War Memorial Opera House
SF Opera’s performances at the War Memorial resumed in August 2021 | Credit: Brandon Patoc

“At my age (73), change, even when threatening, is invigorating and revitalizing” is an unexpected and courageous response to questions from SF Classical Voice to Bay Area artists about how they fared during the second year of COVID-19’s ravages and what they expect in the new year.

West Edge Opera Music Director Jonathan Khuner continues: “I firmly believe this is a momentary bump which will lead eventually to good changes in our society’s habits and attitudes.

“Almost all my work is study, preparation, and individual practice, all of which haven’t suffered from the pandemic. I’m fortunate in having saved resources so I can hunker down and survive comfortably. My greatest sadness is for the real victims of COVID-19: those stricken or unemployed, those family-separated or painfully isolated, those put off-track educationally, and those for whom direct contact is lifeblood.

Jonathan Khuner
Jonathan Khuner | Credit: Eliot Khuner

“My opera-company job has been adapted creatively, shifting to online connections where necessary and making best use of all possible variations in public presentation. Meanwhile, I’ve been able to nourish physical and mental health by daily long walks in the East Bay hills, during which I can meditate/contemplate or listen to literature.”

Hearing responses like this to our second annus horribilis reminded me of the untranslatable Hungarian-Yiddish word of dafke — defying trouble, however great, carrying on even in face of hardship and danger.

Leaving behind the year that began in limbo with COVID-19’s Delta variant and ended with Omicron spreading and petrifying the world, these resolute and forward-looking attitudes give “Ars longa, vita brevis” (Art is long, life is short) a new meaning of “pandemic life is hell, but artists prevail.”

Taking a break between the final run of San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker performances, conductor Ming Luke considered the passing year in a positive light:

“2021 was an absolutely fascinating year. To see the creativity and ingenuity of my colleagues in the face of incredible adversity was simply inspiring. And to reconnect with the sheer joy of performing together in person for audiences that shared the same raw experience is something I’ll never forget.

“I was fortunate to be a part of several performing arts organizations’ first performances for live audiences after shutting down in 2020. This included Classical Tahoe, with members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and other major orchestras. The former music director, Joel Revzen, passed away because of Covid. It was an incredibly moving and unforgettable experience.

Ming Luke
Ming Luke | Courtesy of Ming Luke

“We will still deal with the tolls of this pandemic in 2022, the loss of performances, the loss of artists in our community. But just as Jurassic Park says, ‘Life finds a way,’ art does too. Art finds a way. And is needed even more than ever.” 

Acknowledging all that transpired, but then expressing strength and understanding, SF Playhouse Co-founder and Producing Director Susi Damilano, stage director for the current production of the musical version of Twelfth Night, says:

“This has been the longest year of my life, one where all the life lessons about staying present, and flexible, and finding the way through have tested me over and over and over.

“What I am realizing, slowly, is that this is life. Nothing is guaranteed, except change. And how truly blessed I am to be healthy and surrounded by so many loving, brave, and wonderful people to share this crazy journey.”

Health and travel regulations ended the normal circulation of artists by the thousands from everywhere to San Francisco and of local performers to and around the country and overseas. And yet, one of the best-known local globetrotting stars, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, while rarely leaving the Bay Area and idle during the pandemic, speaks of the long view as her optimism persists:

“This year makes me think of two visits to sing in Prague during the Cold War and the aftermath of the Prague Spring. The first was when the country was shut down following the Russian invasion. Not many shops were open, not many people walking around.

“Then I went back a few years later and it was full of glitter and light and sound and joy. I felt so lucky to have witnessed the transformation.

Album cover
An album cover for performances by Frederica von Stade

“That’s how I feel about this year. Hope came galloping in with bright lights and music and we’re able to celebrate the actions of so many heroes, health heroes, and music heroes and just human heroes. I feel even more blessed today than before the pandemic with all its lingering effects.”

This jibes with my own experience of finding a (momentary) catharsis in resuming previously normal activities. One of the most memorable events during recovery was the San Francisco Symphony’s return to concerts in May: “Many among the 360 invited guests scattered strategically in the 2,743-seat Davies Symphony Hall Thursday night fought back tears, being in the hall after 14 months of fear, pain, and loss.”

In a more institutional framework, the word from SF Symphony Interim CEO Matthew Spivey:

“In May 2021, the San Francisco Symphony made a joyful return to Davies Symphony Hall in front of its first live audience in over a year, made up of Bay Area first responders and representatives from community organizations. It was an amazing and gratifying experience for the whole organization, made even more special because it was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s first in-person concert with the orchestra as music director.

“We’ve been welcoming live audiences to Davies Hall since then ... and as we near the end of the holiday season, seeing our community in the audience night after night still hasn’t lost its sparkle.

“It’s been a remarkable year for the orchestra, and I’m incredibly grateful to the entire SF Symphony family for their creativity and dedication as we’ve navigated the unique challenges of the pandemic together.”

Matthew Shilvock
SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock | Credit: Kristen Loken/San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera mourned the passing of artists during 2021 with a note: “As a multifaceted synthesis of music, theater, visual art, stagecraft, and boundless creative inspiration, opera is by its very nature a deeply collaborative art form. The magic on stage and in the pit would not be possible without the community of individuals on both sides of the curtain who care deeply for the art and work together to make it a reality.”

SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock wrote:

“Whether in art or life, the reemergence from the silence of the last 18 months has been to experience the world in hyperreality. Colors are more vivid, emotions more extreme, music pierces deeper into the soul. My fervent hope is that this technicolor version of the world never dulls.

“There is a very special energy that is formed when an audience resonates with live opera. When everything clicks into place, there is a reciprocal, reverberating energy in the theater that grows and grows. It’s by no means a given. It’s what differentiates a good performance from a great performance, and in a great performance artists and audiences inspire each other to heightened excellence.”

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