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Dan Krieger: Local troupe upholds state’s opera tradition

It’s high tragedy with comic relief. Set in one of Paris’ Left Bank garrets on a Christmas Eve about 1830. Two artists, the painter Marcello and the poet Rodolfo, are struggling to keep warm by burning pages from Rodolfo’s latest drama.

Welcome relief arrives in the form of Schaunard, a musician who just got a gig and brings food, wine and fuel. The friends depart for a celebration at the Café Momus. Rodolfo promises to join them soon, staying behind to finish writing an article.

Mimì, a young neighbor, knocks at the door, saying that her candle has blown out. Rodolfo relights her candle and in the moonlight the poet takes the girl’s shivering hand. Three acts later, Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” ends with Mimi’s dying of consumption.

The doomed romance has all of the essentials of Europe’s romantic literature in the 1830s and ’40s.

French, Italian and German immigrants brought these sensibilities to California during that same period. Giacomo Puccini wasn’t born until 1858, but he understood how the romantic movement had swept California in the mid-nineteenth century, writing another opera, “La Fanciulla Del West,” (the Girl of the Golden West) in 1907.

When that opera premiered in New York in 1910, Enrico Caruso played the outlaw, complete with some furry chaps, twin six-guns and 10-gallon hat!

Classical opera began in San Francisco in 1850. Mathilda Korsinsky, a German-born singer, sang an aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Ernani” at an intermission between dramas at the Jenny Lind Theater. The Evening Picayune wrote that Korsinsky was “rapturously encored!” The next year Italian singer Innocenzo Pellegrini produced the first full opera, Vicenzo Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” (The Sleepwalker). The Alta Californian observed that “a crowded house greeted the opening (and) torrents of applause ... continually broke forth.”

Audiences got out of hand, yelling, groaning, or hissing during performances, much as we do at Oceano’s Great American Melodrama today.

There were occasional fist fights that enlarged into armed duels in the streets outside the theater.

In 1853, a resident company, The Pacific Musical Troupe, was established in San Francisco. In 1854, four notable sopranos, Anna Bishop, Catherine Hayes, Clarissa Cailly, and Anna Thillon, competed for the attention of San Franciscans.

Shortly after, from Mariposa to Weaverville, every Mother Lode boomtown that rebuilt itself in brick had to have its own opera house.

San Francisco’s Tivoli Opera House opened at Eddy and Mason streets in the 1870s. It was as much a beer garden as a classical opera house. Nonetheless, it was the favorite venue for Mme. Luisa Tetrazzini. Rebuilt in 1904, it burnt in the 1906 Fire. Its reopening in 1913 marked a triumphant appearance of Tetrazzini in Rigoletto.

The theater seated 2,300 guests with standing room for another thousand. By 1934, San Francisco was home to the War Memorial Opera House. That’s where the United Nations was founded in 1945.

Opera San Luis Obispo was founded as the Pacific Repertory Opera in 1985. At 7:30 p.m. on Friday and at 2 p.m. on April 11, it’s presenting “La Bohème” at the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly.

“La Bohème” was the inspiration for the hit Broadway musical “Rent,” the movie storyline in “Moulin Rouge” and the soundtrack of the 1980s Cher hit movie “Moonstruck.”

For tickets call the center’s box office at 756-2787 or (888) 233-2787, or visit www.pacslo.org. You won’t want to miss this most melodious of operas.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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