It’s a tiny Merola world…
When the word came on the Schwabacher Recitals 2022I called two of the contestants and found them both rehearsing, singing the title role of the current Carmen productions, one in Hawaiithe other in San Jose.
For Ashley Dixon, Oahu is a “gathering place,” not just in name, but in Merola terms: Andrew Morgan, general manager of the Hawaii Opera Theater, was a longtime SF Opera official. With Dixon in the title role of Peter Brook-meets-Mérimée-meets-Bizet Tragedy of Carmenformer Merolinis Kyle van Schoonhoven, Christian Pursell and Maria Valdes are respectively Don José, Escamillo and Micaëla.
For Nikola Printzit is the title role of the (original) Bizet Carmen — directed by Joseph Marcheso, in a production by Lillian Groag, in collaboration with the Flamenco Society of San José. Merola’s former colleagues include Noah Stewart (Don José), Eugene Brancoveanu (Escamillo) and Teresa Castillo (Frasquita).
Among the recitals: The rarest of creatures, a middle-class operatic tenor, James Schwabacher (1920 – 2006), “scion of a wealthy San Francisco family”, was born with a big heart and lifelong passion for opera and lieder. He combined these strengths in a series of major and enduring achievements, championing and co-founding San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program in 1957, San Francisco Performances in 1980, and establishing the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series in 1983 and endowing it in perpetuity .
Loyal fans (and supporters) of the recitals have followed them over the years from upstairs in Muldoon Elder’s Vorpal Gallery (two wooden columns flanking/obscuring the singers); at Old First Church for Anna Netrebko’s debut; some at Herbst, if I remember correctly; then for several years at Temple Emanu-El; and now lands in the somewhat claustrophobic Atrium Theater of the War Memorial Veterans Building.
Among those who debuted in the recital series: sopranos Deborah Voigt and Tracy Dahl, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, tenor Michael Schade, baritone Thomas Hampson and bass John Relyea.
After the pandemic parenthesis, here is what the 2022 series of recitals, the 38th edition, will offer: four recitals (March 15, April 6, April 27 and July 28), the first three at the Taube Atrium Theater and the last at the Concert Hall of the SF Music Conservatory.
March 15: Two 2021 participants of the Merola Opera Program, mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz and pianist Erica Xiaoyan Guo, will share the stage with guitarist Tatiana Senderowicz.
The program explores femininity in the works of Barbara Strozzi, Gioachino Rossini, Alma Mahler and David Lang; the second part presents works by Ned Rorem, Franz Schubert and new arrangements of pieces by Ranchera; the final act of the recital, “Neutrois”, consists of music “that seems to transcend genres”, including Cabaret Songs by Benjamin Britten, Drei Lieder by Wolfgang Erich Korngold and “Nothing compare to you” by Prince.
April 6: Mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, Merolina 2015-2017 and Adler Fellow 2018-2019, is accompanied by pianist Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad, second-year Adler Fellow. The program highlights French and Spanish composers, including Claude Debussy, Reynaldo Hahn, Manuel de Falla and Carlos Guastavino.
April 27: Four Merola 2019 participants, soprano Esther Tonea (also current Adler Fellow), baritone Timothy Murray, bass Stefan Egerstrom and pianist Andrew King perform works by Jean Sibelius, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Korngold and Tom Cipullo.
July 28: Baritone Sidney Outlaw (Merola, 2010) and pianist and Merola/Adler faculty member Warren Jones perform works by Lament, their recent collaboration, an album that pays homage to 20th century American song. The program includes works by Ricky Ian Gordon, Robert Owens, Dorothy Rudd Moore, Harry T. Burleigh and lyrics by Langston Hughes.
Printz, who was part of the 2020 season of Merola who, at the start of the pandemic, was still hoping for a quick return to normalcreated a busy individual world when it all came to a standstill:
“I started learning ASL — I aim to have all my recitals performed; I think accessibility in the arts is of the utmost importance. I trained on my trapeze a lot, I started rock climbing, I wrote a lot of my own music, I did a fabulous webinar with the BANFF program on diversity and inclusion in the world of opera, and I had two precious rescue chats with my partner… while teaching piano, ukulele and guitar on Zoom. You know, I’m just trying to pay my bills and stay afloat.
And now Printz is in residence at the San José Opera, sang Dido in Purcell’s opera (with Efraín Solís as Aeneas), takes on the title role of Carmen this month, waiting for what the summer festivals have in store for her and working on a film by Francis Poulenc The human voice.
Of the Schwabacher series, Printz says:
To me, recitals all seem to follow a similar formula. I want to treat it a bit more like an intimate conversation with the audience, through song choice and presentation. For me, the audience is a character in recital stories: they follow, listen and react to what you have to say.
I wanted to break it down into three parts and have visual representations and a real conversation with my audience about how I experience gender variations, so they can see me and understand me. My goal was to take a wide range of genres and styles of music and give it a cohesive narrative feel. At the end of each set, one song is linked to the next.
The first set ends with a piece by David Lang, “I was a woman”, where the heroine (disguised as a man) laments the loss of her femininity. This brings us to our next section exploring masculinity beginning with the poems of Walt Whitman set to music by queer composer Ned Rorem.
Linking the second set – all about masculinity and virility – we end with a set I dedicated to the great Ranchera icon Chavela Vargas, singing ‘Aquel Amor’ (which she sang at the funeral of her former lover/ lifelong friend Frida Kahlo) and one of my favorite pieces, “No Soy de Aquí”, which for me illustrates the essence of the whole recital: “I’m neither from here nor from there, I don’t ‘have neither past nor future, being happy is the color of my identity.’ The idea of being yourself freely, allowing yourself to change, grow and be gender fluid.
Appearing in the second recital, Ashley Dixon is also in the midst of an increasingly busy period following the worst of the pandemic:
“Most recently I sang with West Edge Opera at Elizabeth screams then sang William Bolcom’s opera Lucretius with the Louisiana Opera. after the current Tragedy of Carmen with all the old Adlers in Hawaii, I will sing Adalgisa in norma with Festival Opera then Annio in Tito’s clemency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival.
In the recital program, Dixon names Hector Berlioz as the composer with whom she has the closest relationship. “Once I discovered his music, I felt like it was written for my voice. I came across Anne Sofie von Otter singing Ophelia’s death, and I knew I had to program it. It captures Ophelia’s story with music, feeling like a dream but also consuming. You hear his madness in such a watery way.
“My other favorite passages from the recital are “Poema en forma de canciones” by Joaquin Turina. The music sounds as if Debussy had gone to Spain. It’s lovely. I have special feelings about this piece because the first time I heard it was at my husband, Carlos Santelli’s recital when we were at school. In our relationship, he introduced me to so much Spanish music, and it became so special to me, and I try to schedule it whenever I get the chance.
As at all eventsSF Opera requires full vaccination documentation, including a booster shot received at least 7 days prior to the event, as well as photo ID and masks worn indoors.