To Celebrate SF Opera’s Centenary, John Adams Turned To Shakespeare

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Amina Edris and Gerald Finley sing the title roles in a rehearsal for the San Francisco Opera world premiere of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ by John Adams from Shakespeare. (Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera)

SAN FRANCISCO — To celebrate its 100th anniversary, San Francisco Opera will open the 2022-23 season on Sept. 10 with the world premiere of John Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra, his setting of the Shakespeare tragedy. “It was really the first thing we locked in for the centennial season,” said Matthew Shilvock, the company’s general director, recalling a lunch he had with Adams a month before his previous opera, Girls of the Golden West, received its world premiere in San Francisco in 2017.

John Adams and music director Eun Sun Kim during a workshop on ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’ (Kristen Loken)

“I learned that John had been reading all 37 plays by Shakespeare that year as a sort of immersive exercise,” said Shilvock, who has headed SFO since 2016. “After I proposed a new opera for the centennial, he came back a few months later with the idea of Antony and Cleopatra. John was energized by doing a work that blended the intimate and the public in the story of these two characters amidst the interplay of romance and politics and power.”

Adams crafted the libretto from Shakespeare’s text (plus Plutarch, Virgil, and other classical sources) with director Elkhanah Pulitzer and dramaturg Lucia Scheckner. Bass-baritone Gerald Finley, who headlined the world premiere of the composer’s Doctor Atomic at SFO in 2005, and Egyptian soprano Amina Edris (replacing Julia Bullock, who withdrew because of her pregnancy) sing the title roles, with music director Eun Sun Kim conducting. The production, which has seven performances, ranges from ancient Rome and Egypt to 1930s Hollywood, with sets by Mimi Lien, projections by Bill Morrison, and costumes by Constance Hoffman.

“I am feeling quite an extraordinary energy at all levels of the production — the music, the design, the costumes, and the propulsive intensity between the characters,” Shilvock said of rehearsals. “As an audience member, you feel the tension of this passionate, complex love story, which has the epic scale of Aida but at its core is about human vulnerability and fallibility. And the Cleopatra costumes are stunning.”

The War Memorial Opera House is next to Davies Symphony Hall and across the street from City Hall. (Joel Puliatti)

Shilvock spoke about SFO’s centennial in a presentation he made in June to members of the Music Critics Association of North America, which was holding its annual meeting in San Francisco, and a subsequent interview in August. The company, founded with a production of La Bohème in 1923, is the third oldest in the United States, after the Metropolitan Opera, now entering its 137th season, and the Cincinnati Opera, which marked its centenary in 2020.

The upcoming season will be the first in San Francisco with a full lineup of eight mainstage productions at the War Memorial Opera House since 2018-19 before Covid. “This moment is a culmination of our first 100 years, but we also want to honor that it is a beginning of a new chapter for us,” Shilvock said. “We were preparing for the centennial — one of the biggest things this company has ever done — while still in the darkest days of the pandemic when we didn’t even know what we would be allowed to do. Once the vaccines came out and we became more confident we were going to be able to move forward, I began to see the timing of the centennial as a gift. After coming out of a time of silence, and now that we get to do opera on this thrilling level, it feels like a rebirth.”

Matthew Shilvock, SFO general director. (Sasha Arutyunova)

One of the themes of the SFO centenary is honoring Bay Area artists, and the season begins and ends with new works by hometown composers: Adams lives in Berkeley, which is the birthplace of composer Gabriela Lena Frank, whose El último sueño de Frida y Diego (“The Last Dream of Frida and Diego”) will close the season with performances in June. Her opera about artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, with a libretto by Nilo Cruz, is a co-production with the San Diego Opera, where it will have its world premiere Oct. 29. It is the first opera in Spanish, as well as the first by a woman composer, to be on an SFO subscription series.

The season also includes a pair of operas that had their American premieres in San Francisco in the 1950s, Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, with Heidi Stober as Blanche de la Force, and Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, featuring Nina Stemme and Camilla Nylund in the David Hockney production. Verdi’s La Traviata is being given a new staging by Shawna Lucey with Pretty Yende singing her first Violetta in the U.S. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly will be seen in a new production by Amon Miyamoto that tells the story from the perspective of Cio-Cio-San’s son, Trouble. Robert Carsen’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin will receive its SFO premiere.

Shilvock is especially looking forward to Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, to be performed by the company for the first time in 63 years. He sees Matthew Ozawa’s new production of the Baroque work, with countertenor Jakub Józef Orlińksi playing Orfeo, as a timely response to the pandemic. “As it relates the Orpheus myth, the idea of this piece being about one man’s journey through loss and grief and isolation, and how he finds a pathway through that, is at the center of the production,” he said. “To me, this piece is born out of a sense of hope and the need for catharsis, particularly from the pandemic but more generally from everything we have gone through.”

San Francisco Opera gave the American premiere of Poulenc’s ‘Dialogues of the Carmelites’ in 1957, with Blanche Thebom (foreground from left), Dorothy Kirsten, and Leontyne Price. (Robert Lackenbach)

Fairly strict pandemic protocol — proof of vaccinations and masking required of the audience, regular Covid testing backstage of cast and crew — will continue at the 3,000-seat opera house. “While I realize we are remaining maybe more conservative than some organizations, it’s what our patrons are telling us makes them comfortable,” Shilvock said in late August. “It’s a little early to know what ticket sales trends are yet. We know the Covid surge over the summer in San Francisco had a pretty big impact on people’s willingness to do things. Thankfully, that is beginning to ease down, but it’s still very much on mind. We’re seeing strong sales for Antony and Cleopatra. We’re also seeing strong sales for the new production of Traviata at the end of the fall, so it’s encouraging that people are willing to look ahead and make advance purchases.”

SFO has many outreach projects for the centennial season. Its annual free live simulcast from the opera house to Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, will be La Traviata on Nov. 11. Looking through the Lens: The Glory of San Francisco Opera Past and Present is a free exhibition of splendid photography from the company’s archives, in public galleries at the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building next to the opera house. Online, historic broadcasts and recordings, interviews, and other material linked to onstage repertory will be available in free installments of Streaming the First Century. In 2023, Bohème Out of the Box will take Puccini’s classic around the Bay Area to be performed from a shipping container adapted into a stage. For centennial events, go here.