New Opera season promises a feast for the eyes and ears


By David L. Coddon

The 2012 San Diego Opera season should be an eye-opener. General Director and Artistic Director Ian Campbell is counting on it.

“This season I’m challenging the eyes in every case, in a good way,” said Campbell of the ambitious slate that kicks off Jan. 28 with Strauss’ “Salome,” followed by Jake Heggie’s “Moby-Dick” in February, Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” and a concert by soprano Renee Fleming in March, and Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” in April.

“’Barber” is based on (surrealist artist Renee) Magritte,” said Campbell. “ ‘Don Pasquale’ is set in the Wild West. You have

‘Moby-Dick’ with its projections and stylized effects — that’s a different look, and ‘Salome’, too, is a different look.”

Planning a season — something Campbell’s been doing at San Diego Opera since 1983 — is largely a matter of “finding the balance of repertoire that allows us to do some things that are different, like ‘Moby-Dick,’ but hopefully by having ‘Pasquale’ and ‘Barber’ in there we can still sell the season.”

“ ‘Don Pasquale’ and ‘Barber’ are the anchor points of recognition, ‘Barber’ more than ‘Pasquale.’ They’re by composers our audiences know, and they’ve been done before.” Heggie’s “Moby-Dick,” making its West Coast premiere at SDO, is, Campbell quips, “as fresh as a new baby’s bottom. Nobody in the city knows a note of the music.”

While Campbell characterizes the 2012 season as “relatively conservative,” he relishes the presentation of a work unfamiliar to San Diego audiences, like “Moby-Dick,” and he’s excited about stretching creatively when it comes to the more traditional productions. The process is a careful one, however.

“You can do almost anything with a comedy and nobody’s offended,” said Campbell. “’Don Pasquale’ is set in the Wild West, and it’s a hoot. If I do that with a classic, put it outside its period, it would be a disaster, because our audience cherishes the great classics so much. They hear with their eyes to a certain extent. We do have to retain some of those traditions.”

The biblical story of “Salome,” adapted by Strauss from a play by Oscar Wilde, was last presented by San Diego Opera in 1998. The 2012 production, with sets and costumes by Bruno Schwengl and lighting by Chris Maravich, should make a visual impression on audiences.

“It doesn’t look like Judea,” said Campbell, “but it conveys the oppressive, confined space that everything happens in.” American soprano Lise Lindstrom, who played the title role in SDO’s “Turandot” last season, stars, along with bass-baritone Greer Grimsley (Mephistopheles in the 2011 production of “Faust”).

Just in case you’re wondering, there will be no whale on stage for the high-tech, multimedia “Moby-Dick,” though it is based on Herman Melville’s classic novel. “To have Ben Heppner (the Canadian tenor making his SDO debut as Captain Ahab) here is a great achievement for us,” said Campbell. “I’m proud of it. I think (the opera) is going to be heard all over America, and it will get to Europe. We feel as a company part of a new creation.”

You might say that SDO was there at the beginning of another promising opera star, soprano Danielle de Niese. The 32-year-old Australian will play the part of Norina in “Don Pasquale.” Campbell is effusive. “She auditioned for me on the Civic Theatre stage when she was 16. She was a knockout. I said to her then that if she kept moving in the right direction, she’d have a career. I had no idea she’d be here.

“Today, she’s one of the great young operatic talents, a brilliant actress. She knows how to play to an audience — she’s very theatrical. Putting her with (American tenor) Charles Castronovo is going to be magic.”

“The Barber of Seville” returns to the SDO stage after six years. Baritone Lucas Meachem will be making his company debut as Figaro. “He’s tall, he’s handsome, he’s a hunk,” Campbell said. “And he sings wonderfully.” Spanish mezzo-soprano Silvia Tro Santafe is also making her SDO debut, as Rosina.

Like all arts institutions, San Diego Opera, though “healthy at the moment,” faces its business challenges, Campbell said. But he is undaunted. “I’ve been in the business since ’67. Running an opera company even in extraordinarily stressful times is still wonderful because it’s all about what’s on the stage.”