Photo Journal: San Diego Opera's Brave, Inventive Wozzeck

Classic Arts News   Photo Journal: San Diego Opera's Brave, Inventive Wozzeck
Producing Wozzeck was a brave and risky venture for San Diego Opera. After all, Berg's Expressionist masterpiece, even 82 years after its premiere, can still unnerve an audience — especially in a city that has never seen the work before.

What's more, the company has put a lot of resources into the production. They engaged Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff (The Who's Tommy, Big River, The Music Man, Urinetown, Jersey Boys, and far too many other shows to list here) to helm the staging; they built set designer Robert Brill's huge, versatile, rotating (and expensive) unit set with a hydraulic lift inside. They even commissioned a new English translation (often a chancy endeavor) from Richard Stokes.

"It is one of the most expensive productions we've ever done," says San Diego Opera director of media relations Edward Wilensky, "and by far the most complex."

The risks have paid off. "A shattering, perhaps even unforgettable, experience," Chris Pasles called this Wozzeck in The Los Angeles Times, while the San Diego Union-Tribune's Anne Marie Welsh wrote that "the environmental production melds a skilled cast, a fearsome abstract set, brilliantly conceived stage-spanning video and mighty ... orchestral forces to grab and hold you in its psychological spell for 95 intense minutes." (We offer some production photos below.)

Bass Franz Hawlata, making his company debut, is getting particular praise for his work in the title role. "His hapless Everyman soldier [is] sung with aching vulnerability and tightly suppressed rage," said Welsh. Pasles found that "he was expert and sympathetic in tracing the character's psychological disintegration ... [and] sang the difficult music without any sense of strain or effort, no matter what the range or dynamic level."

As Marie, Wozzeck's common-law wife, soprano Nina Warren "was attractive, brassy and vulnerable as she shifted from self-sufficiency to anguished remorse" (Pasles), "easily negotiat[ing] Berg's precipitous shifts from song to speech and dramatically explor[ing] the role's wide emotions" (Welsh). Similar approval went to Chris Merritt as the Captain, Dean Peterson as the Doctor, Jay Hunter Morris as the Drum Major and the rest of the cast, as well as to conductor Karen Keltner and the chorus and orchestra.

There are two more performances of Wozzeck at the Civic Theatre in San Diego this weekend: Friday, April 20 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 22 at 2 p.m. Information and tickets are available at

As for that set, it has a computer-controlled, 10-horsepower turntable that's 40 feet wide with a 24-foot structure on top, a 12-foot-wide inner turntable that moves independently, two high-output video projectors, 120 250-watt light bulbs and a 5,000-watt light in the center. Wilensky says that still photos just don't do it justice. He also tells us that one of kids in the children's chorus saw the set and yelled "Cool! Transformers!"

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All photos by Ken Howard.

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