Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 2003

Up on the 18th floor, overlooking the city, he locks himself in his inner sanctum. And Ian Campbell is On the Air. Well, not technically, but he’s got his own recording studio in the tower suite of the Civic Center Plaza. And it’s there that he dons a headset and deftly records “At the Opera with Ian Campbell,” the informational/entertainment show for which he’s become so well known and admired. Every Sunday night on KPBS radio, 89.5 FM, Campbell exudes passion — and knowledge, attracting opera aficionados and neophytes to his favorite obsession.

“This isn’t the BBC,” he says, imitating the stiff, formal, stentorian tones of Brit-crits. “It’s friendly and informal enough that if you stumble on the program and never went to an opera, you wouldn’t be turned off.”

Campbell introduces audiences to opera in general and this season’s operas in particular — and each production will be broadcast in full on KPBS in the spring. He’s anxious to enhance audience appreciation of the singing voice, the centerpiece of the art-form.

“The audience is used to hearing, not listening,” he explains. “Listening requires a certain action. Hearing is more passive. We’ve stopped listening. That’s why the average person doesn’t differentiate too much between singing voices. I urge people to listen — to the phrasing, or how the singer is breathing. I might say something like, ‘Pay special attention to about one minute in, when she approaches the coloratura bit [a particularly agile, florid passage] and does it all on one breath. Now listen to soprano B, who breaks the phrase into three. And I’ll talk about the differences.”

Campbell has been hosting his radio program for 18 years, first on KFSD, then XBACH and since 2001, on KPBS, where it’s also streamed live on the internet, making it available to a worldwide audience. The program has won several awards, mostly recently from the San Diego Press Club, where it was named Best Series in Radio and Radio – Best of Show.

“I’m not just a disc jockey on the show,” says Campbell. “I give my opinions, which are often rather strong. I’m not nasty — except about Mr. [Andrea] Bocelli and Ms. [Charlotte] Church. I’m very particular about who’s an opera singer and who is a singer of opera arias. I can cut meat, but I’m not a butcher. I’m not Hungarian just because I can eat goulash.”

Campbell’s musical taste is broad, and he has an “amazing ” collection of recordings at home, some rather surprising. There is, of course, much opera and symphonic music, but the rest ranges from ABBA and the Beatles, to Johnny Mathis, Montovani and Eddie Fisher. He also loves spoken text, a favorite being the BBC recording of Richard Burton in Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood.”

He finds the current San Diego Opera season to be similarly “eclectic and balanced.” It includes Beethoven’s “Fidelio” (January 25-Febrauary 2), Bellini’s “Norma” (February 15-26), Tobias Picker’s “Therese Raquin” (March 22-30), Verdi’s “Otello” (April 19-30) and Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” (May 10-21). The international array meets all Campbell’s criteria for a successful opera season:

“One, it has to be marketable. Of our five operas, normally, three are easily recognized by the public, though our audience is becoming a little more flexible. We’ve done a lot more new work in the past ten years.” “Butterfly” and “Otello” have the broadest recognition this season. “Norma” is well-known to opera buffs.

“Two, the season has to be progressive, with at least one opera new to the City, ideally, by an American. This year, that would be Picker’s “Therese,” a new American opera adapted from Emile Zola’s steamy 19th century novel, co-commissioned by The Dallas Opera and L’Opéra de Montréal.”

“And three, I want to help develop new talent. That’s part of the excitement for me. I’ve helped establish some, like Priti Gandhi, who went through our ensemble program, and I encourage others to stretch.” [Russian tenor Sergej Larin makes his “Otello” debut here, and Russian soprano Galina Gorchakova,’ who wowed audiences last year as “Tosca,” performs her first “Norma”].

“We have to keep challenging the audience, and providing works they haven’t heard,” says the Opera’s general director.   And then he launches into “Campbell’s View of the Recording Industry”:

In the realm of ‘classical music,’ he asserts, that is to say, opera and symphony, “the repertoire has been, in a sense, canonized, by being recorded and re-recorded. There are perhaps 30 different versions of the “1812 Overture” and 20 different “La Bohèmes.” That doesn’t happen in theater. Every new actor who does ‘Hamlet’ doesn’t record it. But that does happen with every tenor who does “Boheme.” Theatergoers don’t have the repertoire at home on recording. But operagoers put on Luciano [Pavarotti] and think that’s what it has to be like every time. Opera and symphony audiences sometimes won’t even attend a performance because it won’t sound exactly the same as what they have at home. This allows theaters to keep doing new plays, but keeps opera rooted in the past.

“Prior to recordings,” he continues, “people eagerly awaited the next new opera. But after Puccini [1858-1924], we started recording, and instead of looking forward, we started looking back. You never see Shakespeare done exactly the way it was done at the Rose Theatre. But audiences expect replicas in opera.

“Overall,” Campbell concludes, “we’re not very adventurous in the musical arts.” But that doesn’t stop him from being energized and enthusiastic every time he plans a season. This year, he’s especially excited about “Otello,” “Norma” and “Therese Raquin.”

“Sergei Larin,” he says, “is one of the most intellectual tenors in the world, capable of great subtlety. He’s also an intelligent man, who speaks 4-5 languages. This is his first “Otello,” but I think he’ll be the Otello of his generation.

“Galina [Gorchakova] is doing her first Norma, an even bigger challenge. I’m saying to her ‘here’s a different career possibility for you,’ because I think she can take over the bigger, dramatic bel canto roles [which require brilliant vocal display and purity of tone]. She’s a wonderful singer and an actress, and if I’m right, people will have her doing “Norma” all over the world. And with the flamboyant Richard Bonynge conducting — he’s one of the world’s bel canto specialists. He can give her the knowledge no one else can to help her conquer this role.

“‘Therese Raquin’ is one of the finest new works I’ve seen. The reviews at the world premiere [in English in Dallas, in French in Montreal] were not overwhelming — nor were they for the premiere of “Butterfly.” There have been cuts and changes. So we’re calling this ‘the world premiere of the revised English language version.’ I find it totally engaging — and it has everything any operagoer could ever want: love, lust, passion, adultery, violence, murder, sex, suicide and ghosts. All the things that make life worthwhile! I think it will set a lot of people on their ear. They leave at the intermission in some operas; not this one. They’ll be dying to see what happens at the end.”

Long-time San Diego opera lover Neil Morgan, well known for his observations, travels and commentary in the San Diego Union-Tribune, started attending the opera here in the 1950s. Citing the ranking of the San Diego Opera among the nation’s Top Ten, Morgan says “we’re very lucky to have this opera here. Their outreach and educational programs are impressive. And Ian’s informal, pop style is bringing younger people in. He has a presence; his voice is recognizable and when he walks into a room, everyone knows who he is. He’s the one artistic director who’s become a mainstream celebrity. And his role in broadcasting is unprecedented.”

“”At the Opera with Ian Campbell” airs every Sunday night at 7pm on KPBS radio, 89.5FM, December through June.

©2003 Patté Productions Inc.