The upcoming 2009-2010 opera season

August is the cruelest month. Most of the major performing arts organizations are on hiatus until their seasons begin in September. City-dwellers like me who don't have friends with boats or weekend houses in Napa must make do with theater options or amuse ourselves in more prosaic activities like movies, enjoying the weather and socializing. Here in San Francisco, the summer weather is unpredictable (and often miserable), so even those options can be limited. Thankfully there's a run of Tracy Letts' August, Osage County about to hit town or I'd have very little to write about for the next few weeks.

So this morning I was thinking about the upcoming opera season. This year I'll be reviving my annual trip to the Met to see Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct Janacek's From the House of the Dead. The new production by Patrice Chereau received a lot of attention in Europe and I suspect it may be the highlight of what I see this fall. I'll also see Robert Lepage's production of Berlioz's The Damnation Faust while I'm there. I would like to see at least one more opera, but the Met's other offerings during the House run didn't pique my interest- I can, and will, get my fill of Mozart and Puccini here at home.

Down in LA, Achim Freyer's stunning, brilliant Ring cycle moves forward in its installment run before LA mounts the entire thing beginning in late May. For me, Siegfried in September and Gotterdammerung in April are this year's must-sees. Once again, LA's Recovered Voices program tantalizes with the first production in the Western Hemisphere of Franz Schreker's The Stigmatized, featuring Anja Kampe in the lead. Even though last year's production of The Birds didn't measure up to the stunning quality of 2007's Der Zwerg, Recovered Voices is the type of intelligent and bold programming making LA the most interesting opera company on the West Coast. LA is also going to have great casts in productions of The Elixir of Love and The Barber of Seville that look like sure-fire winners. Add in Domingo performing in Handel's Tamerlano, which seems weird to me, and concerts by Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson, and LA has a season that offers something for almost everyone.

Here in San Francisco the upcoming season is going to be a watershed of sorts. For the first time General Director David Gockley's vision for the company is going to be on full display. For Gockley's detractors (count me among them), the upcoming season is the most conservative (and potentially boring) in memory. For his supporters (and there are many), it's going to a star-studded glam-fest of favorites. Much as I am loathe to admit it, judging by the huge success of the summer season the odds look to favor SFO having a successful year of star turns in war horses. However, when the company is touting Puccini's operas exciting and new, from my vantage point the future looks pretty bleak. While I like fine singers as much as the next opera fan, I'd rather have more variety and some bolder choices in programming. Puccini and Verdi operas alone comprise 44% of this year's schedule, with the remainder comprised of composers and works even a casual fan will be well-acquainted with. It's being marketed as exciting, but to me it's anything but.

Still, one thing I've learned from SFO over the years is to be prepared for surprises and delights from unexpected places. Last year's Elixir was a complete success and Porgy and Bess was outstanding on every level so there's a chance I'm going to have to eat some crow down the line. So far, the season's highlights look to be Salome, Die Walkure and Fanciulla. We'll see if Trovatore's excellent cast can actually make the production work and Otello, definitely one of Verdi's greatest scores, can't be done worse than it was the last time it was here, which was probably the single greatest failure during the Rosenberg era. I'll see everything the home team puts on this year and wait patiently for Handel, Janacek, Britten and Berlioz to re-appear on the schedule one day, taking small comfort that LA is only a short trip to the south.