Not all the subscribers to the San Francisco Opera were thrilled when the announcement came that "Show Boat," the 1927 musical based on Edna Ferber's novel, would lead off the summer season, says David Gockley, the general director of the opera company.
"For dyed-in-the-wool opera devotees, there's a sense of something not quite right," he said at a news conference about the season's opener. "When I explain it's an American operetta, I get less flak."
"Show Boat" tells the story of the workers on the Mississippi River's Cotton Blossom, from the 1800s to the 1920s with their life on the boat paralleling the social changes during that time.
Gockley, who believes the work needs the operatic voices and the resources the opera house can give it, has a long history with "Show Boat," with a production at the Houston Grand Opera in 1982, which restored sections of the original score and dialogue. After its premiere in Houston, it toured the U.S., traveling to Broadway. In 1989, he took it to Cairo, Egypt, where it was the inaugural performance at the Cairo National Cultural Center.
"We referred to it as 'Show Boat' on the Nile," Gockley said.
Conductor John DeMain said no one should apologize for the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II work, and he referred to Kern as "the American Shubert."
"When you hear the score, you just melt," he said. "When you hear that music, you don't need to make any excuses."
Director of the opera Francesca Zambello compared Ferber to writers such as Theodore Dreiser and John Steinbeck and said the story, dealing with race, class, gambling addiction, mixed marriage, and child abandonment -- with 80 performers -- is one no producer would touch today.
The cast includes Heidi Stober who recently has appeared on the San Francisco Opera stage in traditional operas such as Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and Verdi's "Falstaff." Stober, who plays Magnolia Hawks, says she welcomed the challenge of something different.
"I'm thrilled you've given me this chance," she told Gockley.
The cast also includes Tony Award-winning Bill Irwin as Cap'n Andy Hawks. Irwin, an original member of the Pickle Family Circus, has racked up various fellowships, including the MacArthur, Guggenheim and Fulbright, and has performed with Robin Williams and Steve Martin in "Waiting for Godot," as well as appearing in movies such as Rachel Getting Married, and TV shows including Northern Exposure and Sesame Street.
And this isn't the well-rounded performer's first time on the San Francisco Opera stage- he remembered being an acrobat in "Turnadot" in 1978, and "watching Mr. Pavarotti's buttocks" expand and contract as he sang.
"It's an intensely physical world," Irwin said about the opera. "It's a divine mix of folks."
"Show Boat" plays at the War Memorial Opera House (301 Van Ness) through July 2. Tickets are $24-$314. For more information, call 864-3330 or visit the opera's website.