This year, three generations of the Hartsuyker family will see San Diego Opera's Carmen. Alice Hartsuyker bought the tickets for her son and granddaughter, both of whom enjoy opera well enough, but she's the hardcore fan, a subscriber for more than three decades.
“I picked a relatively easy one because neither [my son nor granddaughter] is very knowledgeable about opera,” Hartsuyker says, settling into a chair in the corner of the living room in her Hillcrest condo. She remembers the first opera she saw performed live, Il Trovatore. It was during World War II and, because of a paper shortage, the opera house didn't print a synopsis. She remembers being very confused.
“If you want to start someone out on opera,” the petite woman continues in her New York accent, “you either take them to La Bohéme or Carmen or Madama Butterfly. These are all operas with a strong, melodic line, whereas, some of the operas, like Wagnerian opera, is very difficult.”
All around Hartsuyker are trinkets of the cultured life she's led. Colorful, hand-woven clothing and sashes from Guatemala hang on her walls. Pottery from Mexico is stacked across a banister. In the guest bathroom, postcards from Belize and other countries are like wallpaper. Out front, she's built little plant beds that look like miniature replicas of foreign lands. One is home to a tiny Asian fisherman who's sitting near a lake that's made of a piece of shiny plastic she cut out and lined with small pebbles.
Back inside, framed vintage opera posters, copies of Opera News—which she calls her “bible”—and the guide to The Met's latest Live in HD performance broadcasts are the first clues to Hartsuyker's obsession. A thick, tattered red book with a taped-up spine, Stories of the Great Operas by ernest Newman, seals the deal.
While opera is high on her priority list, her interests are broad. She's worked as everything from a shabbas goy (an aide to Orthodox Jews on the Sabbath) when she was 9 to an aeronautical engineer during the war years. Her fascination with opera started when she stumbled upon her grandpa, fixated on his cathedral-shaped Gothic Philco radio, eyes watering as he listened to the Saturday-afternoon matinées broadcasted from The Met.
“He was so involved, and that made a very great impression when I'd visit, and there he'd be, sitting with just this intent look on his face,” Hartsuyker says. “So, I got to listening to opera, but then I became a true maniac when I was about 14 or 15.”
That's when she won Newman's red book in a spelling bee. She read the entire thing and, even though her first live-opera experience was frustrating, she went again and again and again. Until recently, she made it a point to travel to places like Santa Fe, N.M., and San Francisco to see world-famous performances of operas she's already seen several times.
“If anyone wants to talk to me about opera, I'm ready,” she says. “I'm a true fan.”
Hartsuyker's fandom has turned her into quite an expert, which is why CityBeat asked her to break down and rate San Diego Opera's upcoming 2011 season.
Turandot (opens Jan. 29)
Hartsuyker's description: “It's a gloriously decorative opera. But Turandot is a fairytale, so, like any fairytale, there are things that you're just going to have to accept even if they're not logical.”
Stand-out feature: “You just go see it for the beauty of the setting, the costumes, the music—it's a really wonderful thing to see. David Hockney—I'm so crazy about his sets. I've seen Turandot with the old [Franco] Zeffirelli sets. His sets tend to be highly over-decorated and people love them, and I think, at one time, I probably did, too. But the minute I saw Hockney's set, I thought, This is it; this is the way it's supposed to be. The Zeffirelli sets look like a Chinese restaurant that had overdone everything—tassels and everything, whereas, Hockney is down to pure design—just striking.”
Rating: Three out of five stars
Der Rosenkavalier (opens April 3)
Hartsuyker's description: “Well, words fail you on that one because it's just so good.”
Stand-out feature: “This is close to being a perfect opera.
It's got something that Turandot doesn't have. When you see it, you feel complete.”
Rating: Super five.
Faust (opens April 23)
Hartsuyker's description: “One of the difficulties I have with Faust is it's preachy. I don't particularly want to be whammed over the head with morals, and that's what bothers me about Faust, but I will go see it.”
Stand-out feature: “It has some really fine music, and I always like to give operas another chance.”
Rating: Three out of five stars
Carmen (opens May 14)
Hartsuyker's description: “Carmen is beloved by one and all. I've seen good productions, I've seen bad productions—this production is able to withstand all sorts of bad assaults on it.”
Stand-out feature: “It's got intense drama. This opera will sell out, guaranteed.”
Rating: Five stars.