This Sunday, February 28, marks the opening of the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater. Located in the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera in San Francisco’s recently restored Veteran’s Building – the first of the 2016 Schwabacher Debut Recitals, now in its 33rd season, is the most perfect way to inaugurate an amazing addition to the City’s classical scene. The opening program, Ports of Call, presents three members of the Adler Fellows – Amina Edris (soprano), Edward Nelson (baritone) and Brad Walker (bass-baritone). Under the direction of Steven Blier, the program consists of an international list of art songs from composers including Ernesto Nazareth, Edvard Grieg, Anton Rubinstein, and some edgy material by Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, and Noël Coward. The event will also introduce what San Francisco Opera’s general director David Gockley calls “the jewel of the room” – Constellation.
“It’s the sound system designed and installed by Meyer Sound of Berkeley,” said Gockley, “one of the great artistic / technological companies in our area. They have installed similar systems around the world.”
“I promise you this room will be filled with excitement,” said David, “with joy, with tragedy – with everything we stand for as an art form. The configurations of the audience and the performers are flexible. The catwalk up above allows us to hang lights and projectors. The walls will pick up projections and the acoustics will be perfect. If not, we’ll hit a button on an iPad and it will be. That’s the way this system works. It can duplicate a Medieval cathedral one minute and a bone dry acoustic context for a speech or a panel the next. It is the state of the art.”
Baritone Edward Nelson is a second year Adler Fellow. A prerequisite for all the Adlers is the eleven-week summer Merola Opera Program. Some of those singers may be encouraged to repeat the program, but not all will be advanced into the Adlers. Singers from both groups will appear in or cover a variety of roles in the summer and fall seasons at San Francisco Opera. When we spoke recently, Edward had not realized that this Sunday’s recital was the first-ever in the new theatre. Omigod! It opened our exchange to other firsts in this exciting singer’s blooming career. Like, an appearance at Carnegie Hall for starters – when he was still a high school senior in Valencia, California.
“Whenever my uncle came to visit, he would take me to the Hollywood Bowl. I ushered there for two summers in my last year of high school. I got involved with the school’s vocal jazz ensemble and we wound up singing at Carnegie Hall – in the big Stern Hall. We sang an arrangement of His eye is on the sparrow, I had a big solo at the beginning. It’s spring of 2006, I’m eighteen, and I’m hearing my voice reverberating back to me in Carnegie Hall! Backstage are photos of all these people who have appeared there. I wasn’t nervous at all during the rehearsals. But, the moment before I stepped out, it was overwhelming. So this is what is meant by stage fright! Then I got a really nice scholarship to Cal State. They’ve turned out many singers who have had successful careers in opera. I went there as a sort-of general vocal performance major. I auditioned for the jazz ensemble and the opera ensemble. Originally, I was not accepted into the opera program. But I took the cajoling from the head of the vocal department who was the one to give me this big scholarship from the opera foundation. They put up with my complete ignorance. At the time, most of what I knew about opera came from listening to my colleagues. I would hear an aria that I liked, then listen to the complete opera – on those long, long drives that happen in L.A., all the time. I learned a lot of opera in that car.”
One of Edward’s interesting challenges in his 2014 season with Merola was the title role in Don Giovanni. The production moved the setting and mode up a couple of centuries and played very cleverly with the overlying dramatic tension – that being, the ancient law and privileges pertaining to the Padrone’s free sexual access to anyone on his estate. In this presentation, Giovanni becomes a sort-of Andy Warhol – a highly charismatic figure who views himself as irresistible.
“They called it ‘an unusual casting’ – a high lyric baritone singing Don Giovanni, which is not how the role is generally cast. The tessitura of the role definitely suits a bass, even a bass with a good top. I found it a good opportunity to explore my middle range and the colors I could produce in this music. If you don’t have the colors that portray lust or fear, etc., you can’t get anywhere. You won’t make the audience feel what they need to feel. That’s really the job. I am solidly in the lyric baritone fach and I have the ability to sing rather high. Since my summer at Merola in 2014 when I sang Don Giovanni – it has filled out immensely. There is definitely something to being in a place like this. You have to reconcile between the very academic ‘proper way to sing’ and the sound you need to make on the opera stage. They don’t always go together! You need to find a way to get them closer so you know what you are doing technically/properly and can then produce the sounds you need in a house such as the War Memorial.”
“My first year with the Adlers was extremely busy. I had eight mainstage assignments. Three leading role covers – Figaro in Barber of Seville, Anthony in Sweeney Todd, and the Count in Marriage of Figaro. In addition to that, I got what I would call five substantial stage opportunities. The first was Lieutenant John Buckley in the world premiere of Two Women by Marco Tutino. Technically, it was my professional debut. I don’t think anyone could ask for a better stage debut experience – with Nicola Luisotti conducting, Francesca Zambello directing, and a world premiere. That’s why I say that every day here is an audition. Without putting extreme pressure on it, as an Adler Fellow, you have to know that anytime anyone is watching you – your job is to produce as well as you can that day and to really deliver. And I keep coming back to this: make them feel something. So, how do you eliminate all the mental handicaps? If you’re sick, not feeling your best – all the physical handicaps. How do you break through all that and get to your audience?”
“You won’t know until you’re in that position,” I responded.
“Exactly! Today I’m going to a sort-of costume and movement class. We’re going to learn how to work with a sword hilt and pumpkin pants for Don Carlo. You know what I mean? And to faint properly. Adlers is filled with illustrious experiences. You have to learn how to be gorgeous all the time!”
Click here to order tickets on-line: Ports of Call