New Endowed Professorship Promotes Opera
Composer Pablo Ortiz has been named the first Jan and Beta Popper Professor in Opera at the University of California, Davis, an honor that will enable him to write more opera and expand public access to singing theater.
The endowed professorship is a gift to UC Davis from the estate of mezzo-soprano Elizabeth "Beta" Popper in memory of her husband, Jan Popper.
The Czechoslovakia-born Popper was opera conductor at Prague's German Opera House before emigrating in 1939 to the United States. He was a longtime professor and chair of music at UCLA, led an opera workshop at Stanford University, helped produce a PBS series, "Spotlight on Opera," and served intermittently as a visiting professor at UC Davis. He died in 1987.
Beta Popper, who performed for the San Francisco Opera early in her career, was active in the UC Davis Department of Music and Davis Costume Guild. Following her husband's death, she donated his books and music library to UC Davis.
The endowed professorship was established with a $500,000 bequest from her estate following her death in 2008.
"The Poppers were both musicians and opera devotees. I feel that they are right beside me, in a sense," Ortiz said. "With this chair, I hope to continue their legacy."
Ortiz's latest opera project is scheduled to be performed next spring by the UC Davis Empyrean Ensemble. The first half of the program will feature Monteverdi's opera "Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda."
The second half will feature a short opera composed by Ortiz, "Parodia." Ortiz's work uses instrumentation similar to Monteverdi's but in a contemporary setting of the original Italian text by poet Torquato Tasso.
Ortiz emphasized that support such as the Poppers' is essential to be able to program operas at the university. "Opera is tremendously expensive," he said. "You can't even think about producing opera without this kind of philanthropic support."
Popper was known for promoting opera wherever he went. He advocated throughout his life for better funding of opera and warned that many American opera singers were defecting to Europe, where opera is subsidized.
Music critic Martin Bernheimer, commenting in the Los Angeles Times after Popper's death, lauded him for discovering and nurturing "worthy young talent" and exploring "a challenging, often esoteric, repertory."
"In a time when Los Angeles was an operatic wasteland, Jan Popper kept the flame alive...," Bernheimer said.
Ortiz is committed to carrying that flame. "I will do my best to provide opportunities for live performances of small-scale operatic works. And for that purpose, the funds from the Popper chair wil be invaluable," he said.
Ortiz said the new trend of showing opera in movie theaters, where one may wear casual clothes and munch on popcorn, is great for exposing more people to opera. But something is lost when the performance is not live.
"When you're watching an opera live, anything can happen," he said. "An opera live is like someone walking the tightrope; it is very different when you are actually there."
Born and raised in Argentina, Ortiz joined UC Davis in 1994. He is a 2008 recipient of the Academy Award in Music, bestowed by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among many other honors, he is a recipient of a Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Ortiz has won composing commissions from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in New York, the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, the San Francisco-based Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, Centro Experimental Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, and Fideicomiso para la Cultura Mexico-Estados Unidos.
His compositions have been performed by the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, the Arditti Quartet of Berlin, Ensemble Contrechamps of Geneva, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and the San Francisco-based Chanticleer, among others.
His music has also been heard at festivals in Salzburg, Austria; Strasbourg, France; Frankfurt, Germany; Geneva and Zurich, Switzerland; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Havana, Cuba; and Mexico City, Mexico. He also has written music for plays and composed children's songs based on poems by the award-winning poet Francisco Alarcon, a lecturer in Spanish and classics at UC Davis.
In addition to scoring many Argentine movies, Ortiz in 2009 composed an accompaniment to the 1910 silent film version of "Ramona."
Christopher Reynolds, chair of the UC Davis Department of Music, characterized Ortiz as an ideal recipient of the new opera professorship. "Beta and Jan Popper, individually and as a couple, spent their lives championing opera," Reynolds said. "I can't think of a more appropriate way to honor them than to have their endowed professorship go to such an accomplished composer as Pablo Ortiz, who has written some extraordinarily beautiful works for singers.
Jessie Ann Owens, professor of musicology and dean of the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies at UC Davis, added: "I can see the magic created by donors who want to create excellence in an area they are passionate about, and by faculty who in turn are inspired and challenged by the endowment. As a community, we are all enriched by the Poppers' passion and Pablo's creativity."
Endowed professorships are funded by gifts that are invested as endowments to ensure ongoing scholarly and research support for successive endowed professorship holders through many generations.
The professorships help UC Davis to attract and retain the best scholars and teachers from throughout the world.
The Popper's gift to create the endowment is counted as part of The Campaign for UC Davis, a university-wide initiative launched in 2006 to inspire 100,000 donors to contribute $1 billion in support of the university's mission and vision.