A Conversation with Barnaby Palmer, Artistic Director and Conductor
Verdi’s powerful opera at The Cowell Theatre, Fort Mason
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
I recently met with Barnaby Palmer Artistic Director and Conductor of San Francisco Lyric Opera, for what proved to be a laughter-filled exchange about the world of opera, Giuseppi Verdi, and the Company’s production of Rigoletto, opening this Friday at the Cowell Theatre. The setting will be the Chicago of the late 1920s, in the midst of the Great Depression. Renowned Hungarian stage director, Attila Béres, joined the production team in adapting Verdi’s dark and enduring work to the stage of the Cowell Theatre (Fort Mason) and reveal the social intrigues of 16th Century Mantua and the unnerving parallels of political maneuverings and economic uncertainties within the immediate present. For more information, click here: SF Lyric Opera
Barnaby Palmer’s “Rigoletto”
BARNABY: Our production of Rigoletto is going to be fabulous. We have this wonderful Hungarian conductor who just arrived. We’re setting it right on the brink of the financial crisis of the ’20s – Day One of The Depression. There’s Mafioso, corruption. Rigoletto translates perfectly for this ’20s – ’30s time frame. The a banda music (an offstage band) at the beginning sounds like the Charleston, it sounds like a party. You can imagine the party – a Bacchanalian orgy, hysteria, and great fun.
SEÁN: “Orgy” is exactly the term that would have been used during those days.
BARNABY: We’re setting it in that time because it has great relevance. Rigoletto is one of the most incredible scores. Verdi is the best of opera. I would rather conduct Verdi than almost anything.
SEÁN: You are a Verdi fan rather than a Puccini fan. Or do you divide yourself into those camps?
BARNABY: Oh, that’s very difficult because Puccini is such a genius. I describe him as the Acme of Musical Theatre. Everything that is great in musical theatre, Puccini takes to a different level. With Verdi – there is something slightly self-conscious that appeals to me. I’m not really present in Puccini. He is unabashed. So, other than it being a beautiful score, we have a fantastic cast, and a good director with a vision for this time. That’s why we’re doing Rigoletto .
SEÁN: How long have you been doing this?
BARNABY: I’ve been involved with Lyric Opera since 2002 and as Artistic Director since late 2002. I started off in the middle of 2001 as Assistant Conductor, then to being Principal Conductor, then Music Director, then Artistic Director because they really didn’t have anyone in that position.
SEÁN: Tell me about your educational background.
BARNABY: I went to Interlochen Arts Academy, then to the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the University of Michigan for a Masters Degree. I was very lucky and became a conductor.
SEÁN: Did you always know you wanted to conduct opera?
BARNABY: Oh, this is going to make so unpopular. Not at all! Literally no interest in opera. I loved symphonic music and chamber music. I liked the longer form. By that, I mean – within opera there are dozens of three to five minute arias, quartets, trios. I was interested in the longer, broader symphonic 20-minute/30-minute movements. You have to dig a little deeper in order to have enough structure to support that long vision. But then, I started working with voices and got completely addicted. I found this visceral feeling of being in the room with the human voice, and cannot let it go. It’s intoxicating. I also love the temperament of singers. I love rehearsals and working with singers.
SEÁN: Was there an opera or an opera singer that turned it on for you. Where was that sort-of “A-ha!”?
BARNABY: Maybe both, because I find that it was cumulative. As you know – the first time you hear Maria Callas, you pay attention.
BARNABY: Her “Lucia”, either the Mexico City recording in 1952 or the 1956 with von Karajan, is just an education. There’s a fantastic recording of Rigoletto – 1966, with Giulini conducting Pavarotti, before he was “the name”. You hear it when he sings “Questa O Quella” – and the audience is ‘oh, very nice’ – but, by Act Two when he sings “Parmi veder le lagrime” – they’re going crazy! The impact is just overwhelming.
SEÁN: I saw him in 1969 at San Francisco Opera in La Boheme with Dorothy Kirsten.
BARNABY: No kidding, no kidding!
SEÁN: Dorothy Kirsten had this blest career, singing a small number of roles all around the world –
BARNABY: The “Queen of the Night Syndrome” –
SEÁN: Almost! That night there was an earthquake. Right before the climax of the First Act duet, people start rushing up the aisle. I’m thinking, “Oh, come on!”
BARNABY: ‘Get over it!’ – right?
SEÁN: Yes, but more like, “Is your cocktail that important?” That’s when I start to feel the sway and I go, “Oh, dear …”
BARNABY: “It’s an earthquake! Is this worth dying for?”
SEÁN: Kirsten and Pavarotti went on singing, the conductor did not stop, and then in a few mini seconds it was over.
BARNABY: But so scary, right? In a building with thousands of people? That’s not where you want to be.
SEÁN: Then there’s this little wave of applause as if to suggest, ‘thank you for not stopping’, the duet is finished, and the audience went totally nuts!
BARNABY: You must have been beyond-belief-alive at that point. It’s that kind of moment, that kind of experience, especially in life performance.
SEÁN: Absolutely! That stuff around ‘what a way to go’ – a local critic commented that Puccini’s LA BOHEME might indeed be lovely, but it would be so much better with anything by Verdi.
BARNABY: (Much laughter.) That’s great.
SEÁN: Back to Rigoletto . How do singers wind up in major roles at San Francisco Lyric Opera?
BARNABY: We have general auditions once a year, always in the fall.
SEÁN: Do you get singers from the Merola Opera Program and the Adler Fellows?
BARNABY: Of course! Our previous production of Don Giovanni featured Eugene Brancoveanu. He was the perfect “Don Giovanni”.
SEÁN: We had a long conversation during the 2007 run of Young Caesar. When he is singing at the War Memorial, I swear you can hear the proscenium arch buzzing.
BARNABY: He has a fantastic, gripping technique. You know from interviewing him that you couldn’t book a nicer guy. It would be insulting to think of him as a “Divo”, because he is so much more than that; generous, engaging people, making connections.
SEÁN: We will be talking about him years from now. And there he was at Lyric Opera. So, back to auditions.
BARNABY: We generally have a couple of rounds. We’ve instituted a policy where either you have representation or else submit a recording or have a recommendation of someone. Then it’s up to our discretion if they’re accepted. It’s just that, when it was completely open, there were too many people auditioning who weren’t quite ready. The Bay Area is packed with talent. It’s humbling how many qualified, wonderful singers there are.
SEÁN: Are you forming a company? A resident company where leads would be drawn from a pool of talent?
BARNABY: I don’t want to limit myself. There are several singers I have used many times, because they’ve been right and appropriate to the role. But, I don’t want to be forced to use someone because they are one of our six singers. I don’t think it’s fair for the singer; it’s misguided.
SEÁN: How about for the Chorus? Are you looking for stability there?
BARNABY: We have the most incredible Chorus Master, Chip Grant. Over the years, slowly and patiently, he has seduced talent from all over the City. Singers are lining up trying to get into the Chorus – all unpaid, all volunteer. They show up, they stay late, they’re engaged, intelligent. I have always felt – especially from playing orchestra – that the heart and soul of an opera company is the chorus and orchestra. Conductors and Principals come and go. But if you have an orchestra of great quality and chorus of great quality, the rest follows.
SEÁN: How does your budget accommodate costumes and sets, etc.?
BARNABY: For the past three seasons, thirteen operas, we’ve engaged Meghan Muser as our Costume Mistress. I don’t know how she does it. Our budget is not exorbitant, it’s just the way it is. But she always manages to find beautiful costumes and creative details, she has a wonderful creative mind, and comes up with these little touches that makes everything so personal.
SEÁN: When it comes to a “look” in American history – and given this Depression Era bent on your production of Rigoletto – my favorite period stretches from about 1925 to 1933. I love the era of Hollywood’s Silent Film and its transition into uncensored Talkies – take me back now! So, your presentation is going to be a treat for me.
BARNABY: I can’t wait! I’m very excited about this production and the set designs by Jean-Francois Revon.
SEÁN: Where does the money come from?
BARNABY: We have some wonderfully loyal subscribers who love our company. We have intentionally kept our prices low, and children under 12 come to our operas for free.
SEÁN: It’s what you need to do.
BARNABY: If you are a young family and have children that are eight or ten – and that is not too young to come to an opera. A mature five year old – I’ve seen them! – can easily enjoy the opera. Just around age seven, when reality and fantasy is not set – they watch and don’t separate.
SEÁN: I’m just about eight years old when Channel 7 first broadcasts the film San Francisco with Jeannette MacDonald and Clark Gable – which is being screened at the Castro Theatre on the 18th for the anniversary of the 1906 Earthquake. The plot line includes that Jeanette is an opera singer who is making her debut at the Tivoli Opera. It’s pure Hollywood. Jeanette is exquisitely beautiful, fabulously miked and costumed for these arias and scenes from La Traviata and Faust. The quake doesn’t hit until late in the film, but by now, I’m crazy in love with Jeanette MacDonald and, by the way, the music. So, I come into opera through the back door — as a celebrity worshipper. The same was true later on when Beverly Sills made her official “debut” and released a recording that included “Je suis Titania” from Mignon. She geared my focus toward French opera and with the hope that American singers could build a career in their own country. So, when are you going to make my life complete and give us a production of Thaïs?
BARNABY: I love Massenet. I would love to do Manon.
SEÁN: Thaïs is my “desert island” opera.
BARNABY: Mine is a Five Act Italian – Don Carlo. (Much laughter.)
SEÁN: With Eugene Brancoveanu.
BARNABY: With Piero Cappuccilli. This is my desert island! (Much laughter.)
SEÁN: OK! So, I love going to the less than 450-seat Cowell Theatre at Fort Mason. But what’s it going to take for folks to pull out their hard-earned money and come see a Rigoletto by San Francisco Lyric Opera?
BARNABY: First of all, it’s not a lot of money. Our prices are so reasonable; beyond reasonable. From the back of the theater you can see the sweat on the singer’s nose. You have not “experienced” opera if all you’ve gone to is the San Francisco Opera or The Met. You experience Opera when you see it in a three-to-five hundred seat theater. So, if you think you know opera but haven’s seen a production in that sort of venue – you are in for a phenomenal experience. You can actually hear the singers, you can actually feel your sinuses buzz. It sells itself. Everyone who has come to our shows – especially those who have never seen an opera – is amazed by how engaging and hyper-intense the experience actually is. With Rigoletto you have this amazing drama, this incredible music, and – with our amazing cast, costumes, sets, and even Supertitles! – it grips you and will not let you go until you leave that theater. It’s raw and does not mince words. It’s not polite; it’s about extremes. It’s about love, death, jealousy, and murder.
SEÁN: And hallucination –
BARNABY: – Hallucination! –
SEÁN: Religious and Otherwise!
BARNABY: Everything! There are no P.T.A meetings here. The thing that is beautiful about the Performing Arts is – so much of this world you have to keep at arm’s length in order to observe what is inside of you. Great Art forces you to open up and go to It. That experience, that effort to come up to something so fine and so amazing – that effort betters you.
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Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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