“Birds and Balls” in San Francisco

Two recent one-acts cleverly combined by stage director Brian Staufenbiel into one grand, operatic sporting event. San Francisco’s alternative opera company, Opera Parallele pulled off a slam dunk show.

It all took place in Houston’s nearly 70,000 seat Astrodome inserted into SF Jazz’s 700 seat Miner Auditorium. It was all hosted by the famously arrogant Howard Cosell [a sportscaster in the 1960’s and 70’s] impersonated with great affection by Opera Parallele’s Mark Hernandez. Somehow all necessary magnitude (gigantic) was achieved to showcase the brutal competition among six male finches as well as the 1973 Houston Battle of the Sexes — US Open champion (retired) Bobby Riggs pitted against Grand Slam champion Billie Jean King.

Vinkensport or The Finch Opera, the “Birds” part of the title, re-imagined the ancient Flemish rite that determines which male finch can sing the most songs in one hour. The opera limits the competition to six finches (named Hans Sachs, Prince Gabriel III of Belgium, etc.), though they remained unseen except for a dead one (Farinelli). 

Nor, ironically, were they heard — though there was a plentitude of birdlike sounds always rising from the pit.

The Vinkensport librettist Royce Vavrek has been dubbed the Metastasio [a famously prolific Baroque librettist] of Brooklyn, though he is more appropriately aligned with the prolific French grand opera librettist Eugène Scribe, famed because he could turn any story or situation into a succession of arias and choruses, plus adding the sine non qua of grand opera — spectacle! 

Spectacle was no problem (Astrodome battles). Fortunately the bird songs were kept in the pit and we had to contend only with the sad fates of the birds’ trainers. 

The trainers of the six competing finches, Left to right: Holy St. Francis, Farinelli, Sir Elton John (standing forward), Hans Sach, Prince Gabriel III of Belgium, Atticus Finch

It was no longer comedy as the trainer of the bird named Holy St. Francis’s imagined (through the eye of her bird) her husband “stuffing the turkey” (fucking — an inelegant image in an otherwise elegant staging) on the kitchen table, Farinelli’s trainer imagined a solemn funeral for her dead bird, Elton John’s trainer contended with alcoholism, etc. Finally the trainer of the bird named Atticus Finch (the lawyer in the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” who defended a black man charged with rape) was left alone on the stage. Sung by fine baritone Daniel Cilli, he movingly admitted that he existed only though his bird. [I surmised this content as I was seated behind a bank of speakers that blocked the supertitles — the program synopsis was far from detailed].

The Vinkensport score is by David T. Little. The work was commissioned by Bard College, premiering in 2010. Little, once a drummer, is a composer who boasts several successful operas (JFKSoldier Songs, and Dog Days). He is a member of the group Newspeak, exploring the boundaries of rock and classical music, explaining, maybe, why this opera found itself on the SF Jazz stage. In this chamber version of the original score there were four string voices (SSTB), plus flute and clarinet, myriad percussion (two players) and piano, the ensemble creating an amusing, new music maelstrom carefully presided upon by Opera Parallele’s music director Nicole Paiement.

Vinkensport flowed directly into Balls, the stage easily transformed from a line-up of finch competitors into a tennis court, the projections covering/hiding the acoustically engineered walls of this distinctly unattractive auditorium changing from a leafy glen into the stadium seats of the Astrodome.

The pit added a few brass players and a saxophone to create the big band sounds that took us to another time, specifically 1973 and the hugely hyped match between la King and Mr. Riggs — the purse was $100,000 winner-take-all, that’s $700,000 in today’s dollars! The stakes were high indeed.

Billie Jean King in triumph, the defected Bobby Riggs in blue shirt, Houston Astrodom projection in background.

Balls’ diva was enacted by mezzo soprano Nikola Printz in a tour de force performance. They (nonbinary pronoun) exhibited all the needed balls to whip (or so it seemed) tenor Nathan Granner as the 55 year-old Bobby Riggs, in an equal tour de force performance — a true battle of champions played before our very eyes — Nikola Printz exhibited a mighty backhand slice, never faltering in a full voiced accompanying commentary, Mr. Granner excelled at tennis’ drop shot, while never dropping a word — of which this renowned tennis hustler had many. 

The Balls librettist is Gail Collins, the first woman to serve as the NY Times editorial page editor, now the liberal voice on the NY Times podcast “The Conversation” and author of “America’s Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines.” So why not an opera libretto celebrating one of the great icons of twentieth century American feminism.

Like The Conversation podcast the Balls libretto bounces gracefully from subject to subject, person to person, viewpoint to viewpoint, place to place succinctly encapsulating the Billie Jean King of 1973. It was a year in which she was in full competitive form, in a stable (or so it seems) marriage with Larry King, and in a lesbian relationship with her secretary/hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, operatically painted as a seductive jazz singer, here sung by fine jazz singer Tiffany Austin. (see lead photo)

Not to forget that King was the winner-take-all of this lucrative battle. Note as well that King’s arch tennis rival Margaret Court had been defeated by Bobby Riggs four months earlier in a match also known as a battle of the sexes.

Billie Jean King’s accomplishments were myriad. Advancing the emerging movement of gender equality she founded the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation. She persuaded Virginia Slim cigarettes to sponsor women’s tennis in the 1970’s. All this history and accomplishment was cleverly woven into the Gail Collins libretto.

This was the Bille Jean King to be celebrated, and that the Brian Staufenbiel production did with consummate pizazz. Yes, of course, Susan B. Anthony, sung with fine musicality by Shawnee Sulker, found her way onto the stage, creating a procession thrusting forward under a projection of the famed Delacroix painting (1830) of bare-breasted lady Liberty Leading the People to topple French king Charles X (Susan B. was 10 years-old at the time).

Composer Laura Karpman’s Balls had its premiere at LA’s The Industry in 2017, its gestation supported by a 2015 Opera America grant. Composer Karpman always titled her opera Balls, not to be confused with the movie entitled The Battle of the Sexes (same story though in cinematic terms) that came out in 2017 as well. Mme. Karpman is based in Los Angeles where she has extensive Oscar, Emmy and Grammy nominations and awards, as well as orchestral and opera commissions from the L.A. Phil’s Hollywood Bowl and Opera Theatre of St. Louis. The Balls score is rich indeed, easily traversing the many styles needed to illuminate this triumphal moment of feminist history.

The evening was monumental, Opera Parallele in all its alternative glory. The operas were rich with meaning and rich in sound, flawlessly produced and beautifully performed by a large ensemble of fine singers, and an excellent ensemble of instrumentalists.

Michael Milenski

Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera Holy St. Francis’ Trainer – Jamie Chamberlain; Atticus Finch’s Trainer – Daniel Cilli; Hans Sachs’ Trainer – Nathan Granner; Butler/Referee – Mark Hernandez; Farinelli’s Trainer – Chelsea Hollow; Sir Elton John’s Trainer – Shawnette Sulker; Prince Gabriel III of Belgium’s Trainer – Chung-Wai Soong. BallsMarilyn, Jazz Singer – Tiffany Austin; Larry King – Daniel Cilli; Bobby Riggs – Nathan Granner; Howard Cosell – Mark Hernandez; Rosie Casals – Gabriela Linares; Billie Jean King – Nikola Printz; Susan B. Anthony – Shawnette Sulker; Vocal Quartet Soprano – Jamie Chamberlain; Vocal Quartet Mezzo-Soprano – Nina Jones; Vocal Quartet Tenor – Chad Somers; Vocal Quartet Baritone – Chung-Wai Soong. Conductor – Nicole Paiement; Stage and Creative Director – Brian Staufenbiel; Projection Designer – David Murakami; Costume/Hair/Makeup Designer – Y. Sharon Peng; Lighting Designer – Mextly Couzin. Miner Auditorium of SF Jazz, April 6, 2024

All photos copyright Kristen Loken, courtesy of Opera Parallele