Kurt Herbert Adler, whose name had been synonymous with grand opera on the West Coast for three decades and the last of that rare breed of impresario/maestros who often conducted the casts they assembled, directed and paid, is dead.
He was 82 and died at 6 p.m. Tuesday of a heart attack at his home in Ross, near San Francisco.
Hours earlier, in what proved to be an ironic twist, his successor as general director of the San Francisco Opera, Terence McEwen, only the third director in the history of the 66-year-old opera company many consider the nation's second-best after the Metropolitan, had resigned for health reasons.
The paunchy and fiery Adler, often cantankerous, sometimes feared but always respected, was the undisputed reigning presence on the Western opera scene from 1953 until his 1981 retirement.
He resurrected American singers, brought European talent to U.S. stages often before those vocalists ever sang at the Met (where he sometimes was confused with its chorus master Kurt Adler, who died in 1977) and produced a mixed bag of operas ranging from the long-forgotten "Blood Moon" to the U.S. premiere of Richard Strauss' "Die Frau Ohne Schatten."
Famous or flops, all were done with the rowdy flair that marked his tenure at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco and for many years the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
And if his critics found him ruthless at the bargaining table, his audiences were ecstatic at his discovery of such fabled voices as Mario del Monaco, Renata Tebaldi, Tito Gobbi, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Leontyne Price, who considered Adler her personal paterfamilias.
One example of the Adler temperament surfaced at a gala in 1978 honoring his 50 years in opera, 25 as head of the San Francisco company. Lofti Mansouri, then an Adler aide, received a furious dressing down from the feisty maestro, severe enough so that Mansouri offered to resign on the spot.
"Don't be so sensitive," Adler responded.
Adler spread his wrath and his encouragement equally throughout the company. Stagehands and sopranos received both in equal shares as he stalked the aisles during rehearsals offering comments on tempo, lighting, staging. One conductor, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, was so enraged at Adler that he ran from the rehearsal hall and was on his way to the airport when Adler finally persuaded him to stay.
He was as critical of the press as it could be of him and banned one critic, Stephanie von Buchau, from his performances forever. She responded: "If I have exceptionally stringent operatic standards, it is because I learned them from Adler's company. . . . "
Adler later called a truce.
He offended Placido Domingo by calling Luciano Pavarotti the " primissimo tenor" but then charmed the Spanish singer back into his fold. And he could laugh at himself as a constant "bitcher" but defended his railings by saying, "When I hear applause, I think how can I do it better?"
He did it better by expanding the five-week season he inherited from Gaetano Merola into 14 weeks. No one benefited more than Los Angeles where the Shrine Auditorium more often than not was sold out during the San Francisco company's annual sojourn south.
While the San Francisco-Los Angeles agreement dated to 1937, it was during Adler's reign that it flourished with 16 individual operas staged during the last regular tour in 1964. (The company returned for one final season in 1969 before an agreement was signed between the Music Center and the New York City Opera Co.)
Adler was born in Vienna to an arts-loving engineer who saw to his son's education to such a point that at age 13 young Kurt could sight-read Wagner's "Die Walkure." He conducted his first work under the fabled stage director Max Reinhardt at the age of 20 after studying at the University of Vienna's Music-Historical Institute.
He credited Reinhardt with the initial inspiration for his long career when the stern director told him, "Remember, young man, in the theater nothing is impossible."
Adler conducted in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria as well as his native land and briefly assisted Arturo Toscanini at Salzburg in 1936.
Joined Chicago Company
The threat of the Anschluss sent him to Chicago where he joined the Grand Opera Co. as conductor and chorus master. Two years later he joined the San Francisco company after Merola supposedly told him: "How can anyone live in Chicago? Chicago is merely a place to change trains."
Adler rose from chorus master to conductor to Merola's chief deputy and was the logical choice to succeed the man who had founded the San Francisco company in 1922 when Merola died in 1953. He became artistic director and then general director.
He inherited a modest regional company performing an abbreviated season in outmoded quarters. It was known for its casts but not its productions.