David Hockney Receives S.F. Opera Medal

Janos Gereben on December 5, 2017
Turandot Act I stage design by Hockney | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera audiences have had decades of bliss in the War Memorial, experiencing the unique, often phantasmagorical set designs of David Hockney. On Sunday, at the end of the matinee performance of Turandot, on his brilliant red Act III set, Hockney, 80, received the company’s highest honor, the San Francisco Opera Medal.

Presenting the medal to Hockney, S.F. Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock said Hockney has been a powerful force in advancing opera as an art form:

His productions are bold expressions of archetypal emotions, deeply rooted in a strong sense of spatial resonance and scale. His productions take us — audiences and artists alike — on journeys that allow us to see our world more clearly. He finds rhythm in color and design, and creates portals that we enter with thrilling excitement.

Singers and orchestra share acclaim with the production design when Hockney is at work. Well beyond sheer visual virtuosity, these designs are also meaningful: I remember being instantly impressed when we first saw his production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in 1982 by Hockney’s crosshatched responses to Hogarth’s 18th century series of prints enhancing the opera.

Hockney (center) takes a bow with the Turandot cast on Sunday, before receiving the SFO Medal | Credit: Drew Altizer Photography

Hockney’s striking designs for Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which premiered at Glyndebourne in 1978, were seen on an American stage for the first time at San Francisco Opera in 1987 and reprised in 1991, 2000, and 2003. His production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which premiered in Los Angeles in 1981, was staged at the War Memorial Opera House in 2006.

Hockney's Magic Flute at S.F. Opera

His enduring Turandot is a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, first staged here in 1993, then repeated in 1998, 2002, 2011 and this season. Hockney wrote:

Turandot was the only Puccini opera I would do because it is not verismo, there is some fantasy in it, it takes place in mythical China. I had seen many productions, most of them kitsch beyond belief, overdone chinoiserie and too many dragons.

When San Francisco Opera asked me, I thought, I’ve never done an Italian opera — I’d done eight other operas by then — but I would not do it alone because it is an enormous job. Ian Falconer, Richard Schmidt, and I got to work, with Richard setting up the model and doing all the technical work with the lights, while aesthetic decisions were made by Ian and myself. Ian and I designed it together because, for one thing, there are 200 costumes in Turandot and I wanted him to do them. Straight away I chose the colors, which are predominantly red — the color of the walls of the Forbidden City in Peking. I was inspired by the Chinese red I had seen on my travels in China in 1981.

Hockney’s career began in 1963 with his first solo exhibition in London. He began designing for the stage in 1966 and, in 1975, began creating sets and costumes for productions of ballets and opera that have been staged around the world. His vast body of work also includes paintings, drawings, etchings, photographs, and print designs for magazines, books, films, and videos. Equally praised are his works resulting from a fascination with photocopy and fax machines, still video cameras, computer-generated images, and, most recently, the iPhone and iPad.

Hockney with San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock | Credit: Drew Altizer Photography

The SFO Medal program was created in 1970 by the General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, to be awarded for artistic integrity, collegiality and distinguished service to the company. Past recipients of the Opera Medal include sopranos Dorothy Kirsten, Joan Sutherland and Renée Fleming; mezzo-sopranos Frederica von Stade and Susan Graham; tenor Plácido Domingo; baritone Thomas Stewart; conductors Donald Runnicles, Sir Charles Mackerras, Nicola Luisotti; directors John Copley and Francesca Zambello; and Chorus Director Ian Robertson.

The most recent recipient before Hockney was composer John Adams, who was presented with the Opera Medal on Nov. 21 following the world premiere of his newest opera, Girls of the Golden West.