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Opera Discoveries
By Mort Levine

Five centuries of opera in five stimulating lectures by one of the great company directors, Seattle’s Speight Jenkins

The world of opera is coming alive close to home in a fascinating set of lectures which began on January 12 exploring a comprehensive overview of the art form by Speight Jenkins, recently retired from a remarkable 31 year run as general director of Seattle Opera. It is part of Stanford's Continuing Studies set of evening courses on the nearby campus. A number of San Jose Opera Guild members are among the 150 or more participants.

enkins combines a lifetime knowledge of opera history with a down-to-earth demeanor which de-mystifies and strips away an aura which at times has tended to obscure rather that enlighten. For example, at the outset of the first lecture he set forth four basic principles everyone attracted to opera needs to remember:

You must accept and welcome the unamplified voice; accept singing instead of talking to advance the action; accept deep emotional involvement with the characters and finally, be able to really concentrate on a story which will sometimes last three hours or more, in an age of short attention-spans.

In his view, opera is 51% music and 49% theater. Over hundreds of years, opera's practitioners have widely differed about that balance. He offers us a number of illustrated musical and vocal excerpts to make his case.

he title of the course is “Four Hundred Years of Opera: Murder, Passion, Betrayal and Ecstasy”. It runs through February 23 each Monday except January 19 and February 16.

Jenkins is a lawyer but found his opera calling early as a writer-editor for Opera News and later as a critic for the New York Post, back when it was a serious, respected newspaper. He served as Metropolitan Opera's radio broadcast host. We first heard him in person as the guest lecturer for the Ring cycle at Seattle in the early 80s. We were impressed by his opera wisdom and wit. Evidently, Seattle's board of directors saw that as well, offering him the general director's job shortly thereafter.

Our course seems like a bit like walking through a grove of old-growth sequoias. We use the giant composers who dot the opera landscape with their masterpieces. Our first lecture featured Monteverdi, Handel, Gluck and Mozart. Subsequent evenings will be spent studying the works of Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Bizet, Richard Strauss and Berg. Jenkins' experiences with most of the great interpreters of the past half-century is also shared. He has worked closely with the likes of Maria Callas, Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, along with major conductors and directors.

At Seattle he championed rarely performed and contemporary operas, including several premieres.

It will wind up asking us all to participate in “Where does opera go from here?” It looks to be a magical trip for any opera buff.

(SJOG Newsletter February, 2015)

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