More than what’s on stage

Posted: October 7th, 2016 | Arts & Entertainment, Feature, Featured | No Comments

A visit with San Diego Opera’s general director

By Charlene Baldridge

October ushers in the first full production in San Diego Opera’s 2016-17 season. For an opera company that nearly closed in 2014, creative endeavors are booming, with an expansion of what makes a season plus several new programs and activities that are more than enough to discombobulate the usual general director.

LA Opera - LA Traviata Piano Dress #2 Photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Verdi’s “La Traviata” opens April 22, 2017 for four performances. (Photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging)

Although he claimed to be crazed, exclaiming “It’s like back to school week here!” when interviewed at the Downtown office of San Diego Opera (SDO) on Sept. 9, General Director David Bennett (who came aboard in June 2015) was loquacious, enthusiastic and positive when assessing where the company is, what and how it’s doing, and where it’s going.


Mezzo-soprano Lauren McNeese is Cenerentola (Cinderella) in San Diego Opera’s “La Cenerentola (Cinderella),” opening Oct. 22. (Courtesy of the artist)

In just eight days, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala would deliver the 2016-17 season’s first official event – a ravishingly beautiful recital of operatic arias at the Balboa Theatre. Just days before, a new program titled Opera on Track (funded by Opera America) had launched successfully at the Santee trolley station; the Opera’s scenic studio was constructing the first building in a 1950s village for Glenner Center’s Alzheimer’s Day Care patients; and SDO’s new Dētour series had recently secured lead sponsorship from arts patron Darlene Shiley.


Tenor David Portillo as Don Ramiro in “La Cenerentola” (Courtesy of the artist)

Gleefully, Bennett described the scene when the Opera on Track ensemble presented an outdoor touring version Rossini’s “Cinderella” at the Santee trolley station days before. Nearly 200 people turned up, among them preschoolers. Each child received either a tiara or a handlebar mustache and the adults received vouchers for discounted tickets to “Cinderella” (kids get in at half-price) and trolley rides to the Civic Theatre.
These activities are emblematic of Bennett’s intention to make SDO a meaningful part of the San Diego community; nonetheless, the season is the thing, and here it is:

  • Gioacchino Rossini’s “La Cenerentola (Cinderella),” Oct. 22-30 at San Diego Civic Theatre.
  • West Coast premiere of David T. Little’s “Soldier Songs” conducted by UC San Diego professor Steven Schick, Nov. 11-13 at Balboa Theatre.
  • Verdi’s “Falstaff” Feb. 18-26 at Civic Theatre.
  • Peter Brook’s “La tragèdie de Carmen (The Tragedy of Carmen),” a distillation of Georges Bizet’s opera, March 10-12 at Balboa Theatre.
  • Verdi’s “La traviata,” April 22-30 at Civic Theatre.

Full season subscriptions, on sale now, can be had for as little as $171.

Bennett waxed ecstatic about numerous young American singers cast in all the above. Clearly, he could not be more enthusiastic or supportive. “It should be a great year of good, young American singers at the cusp of their careers,” he said, “which is very exciting to see.”


Scene from “La Cenerentola” (Courtesy of Opera Queensland)

October: “Our beautiful Cinderella, Lauren McNeese, is a graduate of the Ryan Opera Center at Chicago Lyric Opera.” Playing Alidoro is SDO veteran Ashraf Sewailam. A native of Egypt, he recently moved to San Diego to become director of opera at San Diego State University.

November: KPBS will do a live telecast of the “Soldier Songs” performance Saturday, Nov. 12, providing everyone an opportunity to see this important opera by composer David T. Little based on interviews with and letters written by veterans of five wars. In these interviews, the most common statement was, “I don’t talk about this with anybody,” and indeed that is how Little starts his opera, scored for Everyman Soldier (baritone David Adam Moore, who recently sang Silvio in SDO’s “Pagliacci”), two actors, and an instrumental group of 10 conducted by Schick, who calls the work “a mirror rather than a message.”


Verdi’s “Falstaff” will open Feb. 18, 2017 for four performances Downtown. (Photo by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago)

February: “Falstaff,” based on Shakespeare’s colorful character, is a Chicago Lyric production, which Bennett describes as looking like a wooden architectural model of the Globe Theatre. “It has riots of color in terms of costumes and projections, modern touches in a very traditional work.” Verdi fans love the opera for its humor, melodic vocalism and magnificent orchestrations. The title role is sung by a SDO debutant, acclaimed Italian baritone Roberto de Candia. Daniele Callegari (“Aida,” “Don Giovanni”) returns to conduct.

March: Part of the Shiley Dētour series, Peter Brook’s “La tragèdie de Carmen” (sung in French with projected English translations) features the excellent Southern California mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, seen frequently at LA Opera and Long Beach Opera.

April: Directed by Marta Domingo (Placido’s wife) Verdi’s well known and popular “La traviata” tells the story of an aging Courtesan named Violetta (Corinne Winters) who is beloved of a much younger aristocrat named Alfredo Germont (American tenor Joshua Guerrero). Bennett says that though it’s an LA Opera production, it was built in SDO’s scenic studios. The action is updated to the flapper era. Southwell reprises her LA Opera role as Flora, Violetta’s friend.

“What we’re putting on stage this season is going to be traditional, but look fresh,” says Bennett. “Each production has yet to be seen in San Diego. In future years, you’re going to see the beautiful production of ‘Aida’ that we own but haven’t done much. We’re building a new ‘Turandot’ designed by Zandra Rhodes to premiere in our 2017-18 season with Lise Lindstrom in the title role. I’ve hired Angel Blue, a young soprano originally from Temecula, to sing the role of Liu, and a wonderful tenor, Carl Tanner, to sing Calaf.

“Voice is the centerpiece of what we do. Voice is at the heart of opera. That’s the over-riding nature of our thinking, plus trying to find work that really speaks to our community’s several experiences and to their issues, and gives voice to those experiences in ways that you don’t expect opera to do.”

That having been said, the 2017-18 season opens with “Hansel and Gretel.” Just so you know, there will be accompanying discussions of childhood homelessness. “It makes me feel like we are doing more than just what’s on stage,” Bennett said, “and that I love.”

—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at or reach her at

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