On September 26, 1923, an Italian immigrant named Gaetano Merola raised the curtain on San Francisco’s first opera performance. The staging of La Bohème featured soprano Queena Mario and tenor Giovanni Martinelli, and kicked off a whirlwind season of 10 operas presented over the following 13 days. Although the War Memorial Opera House didn’t exist yet — performances were held at the Civic Auditorium (now known as Bill Graham) — the shows were a roaring success, and San Francisco Opera, the City’s first opera company, was an instant sensation.
Today, nearly 100 years later, SF Opera is internationally renowned for its groundbreaking new works by top composers, debuts of operatic icons and educational programs reaching generations of young artists. But it’s not content to rest on its laurels. The company is heading into its second century with a vision for the future that builds on the community’s enduring support, while undertaking initiatives, internally and externally, to make opera more welcoming.
“It is both thrilling and humbling to be entering into this new century of the opera,” says SF Opera’s general director, Matthew Shilvock. “Humbling because this is a moment where we acknowledge the impact that so many have made before us. And thrilling because of all that lies ahead of us. There is so much new in the centennial season — new operas, new productions, new voices and new ways for people to enjoy opera.”
First up is the 75th annual Opera Ball (last held in 2019), which cochair and SF Opera board member Jack Calhoun describes as “one of the grandest and glorious evenings of the year in San Francisco.” The September 9 gala combines dinner and dancing at City Hall with an exceptional performance at the War Memorial Opera House in between. Instead of a full-length three-hour opera (which is what the galas consisted of before the pandemic), Shilvock has put together a 90-minute show highlighting the talents of baritone Lucas Meachem, tenors Pene Pati and Michael Fabiano, and soprano Nadine Sierra.
The following day, music director Eun Sun Kim leads a world premiere of Antony and Cleopatra, running through October 5. The sumptuous, highly anticipated new opera by composer John Adams (not the Samuel Barber version) was commissioned to inaugurate the 100th season. The opening weekend closes with Opera in the Park, the annual free concert in Golden Gate Park, on September 11. (The next extravaganza, Evening on the Stage, takes place on November 29 and is cochaired by Lisa Zabelle and Afie Royo.)
The centennial season continues with seven more full-length, main-stage operas, including another world premiere and three brand-new productions of reimagined works, featuring new staging, costumes, lighting and scenery. According to Calhoun, 2022–23 will be “new and fresh for our core audience.”
Calhoun wants locals to take pride in their opera company the same way they might the Golden State Warriors or San Francisco Giants, with fans representing myriad walks of life. “The [SF Opera] team has stepped forward to think about what the opera looks like in a new world,” Calhoun says. “We will evolve to meet the needs of our core audience and the needs of a new audience because we have to have both of those to remain relevant and interesting.”
Hence, reaching more people is at the top of its to-do list. “The centennial celebration is about forming a larger sense of community and inclusivity,” notes Maryam Muduroglu, president of the San Francisco Opera Guild, an organization of volunteers, and Calhoun’s cochair for Opera Ball: The Centennial Celebration. Echoing his sentiments, she adds that “we’re trying to figure out ways to attract a wider base of audiences, so that’s part of the thought process around these celebratory events.”
Muduroglu points to a slew of initiatives designed to draw a younger and more diverse demographic. On November 19, The Traviata Encounter will entail a one-act performance followed by a rollicking after-party. A community Open House on October 23 aims to provide families a behind-the-scenes look at the War Memorial Opera House, which turns 90 this year. In 2023, Bohème Out of the Box, an abridged version of Puccini’s classic, is slated to be performed from a converted shipping container at locations throughout the Bay Area. Opera at the Ballpark, which has been streaming its free simulcasts since 2007, continues at Oracle Park with its showing of La Traviata on November 11. (The opera’s first simulcast was back in 1932, when opening weekend at the new War Memorial Opera House was so popular that the second night’s showing of Lucia di Lammermoor, starring Lily Pons, was relayed on speakers to 20,000 San Franciscans in the Civic Auditorium and Civic Center Plaza.)
For music lovers who can’t make it to 301 Van Ness Street, there’s Streaming the First Century. The digital series consists of four installments of historic radio broadcasts, archival interviews, house recordings and new conversations that will be available to stream for free at different times throughout the season.
Bravo! Club, SF Opera’s young adult membership program, offers $60 orchestra and $50 dress circle seats for select shows of every production. For the 2022–23 season, the club is throwing a new series of exclusive preperformance parties on Friday nights. This special package starts at $180 for four operas.
The most unique approach to making SF Opera more accessible may be its new program that offers deeply discounted tickets. Thanks to a substantial donation by the Dolby family, 100 tickets for every main-stage performance will be available for $10. “We don’t want price to be a barrier,” Calhoun elaborates. “We want to get San Francisco Opera and the quality and the creativity of what we do in front of people. If you live in a Bay Area zip code and haven’t come to the opera in the past two years, you can buy two $10 tickets. And these are not the bad tickets in the house. These are some of the best tickets in the house.”
And for those concerned with that age-old dilemma of what to wear, fret not. These days, sneakers and stilettos alike are embraced as opera attire. SF Opera does not have a dress code and invites showgoers to prioritize comfort. “One does not need to dress up to attend an opera performance,” Muduroglu says. “They can dress as they choose.”
SF Opera is rethinking the notion of inclusion within the institution itself, too. Earlier this year, Opera America released a study that found that 77 percent of administrative staff at U.S. and Canadian opera companies are white. So another way that the opera is moving into a new century is through its two-year-old department of diversity, equity and community (DEC). Upon its establishment, Dr. Charles Chip Mc Neal, a noted civic leader and eight-year veteran of SF Opera, was appointed its director.
“An arts organization like San Francisco Opera needs a DEC department as the equity leader, as it is about preparing an organization for the future,” Mc Neal says. “It is about making sure that you are relevant in a globalized, multicultural world. Because of our efforts in education, working in schools of need with diverse populations, we are building capacity for the artists, the patrons and the donors of the future. At the same time, we are developing the sincere cultural intelligence it takes to understand what it means to present opera from diverse cultural perspectives.”
Mc Neal and his team crafted a 14-part training module that covers topics such as white supremacy and privilege, allyship, and the history of race and radicalization in the U.S. “We have made incredible strides at creating an atmosphere of belonging where people from underrepresented communities feel seen and feel heard at San Francisco Opera,” Mc Neal explains. “Leadership and all the staff really have developed an awareness and a sensitivity to engaging with and welcoming not only diverse employees but diverse audiences.”
Since some classic operas present antiquated points of view, the department also openly acknowledges their problematic aspects. “Ongoing conversations about Porgy & Bess, Showboat, Madame Butterfly and other ‘culturally embedded’ operas are important in multiple contexts, as these productions were developed in a bygone era when stories were told from a mainly Eurocentric perspective,” Mc Neal says. Instead of canceling these shows, SF Opera hopes to create a conversation. “We acknowledge the exoticism and culturally skewed perspectives inherent in these works,” he adds, “and we will continue to grapple with these problematic themes by facilitating critical discussions and insightful programs that deepen awareness and sensitivity of art as a vehicle for cross-cultural understanding, social progress and change.”
Maintaining as well as moving a cultural powerhouse forward is not an inexpensive endeavor. As opera combines elements of theater, dance and symphony, productions can be quite complex and costly. SF Opera’s chief philanthropy officer, Lisa Bury, explains that “75 percent of our operating costs are covered by contributed revenue. The more money we raise, the stronger our excellence and innovation will be — now and in the next 100 years.” She emphasizes that there is strength in numbers, and a donation of $10 is appreciated as much as one of $10 million. “The collective of all of our donors — regardless of gift size — is our focus.”
“The fact that San Francisco Opera Association raises over $30 million yearly from donors mostly here in the Bay Area is incomparable,” Calhoun says. The funds, primarily raised by the 84-year-old SF Opera Guild, are used to create new works and, more importantly, educate the local public about the benefits of opera.
“The Bay Area is fortunate to have one of our country’s great opera companies, built over a century by a passionate and dedicated community,” says Keith Geeslin, president of the San Francisco Opera Association. “Without that community support, San Francisco Opera wouldn’t be the world-class performing arts organization it is today.”
The core group of patrons generously supporting the art form is crucial to SF Opera’s longevity. “I’ve been at San Francisco Opera for 17 years now, and I have always admired that this is a community that cares,” says Shilvock. “It’s a community that cares about the well-being of artists, that cares about increasing access to opera, that cares about why opera matters. I’ve seen that time and time again, whether in the personal connection of a donor or a newcomer attending a ballpark simulcast. There is a great pride in the company and a deep care for its future.”
Perhaps no one can put it better than the City’s fairy godmother, philanthropist and arts patron Diane Wilsey. “It is so important for us to maintain the cultural heritage of San Francisco, and the opera has kept evolving with each decade,” she says. “I am happy to support the SF Opera because I believe it is a necessary institution in a city like San Francisco, where culture is so important. It has a long-standing tradition of excellence that everyone in our city can be proud of.”