Pippin's Pocket Opera, San Francisco's haven for ignored music

After piloting oneself through the sexploitation rocks and shoals of San Francisco's North Beach one climbs long stairs up to a refreshing contrast -- the musical haven of Donald Pippin's Pocket Opera. Available on Sunday nights at 7:30 in the On-Broadway Theater, 435 Broadway (near Montgomery), the Pocket Opera offers young singers an opportunity to be heard in chamber and other operas often ignored by more prestigious opera companies.

Now in its second season as an incorporated entity, Pippin's Pocket Opera is the creation of pianist-accompanist Donald Pippin, who supplements his piano with an octet of strings and winds. Costumed in daily attire, the singers carry open scores, enacting essential business in the forefront of On- Broadway's tiny stage.

In the past, with the exception of Handelian operas, which were sung in their original Italian, all the other libretti have been translated into English by Pippin himself. Pippin has a decided comedic flair, his lighter works reminding one of W. S. Gilbert, with rhythmic rhymes far superior to most published libretti.

Many of the singers have appeared in performances of the Western Opera and the Spring Opera, subsidiaries of the San Francisco Opera. Pippin conducts them with nodding head and eye-contact from piano or harpsichord.

My introduction to Pocket Opera occurred on the second of three performances of Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," in which Ellen Herrigan, who had substituted last fall for Montserrat Caballe in "Roberto Devereux," at the San Francisco Opera House, sang the title role. She revealed a dulcet pianissimo, and fine control in coloratura passages, but became occasionally strident on loud high notes. Mezzo Stephanie Friedman, as Jane Seymour, exhibited a lovely tone quality throughout her entire range, while Maxine Litwak, in the pants role of the page Smeton, showed a rich contralto.

Edward Palmer was unfortunately miscast as King Henry VIII, tenor Robert Tate served well as Richard Percy, as did Ed Cohn as Rochefort. Tenor Eric Morris had the task of bearing disagreeable messages from Henry and the Council.

At the outset Donald Pippin verbally set the scene and explained the plot in a delightful tongue-in-cheek manner, then turned to his task as director with musical intensity.

The current summer season includes: Rossini's "The Italian Girl in Algiers," Schubert's "Der Verschornen," Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte," Stravinsky's "The rake's Progress," Smetana's "The Two Widows," and three by Handel in English: "Rinaldo," "Teseo," and "Orlando." "Anna Bolena" will be repeated August 31.

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