Work Drives Opera Star Crazy--but Happily So

Some people complain that their work drives them crazy. Soprano Gail Dobish doesn’t mind losing her sanity for fun and profit as she sings the title role in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” for San Diego Opera. Dobish’s impersonation of the demented bride of Lammermoor this Saturday evening at Civic Theatre marks both her local debut and the opening of the 1989 San Diego Opera season.

Although the young American singer is not exactly a veteran Lucia--she last performed it three years ago as her debut role with New York City Opera--it is one of the few roles she has repeated in her repertory.

“In the last three years, I’ve done 22 different roles and, because of scheduling, have not had the opportunity to repeat a single one,” complained Dobish. Among the unusual roles she has been assigned: Fire in Ravel’s “L’Enfant el les Sortileges” at the Met; the Lake in Henry Hollingsworth’s “The Mother”; Wagner’s Forest Bird in Dallas, and Penguin in St. Paul, which was the American premiere of Lars Werle’s “Animalen.” Now that she has demonstrated her versatility, she would not mind having the luxury of consistency.

“Now I would like to focus on things that show me to the best advantage,” she said.


Although Dobish is new to San Diego Opera, director Rhoda Levine’s face is a familiar one. For Dobish’s professional operatic debut in “The Mother,” Levine was also the director. According to Dobish, working with a woman director has definite advantages in an opera like “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

“I think a woman can more easily and more immediately tie into the feeling of not always being in control--that other people make decisions for them,” she explained. Although heroines such as Sir Walter Scott’s--and later Donizetti’s--Lucia are hardly role models for contemporary women, Dobish has no difficulty putting their status into perspective.

“When people are so isolated and have little power, early on they tend to develop a strong fantasy life. And, when you consider Lucia’s weak disposition--that she was abused psychologically--it was easy for her to sense that she was invisible. When that happens, anything can happen to an individual. In modern times, we have lots of parallel examples of a woman who lives with a man who beats her. It is not a healthy situation, but it is not easy to break out of it, either.”

Although Dobish’s winning smile and diminutive stature initially suggest that she might be ideal for soubrette roles, she much prefers the serious side of opera, and her voice has a dark quality that equips her for the dramatic roles.

“I was a very old child,” she noted. “Out of six children, I was the youngest. My oldest sister is 20 years older than I, and most of my brothers and sisters are closer to her age. I did not have playmates. It took me a long time to be comfortable with the happy-go-lucky, playful side. To this day, I think I do a perfectly respectable Adele and Susanna, but it’s not what is special about me.”

Dobish grew up in Oshkosh, Wis., distant even from regional operatic centers. Her high school passion was journalism--she was editor of her school paper--and she did not hear a complete opera until she was a college sophomore. Once she finished her graduate studies at Juilliard, however, she made up for lost time. A year later she won the 1981 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and soon had a Met contract in her portfolio. Over the last few years, much of her work has kept her within the confines of Lincoln Center, either at the Met or City Opera.

More tunes from the Philharmonic. Last week, KPBS-FM (89.5) started broadcasting concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Saturday at 2 p.m. Most of the programs are drawn from the current season. On Jan. 22, music director Andre Previn can be heard conducting cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing the Haydn Cello Concerto, and the following Saturday principal guest conductor Simon Rattle will lead Mahler’s Seventh Symphony and the Bartok Second Piano Concerto, with countryman Peter Donohoe at the keyboard. Other offerings in this new series will include Rattle’s acclaimed interpretation of Berg’s “Wozzeck,” which he conducted in a joint presentation with Los Angeles Music Center Opera in December.

Atherton calls room service--gets big tip. Former San Diego Symphony music director David Atherton changed the name of his new Mainly Mozart Festival last week. In response to $50,000 contributed by downtown’s upscale hotel, the June 2-11 music festival will be known as the Westgate Mainly Mozart Festival.

Festival general manager Nancy Laturno said the musical programming for Atherton’s 10-day series at the Old Globe Theatre’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre will not be announced until the maestro is back in town next month.

Forget the stage-door star watch. Traditionally, autograph hounds head for the Civic Theatre stage door after an opera performance. Last week between rehearsals, fans of tenor superstar Richard Leech, who will be singing opposite Gail Dobish in San Diego Opera’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” found him flying his kite on the beach in Pacific Beach. True to his tenor instincts, he was upstaging his brother, trying to knock his kite down with crafty dogfight maneuvers.