SAN DIEGO — Before San Diego had an opera company of its own, local buffs imported productions of grand opera by the San Francisco Opera. In Northern California's sophisticated cultural metropolis, opera remains as topical as, say, sports and labor unions in Detroit.
Sunday evening at San Diego's First Presbyterian Church, another San Francisco operatic institution will make its local debut. Members of Donald Pippin's Pocket Opera troupe will perform a program of scenes from comic operas and operettas as part of that church's concert series.
Though Pocket Opera is celebrating its 10th season, Pippin's work with the simplified staging of operas in English goes back a score of years to his first performance of an obscure one-act Mozart opera in the back room of San Francisco's Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant. Since those humble beginnings, Pippin has caught his public's imagination with his witty translations of obscure works and clever adaptations of familiar ones.
"Our goal is to shear away all of the extraneous aspects of opera--the spectacle and grandiosity--and concentrate on intelligible, vivid English and the dramatic interplay of characters," Pippin said. His snappy narration of a Pocket Opera production can both conjure an imaginary set and unravel the most baroque opera plot.
Among Pocket Opera's offerings this spring--the company puts on about 15 operas a year--was Pippin's adaptation of Mozart's "The Abduction From the Seraglio," which he retitled "Yanked From the Harem." He updated the quaint 18th-Century plot to 1969, making the protagonists young college students who get busted in Turkey on a trumped-up drug charge. Houston Grand Opera is staging Pippin's version of Mozart's "Abduction" this fall to open its 1987 season.
With 40 opera translations to his credit, Pippin has championed obscure operas by the likes of Offenbach and Smetana, "especially those works which would get squelched in the big opera houses," he said. But Pippin is not afraid to do some of the same works staged by the San Francisco Opera.
"When people see a Mozart opera or a 'Norma' by Pocket Opera, they find out what the opera is really about," he said.
Pippin has attempted the gamut of opera from Henry Purcell masques to Igor Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress." When Pocket Opera performs on its home turf--in April it moved into the 430-seat Waterfront Theater at San Francisco's tourist mecca, Ghirardelli Square--it uses a reduced orchestra of eight instrumentalists and Pippin at the piano, appropriately called the Pocket Philharmonic.
Pippin's program for San Diego is a potpourri of the best scenes of his company's repertory, titled--with his usual eye for pun--"Pick of the Pockets." Performing in a church did not require a serious adjustment of the company's repertory.
"What we do is not so racy that we have to tone it down," company manager Anthony Clarvoe said, "although it takes a hearty audience to loosen up sufficiently to laugh in church."
Sunday's cast is soprano Ellen Kerrigan, mezzo-soprano Linda Caple, tenor Baker Peeples and baritone Lawrence Venza. They will sing excerpts from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Cosi fan tutte," Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld" and "The Princess of Trebizonde," as well as Flotow's "Martha." Pippin will accompany his crew at the piano.
Pocket Opera may produce opera on a shoestring, but its singers are no strangers to the big leagues. Kerrigan appeared in San Francisco Opera's celebrated production of Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina," and made her debut with that company substituting for an indisposed Montserrat Caballe in Donizetti's "Roberto Devereux." Peeples is a veteran of San Francisco's Gilbert and Sullivan Lamplighters company, for which he has performed more than 100 operettas.
Pippin has been part of the San Francisco music scene for more than 35 years. He started by giving piano recitals and chamber music concerts in North Beach, before that district became the Beat Generation's primary hangout, and opera eventually grew out of that. Pippin is not, however, a frustrated singer.
"I'm the world's worst singer," he said. "Basically, I'm a pianist, a role with which I'm quite happy."