It’s no secret that San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley believes Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Show Boat” is right at home on the opera stage.
At a news conference last week pegged to the summer season’s opening of “Show Boat” on June 1, he said contrary to “dyed-in-the-wool European-oriented devotees, this American operetta belongs to opera houses just as ‘Die Fledermaus,’ ‘The Merry Widow’ and ‘Porgy & Bess’ do.”
Based on Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel, the 1880s-set “Show Boat” — about life, love and hate aboard and around a floating theater on the Mississippi River — has a long, sometimes controversial, history in the arts.
In 1927, Kern and Hammerstein’s musical followed the book — then came three films, many Broadway performances and, 32 years ago, a grand operatic treatment by the Houston Grand Opera.
Gockley’s Houston operetta production, which restored much of the original 1927 score and dialogue, toured successfully in the U.S., recorded an EMI best-seller and even went to Cairo for the inauguration of the Cairo National Culture Centre.
Beyond the question of “Show Boat’s” genre come challenges stemming from the subject and nature of what has been called both “a poignant love story and a powerful reminder of America’s bitter legacy of racism.”
Production director Francesca Zambello describes the show as bold, mentioning how it used a white and black chorus at a time when black cast members couldn’t have their own families in the audience. She points to the “tangible, palpable tension of dealing with an interracial romance many years before it became legal.” (Interracial marriage was not legal across the U.S. until 1967.)
Asked about the controversial, often censored, use of the N-word in “Show Boat,” Zambello said the San Francisco production has “colored folks” in the lyrics, yet the original text with the N-word is kept when “used by the really bad characters because it’s part of history in this exploration of racism.” (However, the word is not included in supertitles, which are not used for spoken text.)
Zambello and music director John DeMain, who have worked together on “Show Boat” for years (productions have been staged by Lyric Opera of Chicago and Washington National Opera), are passionate about the score in its entirety, beyond the well-known “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Make Believe” and “You Are Love.” DeMain is so taken by the music, he has called Kern “the American Mozart.”
While “Show Boat” showcases opera stars Patricia Racette (Julie), Michael Todd Simpson (Gaylord), Heidi Stober (Magnolia) and Morris Robinson (Joe), it also features actors, dancers and a large corps of supernumeraries — looking like an old-time Broadway spectacular of the kind presented before theaters had to economize.
Bill Irwin, “Show Boat’s” most notable nonoperatic cast member, who plays Cap’n Andy, surprised everybody at last week’s news event when he said his San Francisco Opera debut was in 1978. He was an acrobat in the legendary Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of “Turandot” with Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballe. Prince Charles attended the premiere.
IF YOU GO
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 2 p.m. June 1 and June 22; 8 p.m. June 3, June 13, June 28 and July 1; 7:30 p.m. June 10, June 19, June 26 and July 2
Tickets: $24 to $379
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com
Note: A discussion with cast and production team members at 6 p.m. June 2 at S.F. Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St., S.F. is among special “Show Boat”-related programming.