San Francisco Weekend

A weekend in San Francisco involved delayed departures with 90-minute sojourns on airport tarmac in both directions, plus another hour on the return end as maintenance personnel were called in to –- honest! – change a light bulb. On the ground in San Francisco the pleasures were many: dinners at Zuni and the Hayes St. Grill, Dim Sum at Yank Sing, “Simon Boccanegra” at the San Francisco Opera with Dimitri Hrov— (you know who I mean) absolutely stunning in the title role.  I was there, however, for “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” and that’s another story.
    No, it’s the same story, actually, the collapse by the operatic machine, overcoddled and led astray by that segment of the cultural community that has made it its toy, its billboard, its fashion display. There is no matchup between the artform of the Verdi of Friday night’s opera and the gaudy, self-indulgent circus on Saturday that involved a $million-plus worth of a hack composer, a pretty good bunch of ethnic performers on a stage overlarge for their talent, designers ditto, in a production hyped to the bazooty to the point where you couldn’t even get a toehold into the press room at half-time.  I would love to have seen “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” on one of those little Chinese theaters off Grant Avenue that Lou Harrison, John Cage and, occasionally, I used to visit half a century ago, and enjoy the same excellent singers who are now trapped in a fancy new production ten times too big – Qian Yi with her ghostly, silvery, slithery voice most of all – in this grotesque, misshapen entertainment, as ludicrous a step ahead  for the SF Opera as “The Fly” is for ours.
     David Gockley is the company’s general director, after years and years at the Houston Grand Opera. He hired me once to compile a happy book about HGO’s remarkable achievement in commissioning and performing contemporary opera; the occasion was, I think, Opera No. 25, Carlisle Floyd’s “Cold Sassy Tree.” Floyd’s operas figured considerably in that compilation, in fact; he had even moved to Houston from somewhere else, so as to be closer to his operas. I wonder if he’s gonna move to San Francisco.
     The point is, Gockley’s impressive statistics relate to a taste for easy-listening opera; Stewart Wallace, “Bonesetter’s” composer, is already on that list, twice. Gockley has brought Philip Glass’s “Appomattox” to San Francisco, and now this. Not many Gockley operas ever leap out of their original place of performance, by the way, and turn up somewhere else; you can’t really say that he has enhanced the repertory as Mr. Wagner did from Bayreuth, say. 
    There has to be greater challenge  to an operatic audience than this weak tea somewhere, either in the form of more challenging production values – and I don’t mean the kind of Eurotrash that locates “The Ring” in a bathroom, as in one set of DVDs I confess to owning – or in seriously challenging  music that can move our operatic expectations forward, as “Simon Boccanegra” moved Verdi’s.  Is it too much to wonder out loud, now that Achim Freyer is at work among us, whether his production of Unsuk Chin’s “Alice in Wonderland” might possibly land somewhere? 
    Just wondering.

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