No one can predict, when a new opera season is announced, just where and how the many moving parts of this most complex art form will come together in the most gratifying and exhilarating ways. You know it when it happens, on those nights when music and singer, text and spectacle, orchestra and movement dissolve into an elixir of pure delight. With such peak performances in mind, looking ahead is an irresistible act of crystal-ball gazing.
For handicappers of the 2019-20 San Francisco Opera season, unveiled Tuesday, Jan. 22 by General Director Matthew Shilvock, it’s hard not to focus on Mozart and Mason Bates as particularly noteworthy and enticing possibilities.
In an ambitious three-year undertaking that unites Mozart’s great collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte in an embracing scenic and ideological concept, the company will initiate the project with a new production of The Marriage of Figaro in October. Director Michael Cavanagh will stage the work in a grand 18th-century American manor house. That same structure, much transformed over time, is the setting for the following season’s 1930s era Così fan tutte, and a 2080s, post-apocalyptic Don Giovanni in the season after that.
A different, distinctly Bay Area slice of America comes to life in June of 2020, when Bates’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs makes its hotly anticipated local premiere. This musical exploration of the late, legendary Silicon Valley pioneer who made Apple products arguably more familiar than their namesake fruit, was co-commissioned by San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera (site of the work’s 2017 premiere), and Seattle Opera, with support from two other organizations. The composer, who writes in a hybrid electronic language that borrows from the DJ world he favors, will be a player in the orchestral ensemble. Mark Campbell wrote the libretto.
“We have a responsibility to the Bay Area to tell stories that mean something to the people around us,” said Shilvock. Rather than taking a biographical approach to Jobs, he added, “the opera immerses you in the energy and complexity that defines this part of the world. It has both a specific and archetypal resonance.”
There’s much more in this two-part, fall-and-summer season of eight productions, with both company and role debuts and returning favorites studding a calendar that includes new-to-San Francisco productions of Benjamin Britten’s fateful Billy Budd, Gounod’s lush Romeo and Juliet, Verdi’s arresting Ernani, and Engelbert Humperdinck’s ebulliently cautionary Hansel and Gretel. Revivals of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Handel’s Partenope fill out the bill.
“The season is about intensity of emotion and the universality of human connection,” said Shilvock. “It’s there from the deep romantic love of Romeo and Juliet to the fraternal love in Billy Budd to the familial love in Hansel and Gretel.” The latter is timed to play in the family-friendly holiday season.
The general director was keen to discuss the genesis of the Mozart trilogy, which was co-conceived with S.F. Opera veteran director Cavanagh (Susannah, Nixon in China). Determined to refresh the company’s Mozart productions that had outlived their time, Shilvock discovered that Cavanagh had his single house idea in mind for a trilogy.
“The idea of a large but still intimate domestic space for these three operas to take place felt so right,” said Shilvock. The French political and social fervor of the time that underlies Figaro, he went on, resonates with the birth of American society in the 18th century. The epilogue of Don Giovanni is more than two seasons off, but Shilvock was already anticipating that opera’s epilogue as a moment when “the last vestiges of a crumbling order find a place to be reborn.”
Right from the start, with tenor Bryan Hymel (Les Troyens) and soprano Nadine Sierra (Lucia di Lammermoor) returning to the War Memorial Opera House in their Romeo and Juliet title role debuts on the Sept. 6 opening night, new vocal ground will be broken. Baritone and Merola Opera Program alum John Chest makes his company debut in the title role of Billy Budd, in a Michael Grandage staging that earned transatlantic raves at the Glyndebourne Festival and Brooklyn Academy of Music. A host of other singers are making role debuts in the Britten work, while the redoubtable tenor William Burden (It’s a Wonderful Life) portrays Captain Vere.
The dynamic Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian and American tenor Brian Jagde, previously paired here as the doomed lovers in Tosca, make their role debuts as the tragic leads in Manon Lescaut. Attention will be paid to the pit as well, as popular former music director Nicola Luisotti returns to conduct the Puccini staple. The new Figaro features soprano Jennifer Davis’s American debut and three company first-timers (soprano Jeanine De Bique, mezzo Serena Malfi, and baritone Levente Molnár). In another company first, baritone Edward Parks portrays Steve Jobs.
Three of the four principals in Ernani are making their role debuts, led by returning S.F. Opera tenor Russell Thomas (Roberto Devereux). Director Christopher Alden’s delectably zany Partenope gets some notable cast changes. The English soprano Louise Alder makes her American debut in the title role. The production’s two new countertenors are Argentine Franco Fagioli and Jakub Józef Orliński, a Pole who doubles as a breakdancer. “You have to watch it on YouTube,” said Shilvock, with a fanboy’s ardor. “He’s gone viral.”
Familiarity breeds nothing but an affectionate welcome back to company stalwarts like mezzo Sasha Cooke (Hansel) and soprano Heidi Stober (Gretel) in the Humperdinck fable. Cooke returns as the titular hero’s wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, in Bates’s 2020 summer season-ending (R)evolution.
In addition to Grandage, directors Jean-Louis Grinda (Romeo and Juliet) and Antony McDonald (Hansel and Gretel) will be staging their first works at the Opera House. Various designers will be new names as well. The conductors have all worked here before. Shilvock mentioned the ongoing search for Luisotti’s successor as music director, so perhaps some of these return visits are potential pit tryouts.
Like opera companies everywhere, San Francisco’s is always in search of new ways to attract, secure, and expand its audience. One effort this year is “Opera Is Alive,” a branding campaign that features work by celebrity photographer Peggy Sirota. Shilvock said he hoped the initiative would “help capture the emotion of the audience in the equation.” The company will also offer a Design Your Own subscription package, with a minimum of four self-selected operas.
Here are the San Francisco Opera’s Fall 2019 and Summer 2020 productions: