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     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Pamela Rosenberg

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Columns July, 20, 2007 and November 4, 2005, below in reverse chronological order.

ANG Preview Section Column of July 20, 2007, under headline: "Rosenberg Brings S.F. Flavor to Berlin Philharmonic

A few weeks ago I visited Berlin, the edgy, energetic capitol of Germany. Berlin, having survived (sometimes barely) a tumultuous history beginning sometime in the 13th century in a niche between the Havel and the Spree Rivers in north-central Germany, has evolved into a rather unsettlingly angular city. Assertive, sometimes shocking skyscrapers cut into its skies, while thousands of giant dark green Linden trees arrayed in long rows tend to calm its labyrinthine streets.

Ruins of old church towers and cathedrals pose peacefully alongside recent restorations as well as the eye-popping new buildings. People with features and physiques representing gene pools from Nordic, Slavic, Eastern, and Central European countries mingle comfortably with its tall, blond Germanic archetypes in the shops and cafes. Even the genial Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit (pronounced Voverite), has been quoted as saying that "Berlin is the largest Turkish city outside of Turkey."

But there's also a distinctly American, even Bay Area, presence now flowing like a spring of fresh water through the city. Los Angeles-born and Francisco-seasoned Pamela Rosenberg is in residence.

Rosenberg, who finished five lively, sometimes controversial, years as San Francisco Opera's General Director in 2005, is now the "Intendantin" (CEO) of Berlin's pride and joy, its legendary Philharmonic Orchestra. As such, she serves alongside its Conductor-in-Chief, Sir Simon Rattle, another scion of English-speaking lands with Bay Area connections.

Since I was alone, and a bit jangled by Berlin's highly complex Teutonic transportation system, she generously sent her orchestra-supplied driver to fetch me for our interview. We drove to her large airy apartment, located in a peaceful, park-like area of the city.

She ushered me into her sitting room, where we were soon joined by the early arrival of her next appointment, the jovial Speight Jenkins, General Manager of the Seattle Opera.

"Have you noticed, Pamela doesn't have any dark circles under her eyes anymore?" Jenkins quipped as he settled comfortably into a plush chair.

Indeed, she looked hale, slim, and rested, and brought us big glasses of ice water to help compensate for Berlin's hot, humid weather before telling us about her recent jaunt, along with a number of Bay Area friends, to Amsterdam to attend the European premiere of Dr. Atomic by Berkeley's John Adams.

The opera, a commission from the San Francisco Opera at the instigation of Rosenberg, had its world premiere in San Francisco on Oct. 1, 2005. "There were 10 performances of the opera during the Holland Festival, and since Sellars and Adams had made huge changes in the second act, the whole thing was much better and tighter than the original. The audience loved it," she said, adding rather proudly that it is also scheduled to be performed by the Chicago Opera in December and at the Met several times in 2008.

Then, her startlingly blue eyes seemed to take on extra glints of light as she began to illuminate the plans she and Maestro Rattle had laid for the Philharmonic's upcoming season. "We'll celebrate the orchestra's 125th Anniversary during 2007-2008," she said. "Our official theme will deal with the Philharmonic during the Nazi Period. Back in 1933-1935, there were only four Jewish players left in the orchestra - the concertmaster and three other first-chair musicians. With the help of Maestro Wilhelm Furtwangler, they were protected and enabled to flee Germany."

"This Jubilee Year is an appropriate time to tackle this issue," she said. "We've commissioned a special book by Mischa Aster dealing with the orchestra during the Nazi period, as well as a documentary film, and an important exhibition. These will be released during our November Festival.

Rosenberg noted that among those interred in the Theresianstadt concentration camp were such promising composers and musicians as Walter Braunfels, Pavel Haas, and what she described as "a whole generation of Europe's great musicians."

Rosenberg and Rattle are united in sharing goals for upcoming orchestral presentations that will add to the orchestra's efforts to "create connections between historical epochs, build bridges between varying cultures, and to connect historical retrospectives to the recollection of personal destinies."

Another example of this latter goal will be a repeat performance for the season opening on August 25 of Beethoven's Leonore Overture - the very work which Franz Wuellner conducted in the old Berlin Philharmonie Hall to open the orchestra's first concert on Oct. 23, 1882. But this time around, the old masterwork will be played along with a new work by contemporary composer Magnus Linberg.

Other such connections of different musical epochs will include juxtapositions of turn-of-the-20th-century works by Gustav Mahler with turn-of-the-21st-century pieces by the Finnish Linberg and the British contemporary composer Thomas Ades, as well as a world premiere of a piece by Christian Jost based Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, juxtaposed with British Deryck Cooke's performing version of Mahler's unfinished 10th Symphony.

Berlin's coming season will also highlight ethnic connections and contrasts with several programs under the title "Alla turca: a Cultural Dialogue." These will bring Turkish music from the time of the 18th century's Suleman the Great together with music concurrently composed under Frederick the Great in Central Europe.

Other Bay Area connections will be made when Maestros Donald Runnicles and Nicola Luisotti, past and future music directors respectively, of the SF Opera, conduct the Berlin Philharmonic next season.

All of the above invoked a bit of d�j� vu taking me back to Rosenberg's first press conference as the new General Director of the San Francisco Opera in January of 2001. This was when she announced plans for her "Animating Opera" program, which she described as being designed to "enable our audiences to see interconnections between life and art" and to show that the musical arts have "the potential to make people think and feel more deeply about the human condition."

But, with her two sons, a daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren living nearby in Germany, Rosenberg is happy to remain in Berlin to connect her SFO music-life mission with the Berlin Philharmonic. Most Berliners consider it a great fit.

ANG column of November 4, 2005 under headline:"Parting Words from S.F. Opera Director Pamela Rosenberg"

On Jan. 9, 2001, when Pamela Rosenberg stood before journalists, critics and media people packing the expansive lobby of San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, she said she believed that opera had the potential to make people think and feel more deeply about the human condition.

"My goal as your new general director," she said, "is to enable our audiences to see interconnections between life and art and to give them, through our 'Animating Opera' five-year program of themes, points of orientation to help them develop their own antennas."

She then clarified that the project would "be more than just intellectual" and promised that there would be "a Verdi in every season." Summarizing, she said, "I want to spark curiosity in the audience."

Now, nearly five years later, she feels that this has happened. During an interview last week in her office in the upper reaches of the San Francisco Opera House, she told me, "I think we've piqued the people's curiosity and convinced them to try new (operatic) experiences."

A sophisticated, warm, 5-foot, 11-inch tall woman with beautiful deep blue eyes and wheat-colored hair cut in a youthfully chic style, Rosenberg earnestly expressed the thought that there has been no downside to the adventurous programming of her San Francisco tenure.

"The unfamiliar and new works have sold no worse than the standards, and sometimes have done better," she said.

Ambitious Francois

A case in point was the ambitious 2002 North American stage premiere of Olivier Messiaen's rather oblique St. Francois d'Assise. Following its San Francisco run, the New York Times marveled, "The run of six performances sold better than Puccini's Turandot, which was playing at the same time, with Jane Eaglen in the title role." The report also noted that its last three performances were sold out, with lines of people standing outside the doors hoping for tickets.

Rosenberg stressed that she was equally happy about San Francisco's extravagantly praised production of Rossini's traditional The Barber of Seville as she was about the more abstract St. Francis. "Our Barber, which even had Tom Hampson riding a motorcycle onstage, was sparkling and fun in an up-to-date way," she mused with a smile. "I am happy with how wide-ranging our opera presentations were and feel really proud of the things we produced ourselves."

She felt that the inclusion of Ferruccio Busoni's Doktor Faust provided much needed insight into the Faust legend. Also, that Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen and his Kat'a Kabanova as well as Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk � although collaborations with other companies � were likewise important milestones.

She is enthusiastic about the current La Forza del Destino production, describing it as a "long project that the company has really delved into. "We've not done it historically," she said, "but have sought to show it more universally and focus on how war affects almost every aspect of everyday life."

Lessons learned

In answer to my question about what she has learned from her San Francisco Opera years, she grinned broadly and quipped, "I learned NOT to do The Mother of Us All on opening night!"

Another surprise was the negative audience reaction to the 2002 production of Handel's Alcina. "I was not prepared for Alcina to be so controversial. A Stuttgart production, we had done it countless times in Germany. We took it to the Edinburgh Festival, where it was named production of the year, after which it was shown and praised on television all over Europe. I was simply shocked that it was so controversial here in San Francisco."

Shrugging her shoulders, she said that a man sent her an e-mail telling her about a dinner party he had attended with seven other people who had seen Alcina. Half of them hated it and half loved it. They discussed it for the entire evening.

"When is the last time you've been at a dinner party where you discussed an opera for the entire time?" she asked. "At least our production made them think."

She also admitted that she initially had fears about doing the huge St. Francis production in 2002. "I was worried that doing St. Francis so early in the game might have be dangerous � but it had the opposite effect. It turned out to be a fabulous way to begin. Although it was such a tremendous challenge for everyone in the company, the act of making it all happen together really bonded us all. We all � the designers, the costumers, the set-builders, the chorus, the orchestra � had a real sense of unity and togetherness from that point on," she said.

"I remember catching sight of the backstage manager walking across the stage with tears in her eyes after the curtain went down at the last performance. Concerned that something awful was wrong, I went over to her and asked if she was all right. She answered that she was fine, but was just sad that it was the last performance."

Off to Berlin

As Rosenberg nears the end of her final San Francisco Opera season, she's getting ready to head to the Berlin Philharmonic to become the first woman, as well as the first American, to serve as that vaunted organization's administrative director.

It will not be a big change for Rosenberg, however. Between 1971 and 2001, she worked in Germany where she earned high honors for her 10 years as co-general director of the Stuttgart Opera, after working as manager of artistic affairs at the Netherlands Opera, director of operations for the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, and with the Frankfurt Opera.

Born Pamela Henry in California in 1945, she has spent much of her life abroad. Since her father was a naval officer, the family lived in Puerto Rico, then in Venezuela. Pamela came back to the States to attend high school in Pennsylvania and in Beverly Hills before enrolling at the University of California, Berkeley. During this youthful period she had spent 10 years as a serious piano student.

"I almost had a nervous breakdown trying to decide whether to major in history or music at Berkeley, but eventually settled into European and English history. By the time I graduated, though, I knew that I wanted to be a stage director � preferably an opera director. During those years, I spent a lot of time in the standing room sections of the San Francisco opera and symphony."

After Berkeley, she went on to study with Wieland Wagner in Bayreuth, Germany, and then to the Guild Hall School of Music and Drama in London and the London Opera Centre, where she earned a diploma in stage management.

Russian history scholar

She completed a master's degree in Russian history at Ohio State University (for which she wrote her thesis on the Mensheviki) before settling in to work as a teaching assistant and assistant producer and stage manager for Ludwig Zirner's opera program at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

She had a full life indeed in Illinois. She met and married composer-musicologist Wolf Rosenberg in 1968 (he died in 1996) and in 1970, their twin boys, Paolo and Sascha, were born. During that period, she and Wolf, who was a visiting composer/professor at University of Illinois, co-wrote a musical performance work called Crockett. It subsequently received a performance at Carnegie Hall.

Looking forward to her Berlin appointment beginning in January, she explained that the present Berlin Philharmonic under British-born conductor Simon Rattle is a far different, more forward-looking organization than it was in the conservative von Karajan years. The famed orchestra now has 19 different nationalities represented in its ranks as well as a lot of women. The average age of its members is 37.

There are also strong family ties pulling her back to Germany. Her son Paolo, a film producer based in Frankfurt, is father to her two grandchildren, Nico, 11 and Leonie, 6. Paolo's fraternal twin, Sascha, works in Berlin is a television journalist with Deutsche Welle. Both are over 6 feet, 2 inches tall and movie-star handsome. (Both sons took off to be with their mom in San Francisco when she was awarded the prestigious San Francisco Opera Medal in a surprise ceremony on opening night for the 2005 season.)

At the close of our interview, Pamela repeated that she thinks San Franciscans have a uniquely high commitment to opera as a living art form. "Other people in the world buy their tickets, attend and then go home," she stressed. "In San Francisco, they are absolutely passionate about it.

"But," she added, "I hope in future years, the period from 2001 to 2005 in San Francisco will be remembered as a time of great artistic enrichment and vibrancy."

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