Ferries Play Role in Flights of Passion

A year after the legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso recorded the leading role in Pagliacci, he had barely the time to hop a ferry and escape from the San Francisco Fire of 1906.

SFO’s chorus director and conductor Ian Robertson. Photo by Matthew Washburn


Published: September, 2018


A year after the legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso recorded the leading role in Pagliacci, he had barely the time to hop a ferry and escape from the San Francisco Fire of 1906. He recalled that fateful journey across the Bay with considerable bitterness, as the city burned and smoldered after the earthquake.


Could that experience have imbued him with the passion that made his portrayal of Canio so memorable? Aficionados will not quickly dismiss such an idea, while others will contend that such monumental suffering can only make a singer stronger.


The demands placed upon the chorus in the San Francisco Opera’s upcoming production of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci—two operas frequently performed together and referred to as “Cav/Pag”—are no less daunting.


Fortunately, SFO’s current chorus director and conductor, Ian Robertson, is up to the task. He’s held this position since 1987, having helped stage a memorable Cav/Pag production in 2003.


“‘The Bell Chorus’ is especially challenging for the girl singers,” said Robertson. “They really have to carry the melody while the boys are counting out the rhythm.” The Easter Hymn from Cavalleria is no less difficult, he added, with choristers required to keep moving about the sacred procession.


“Our singers have to train like athletes,” he said, “and must remain fit throughout the season. Furthermore, they have to use the same discipline with their voices, developing and retaining muscle memory.”


As far as motivation goes, said Roberston, it all comes from within. “I don’t have to work too hard in getting my chorus engaged in this work, because it is very explosive and gut wrenching, as all true works of verismo should be. By the time we stage our first performance, our chorus is entirely prepared and eager to take the stage.”


The same goes for new operagoers, Robertson said, noting that Cav/Pag is the perfect introduction to the artform for patrons who may only attend one or two operas a season.


For more information, see sfopera.com.



New Book Tackles Jack London Love Triangle

Verismo—a term referring to realism in Italian opera—is typically not about mythological figures, or kings and queens, but rather about contemporary men and women and their problems, which are generally of a sexual, romantic or violent nature.


So too is the recent work of Rebecca Rosenberg, whose new novel, The Secret Life of Mrs. London, tells the story of a love triangle between Houdini, Charmian London and Jack London.


The book jacket flap copy tells it this way: “As America teeters on the brink of world war, Charmian and her husband, famed novelist Jack London, wrestle with genius, desire, politics, marital competitiveness—and Houdini’s entrancing magnetism. Torn between history’s most mysterious and charismatic figures, Charmian must find the courage to forge her own path.”


In an interview with Bay Crossings, Rosenberg said that by reading Charmian’s correspondence, she learned that her life with Jack was one of continual conflict and passion.


“Jack was an incredibly prodigious writer, constantly at work, but also drinking and smoking heavily. We don’t believe he had a death wish, but he certainly lived a hard life. Charmian had to be incredibly strong to deal with that.”


As for Houdini, he died a few years after Charmian ended their affair. An avid world traveler and aviator, his final breath was drawn in a lonely hotel room—a prosaic ending for such a daring hero.


For more information, see www.rebecca-rosenberg.com.



Eugene O’Neill Festival Comes to Danville

Hotels were key to the life of Irish-American playwright Eugene O’Neill, too. According to Eric Fraisher Hayes, artistic director of the Eugene O’Neill Foundation and Tao House in Danville. He recently paid a visit to the Mechanic’s Institute to promote its upcoming season. Joining him were three principal actors starring in this year’s performance of Hughie, one of the playwright’s lesser known works.


“Eugene was born in a hotel, as the family was always on the road because of his father’s acting career,” said Fraisher. “Eugene took the ferry over here to stay at the Huntington Hotel on Nob Hill while the Tao House was being built.”


Hughie will be part of an international theater exchange in New Ross, Ireland and Danville. The dates of the festival are September 16 to 30, as part of the 19th annual Eugene O’Neill Festival at Tao House in Danville.


For more information, see www.eugeneoneill.org.


Follow Paul Duclos’ Cultural Currents online with his blog at: www.duclosculturalcurrents.com