He has Old World manners, exquisite and unaffected politeness, a brilliant mind and a wicked but benign sense of humor.
The slight man with a beret is Donald Pippin. Still going strong at 86, he’s been an idol of Bay Area opera lovers for six eventful decades.
Exactly 60 years ago, Pippin started bringing chamber music and opera to the hungry i and Opus One in North Beach, tickling the ivories at the original Spaghetti Factory.
Then 34 years ago, the gigs evolved into Pocket Opera, which offers one-of-a-kind chamber opera presentations of mostly lesser-known works.
Pippin, who has nurtured 99 works in 316 productions, is the producer, conductor, pianist, director, translator and narrator for each opera. He also deals with all other required aspects of production.
Defying today’s current economically perilous times, he is fully engaged in preparing for his 35th season, opening in March.
Pippin’s self-described “obsession” has resulted in unique productions; his translations are used by opera companies far and wide.
Before he arrived here in 1952, he attended Harvard University and was an accompanist in George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York City.
Pippin also has launched countless singing careers and supported young artists through thick and thin. When soprano Heidi Moss encountered a particularly severe form of Bells palsy, paralyzing her face, Pippin ignored the impairment and gave Moss a leading role with Pocket Opera.
The performance was a great success, and the singer continued her career, overcoming major obstacles.
Moss speaks for many fans: “Donald’s legacy and gifts go well beyond Pocket Opera. It is not the performances, the sparse productions, the orchestra on stage, even performing opera in English that make him unique — it is his genius incarnation as the ultimate storyteller.
“Those who dare not go to the opera, thinking it is for the old and fuddy-duddy snobbery, need to listen to Pippin and his words. This consummate storyteller can convince even the darkest of skeptics.”
Somewhat embarrassed by the accolades, Pippin says, “The past 34 seasons have been quite a trip: the adventure, misadventure and romance of the operas themselves, but also seeing the vast number of singing careers Pocket Opera has launched over the years. For me, it’s been an unexpected joyride — at times perilous, always exhilarating.”
Today, Moss heads a volunteer project to record Pippin’s inimitable introductions to opera performances, which are famous for such wry references as “an exclusive residential area” for the gods’ Olympian heights, and a free but apt translation of Jacques Offenbach’s libretto to “Orpheus in the Underworld”:
“For here on these Olympian heights, there’s never a damn thing to do.
“You folk out there, I have to warn ya: Here it’s worse than Southern California.”
Pippin’s introductory descriptions of a composer stay with the opera fan: “Offenbach was a tiny, frail, odd-looking person who weighed about a hundred pounds and seemed to live entirely on nervous energy. God’s gift to the newspaper caricaturists of his day, he might have been easily mistaken for a bizarre character escaped from one of his own operettas. My favorite description: a cross between a bantam rooster and a grasshopper.”
Where: Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 2 p.m. Sundays; March through July
Tickets: $15 to $39
Contact: (415) 972-8934, www.pocketopera.org