Looking back and forward as SF Opera prepares to celebrate 100 years


Tosca in the brand new War Memorial Opera House in 1932 | Credit: SF Opera Archive

San Francisco Opera will be 100 years old in the rapidly approaching 2022-2023 season.

It was on September 26, 1923 that Gaetano Merola, the founder, directed the the beginnings of the company with Bohemian, starring Queena Mario and Giovanni Martinelli, in the Civic Auditorium. Merola first visited the city in 1906, was a champion of the genre and the company he founded, and then led until his death – while conducting a concert in Stern Grove – in 1953.

Coincidentally, the company was born a month after President Harding died here of a stroke at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco “after his wife read him a flattering article from Saturday evening mail. “

A scene from the SF Opera production in 1927 Turandot | Credit: SF Opera Archive

This first season in a town of 500,000 inhabitants “on the edge of the prairie”, two decades before the transatlantic commercial flights, featured some of the biggest stars of distant Italy: Beniamino Gigli in Andréa Chenier and Mefistofele; Giuseppe De Luca and Giovanni Martinelli in Tosca; Queena Mario and De Luca in Rigoletto.

SF opera performances were heard on the Standard time, a weekly radio show on NBC by the SF Symphony and SF Opera on Sunday nights, for two decades from 1926

The season also offered the Il Trittico, at Gounod Romeo and Juliet, and that of Leoncavallo Pagliacci. And, before these riches, before the creation of the company, between 1851 and the earthquake of 1906, nearly 5,000 opera performances were given in San Francisco in 26 different theaters.

As impressive as a century is, the longevity of opera far exceeds it, starting with the performances of Jacopo Peri Dafne in Florence in 1598. The genre crossed the Atlantic and took root in New Orleans in the 1790s, making an astonishing appearance in the distant 1850s. Kingdom of Hawaii.

When it comes to opera companies established and still active in North America, there is the Metropolitan, founded in 1883 … and then the San Francisco Opera. (The only possible rival for this second place is the Cincinnati Opera House, established in 1920, but its activity is brief festival seasons in summer.)

SF Opera CEO and Dianne Taube Matthew Shilvock refer to 1922 as they started out, as that is when the organization was formed to produce the inaugural season. It pays homage to the past while looking to the future:

The birth of San Francisco Opera is, like the birth of San Francisco itself, something recent enough to feel connected but historic enough to feel the noble weight and tradition of these nascent seasons.

I was aware of these origins very early on when I was here with David Gockley. One of my very first events in 2005 was a gathering of the Il Cenacolo club, founded only a few years after the birth of the Opera, and in this gathering I felt all the extraordinary heritage of the Italian community that had founded the San Francisco Opera House. in 1922. It was just about a year [after our arrival] when we undertook our first simulcast at the Civic Center, I met Joe Bruscia, the son of one of the the 10 Italians who had subscribed to the Opera in 1922, and the very real story of this company came to life.

There is so much we could do in the years to come, but I’m driven into great optimism for what can be, what needs to be, as we seek to build an audience. I am so excited to share this centennial season in mid-January.

It is a moment that asks us to be daring, courageous, new – so many traits that have embodied our great past and that I am committed to defining our second century. It was always going to be an important season, but now it’s even more. A reaffirmation of all the possibilities of opera as a community art form, bringing us together as a community of artists, artisans and audience members, all part of one living moment.

San Francisco has supported this in an incredible way for a century. What an extraordinary moment to honor Merola’s initial guiding vision and honor it by boldly propelling ourselves into the future!

SF Opera is a huge organization today, operating, before the pandemic, with an operating budget of $ 78.5 million, involving hundreds of employees, orchestral musicians, soloists, choir members, technicians, costume designers, makeup artists, security guards and stagehands. The company has assets in excess of a quarter of a billion dollars: at the end of fiscal 2019 it was $ 273 million, with an operating deficit of just $ 650,000.

Then the pandemic struck and the War Memorial became the first opera house in the country to close. During the 532 days between March 7, 2020 and August 21, 2021, when the current season opened, Shilvock had to announce and cancel seasons, schedule activities for spring, summer, fall and winter and abandon them, which is an $ 8 million loss for the summer season alone.

The budget was ultimately revised from $ 78.5 million to $ 44 million – an unprecedented change reflecting a unique situation. New plans and budget adjustments are coming for the centennial season, but no information is available yet.

With the city, SF Symphony and SF Opera went through many great crises, including the Great Depression of 1929 – 1933 (during which construction of the National War Memorial continued and ended), World War II, the War of the Vietnam and its internal unrest, and the Loma Prieta earthquake, which required reconstruction of the opera house.

SF Opera – and the city – had to deal with damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake

When Shilvock and his predecessor, David Gockley, arrived in San Francisco from Houston together in 2006, when they faced serious issues left by the previous administration, their attention was already on the centenary as well.

In 2014, Gockley addressed the prospect and the challenge of the centenary saying that he should celebrate the past and build greatness in his second century. “I will not be there at that time,” he said, after announcing his resignation in 2016, but planned to do the programming – with the artistic direction and the board of directors – “determined to put on course for the company. “

Gockley could not have predicted the disaster of the pandemic, and he boldly predicted the following for 2020:

– Operating budget: $ 92 million
– Subscribers: estimated 80,000
– Ticket sales representing a percentage of the budget: 29%

Already at the time, budgets were increasing in relation to inflation rates, ticket sales fell slightly, contributions remained remarkably stable (annual support increasing from $ 3.7 million in 1980 to $ 40 million planned for 2015 ), and Gockley said decisive action was needed to cut an estimated budget of $ 106 million.

San Francisco Opera Music Director Eun Sun Kim with SF Opera General Manager Matthew Shilvock in front of the War Memorial Opera House | Credit: Marc Olivier Le Blanc / SF Opéra

“There are structural issues that we face as a business and some of the systemic issues that the industry as a whole faces,” said Gockley, “the slowly declining role of subscriptions, the difficulty in balancing budgets, the lack of bankable stars, the marginalization of the classical arts in education and mass media, the plethora of competing forms and opportunities of entertainment that vie for the time and attention of those who could go to the opera.

It was seven years ago. What is SF Opera facing today? As usual, published notices are only available 18 to 24 months ago. most recent information is for fiscal year 2020, which shows:

Total assets of $ 288 million, total liabilities of $ 18.6 million, total expenditure (“the budget”) of $ 78.5 million, with several pandemic contributions, including a loan from the protection program salaries of $ 8.9 million (for 2 years, with an interest rate of 1%). The SF Opera endowment at the end of fiscal 2020 was $ 244.7 million, almost all “limit. “

Shilvock entered the current 99th season with just five operas, calling it a “transitional year, temporarily offering a reduction in the number of operas and performances to ensure a safe return to the stage.”

The rehearsals and performances of the three autumn productions were scheduled successively (“scene“) rather than overlapping (” repertoire “) as in a typical season. This arrangement, along with other protocols, allowed for maximum flexibility as the company and the public navigated through this early period of emergence. the end of the pandemic.

The summer of 2022 is promised to bring the return of repertoire programming (several operas presented each week), and in 2022-2023, the company will celebrate its centenary with a full repertoire season.

Employment contract reached during the pandemic until the end of the centenary and remains in effect, retroactively, from August 1, 2020 to July 31, 2023. But some of their provisions may need to be adjusted anyway to avoid further friction with the orchestra and the choir.

Model for Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Will he return in the coming season?

The season will be announced in January, so for now it’s just speculation – the favorite pastime of opera fans. There is a good chance that two existing SF Opera co-commissions will be produced:

SF Opera Music Director Eun Sun Kim spoke of her interest in directing Verdi and Wagner, two composers always at the forefront of standard repertoire sessions. The critic’s hope is to avoid the more frequently produced workhorses of Verdi and Puccini, as always.


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