Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute (BASOTI) presented its final program of opera scenes. Artistic Director Sylvia Anderson arranged a Janus-faced program whose major offerings celebrated two major composer anniversaries. To honor the 200th birthday of Richard Wagner this past May 22, three of the BASOTI students (Catherine Nix, Tanya Ruth, and Alexandra Hollerman) sang the roles of the three Rhine Maidens in a performance of the opening scene from Das Rheingold, assisted by one of the faculty Stage Directors, Rod Gomez, in the role of Alberich. The staging was by Ross Halper. The second half of the program was then dominated by three scenes from three different operas by Richard Strauss, whose 150th birthday will be celebrated next year, all staged by Anderson herself, whose professional career included extensive experience with Strauss’ operas.
What was most notable about this programming was its emphasis on the blending of multiple female voices. The homophonic singing of the Rhine Maidens remains one of Wagner’s most distinctive ventures into new vocal sonorities. The effect was so stunning that he brought back the Rhine Maidens to begin the final act of Götterdämmerung, the last opera in the Ring cycle, whose entire narrative is set in motion by the theft of the gold in that opening Rheingold scene. Then, as if that were not enough, Wagner further enriched those resources in Parsifal with the music he composed for the six Flower-maidens in the second act of Parsifal.
One might speculate that Strauss was so impressed with what Wagner had done with these treble blends that he was determined to do the same. Following through on this hypothesis, Anderson concluded last night’s program with one duet and two trios. The duet was from the first act of Arabella, in which Arabella (Sevan Dekmezian) sings to her sister Zdenka (Melissa Birchett) about saving her love for “der Richtige” (freely translated into English as “Mister Right”). First performed in 1933, Arabella was Strauss’ last collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Both sisters are sopranos, and the intimacy with which their voices intertwine, each one rising above the other, could almost be read as Strauss offering a final gesture of appreciation of Hofmannsthal for the writer’s penetrating understanding of the complexities of human emotions.
This was followed by the opening of the Opera portion of Ariadne auf Naxos. A trio of three nymphs, Naiad (Jenee Luquette), Dryad (Stefanie Greene), and Echo (Kristen Turner), sing about the abandoned Ariadne. Their close harmony contrasts sharply with the playfulness of the Rhine Maidens. There are also a few gestures through which Echo is identified by reflecting the passages of the others. This particular blend also emphasizes the contrast between Naiad’s high soprano and Dryad’s contralto in distinction from the closer harmonies found in Wagner and later in the Arabella duet.
The evening concluded with Strauss’ most memorable trio. This takes place near the end of Der Rosenkavalier when the Marschallin (Jaclyn Surso) accepts that it is time for her to let go of her young lover Octavian (Nicole Shorts), allowing him to marry the young Sophie (Chelsea Miller). Both the Marschallin and Sophie are sopranos, while Octavian is a mezzo. First performed in 1911, this trio unfolds with that same interleaving that Strauss would revisit in Arabella. Here, however, there is further dramatic significance, suggesting that the Marschallin is willingly allowing Sophie’s voice to rise above her own. As I have previously observed, Rosenkavalier is an opera about transition: The aristocratic Octavian moves on from his dalliance with a woman of higher station to marry the bourgeois Sophie and may even then go on to appreciate the values of Enlightenment thinking, From a literary point of view, this was probably Hofmannsthal’s most sophisticated narrative; and this trio demonstrates how all of that sophistication can be reinforced through music.
It goes without saying that all four of these selections were ambitious undertakings. Many educational settings may have dismissed them as “too advanced for student work.” BASOTI, however, prefers to aim high; and the students who rose to these four occasions have come away with an appreciation of just how powerful the dramatism of opera can be with properly reinforcing music.