Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows Perform Opera Favorites for last Sunday’s Marin Guild Gala

San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows Daniel Montenegro, Nadine Sierra, Ao Li, Ryan Kuster and David Hanlon (not pictured) performed a delightful program of opera arias and ensembles at a Champagne Gala hosted by the Marin chapter of the SF Opera Guild. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Those attending the Marin Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild’s annual Champagne Gala this Sunday were serenaded by the voices of angels— San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows —in an intimate program of opera arias and ensembles.   The gala is the Chapter’s only fundraising event and takes place every August with a performance by the Adler Fellows at the San Domenico Music Conservatory in San Anselmo.  Ninety-two people attended Sunday’s concert, which raised over $4500 to fund the Guild’s two most popular programs—the Opera à la Carte music education program for Marin County schools and the Guild’s popular Opera Previews, featuring renowned musicologists and the occasional degree-less deadbeat offering an in-depth look at the season’s operas.    

Baker Peeples and Ellen Kerrigan spoke about their long-time involvement in SF Opera Guild’s Opera à la Carte music education program for Northern California schools. Kerrigan rose through the ranks at SF Opera, starting with its Merola Program and was then selected as an Adler Fellow and went on to a distinguished singing career. Baker Peeples was a finalist in the Metropolitan and SF Opera Auditions and is the Music Director of the Lamplighters Music Theatre.

The festivities began as the Guild’s chapter president, Camille Morishige, introduced special guests Ellen Kerrigan and Baker Peeples, who spoke passionately and humorously about their long-time involvement in the Opera à la Carte music education program for Northern California schools. This engaging Opera Guild program brings 45-minute adaptations of San Francisco Opera’s main stage operas to over 130 schools annually with a small travelling team—frequently including Kerrigan and Peeples—and works with students to actually produce an opera.  Students learn first-hand about performance, technique and scenery and are given speaking roles, which they must memorize.  The Marin Guild has been instrumental in funding the Opera à la Carte program for local schools that cannot afford the annual $300 participation fee. Since its inception 23 years ago, Kerrigan estimated that the program had introduced over 600,000 Northern California students to opera and launched a few careers in music.  Several of the program’s initial donors, including George F. Lucas, were in the audience. 

The crowd burst into laughter as Peeples quoted his favorite letter from a student: “Dear  Opera à la Carte, Before I saw Opera à la Carte’s Die Fledermaus, I thought opera was the worst thing to happen to civilization.  Since then, I have changed my mind.”  This fall’s program will feature a charming adaptation of Gaetano Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love

At Sunday’s Champagne Gala, San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows Ao Li and Daniel Montenegro sang the friendship duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers). Photo: courtesy Susan Malott

Each year, long-time opera patron and past Marin Chapter president, Vivienne Miller, enthusiastically helps organize the Adler Fellows’ Marin performance.  The five Adler Fellows performing this year included Nadine Sierra, soprano; Daniel Montenegro, tenor; Ao Li, baritone; Ryan Kuster, bass-baritone;  and David Hanlon, coach and accompanist.  What a pleasure to see these rising opera stars perform in an intimate and informal setting and to have the chance to speak with them about their onstage roles in SF Opera performances this fall.   

The Adler Fellows represent the finest young operatic voices in the country.  Each year, only a few of the 20 San Francisco Opera Merola Opera Program participants—who themselves are selected from a pool of over 800 candidates—are invited to continue on as Adler Fellows.  Under the guidance of San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley and Opera Center Director Sheri Greenawald, the Adler Program offers intensive individual training and roles of increasing importance in San Francisco Opera’s main-stage season.

At Sunday’s Champagne Gala, San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows Ryan Kuster and Nadine Sierra sing the famous duet “La ci darem la mano,” in a scene from Mozart’s "Don Giovanni". Photo: courtesy Susan Malott

Sunday’s program included several popular and very demanding arias and ensembles that were especially selected by the Fellows.  Before each piece, the Fellows set the scene, explaining what they liked and imbuing the plots with a modern and often humorous spin.  The highlights included Daniel Montenegro and Ao Li singing the friendship duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers); Ryan Kuster as Don Giovanni in the duet “La ci darem la mano” with Nadine  Sierra, as Zerlina, in a scene from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Ao Li performing Dandini’s  aria from Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella).  Ryan Kuster gave a moving Blitch’s aria, or “Blitch’s Prayer of Repentance,” from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah and a special treat was Daniel Montenegro performing the rarely heard beautiful aria “E la solita storia,”  known as  “Lamento di Federico,” from Francesco Cilea’s L’Arlesiana (The Woman from Arles).  

Adler Fellow Ao Li performing "Dandini’s aria" from Rossini’s "La Cenerentola" ("Cinderella") Photo: courtesy Susan Malott

Nadine Sierra was resplendent singing the aria “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and as Adina in the wonderful duet, “Una parola, Adina” (“One word, Adina”), with Daniel Montenegro as Nemorino, in Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore”  (The Elixir of Love)After the performance, she told me how excited and honored she was to be singing the role of Juliet Barbara, representing all women who suffered loss after 9.11, in the world premiere of Heart of a Solider, which opens Saturday, September 10, 2011 at SF Opera.  Ryan Kuster will sing the role of a Mandarin and Daniel Montenegro will sing the role of Pong in Puccini’s Turandot, which opens SF Opera’s season on September 9, 2011.   

Adler Fellows Nadine Sierra and Daniel Montenegro sing the famous duet, "Una parola, Adina” (“One word, Adina”) from Donizetti’s "Elixir of Love" as David Hanlon accompanies. Photo: courtesy Susan Malott

The afternoon program closed with Daniel Montenegro and Ao Li singing one of the greatest tenor-baritone duets of all time, the rousing: “Dio, che nell’alma infondere,” from Verdi’s Don Carlo, in which Don Carlo and Rodrigo pledge themselves to the cause of liberty and to eternal friendship, to the backdrop of a militaristic march.  Their duet was full of bravura and showcased these two young men, at their finest, clearly loving the chance to perform for such an enthusiastic audience.

After the performance, guests mingled with the artists and enjoyed champagne and savory hors d’oeuvres and desserts in the conservatory’s idyllic setting.   Several gift baskets were raffled off and won by guild members.  Verna Parino, 94, one of the Marin Chapter’s former presidents,

David Hanlon accompanies as Ryan Kuster performs Blitch’s aria, or “Blitch’s Prayer of Repentance,” from Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah.” Photo: courtesy Susan Malott

won one of the prizes and, gift bag in hand, was delighted to tell me all about her engrossing and in-depth research for Heart of a Soldier and her plans—already formalized– to attend the Ring cycle in Munich in 2012.  (Click here to read ARThound’s interview with Verna about SF Opera’s Ring Cycle.)  Susan Malott, Managing Director of the SF Opera Guild Board, was delighted with the turnout and enthusiasm and contributed several of her excellent photos to this article.  ARThound will be following the Adler Fellows in their various performances this fall, so stay tuned.

Opera Previews Sponsored by the Marin Chaper of the San Francisco Guild for the 2011-2012 Season:

Mon Aug 29, 2011, 8 p.m. Turandot:      Giacomo Puccini Dr. Timothy Flynn: Olivet College, Assistant Professor of Music, Music Program Director
Thurs Sept 8, 2011, 8 p.m. Heart of a Soldier:      Christopher Theofanidas   Donna DiNovelli Dr.  Mitchell Morris:  Professor of Musicology, UCLA
Mon Sept 19, 2011, 8 p.m. Lucrezia Borgia:   Gaetano Donizetti  Dr. Mary Ann Smart:  Professor of Musicology, U.C. Berkeley 
Mon Oct 10, 2011, 8 p.m. Don Giovanni:   Wolfgang Amadeus  Mozart  Dr. Simon Williams:  Professor & Chair, Theatre & Dance Dept., U.C. Santa Barbara
Mon Oct 24, 2011, 8 p.m. Serse (Xerxes):   George Frideric Handel Dr. Bruce Lamott:  Director, Philharmonia Chorale
Thurs May 31, 2012, 8 p.m. Nixon in China:   John Adams   Dr. Stephen Hinton:  Professor of Music, Stanford University
Mon June 4, 2012 8 p.m. Attila:    Guiseppe Verdi Dr. Alexandra Amati-Camperi Dept Chair, Professor of Music, University of San Francisco

All Opera Previews at held at Villa Marin, 100 Thorndale Drive, San Rafael.  Time: 8 PM lecture; 7:30 PM complimentary tea/coffee and refreshments.  Admission: $10 per lecture or $60 for series.  For information, contact Tenki Davis at 415. 457.1118 or

For more information about the Marin Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild, contact Camille Morishige at 415. 479.7743 or

August 9, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Opera’s Ring closes today and marks Verna Parino’s 61st Ring cycle

Ring aficionado Verna Parino, 94 years young, at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House prior to the June 14, 2011 performance of “Das Rheingold,” her 59th Ring cycle. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 As the curtain closes later today on San Francisco Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, it will mark Verna Parino’s 61st Ring cycle and I could not pass up the opportunity to talk with her about what makes a Ring memorable.  Parino, now a spry 94, first heard Wagner on the radio when she was about 16 and was mesmerized but it wasn’t until 1971, when she was 54, that she actually saw her first Ring cycle. 

She made up quickly for lost time.  In the past 40 years, she has travelled to 18 countries and seen 61 cycles in places as far flung as Shanghai and Adelaide, and has befriended Ring “trekkies” all over the world.  Not only did she embrace the Ring, she embraced opera as well and for years headed the Marin chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild’s Preview Program, retiring just last year.  I caught up with her in mid-June at Das Rheingold of Cycle 1, which marked Ring No. 59 for her, and again a week later at a Wagner Society of Northern California Ring symposium and she was full of exuberance for Wagner’s musical epic.

You’ve see so many Rings now, what type of production do you prefer and what makes it exciting for you?

The first thing to determine is if goes along with Wagner.  Something that is not Wagner, like last year’s Los Angeles Opera production, I didn’t like at all and I complained bitterly about that.  You can be innovative and modernize the setting but make it apply to what Wagner was writing about. 

And if you don’t react to the staging, it’s not a good production.  For me, if I don’t cry when Wotan has to punish his child, then it’s not a good production because as a parent it’s very painful to punish your child and you do cry.   When Speight Jenkins staged his first Ring at the Seattle Opera, I didn’t cry at that father having to punish his child and I didn’t think the production was very good.  With his later productions, I did cry and it all came together.

It’s Wagner’s music that tells you what’s going on, not always the words.  Here, at this Ring, I am trying something that is quite different for me—I am trying to find an ending in the music.  Wagner spent a lifetime searching for the answers to civilization’s problems.  He used the universal language of myth to portray man’s foibles and composed some of the most glorious music ever to represent the deepest emotional reactions of love and parental discipline.  But, after sixteen hours of the most monumental work of art ever envisioned, Wagner was still searching for an ending of how to govern the world.   Several solutions were dismissed and he finally gave us the answer through his music.  It’s the churning music, representing the convoluted story of mankind, that brings about a positive conclusion with a rebirth, a renewal, as indicated in the source materials of the Norse Poetic Edda.   The music itself is so exciting—it tells you that life is really hard and the answers are difficult to come by but that’s why I keep coming back time and time again trying to find the answer.  

Who are the heroes for you?  

Many people say that all the women represent the truth and that ‘love conquers all’ and that it’s Brünnhilde and that it’s the men who let the world down with their greed and negative attributes.   Brünnhilde wasn’t true to herself.  She goes after revenge and that’s not the answer.  Of course, Brünnhilde grew–she understands what has happened but she’s betrayed herself.  She finds out too late what the truth is and by then it’s all set in motion.  Wotan, well, he just accepts that he’s done it all wrong and that he can’t fix it any more. 

It’s interesting to analyze the characters because with each director, in each new production and portrayal, you might see something that has been added that makes sense to you.  I attended a talk last night and was struck with a realization about Alberich.  He was evil, and greedy, and power-driven but he admitted it and he was therefore true to himself, honest about his nature.  It is Wotan who pretends that he is righteous when he’s not–he is really driven by greed and takes advantage of other people and ultimately pays the price.  Siegmund is the only true hero, the only one who remains true to himself and to his love Sieglinde.   That was new to me that Siegmund was the true hero.  

And then, of course, you have to bring your own thoughts in too and ask yourself what you see in it all.  It depends on where you come from and we all have different backgrounds.  I’m Swedish and I married an Italian and I love German and I’ve had many adventures around the world.  Wherever we come from, we bring all that with us when we sit down and watch what’s on stage.  I just can’t wait to see it all unfold again.

What’s your overall impression of Francesca Zambello’s production, now that you’ve seen all three cycles?

Upon reflection today, thinking about the reasons this San Francisco Ring is such a positive success, and why people leave the Opera House smiling and saying it was great, most important is the fact that it is true to Wagner.  It was not some director’s concept of what he thought Wagner might have said.  It was not a ‘glitsey’ controversial, sensationalized staging for the sake of controversy or publicity.  Although Wagner used giants, dwarfs, gods, and dragons, they are symbols or archetypes of the people we know around about our worlds–our neighbors, even ourselves. We identify with them. We read about them in today’s news. 

The direction was humanized. Wotan was bored with his wife Fricka’s complaints so he picked up the newspaper and read. Then Fricka, bored with Wotan’s explanation of the extended view of world leadership, also picked up the newspaper and read. Francesca Zambello welcomed suggestions from the cast so that performers were part of a team, acting in ways that seemed normal.  It seemed as though there was a communal joy and presenting this Ring.

Wagner appreciated the natural world as illustrated many times in this epic story. The destruction of our environment—water, air, earth—has formed the basis for the sets of many productions (Cologne + Rhein River pollution, Berlin + junk yards, Arizona + Colorado River diversion, Oslo and Warsaw + barren trees).  In San Francisco’s Gotterdammerung there were piles of junked plastic bags that the Rheinmaidens picked up.

New questions to ponder:  Was Siegmund really a hero if he was willing to slay his bride and unborn child because they could not go with him to Valhalla?  Was Brünnhilde really a heroine, and really true to her inner self, if she was willing to conspire with Hagen for her husband’s death?   Is a yellow ‘sail’ that balloons into the air and finally dissolves into the river, a likely gold that can be stolen?  If Gutrune is so willing to jump into the king-size bed with Hagen, while waiting for Siegfried to return to marry her, should she participate so prominently in the finale supporting Brunnhilde’s memorial dedication?

And, this being a music-drama, the music itself was simply outstanding.  Leading the outstanding cast was Nina Stemme, today’s world-famous Brünnhilde. Returning to conduct the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was Donald Runnicles, internationally acclaimed for his work with Wagner.  The music of the finale is positive, so that using again a child planting a small tree representing a new beginning, is logical. Wagner’s early revolutionary ideas took many philosophical turns. How should the world’s ending be portrayed?  ‘Tis a puzzlement’ that Wagnerians will continue to ponder.

July 3, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment