Co-founder of Opera Rara
Monday 14 November 2005
Patric Schmid, operatic music director: born Eagle Path, Texas 12 April 1944; died London 6 November 2005.
It is 35 years since Patric Schmid, with his fellow American Don White, created Opera Rara. Originally intended to promote concert performances of rare Donizetti and other bel canto operas of the first half of the 19th century, which had been a passionate addiction of his since boyhood, Opera Rara became a recording label that greatly enriched the repertory of operas on disc with works by Meyerbeer, Mayr and Mercadante, as well as Rossini, Donizetti and Offenbach. Schmid also spent 10 years as artistic director of Opera Northern Ireland, which gave him the opportunity of working with the more popular operas of Puccini, Verdi and Gounod.
Schmid was born in Texas in 1944, but his father was in the US Air Force and the family was continually on the move. Eventually they settled in the Sacramento Valley in California. When he was about 15 he heard his first excerpt from opera, Maria Callas singing "Casta diva" from Bellini's Norma, and was bowled over. However, he did not hear a live opera until he went to study at San Francisco State College. Then he heard Joan Sutherland in I puritani and La sonnambula. In 1968 he went to Seattle to hear her in Don Giovanni. It was Sutherland who suggested he might work in opera, and introduced him to Don White.
Schmid had written to William Ashbrook, the Donizetti expert, a few years previously to ask how he might learn more about the composer. Ashbrook replied: "Go to Italy!" Schmid didn't until 1970, when he finally visited Bergamo, Donizetti's birthplace. White was working in an advertising agency in London, and there, in his small house in Islington, they set up Opera Rara. Schmid spent a great deal of time in libraries in Italy and France tracking down scores and photographing manuscripts. Opera Rara gave its first concert, devoted to Mercadante, at the Wigmore Hall on 17 December 1970, the centenary of the composer's death.
The following year Opera Rara gave another concert, this time of extracts from the operas of Simone Mayr. Then in 1972 there was a concert performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall of a whole opera, Meyerbeer's last Italian opera, Il crociato in Egitto, in which the mezzo Patricia Kern sang Armando d'Orville, the Crusader of the title (originally a role for castrato). Il crociato was very successful and was followed by performances of Mayr's Medea in Corinto and Donizetti's Maria Padilla (1973) and Maria di Rudenz (1974), all at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Meanwhile Opera Rara had begun staging operas for the Camden Festival at the Collegiate Theatre.
First came Donizetti's farce Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali, translated as The Prima Donna's Mother in Drag, given as a late-night show with a riotous central performance by Michael Aspinall. In 1973 the Opera Rara contribution to the Camden Festival was an even greater triumph: Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe, translated by Don White with some splendid jokes, including the immortal one-liner offered by the cannibals' cook, "Shepherds' pie with real shepherds."
In 1976 the American Bicentenary was celebrated by Opera Rara at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Christopher Columbus, an entirely new opera with text by Don White and music by Offenbach from La Boîte au lait and other sources. This confection, though not quite so funny as Robinson Crusoe, was still very amusing, ending with Columbus discovering the Coca-Cola bean tree on Manhattan Island and becoming a multi-millionaire. In 1980 Christopher Columbus was performed at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, with apparent great success. Other concerts included Donizetti's Rosmunda d'Inghilterra and a Silver Jubilee concert at Sadler's Wells in 1977 of Donizetti's Kings and Queens of England - from Alfred the Great to Elizabeth I.
Schmid's years as director of Opera Northern Ireland were not without incident. I first met him in Belfast in April 1976 under somewhat dramatic circumstances. Arriving at my hotel, all I found was a smoking ruin. By the porter's lodge, miraculously still standing, a solitary figure was waiting to escort me to another hotel, outside the city. That year they gave La Bohème and Lucia di Lammermoor, in the ABC Cinema. The following year a car which might or might not have had a bomb in it was parked on the steps of the ABC, but was removed before the evening's excellent Rigoletto and the even better performance of Gounod's Faust the next day.
Opera Rara returned to the Camden Festival in 1981 with an interesting revival of Cimarosa's Gli Orazi e i Curiazi which was followed in 1982 by a double bill of Donizetti comic one-acters, Francesca di Foix and La romanziera, and in 1983 by Pacini's Maria Tudor. After that Opera Rara gave no more staged or concert performances for nearly 10 years. Instead it concentrated on issuing more and more recordings.
In the earlier recordings the standard of performance was variable. Some singers, such as the sopranos Yvonne Kenny and Eiddwen Harrhy, and the mezzo Della Jones, were excellent; some not so good. With the sponsorship of the Peter Moores Foundation, Opera Rara was able to engage first-rate artists - Renée Fleming in the title role of Rosmonda d'Inghilterra, Bruce Ford in Rossini's Otello. In 1989 Opera Rara's recording of Donizetti's Emilia di Liverpool was named the Best Opera Recording and Recording of the Year.
In 2002 Opera Rara began giving concert performances again. Rossini's Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra, featuring Jennifer Larmore and Bruce Ford, was given at the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, Meyerbeer's Margherita d'Anjou and Mercadante's Emma di Antiochia in the Royal Festival Hall. Donizetti's Pia de Tolomei, a particular interesting opera, conducted superbly by David Parry, as so many other of Opera Rara's performances have been, was sung at the Royal Festival Hall in 2004.
On Sunday a week ago, Donizetti's Il diluvio universale (an opera about the Flood) was given at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Patric Schmid was due to give a talk before the performance, but collapsed and died. Il diluvio was performed, as he certainly would have wished.
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