Its Budget And Season Reduced, SF Opera Is Ready To Sing Again

Rendering for a new San Francisco Opera production of ‘Fidelio’ set for premiere in October. (Photo by Alexander V. Nichols)

SAN FRANCISCO — If you owned and operated a small ice cream parlor in San Francisco, the past 15 months would have driven you to near bankruptcy and despair. While you avoided the virus and tried to survive, state and city pandemic regulations — changing from day to day — made you open and close, strictly regulated your business outdoors and indoors, shut you down for months, forced you to pay rent despite no income, and left you to buy ingredients and watch them spoil.

Now consider the plight of Matthew Shilvock, San Francisco Opera’s general director.

San Francisco Opera general director Matthew Shilvock

Shilvock’s ice cream parlor consists of an organization running on a once $78.5 million operating budget (now shrunk to $55 million) and involving hundreds of employees, musicians, chorus members, and multi-million dollar productions.

In the 532 days between March 7, 2020, when the War Memorial became the first opera house in the nation to be shut down by the pandemic, and Aug. 21, 2021, when the 2021-22 season opens, Shilvock has had to announce seasons and cancel them, plan for spring, summer, fall, and winter activities — and abandon them, accounting for an $8 million loss for the summer season alone. No figure is yet available for the entire year.

On June 22, Shilvock ended the long waiting game and announced SF Opera’s 2021-22 season:

“Opera gives us opportunities to gather and share in deep, collective, emotional expression. I have never felt more urgently the need for us to gather in this way. We need to be together again, and, on Aug. 21, we will raise the curtain and do just that.

“But we are not returning unchanged. We emerge with a new music director in Eun Sun Kim. We emerge informed by the bold experiments of the last year, carrying them forward with our new live-streaming program. And we emerge with an even deeper understanding of the power of opera to connect us after the long winter of its absence.”

Kim was named the company’s music director in December 2019, but her debut in that capacity was one of the pandemic’s casualties. She is only the fourth music director in the company’s 99-year history, after John Pritchard, Donald Runnicles, and Nicola Luisotti. Having kept working remotely with the Adler Fellows, she says she is “so proud of the way the entire San Francisco Opera family has worked to remain resilient during this time. We’ve created new ways to make music together and encouraged each other in strength.”

San Francisco Opera music director Eun Sun Kim (Photo by Marc Olivier LeBlanc)

Adds Shilvock: “All of our productions this season will be new, or recently new to our stage, in a testament to the local artisans who built them and to the local community which has supported this company so magnificently during this year.” (The “recently new” productions are Puccini’s Tosca and Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang’s Dream of the Red Chamber.)

Five operas add up to about half of the company’s usual offerings, and Shilvock calls the coming season a “transitional year, temporarily offering a reduction in the number of operas and performances to ensure a safe return to the stage.”

Rehearsals and performances for the three fall productions are scheduled in succession rather than overlapping as in a typical repertory season, the director said. This provision, along with other protocols, allows maximum flexibility as the company and audiences navigate this early period of emergence from the pandemic shutdown.

The summer of 2022 will bring the return of repertory presentations (multiple operas presented each week), and in 2022-23 the company will celebrate its centennial with a full repertory season.

San Francisco Opera’s new production of ‘Cosi fan tutte’ will be set at a 1930s country club.

This is the plan for the coming San Francisco Opera season:

Aug. 21, 27, 29, Sept. 3, 5 — Puccini’s Tosca, with Kim, conductor; Shawna Lucey, stage director; Robert Innes Hopkins, production designer; cast includes Ailyn Pérez, Michael Fabiano, and Alfred Walker

Sept. 10 — “Live and in Concert: The Homecoming” in the War Memorial and a free live simulcast to Oracle Park, conducted by Kim, featuring Rachel Willis-Sørensen and Jamie Barton

Oct. 14, 17, 20, 22, 26, 30 — Beethoven’s Fidelio (new production), with Kim, conductor; Matthew Ozawa, stage director; Alexander V. Nichols, production designer; cast includes Elza van den HeeverRussell Thomas, Greer Grimsley, James Creswell, Soloman HowardAnne-Marie MacIntosh, Christopher Oglesby

Nov. 21, 23, 27, Dec. 1, 3 — Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte (new production), with Henrik Nánási, conductor; Michael Cavanagh, stage director; Erhard Rom, production designer; cast includes Nicole Cabell, Irene Roberts, Ben Bliss, John Brancy, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Nicole Heaston

Dec. 10 – “The Future is Now” Adler Fellows Concert (in Herbst Theater)

Repertory productions beginning in June 2022:

June 4, 10, 12, 15, 18, 21, 26. July 2 — Mozart’s Don Giovanni (new production), with Bertrand de Billy, conductor; Michael Cavanagh, stage director; Erhard Rom, production designer; cast includes Etienne Dupuis, Adela Zaharia, Carmen Giannattasio, Amitai Pati, Luca Pisaroni, Christina Gansch, Soloman Howard

June 14, 17, 19, 23, 25, July 1, 3 — Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber, with Darrell Ang, conductor; Stan Lai, stage director; Tim Yip, production designer; cast includes Meigui Zhang, Yijie Shi, Hyona Kim, Karen Chia-ling Ho, Hongni Wu, Sabina Kim, Guang Yang

June 30 – Verdi Concert, with Kim conductor, featuring Nicole CarArturo Chaóon-Cruz, Soloman Howard

Tosca, first up in August, signifies beginnings for San Francisco: It served as part of Gaetano Merola’s SFO’s initial opera season in 1923 (with Bianca Soraya,  Giovanni Martinelli, Giuseppe De Luca); the opening of the War Memorial Opera House in 1932 (Claudia Muzio, Dino Borgioli, Alfredo Gandolfi); and the reopening of the War Memorial in 1997, eight years after the 1989 earthquake and subsequent reconstruction (Carol Vaness, Richard Margison, James Morris).

Fidelio is Matthew Ozawa’s new production, which updates the setting from an 18th-century prison to a modern government detainment center. Originally scheduled for opening weekend of the 2020-21 season, the opera’s set was constructed during the shutdown and then reconfigured for a production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville that Ozawa directed at the Marin Center drive-in.

Cosi fan tutte and Don Giovanni are part of Shilvock’s long-range Mozart-Da Ponte Trilogy project, launched in 2019 with The Marriage of Figaro. All three operas are directed by Michael Cavanagh, designed by Erhard Rom (sets) and Constance Hoffman (costumes), with the concept spanning 300 years. The great mansion of Figaro is converted into a country club in the 1930s for Cosi and falls into ruins in a dystopic future for Don Giovanni.

Dream of the Red Chamber had its world premiere in the War Memorial in 2016. (It tells a story from the great 18th-century Chinese novel, described at the time of the premiere as “a love triangle between a young nobleman and two very different women: one his spiritual soulmate, the other a beautiful heiress.”) Having toured in China and Hong Kong, some of the original cast are returning to San Francisco, joined by 2018 Merola Opera Program alumna Meigui Zhang in the role of Dai Yu, along with Hongni Wu, Sabina Kim, and Guang Yang.

As Shilvock is looking to the near-future of the centennial season, here’s the loss list from last year: For the time being, all of the planned 2020 Summer Season is gone — Verdi’s Ernani, Handel’s Partenope, and the Bay Area premiere of Mason Bates’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.

From the 2020 Fall Season, planned painfully and with restraint in the middle of the pandemic, only Fidelio and Cosi fan tutte are retained, leaving for the future the realization of Poul Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale, along with the frequently repeated Rigoletto and La bohème.

While San Francisco Symphony, in Davies Hall across the street from the War Memorial, is ending all pandemic regulations, SF Opera’s announcement calls for full observation of all pandemic protocols, at least through the Tosca run to Sept. 5:

“Upon entry, patrons will be required to show proof of full vaccination (defined as two weeks after final shot) or a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of performance or antigen test taken within 1 day of performance (paper or electronic/photo documentation), along with a photo ID. All patrons, including those who have received a COVID-19 vaccine, will be required to wear a face mask while attending performances.”

The War Memorial is welcoming audiences back with all 3,126 seats originally installed in 1932 replaced in a multi-million dollar project, but seating for Tosca will be with buffer seats, keeping one seat free between parties, the house capacity being reduced significantly. You can check for updates here: