The production of Verdi's Aida that kicks off San Francisco Opera's fall season on Sept. 10 bears the imprints of two inimitable artists. One has made the craft of operatic singing her life's work. The other found her way into the opera world after attaining iconic status in another field. Both were advised early in their careers to tone down their creative output. Happily, neither listened.
Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick sings the role of Amneris during the September and October performances. The part of the Egyptian princess who catalyzes the opera's plot is one that this peerless interpreter of Verdi knows as well as anyone in the world. But when she first arrived at the Manhattan School of Music nearly 30 years ago after training in her native Nevada, her unusually large, dramatic voice and singing style drew more criticism than praise.
"I was living in such an isolated part of the country, and I wasn't connected to the rest of the opera world, so that's what I thought opera singers sounded like," Zajick explains. "Then I came to New York and it was all, 'No no no, you'll ruin your voice if you sing like that.' But I didn't. And I've been around for 35 years."
In Aida, her outsize voice will help evoke the web of interpersonal intrigue that drives the plot. The slave girl Aida is in love with the Egyptian warrior Radames — as is Amneris, her mistress, whose hand Radames is given as a reward for leading his nation to victory over Ethiopia. Among the Ethiopian prisoners Radames' troops bring back to Egypt is the king, Amonasro, who happens to be Aida's father — and who is willing to use his daughter's position to exact revenge on his captors.
Zajick insists that making these emotional entanglements resonate with the audience is essential to the opera's success. "The characters are very human, and are caught in situations that some of them can't get out of," she says. "As long as you keep the singers human, Aida works. If you keep the singers human, and you find a way to get the Egyptian theme in there, it works." She notes that while this production reflects that theme, it aims to create "a more magical feeling" — an impulse in keeping with the vision of the composer: "Verdi said he wanted it to be colorful, and they've made this a very colorful, vibrant production."
Indeed. Take Zajick's unmistakably vivid voice and add synaesthesia, and the results may resemble British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes' costumes and sets. Once told that her bright colors and striking patterns were commercial nonstarters, the pink-haired 69-year-old went on to become a trendsetter in '60s and '70s style. She has dressed Princess Diana, Jacqueline Onassis, Freddie Mercury, and now, the casts of three operas.
Though Rhodes is known for creating designs that have a lot going on, learning to manage the many moving parts in an opera of Aida's scope was an entirely new experience.
"The most challenging thing was learning to do sets," Rhodes says, adding that this challenge was exacerbated by Aida's combination of intimacy and spectacle: "There's a love affair going on between the captain of the army and the slave girl, but then right in the middle, you're going to have the whole world let loose with elephants and armies and acrobats."
For the aesthetic of the sets and costumes, Rhodes drew inspiration from traditional Egyptian color palettes and symbolism, filtering these through her own distinctive sensibility. She turned a motif she'd noticed in Egyptian carvings into the "evil eye," incorporated in her designs for the opera as a portent of ill fate.
Joining Zajick in the September and October performances are soprano Micaela Carosi in the title role, tenor Marcello Giordani as Radames, and baritone Marco Vratogna as Amonasro. (A fresh cast takes over for the November and December dates.) SF Opera has wisely chosen to showcase this production at the ever-popular, and free, Opera at the Ballpark simulcast at AT&T Park on Friday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m.
The rest of the company's schedule holds its own. Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (Sept. 21–Oct. 22) and Puccini's Madama Butterfly (Oct. 12–Nov. 27) barely require an introduction. Two less familiar works, Massenet's Werther (Sept. 15–Oct. 1) and Janácek's The Makropulos Case (Nov. 10–28) respectively offer intense poetic psychodrama and a role debut by acclaimed Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. And Plácido Domingo sports a nose as big as his reputation as the titular swordsman in Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac (Oct. 24–Nov. 12).
Even if this season delivers on its considerable promise, SF Opera won't be able to bask in the afterglow for long. The ultimate artistic challenge for any opera company is around the corner next summer: Wagner's Ring Cycle, the quintessential incarnation of art writ large.