By Scott MacClelland
“I CAME TO California because it was here,” says David Gordon. Much praised for his long career as an opera and concert tenor soloist, he is best known locally for his 27 seasons with the Carmel Bach Festival where he is the dramaturge, lecturer, and director of the festival’s Vocal Master Class for young professional singers. In his recent and definitive Carmel history, Carmel Impresarios, he retells the story of Hazel Watrous and Dene Denny, founders of the Bach Festival, Carmel Music Society and a theater company that performed at Monterey’s First Theater for more than 60 years. “Dene hired Salgo,” says Gordon, “and he hired me.”
Sandor Salgo was the longest-serving music director of the festival (from 1956 to 1991) and a key figure in Gordon’s book, which took him nearly two years to write. “No book like this is a moneymaker,” he says, adding “It took a chunk out of my life.” But that’s not a complaint. “I’m really glad I did it.” He discovered that other writings about Denny and Watrous claiming that they founded the festival in 1935 “were just not true. It took years.” At first Gordon thought a book focusing on the two women would develop quickly. “It kept growing, but without putting them into context it would be meaningless.”
Gordon’s life in music began modestly. “Banjo got me into music,” he says, “and bluegrass.” He attended the College of Wooster, Ohio, then McGill University in Montreal. He entered the training program at Lyric Opera of Chicago and sang there regularly from 1973 to 1997, debuting in Der Rosenkavalier. “I went to college to become a high school music teacher. Thank god that didn’t happen,” he says. “My voice teacher at Wooster, Dale Moore, got me into classical music and steered me toward a singing career. He became one of America’s great voice teachers.” In his early 20s, Gordon worked with the Italian maestro Luigi Ricci. “He made me into an Italian opera singer.” Gordon wanted to be a Puccini tenor, he says, but instead grew a reputation as a Bach tenor. “I must have sung the evangelist in the St. John Passion 200 times.”
Gordon made his debut with the San Francisco Opera in 1981. “I was David in Die Meistersinger. Once I saw San Francisco I didn’t want to be anywhere else.” Even though he was long established with the SF Opera and Carmel Bach Festival, it was only in 1997 that he “engineered the permanent move from the east coast.”
Gordon’s website summarizes the global career that most Bach Festival audiences are not aware of: David has appeared as tenor soloist with virtually every major North American symphony orchestra, and with other prestigious orchestras and music festivals on four continents. His concert repertoire spans eight centuries of music and eight languages. On the operatic stage, David has performed 60 principal operatic roles with the Chicago Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Metropolitan Opera, Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center, Hamburg Staatsoper (Germany), and other international companies. David is also a prolific classical recording artist, and he solos on 15 CDs for RCA Red Seal, Decca, London, Telarc, Dorian, Newport, and Vox. (Left, Gordon as Pang in Turandot, 1982, San Francisco Opera.)
Anyone who has attended a Gordon lecture or heard him narrate or MC a concert already knows his consummate skills, charm and wit while ‘working’ a room. He does plenty of this during the Bach Festival. He calls himself “an overcompensating introvert.” This season, the Tuesday Main program is a concert edition of The Magic Flute, for which he will supply the narration. “I’ll be speaking about 20 times between numbers, mostly less than 30 seconds.” But the really huge task is creating the supertitles that he must first translate from the German, and then, with his formidable computer skills, turn them into slides—about 1000 of them this season alone—and cues for the projection booth. Having lived in Austria for four years, and performed there and in Germany over the next 15 years, Gordon is fluent in the language. As for French and Italian, “I get along, better at understanding than speaking.” As the festival’s supertitle writer he has for many years provided them for the Bach passion oratorios and cantatas. But the Mozart opera libretto is “thorny stuff.” He says, “The words are colorful to the point of lurid, but the translations need to convey what is expressed in the music.” Translating The Magic Flute took “a lot more time than I thought, coordinating the cues, condensing the words, but really fun.” The trickiest parts are when multiple characters sing patter. “Last year, for the Rigoletto quartet, I had to use different colors and line spacings.” A priority for him is to make the supertitles easy for the audience.
Festival conductor Paul Goodwin made his debut with a stunning production of Bach’s St. John Passion, the players and singers in street clothes imparting a gritty verismo effect that intensified the drama. This year it will be quite different, not only for the more formal presentation but with some surprising musical interpolations that Bach himself used as an alternative to the otherwise famous score. (No, I’m not going to be the spoiler.)
Last year Gordon and his wife Ginna left their home in Carmel Valley for new digs in Jacksonville, Oregon, a suburb of Medford. “Three times the house for half the rent,” he says. And although he was until then a voice instructor at Sonoma State, San Francisco State and UC Berkeley, he is winding down his career as a teacher. But he has no plans to do the same with the Bach Festival, or the Carmel Music Society which he serves as the pre-concert lecturer.
Reflecting on his many years teaching he says, “Young singers sometimes ask me if they are good enough to try for a career. If they have the voice, the brain, the memory, the languages and the personality, I ask them if there is any way they could not be a singer. If they waffle about their determination, I gently advise them to consider other options as well. Otherwise, I say go for it.”