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Perspective: SF Opera Cast Change Stuns Fans of Local Singer

By Becky O’Malley
Friday June 01, 2007

From David Gockley’s narrow point of view, the press release probably said it all in the first sentence: “After the final dress rehearsal for Don Giovanni, San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, in consultation with Music Director Donald Runnicles and members of the artistic staff, made the decision that soprano Hope Briggs was not ultimately suited for the role of Donna Anna in this production.”  

But that bald statement, remarkably honest for the genre, leaves out in the cold all of the hundreds of Hope Briggs’ loyal fans in the Bay Area who are going to be deeply disappointed that they will be deprived of a chance to see the San Francisco-based soprano in what they were sure would be a perfect role for her. 

I should know—I’m one of them. I’ve been watching Hope Briggs for at least seven years in big venues and small. She has a glorious soprano voice. I’ve seen her at the Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, as the ideal Aida at the Sacramento Opera, and in her San Francisco Opera debut last year. 

The critics have always loved her: “Soprano Hope Briggs turned in a powerhouse performance marked by strong, clean vocalism and emotional transparency. The role calls for both tonal strength and limpid clarity, and Briggs provided both,” wrote Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Other singers who’ve worked with her say that she’s the ideal professional, hard-working and intelligent as well as vocally gifted.  

And she’s also generous and public-spirited, which not all singers are. In 2001, shortly after 9/11, I attended a concert at a high school on the peninsula which Hope had organized as a benefit for African-American students. At the end, when the lights went up, she called all the other singers to the stage and led them and the audience in singing “America the Beautiful.” Hokey-sounding, and I’m neither sentimental nor patriotic, but I was crying. 

She absolutely does not deserve to be treated like this. I’ve gotten to know her personally—she’s stayed at my house when she was between engagements. I called her as soon as I heard the news, and she clearly has no clue why this has happened to her. She’s had three weeks of rehearsals, including the final dress rehearsal attended by many people on Wednesday night, and no one involved said anything to indicate that she was on thin ice in the role.  

She said that members of the artistic staff, including Music Director Donald Runnicles, had been cordial and complementary throughout. I talked to a few opera house insiders who said that they were shocked, because she’d turned in a fine performance at all rehearsals, including the last one, but they were afraid to let their names be used for fear of retaliation. 

That might tell you something about what’s going on over there. There’s been no coherent statement other than what’s quoted above to reveal what was passing through David Gockley’s mind when he decided to dump Hope Briggs unceremoniously. 

I haven’t been able to get anyone in management to return my calls. However it’s well known that Gockley and Runnicles (a holdover from the tenure of the last General Director, Pamela Rosenberg) are not on the best of terms. Rosenberg took credit for picking Hope out of an open audition for her previous role, and that could be the kiss of death in the new regime. 

I heard Rosenberg tell that story at a dinner gala for African-American opera lovers held to honor Hope when she sang at the San Francisco Opera last year. A similar event was planned for this year, to honor Hope after the last matinee of Don Giovanni. I’ve already bought my tickets—even though I’m not African-American I got a gracious welcome at the first one. Now I guess that will have to be called off. What a shame, especially since Gockley claims that he’s trying to expand the audience for opera 

And as a cynical old-school veteran of the civil rights movement, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a (perhaps subconscious) subtext here. This production is going on TV: it will be simulcast to a number of venues. Hope is a big, handsome dark-skinned woman, with strong African features—quite beautiful, but not exactly like most faces you see in romantic roles on TV these days.  

Elza van den Heever, her replacement, whom I’ve heard many times and who also has a lovely voice, is a young South African woman of Dutch descent. She’s tall and pretty in a conventional European way, certainly destined for future stardom. I’m not willing to say that conventional racism affected Gockley’s decision to substitute her into the role, but by the standards of Texas, his last home base, Elza might be considered more telegenic, even though both are good singers.  

One hint that something’s been in the works for while: a Planet arts writer has been planning to do a preview of this production, and she’s been trying without success for two weeks to get the Opera public relations department to set up an interview with Hope. No luck. They never even sent photos as promised. Why? One wonders—did they know something? 

This will be—should be—a public relations disaster for the San Francisco Opera. When management starts casting about for fallback positions, they might consider letting Hope sing just one Sunday matinee, the one that all of the African-American opera supporters have already bought their tickets for. It wouldn’t hurt anyone, and it might help the Opera recover some of its lost luster.