Jack London Opera in Sonoma

Every Man Jack is not your everyday opera. Inspired by author Jack London’s own memoirs, the work is a newly minted musical survey of the man behind the legend, behind in the books, written in the house that Jack built. Debuting in association with the Green Music Festival this coming November, the Sonoma City Opera production promises to be an entertaining and evocative look at Sonoma Valley’s most famous author.

Last Thursday, a sneak preview and fundraiser for the production was hosted at the palatial Lovall Valley home of Carol and Kurt Krauthamer, just over the eastern cusp of the Sonoma and Napa County lines. There internationally recognized baritone Rod Gilfry and critically-lauded mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane belted Grammy Award-winning composer Libby Larsen’s tunes in the foyer accompanied by piano. The crowd was rapt with the performances, which soared through a distinctly modern tonal palette, as they dined on catered creations by Elaine Bell and sipped wines from Kenwood Vineyards.

After the showcase, I chanced a chat with the production’s star, Rod Gilfry, while sipping a red from Kenwood’s Jack London Series near the pool.

“It’s always a bit of a crap shoot. You never know,” confesses an affable Gilfry of his fifth world premiere, when asked about the creative process. “Sometimes things you think that are going to be a slam dunk fall flat and things that you think won’t amount to much turn out to be a great piece. It has to be proven by performance and public reaction. Composers don’t want to think that they have to compose for the lowest common denominator, but without public acceptance, it’s not going to happen.”

Gilfry, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a younger and certainly taller Michael York, is up for playing the dipsomaniacal and occasionally volatile London, a character type that has become something of his forte in recent years.

“I’ve done quite a few roles in that vein, it’s a challenge because I don’t think of myself as that kind of a guy, but it’s a delight to develop something like that,” Gilfry explained, then added that creating the role for an audience this well-versed in the author’s local legend, as Sonomans certainly are, has its own challenges.

“I created the role of ‘Stanley Kowalski’ in the operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire a few years ago in San Francisco. That’s another American icon, but he’s fictitious. This is a greater challenge because Jack London was a real guy, he lived right over the hill here, there are lots of photographs and he wrote all about his adventures so he’s very well known,” Gilfry said.

To wit, the opera singer has developed a fairly ingenious way to reach the kernel of his character’s identity.

“I think what I’ll do, which I did with Stanley Kowalski, is a sort of personality type survey, called an ‘enneagram,’ which is a very accurate categorization of personality and behavior an predictor of it as well.”

The Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator (or RHETI as it is known in the psychoanalytic trade) is, as its official website purports, a “scientifically validated” personality test, the results of which suggest nine different personality types: reformer, helper, achiever, individualist, investigator, loyalist, enthusiast, challenger and peacemaker. Given even shallow knowledge of London, however, it seems that the author and adventurer whose works are rife with realism and humanitarian sentiment would likely be all of the above. The fact that a lifetime of hard drinking and difficult relationships culminated in an early death only serves to complicate matters.

Gilfry, however, is sanguine.

“I’ll probably go to a Jack London scholar and have them take one as if they were Jack London. It’s a very ‘method’ way of going about it, but to see the similarities and differences between my own personality and Jack London’s and compare them. It’s very helpful,” he said. “That’s right in line with my goals for this piece, which is to do a complete representation of who Jack London was. It’s a little tricky because he’s not represented in a romantic American hero light in this piece. The focus is on his weaknesses which makes him all the more human and much more somebody I can identify with, instead of this iconic American hero. We start to see who he really was.”

Apart from seeing Jack London for who he really was, Every Man Jack might also help us hear who London really was. To wit, talents like Gilfry’s literally give voice to man, who, among other accomplishments penned more than 50 books, worked as a war correspondent, but perhaps is best known for his masterpiece The Call of the Wild. More to the point, London adds a certain literary burnish to living in the Sonoma Valley – perhaps the Sonoma City Opera will do the same with music.