SFOpera - Backstage with Matthew: The Beauty of Catharsis

Backstage with Matthew: The Beauty of Catharsis

As we come to the close of this most unique of years, I find myself craving musical connection more and more each day. Music binds us in collective experience and it allows us to delve into our emotions and find resonance outside ourselves. The Cambridge Dictionary defines catharsis as “the process of releasing strong emotions through a particular activity or experience, such as writing or theater, in a way that helps you to understand those emotions.” If there was ever a time in which we needed opera to help us process the deep emotions of life, it is this year, and it is particularly hard that we have been denied the cathartic experience of the War Memorial Opera House.

The close of any year invariably brings out the top ten lists as we reflect back on the year and look forward to what is to come. I’ve been thinking a great deal about catharsis and music this year and, while I’ve not had time to sink into many good books or movies in 2020, I have found myself reaching for pieces that allow me to find some of the catharsis I would typically find in the opera house. I hope you’ll humor my sharing a few of them with you as 2020 comes to a close. (And, as I have such a passion for holiday music, scroll to the end to find a playlist of my holiday favorites as well!)

I had a hard time limiting myself to ten, so here are my top eleven cathartic pieces for 2020:

  1. Rameau, “Tendre amour” from Les Indes Galantes.
    My passion for music of the French Baroque is no secret and this is one of the most sublime ensemble moments by Rameau. I had a chance to experience the opera about a year ago in Geneva when I went to see a new production, which included former Adler Fellow Amina Edris in the cast. When I started as General Director, I did a series of introduction events around the Bay Area, and Amina kindly learned a Rameau aria to sing as part of those. So it felt very much full circle to see her onstage in Les Indes Galantes. This is a choral version of what is otherwise a quartet in the opera, conducted by that great exponent of the French style, William Christie. There is such a noble simplicity to the musical line and each note is written with the purposefulness and grace of a poet.

  2. Donizetti, “Vivi, ingrato” from Roberto Devereux
    Many of us have such emotive memories of the Roberto Devereux performed here in 2018 with the extraordinary Sondra Radvanovsky. For me, it was also the final opera I heard live before the lockdown. Just after Eun Sun Kim had been with us for an event at the Herbst Theater in early March, I went down to Los Angeles to hear her conduct the same production of Donizetti’s opera there. This is Elizabeth’s final aria when the aged queen mourns the impending loss of her beloved Robert. There is a passage towards the beginning of the aria (around 30 seconds into the clip here) in which the music yearns upwards in a way that aches for resolution, and to hear Montserrat Caballé float that high note is to feel all the ache of that longing. This recording of Ms. Caballé is from San Francisco Opera in 1979 so it has particular poignancy.

  3. Wagner, Vorspiel to Parsifal
    Parsifal must be one of the most cathartic operas ever written. It is in many ways a meditation on the intersection of longing and restraint and I dearly hope we can get back to it in San Francisco before too long. In fact, we have been looking for the right production and I travelled to see back-to-back new productions in Palermo and Strasbourg early this year. I had hoped to make it a trifecta with a production in Toulouse which would have been three consecutive days of Parsifals, but it became impossible to get the internal flights to work and still make the curtain times! Nonetheless, seeing two Parsifals in succession was a spiritual experience I will always cherish. I have become obsessed with this recording of the prelude by Rudolf Kempe that I came across during the pandemic. For me, it captures that mystical quality of the piece perfectly — it is without ego, it gives space, it breathes. I’ve listened to this so many times over the past nine months.

  4. Beethoven, Andante cantabile from The Archduke Trio
    There is so much Beethoven that I could include here, whether from Fidelio, the piano sonatas, the string quartets and so much more. The soaring early Romanticism of Beethoven so often takes one to a place of catharsis. But I landed on the slow movement from The Archduke Trio in which the hushed expression of motivic nuggets builds into beautiful lyricism. The three instruments never crowd each other — it is a piece of great respect and gentle conversation. I’ve scoured the available recordings and love this one recorded at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, with the great Mitsuko Uchida on piano joined by Soovin Kim and David Soyer. You can feel the joyfulness of the collaboration. The dialogue between the instruments beginning around 10:30 is one of the most glorious moments of Beethoven.

  5. Messiaen, Éclairs sur l'au dela: Demeurer dans l'amour (Lightning over the Beyond: To Abide in Love)
    I have long had a fascination with Olivier Messiaen, the 20th century French composer and organist whose opera St. François was the first piece that I heard at San Francisco Opera back in 2002. I had studied Messiaen at university and played some of his works on the organ, and find his use of color and imagery in music completely unique (Messiaen had synesthesia —the perception of color while listening to music —and you feel it in the way he paints with sound.) This piece is part of his final completed orchestral work, and it premiered in New York about six months after his death in 1992. This is a recording with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

  6. Strauss, “Morgen”
    Another composer for whom catharsis is deeply rooted is Richard Strauss. As with Beethoven, there is so much one could choose from and I was tempted to choose one of the Four Last Songs, but I’m going to go with “Morgen”.  Like the Four Last Songs, it is achingly beautiful, yearning, searching — a solo violin interweaving with the soprano in music that lingers, reflects, and never quite wants to resolve. Wagner and Strauss set the bar high when it came to spousal gift giving; Strauss wrote this as part of a set of four songs that he gave his wife Pauline as a wedding present. (Wagner composed his Siegfried Idyll as a birthday present for his wife Cosima.) This is a recent recording with the incredible Norwegian singer Lise Davidsen, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The text is as poignant as the music, written by the Germanic Scot John Henry Mackay:

    And tomorrow the sun will shine again
    And on the way which I shall follow
    She will again unite us lucky ones
    As all around us the earth breathes in the sun
    Slowly, silently, we will climb down
    To the wide beach and the blue waves
    In silence, we will look in each other's eyes
    And the mute stillness of happiness will sink upon us

  7. Arvo Pärt, The Beatitudes
    There are a number of contemporary composers who specialize in choral works of exquisite catharsis, including Morton Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre. The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is central among the composers, and he is able to bring time almost to a standstill in his music. His writing comes from a deep spirituality, and he provides us with great space for reflection. In his setting of the Beatitudes you can feel the music almost breathing in an organic, undulating meditation. The very first CD that I ever purchased was a disc of the works of Arvo Pärt and I’m fascinated by his style. It’s not all expansive like this —he can be forceful and brutalist as well. But here it is intense beauty.

  8. Carissimi, finale from Jepthah
    I first heard the music of the early Baroque composer Giacomo Carissimi when I was studying music at university. His oratorio Jepthah is one of the most sublime, probing, cathartic pieces of music I have come across. It is the story of a warrior who swears that, if he is successful, he will sacrifice the first person he sees returning home after battle. Of course, he sees his daughter. This is the finale of the oratorio and an incredible ensemble full of pathos and aching beauty. This was a time when “word-painting” was very important in music —the crafting of musical lines that follow the meaning of the words. There was also a fascination with ancient Greek texts of rhetoric and declamation, and Carissimi was masterful in embodying those techniques in music. This chorus is sublime with shifting harmonies, drawn out suspensions, and absolute heartache.

  9. Mozart, Recordare from The Requiem
    Last year I had the great privilege of being in Prague for the first time, experiencing the exquisite architecture and history of that city. While there, I had a deeply cathartic experience in the St. Nicholas Church listening to a quartet of soloists from the Prague Opera singing from Mozart’s Requiem. It was in this church that, nine days after Mozart died, a large-scale performance of his Requiem Mass took place, dispelling the myth that Mozart died with barely any notice. The music of the Recordare floated from high up in the balconies to the nave of the church early in the morning, filling the exquisite Baroque church, and one was transported back to that original Requiem mass on December 14, 1791 —the power of music to connect us across time.

  10. Kaija Saariaho, Quatre Instants: Parfum de l’instant
    One of the operas that we have co-commissioned for a future season is Kaija Saariaho’s Innocence. Kaija is an extraordinary composer who, like Messiaen and Wagner, has the ability to torque time. She writes at the extremes of the human condition and that makes her very naturally suited to opera, and to catharsis. I was in New York for her opera L’amour de loin at the Met, and the journey she took us on through aural space and time was like none other I’ve experienced. This is a short, sensual song in which you can feel the extremes of Kaija’s music — a lover experiences the passion of the moment, but also knows that it is simultaneously receding into memory.

  11. Traditional, Carrickfergus
    I adore choral music and one of my favorite groups is the British ensemble Voces8. There is an absolute purity to their sound, but one that comes completely from the heart. You feel the trust of each member of the ensemble with each other. I encourage you to explore all of their albums, but this Irish song Carrickfergus is from a disc of traditional songs from the British Isles. Voces8 is joined by the singer Sibéal. It is a piece of such intense emotion, so deeply rooted in place.


(You can also enjoy these eleven selections at this Spotify playlist, although there are some variations in performers.)

 Music allows us to explore parts of the soul, of our humanity, of deep emotions that can otherwise be incredibly hard to access. Vocal music in particular, with its marriage of abstract music and specific text, allows us to find reflection of our own feelings. I hope that you find some measure of catharsis in these pieces, and also revisit those pieces that you personally connect with. It is always our goal to bring catharsis to you in the Opera House, and I cannot wait for the moment in 2021 when we can share in that together, once again.

I hope that you are able to find time for rest and refreshment this holiday season, recognizing that for many this is a time of great challenge and, for front-line workers, a time of great personal sacrifice. Wherever you find yourself this holiday season, I hope that you will give yourself the gift of music that allows you to find peace from the challenges of 2020 — music that will allow you to glimpse the beauty of what lies ahead.

Amidst all of this talk of catharsis, I couldn’t resist sharing a little holiday music as well. I’ve put together a new holiday Spotify playlist of some of my favorites and hope that it will bring some festive cheer! 

Thank you for your continued friendship to San Francisco Opera and for the extraordinary support that so many of you are giving us as we work to sustain the incredibly talented people who make up this great Company. Our Company Relief Challenge continues through December 31, matching all donations dollar for dollar. If you have already contributed, please accept my deepest gratitude. If you are inspired to give before the end of the year, you will be helping us write the next chapter of cathartic, resonant opera in the Bay Area.

I look forward to experiencing music together in 2021.

With all festive wishes and deepest gratitude,


Celebrating Opening Night of the Opera