Donald Pippin started performing with chamber and Renaissance music and one-act operas in 1954, first staging Pocket Opera at North Beach’s Old Spaghetti Factory, in the back—or “flamenco”—room, in 1960. In 1968, he introduced his own translations of operas, now numbering something close to the scriptural three score and ten, four volumes of which are now available from Pocket Opera Press (As the Lights Go Up: Tales from the Opera), along with his oral history of the intrepid little company, A Pocketful of Wry, sponsored by the Bancroft Library, as well as sales (and rentals) of various individual libretti.
In his foreword to As the Lights Go Up, Joshua Kosman writes, “With the discerning dexterity of the master jeweler, Pippin winkles out the essential elements of a scene ... and renders these into clear, concise and often witty English.”
After becoming a nonprofit in 1977, Pocket Opera sallied forth from the salon of benches and water glasses of wine in the Spaghetti Factory into the theaters of the Bay Area, with its first spring subscription season in 1979.
At the start of his company’s 30th year, Pippin shared some thoughts with The Daily Planet:
On La Favorita and Donizetti: “His career was relatively brief, but he composed about 70 operas, about a dozen of which get performed at all, including some lesser known. La Favorita still counts as lesser known, though acknowledged as one of his greatest. They profit by intimacy. All the nuance can be lost trying to fill a cavernous hall with sound. We have four major soloists for La Favorita, all superb—and our excellent tenor’s sung in Pocket Opera productions for seven years. I don’t know why he’s still working with us!”
On Pocket Opera’s staging and the company’s development, Pippin said: “We pay more attention now to the production as a whole, without abandoning our original mission of simplicity, concentrating on the singing, the interaction of character. Our staging is very much like Elizabethan theater, I think. Opera directors tend these days to fill up the stage with a lot of irrelevant business, especially with Handel, whose stories are static, wracking their brains to distract the audience with all that business.
“We’ve decidedly not gone in that direction,” Pippin said. “And I think I’ve grown as a musician and artistic director. I don’t do the stage direction. We now have access to more singers, with auditions every year, where we hear about a hundred. So a constantly fresh supply, though women more than men—which is sad, because there are more roles for men than women.”
On choice of composers, Pippin said: “Our three mainstays are Handel, Offenbach and Donizetti—all three prolific, all three very famous but for a small part of their output. We explore their underrated work. So much depends on interpretation. On the page, Donizetti’s melodies look insipid but are beautiful when played and sung. With Handel, beauty’s more apparent in his Italian operas (about 40) than in his maybe 20 English oratorios.
“Although we’ve done The Rake’s Progess, I’m leery of latter-day 20th century works, which are so dependent on orchestral color,” he said. “With 19th century music, you lose something with our kind of orchestration, but also gain something. Like in chamber music, the transparency is there, you follow the individual voices. With eight instruments, we do quite well, even with Puccini and Verdi, which can be quite grandiose.”
On notoriety and the press: “In the ’80s, we had good press coverage. In those days, the Chronicle had four music critics; now just one beleaguered critic,” Pippin said. “We’ve had fewer and fewer reviews the past dozen years. Through exhaustion, I suppose, they don’t come anymore. And during the same time, the two big record stores, Tower and Virgin, have closed. It really does starve us, you know.”
On himself, on stage, Pippin said: “What was I thinking when I originally started? Where to put my foot next! I had no long vision of it, ever. One step at a time. Sometimes I feel I’m casting myself as the Fool, or like some character in Shakespeare—those characters who stand by and comment, like the Duke in Measure for Measure, who’s presumably absent, but is there all the time. Hovering over all—that’s me!
"We do keep exploring. I’m feeling very positive, going forward,” Pippin said. “We’ve grown over the years; there have been high points. But we’ve always had an extraordinary group of singers, even at the beginning. And I’m having even a better time than I used to. I think I’ve become much more conscientious about my narration. When I’m praised, I get increasingly anxious and try to improve. I’m cursed with the inability to rest on my laurels.”
On the next production (May 9 at the Julia Morgan), his new translation of Moniuszko’s The Haunted Manor: “It’s much revered in Poland—the composer considered second only to Chopin—though unknown here. It reminds you a little of Czech operas, like The Bartered Bride. A delight. Exuberant, ebullient, full of life—with melodies of Polish dance forms, and a good story."
Presented by Pocket Opera at 2 p.m.
Sunday at Julia Morgan Center, 2640 College Ave. $20-$37.
(415) 346-7805. www.pocketopera.org.