This ‘Tiger’ had San Francisco opera world by the tail

“The only truly objective critic is a dead critic,” Stephanie von Buchau once said. Her life was a testament to the glory of individual, strong, provocative, fearless opinions, which often offended but never wavered. Her independent voice was silenced with her passing in her Marin home over the weekend.

The well-known and frequently controversial critic — a stranger to political or any other kind of correctness — died at age 67, probably from complications of her decade-long bout with diabetes.

Although she wrote extensively about movies, restaurants, and many of the arts, she made the greatest impression with her knowledgable, utterly passionate treatment of opera. Her interviews, feature articles and reviews were published under the byline “Tiger Hashimoto” in the San Francisco Examiner as well as in Opera News, the Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Magazine and the Bay Area Reporter.

Her longest association was with Marin’s Pacific Sun — almost four decades. In fact, police discovered Buchau’s death on Tuesday when alerted by Linda Xiques, her former editor at the Sun, who heard that Buchau missed her deadline. It was such an unprecedented occurrence from this professional journalist that something had to be wrong.

Buchau created international headlines in 1975, when she was “banned” from the War Memorial by San Francisco Opera General Manager Kurt Herbert Adler. Adler, at least as prickly a personality as Buchau, took offense at one of her reviews, and ordered the publicity department not to make press tickets available to her.

That order was soon rescinded, and Buchau remained a regular in the Opera House through the years. During the intermission of the “Tristan and Isolde” premiere this fall, she fell, hurt herself so badly that she was taken to hospital, but only over her loud objections that she must stay because she was reviewing. Even with her iconoclastic, headstrong ways, she received recognition for her work — by the Northern California Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists and the National Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and others.

“She was a brilliant woman, talented, irascible, and witty,” said Xiques. A fellow critic from Santa Fe, Jim Van Sant, remembers Buchau fondly as “one of a kind … a professional, and in spite of her extreme informality at times, she had a sense of decorum.” Van Sant recalls Buchau talking about being the first (the only one, really) “to debunk” Mstislav Rostropovich as a conductor.

When Rostropovich conducted the “Queen of Spades” here, Buchau wrote that “if he must practice conducting … I wish he wouldn’t do it here.” (This was the article that raised Adler’s ire.) Buchau told Van Sant that “I wrote a review that caused a stir because I found he (Rostropovich) was nothing special, and said so; this was at the height of his Cold War fame in the U.S.”

There were no sacred cows for her, but when she found a great artist, her praise was unstinting. Here she is writing about Franco Corelli: “Yes, he was an Italian stallion, nostrils aflare and ego bigger and more fiery than Vesuvius, but he was also a student of singing with a strong technique. He owned a big, rich, gorgeous sound and he was fab.”

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