When Anna Paul of Coronado and Gloria Cady of San Diego won the high bid for a gourmet dinner for eight at the opera’s “Swing & Bling” spring fundraiser, they had no idea what fantastic treats were in store for themselves and six guests, yours truly among those fortunate few.
The dinner, hosted by San Diego Opera President Carol Lazier, was held on March 19 at her home — exactly two years after Ian Campbell, the opera’s former executive and artistic director urged his board to vote to close the opera “with dignity” in its 49th year. Campbell pointed to an increasingly difficult fundraising environment and the board voted yes, largely in dutiful support to the opera’s stalwart leader of more than 30 years.
But doubts lingered and board members began talking among themselves. Had they done the right thing, closing just before the opera’s golden anniversary year?
It was Lazier who convened a subsequent board meeting and led the charge to keep the opera going, starting with her own $1 million pledge. Donations began pouring in.
Under her leadership, the opera is continuing strong into its 52nd year. It has recruited a new artistic director, David Bennett, with a schedule that includes an expansion of the season to include fall performances, traditional grand operas at the San Diego Civic Theatre, and chamber operas and recitals at smaller venues.
Lazier’s home, high in a tree-laden hamlet in the Poway hills, is almost a museum of sorts, with carefully curated sculpture and paintings. The living room, with its soaring ceiling and Steinway grand piano was the perfect venue for a pre-dinner concert Nic Reveles, the opera’s director of education and outreach, introduced members of the opera’s chorus who performed selections, with Reveles accompanying on piano. “Ah, mes amis” from La Fille du régiment by Donizetti and “Largo al factotum” from Il barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini and “Sull aria” duet from Le nozze di Figaro by Mozart were spectacular, but my favorite was the “Dôme épais” duet from Lakmé by Delibes, performed by two sisters, Erica and Linda Austin. They have been with the opera for seven years, having learned their craft singing in church in their hometown of Napa, Calif.
The quality of these chorus members gives insight into the overall continuing quality of the opera.
As we enjoyed cocktails and appetizers, wonderful aromas wafted from the open kitchen and we watched as the chef — who was he? — carefully prepared each course, which began with a delicious, fresh Belgiac asparagus appetizer.
As the first course was presented — by Lazier and fellow opera board member Linda Spuck — our chef introduced himself: turns out he was Lazier’s husband, Dr. Jay Merritt.
Merritt is also a board member of the opera, and it was through that association that he first met Lazier. He recalled the night at an opera performance where their eyes met across a crowded room. “It was electric,” he told me.
The couple married in 2014 on the stage of A Masked Ball at the San Diego Civic Theater, just four days prior to Campbell’s infamous March board meeting.
Now semi-retired but consulting with one of San Diego’s biotech companies, Merritt has always had a penchant for gourmet cooking, with two of his role models being Richard Olney, an American authority on French food who spent much of his life living in France (much as Merritt spent several years living in Belgium) and Thomas Keller, whom Merritt met recently at a private gathering at a San Diego home.
Our dessert, a lemon tart with a crust that was equal parts flour and ground pine nuts, was from Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook.
“I think a lemon tart is the perfect ending for any meal,” Merritt said.
Yes, it was perfect.
San Diego Opera’s 2016-17 season
(details, tickets at sdopera.org)
Saturday, Sept. 17 Piotr Beczala in recital, with piano
Beczala is considered by many to be the leading tenor of his generation. Balboa Theatre
Oct. 24, 25, 28, 30 La Cenerentola
This main-stage production of Gioachino Rossini’s opera from Leipzig Opera tells the classic story of “Cinderella.” San Diego Civic Theatre
Nov. 11, 12, 13 Soldier Songs
The West Coast premier of David T. Little’s multi-media work explores the main character’s shift in perception of war from the ages of 6 to 66. Balboa Theatre
Feb. 18, 21, 24, 26, 2017 Falstaff
The last opera composed by Giuseppe Verdi, the comic work Falstaff follows the exploits of Sir John Falstaff, the character created by playwright William Shakespeare, who appeared in three of his plays; The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. San Diego Civic Theatre
March 10, 11, 12, 2017 La tragèdie de Carmen
Peter Brook’s chamber opera distills the music of Bizet’s classic opera while borrowing heavily from the original novella by Prosper Mérimée to create something entirely new — a tension-filled 80-minute one-act evening of sung theater. Balboa Theatre
April 22, 25, 28, 30, 2017 La traviata
Giuseppe Verdi’s timeless classic returns to San Diego Opera.
San Diego Civic Theatre