operas. At the time, you would perform the opera once and move on to the next.
Who is the composer, Pallavicino, we’ve never heard of him!
In Venice at the time, he was very fashionable. He wrote a bit more than twenty operas.
It was a big thing to compose an opera for the inauguration of the private theater of Marco Contarini. He also wrote another opera, Vespasiano, for the inauguration of another theater in Venice a few years before the Amazons. He was also professor in one of the orphanage conservatories.
You are re-creating the music. Are you faithful to the staging as well?
It’s staged, and we keep the dances in this production. It’s not in the 17th century aesthetic. For these operas, it was gigantic, they had a hundred Amazons on stage, a hundred Moorish soldiers on stage, and another fifty Amazons on horses, it was huge actually. We don’t have a lot of props. It’s very minimalist, it’s staged with orchestra. The orchestra is with the soloists on stage. It’s a shorter version, with a scaled down orchestra.
Everything has been kept, except all the instruments where they had more of each. We have two dancers on stage. The choreographer is Muriel Maffre, who is a former star ballerina of the SF Ballet.
Ruth Felt is leaving her role of president of SF Performances at the end of this season.
This Saturday, SF Performances presents Ian Bostridge in recital. It’s the last concert with its founder, Ruth Felt, at the helm. She is stepping down and is being replaced as president by Melanie Smith, previously executive director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Ruth created SF Performances in 1979, and has been to every concert that we attended. We envied her for creating her dream job for herself. Namely, if you love artists and music, create an institution to bring them to San Francisco and share their talents with others. We chatted with her prior to the announcement of her replacement.
How did you get people to follow you on this when you started in 1979?
At the time, in 1979, the city was not as robust as it is now, particularly in the area I wanted to focus on, which was chamber music and recitals, and contemporary dance and jazz. I was at SF Opera in the 70s, but originally came from a presenting organization at UCLA, and I really missed hearing the major piano recitalists, violinists, string quartets on tour, etc. So I started to talk to people I knew here, about an idea to start a presenting organization in the city to do that. Finally I got the courage to try it. I started out carefully and slowly; I incorporated as a non-profit, I made a business plan. I said I would not present anything until I had raised $100,000 and I made that, and was in the process of laying out a first season, to run a seven performances season. I was in my apartment, and I stayed there in the office for three or four years, and then we finally moved to our own space. It was a very gradual, slow process. But we were feeling a need, and it proved to be the case, that we had audiences. In those days, some of my colleagues in the world of presenting, told me you should not focus on vocal recitals, the audience isn’t there. And I said: I think in SF and the Bay Area, it is there, and it proved to be!
At each performance, we always see you there! Have you been to all of them?
I would say that over the 36 years, I have been present for 99.9% of them. It’s so important to me, I make the decision about what to bring and I want to hear or see it. There have been a couple of times, it was extraordinary circumstances. In one case an artist cancelled and we had to rescheduled the artist at a time where I was already committed to be in New York. It’s my pleasure, it’s not a due burden. I will undoubtedly be in the audience somewhere for most of the performances in the future. I completely booked the next season 16-17 and some of 17-18.
How do you select them?
It’s a combination; obviously, when you’re in the business, you are in a network of people throughout the world, you keep in touch with, mainly in the world of classical music. I follow what is being presented in Europe, in New-York. I stay current on development in the arts that I focus on. I have developed over the years and from the beginning some very astute spies who share my aesthetic choices. I rely on them quite a bit to fill me in and to tell me in person what they’ve heard. I cannot travel to Europe or NY regularly to hear the artists I’m interested in, it’s not possible on our budget and time. I really have to go to sources. Always there were recordings. I remember saying to people, managers: “if you can, my preference is to hear a live recording.” It’s a lot of different sources. Anyone in our field gets inundated with materials and promotions of artists who want to be in the series, it’s kinda overwhelming actually. We get even more with emails and links. I really try to go there and check it out. I get a lot of CDs in the mail, I try to sample them.
I’m very proud of some of the debuts; we’ve introduced a lot of artists here for the first time, going way back to the early year. We presented the professional recital debut in SF for Yo-Yo Ma, Andras Schiff, Leif Ove Andsnes, lots of major pianists, Evgeni Kissin, etc. We have a number of Adler fellows in the Salon. We do a lot of special projects which I love to do, with artists asking them to curate a project around a theme of their choice. We just have presented one Jenny Koh put together with Shai Wosner, the Bridge to Beethoven; we presented her back in 2003, and we brought her back a number of times.
What has changed since you started?
When I started, what did I buy first for my office? An electric typewriter and a lot of carbon paper! We did not get our first computer until 1985 or 86. Faxes did not exist. All these tools that we have available have transformed all business. The market here in terms of the art has been just been built up significantly, there is so much going on. I’ll just take an example of chamber music: there are so many string quartets, so many programs people can go to, it’s amazing.
The speed of communication has not changed how far ahead you plan as much. I probably plan further out, as I became more established, it’s easier to book a season. In the beginning, it wasn’t as easy, I didn’t have quite as strong connections, with artists, managers. The 2016-17 was closed for a long time [before we announced it]. Arts journalism and media coverage has really changed, the amount of print that’s not there now, and all the stuff that is online.
You mentioned you sometimes have to do sports contracts for artists?
Oh, that’s something that happened years ago with Thomas Hampson. The issue was: How do we continue to present an artist whose star is rising, and his fee is rising, and we can’t pay a fee that high in the Herbst Theater, where a song recital really should be? Tom is so dedicated to song recital as an art form. I was trying to find a way to secure him and afford him; and one of my board members asked “have you ever done a multi-year contract, like a sports contract, with an artist?” I said no! Well, “maybe you should do that. “ So that’s what I did and he took it.
We really believe in engaging artists and having them back. We don’t do every season, we often do every other year. I did a situation with Marc-Andre Hamelin some years ago, I took him out for something to eat after and I asked him when was the last time you performed in San Francisco, and he told me he had never performed here. I could not believe it, and I said, really, we need to remedy that! Let’s bring you back every year for a while, like four or five years.Your repertoire is so vast, and you’re such an important artist, we should do that, and we did.
We recall Marc-Andre Hamelin’s concert at the Nourse with fire trucks noise in the background; it did not exactly go wrong, and he never seemed to be bothered by it, but it got me thinking in 36 years and maybe 2,000 shows of live music, unexpected stuff must have happened. What was the worst?
We did not realize until we put concerts there that from the Nourse the sound from the street was so present. As soon as we realized that, we moved a concert back to SF Jazz then because we could not use Nourse, and we haven’t since. For our first concert there, the Juilliard Quartet had to stop in the midst of playing because of the sirens, and start over. It’s great venue that Sidney created for her talks, it’s perfect, but for classical music, it doesn’t work. The wall is right against the street, and there’s nothing you can do. That experience was really, really challenging. I had to say when I attended the performances that year, I was a tense nervous wreck. You never knew when the sirens would come on. You were constantly on pins and needles. We warned the artist. Marc was aware it could happen, and he’s so focused on his performing. He said for him, it wasn’t that bad, but for the audience, it wasn’t acceptable.
I’ve had several incidents. I remember a recital with a baritone who lost his voice in the first half. It was really frightening, I had to go out and tell the audience that he could not go on. We brought him back a couple years later. He was having an allergic reaction to a plant, some blossoming shrub he turned out to be allergic to. He was fine in the beginning of the concert, and then his voice was disappearing. It was an upsetting and concerning situation; as soon as he got away from this environment, from this plant, he was fine.
How did you get the “performances.org” domain name?
We actually, my marketing director then, when URL were in their infancy, she was ahead of the game, and she just went and registered those. We have a few. Performances.org is very generic, so it causes challenges. Some people think that by coming to our website, you will get a list of all performances in San Francisco; that name just came up off the top of my head in 1979 when I was walking down the hill from where I lived with two young lawyers from my building. They had just passed the bar, and they heard me talking when they visited about forming a new arts organization. They were very gung-ho, they said: “we can do it the three of us, all you need for founding directors, we just assume we can do all the 501.c3 stuff.” We walked down the hill, from Nob Hill, and they said: We have to come up with a name, Ruth; why don’t we call it SF Performances, later on we can come up with a better, more clever name. And we never did, of course. We were ahead of Cal Performances, they called me when they wanted to change their name to Cal Performances . I foolishly said fine, they’re such a much bigger organization, their brand kinda usurped us, I suppose
Do artists make outlandish requests for perks in the green room?
Mostly, with classical artists, it’s pretty simple, certain type of water and tea and coffee; some fruits probably; with some jazz ensemble, or more popular music, they have an array of food items, then sometimes a hot meal if it takes a long time to set up before the show. It does not happen very often that we have outlandish requests, and we push back a little, we’re not in the catering business.Celine Ricci directs The Amazons of the Fortunate Isles