Friday, August 6, 2021

Donald Pippin (1925-2021)

Donald Pippin's contributions to San Francisco's musical life are so great that they deserve a stand-alone blog.  In addition to being a consummate musician, he was also an author and impresario.  After Pippin's passing away on July 7, 2021, Janos Gereben wrote a fine tribute and short biography of Pippin for the San Francisco Classical Voice.  Joshua Kosman's appreciative memorial in the San Francisco Chronicle includes photographs from across Pippin's career.

Donald Pippin's most notable creation was The Pocket Opera -- a musical theater company presenting operatic performances stripped to their essentials using libretti translated by Pippin into English. Opera is usually an opulent and very expensive spectacle. In 1987 he opined, "I think that the grandeur has been overemphasized at the expense of the human element." Pippin sought to bring the widest possible range of opera down to earth, available to everyone.  

Pippen: "I'm interested in what I'm doing, I love opera. I love music. I love words." (source: photo by Rob Cardin, Image March 29, 1987. Musicians and Performing Artists File)

The San Francisco Public Library has many of Donald Pippin's translated libretti in our collection. Many of his libretti have also been archived by Stanford University and are available online. A Pocketful of Wry is a delightful oral history where Pippin recounts his various musical adventures is also available online through the Online Archive of California.

Donald Pippin's musical activities were documented frequently in San Francisco newspapers. A search of the San Francisco Chronicle Current and Historical database produces 2,648 results and search of the San Francisco Examiner Historical databases produces another 1,820 results.  A large number of these are concert announcements.

One of the earliest mentions of Donald Pippin in the Chronicle is the story of how the legendary Arthur Fiedler (conductor of the Boston Pops and the San Francisco Symphony Pops summer concerts) discovered Pippin at the famed hungry i nightclub. The critic describes Pippin emerging from the milieu of a murky basement bar "which caters to many different kinds of bohemians and also to many different kinds of tourists who are anxious to seem how many different kinds of bohemians there are."

source: San Francisco Chronicle August 10, 1953

He played at the club five nights a week, constantly working up more and more classical repertoire. In his oral history he described the San Francisco Symphony Pops concert sneaking up on him, still unprepared.
The performance was set for early August, and here it was the middle of June and I had not even started learning the Rhapsody. Now, this is insane. Looking back, I can still get cold shudders. This is the recurrent nightmare of any performer: you're unprepared but you've still got a week to get ready, then a single day, then you're on the way to the auditorium, and you've still not had time to look at the music.

He added - and this underlies the daring behind all of his creative endeavors: 

Listen, there's nothing like ignorance. Ignorance is invaluable, irreplaceable. Yes, I was just stupid and ignorant enough to think I could. And so I did. 
Pippin is rightfully acclaimed for creating the Pocket Opera, but there may be no impresario who presented a wider range and repertoire of chamber music in San Francisco than him.  At the outset he was supported by his employer at the hungry i -- Enrico Banducci, a classical music lover himself.  Pippin remembered that he "always tried for quiet attentive audiences. Enrico Banducci was very helpful and used to rap knuckles when his patrons became too noisy."

His performance series started with him as a soloist, but he gradually added vocalists and instrumentalists that he accompanied. He moved through a number of North Beach venues after the hungry i -- the Purple Onion, Opus One, The New Broadway Theater, and for his longest run, The Old Spaghetti.  Pippin described the scene of that time:
At that time, nightlife was ebullient, and North Beach was the center of it. There were many places of interest, and people tended to make a night of it, hopping from one barroom to another--from the hungry i to The Purple Onion, from Vesuvio's to The Black Cat. Conversation flourished and interest in classical music was rampant. It was this lively carnival atmosphere of people out exploring that spilled over into our new venture.
Donald Pippin Presents Sunday Night Concerts (December 1971) - source: Musicians and Performing Artists File

The Pocket Opera group out of the chamber music of his Sunday Night Concerts at The Old Spaghetti Factory. A December 1971 performance that featured a piano four hands Sonata by Mozart also included a rendition of the one act opera The Marriage Broker (Женитьба / Zhenit'ba) by Modest Moussorgsky.  

These Sunday Night Concerts introduced a wide and eclectic range of chamber, vocal and operatic music.  The performances ranged from Medieval and Renaissance music (with period instruments), through the classics, to newly premiered compositions with composer in attendance.  James Cleghorn, the head of the Music Department and later the Art and Music Department of the San Francisco Public Library in the 1950s and 1960s, had a few compositions debut on a Saturday Night Concert at the Old Spaghetti Factory.

For those interested in further exploring the mark that Donald Pippin made upon San Francisco musical life we have files on Pippin himself, The Pocket Opera and The Old Spaghetti Factory. Ask at the Art, Music and Recreation Center reference desk.


"Diva Talks To Donald Pippin," Diva: A Publication For Bay Area Operaphiles vol. 3, no. 8 (August 1975). [Art, Music and Recreation Center Musicians and Performing Artists Vertical File].

Hagan, R.H., "Fiedler Finds A Pianist In North Beach," San Francisco Chronicle (August 12, 1953).

Gereben, Janos, "RIP Donald Pippin: Pocket Opera Mourns The Death of Its Founder," San Francisco Classical Voice (July 12, 2021).

Kosman, Joshua, "Donald Pippin, Witty Populist on Behalf of Opera Dies at 95," San Francisco Chronicle (July 9, 2021).

Pippin, Donald. European Operetta in English, Volume 2 (Pocket Opera Press, 2017).

Pippin, Donald. French Opera in English, Volume 1 (Pocket Opera Press, 2017).

Pippin, Donald. Opera in English [4 volumes] (Pocket Opera Press, 2007-2008).

Pippin, Donald. A Pocketful of Wry: An Impresario's Life in San Francisco and the History of the Pocket Opera, 1950s-2001, interviews conducted by Caroline C. Crawford (Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, 2001).

Pippin, Donald. A Pocketful of Wry: An Oral History of Donald Pippin and Pocket Opera, based on tell-all interviews with Caroline Crawford (Pocket Opera, 2001?).

Reynolds, Richard, "Pocket of Talent: Donald Pippin Presents Grand Opera on a Small Scale," Image (March 29, 1987), 9-10. [Art, Music and Recreation Center Musicians and Performing Artists Vertical File].