Tosca in the newly opened  War Memorial Opera House in 1932 | Credit: SF Opera Archive

San Francisco Opera will turn 100 years old during the 2022–2023 season, which is just around the corner.

It was on Sept. 26, 1923, that Gaetano Merola, the founder, conducted the company’s debut with La bohème, featuring Queena Mario and Giovanni Martinelli, in the Civic Auditorium. Merola first visited the city in 1906, was a champion of the genre and of the company he founded, and then headed until his death — while conducting a concert in Stern Grove — in 1953.

Coincidentally, the company was born a month after President Harding died here of a stroke in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel “after his wife read him a flattering article from The Saturday Evening Post.”

SFO - "Turandot" 1927
A scene from SF Opera's 1927 production of Turandot | Credit: SF Opera Archive

That first season in a city of 500,000 “at the edge of the prairie,” two decades before trans-Atlantic commercial flights, featured some of the greatest stars from far-away Italy: Beniamino Gigli in Andrea Chénier and Mefistofele; Giuseppe De Luca and Giovanni Martinelli in Tosca; Queena Mario and De Luca in Rigoletto.

SFO Broadcast
SF Opera performances were heard on the The Standard Hour, a weekly radio broadcast on NBC by the SF Symphony and SF Opera Sunday evenings, for two decades from 1926

The season also offered Puccini’s Il Trittico, Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. And, before those riches, before creation of the company, between 1851 and the earthquake of 1906, nearly 5,000 opera performances were given in San Francisco in 26 different theaters.

Impressive as a century is, the longevity of opera far exceeds it, starting with performances of Jacopo Peri’s Dafne in Florence in 1598. The genre crossed the Atlantic and took root in New Orleans in the 1790s, making an amazing appearance in the 1850s in the faraway Kingdom of Hawaii.

When it comes to established and continuously active opera companies in North America, there is the Metropolitan, founded in 1883 ... and then San Francisco Opera. (The only possible rival for that second place is the Cincinnati Opera, established in 1920, but its activity is in brief festival seasons in the summer.)

SF Opera’s Tad and Dianne Taube General Director Matthew Shilvock refers to 1922 as the beginning because that’s when the organization was formed to produce the inaugural season. He pays tribute to the past while looking ahead to the future:

The birth of San Francisco Opera is, like the birth of San Francisco itself, something recent enough to feel connected to yet historic enough to feel the noble weight and tradition of those incipient seasons.

I was aware of those origins very early on in my time here with David Gockley. One of my very first events in 2005 was a gathering of the Il Cenacolo club, founded just a few years after the birth of the Opera, and in that gathering I felt all of the extraordinary legacy of the Italian community which had founded San Francisco Opera in 1922. It was just a year or so [after our arrival] when we undertook our first simulcast at the Civic Center that I met Joe Bruscia, a son of one of the 10 Italians who had underwritten the Opera in 1922, and the very real history of this company sprang into life.

There is so much that we could undertake in this most storied of years ahead, but I am driven towards a great sense of optimism for what can be, what must be, as we look to build audiences. I am so excited to share this Centennial Season in mid-January.

It’s a moment that is requiring us to be bold, courageous, new — all traits that have embodied our great past and that I am committed to defining our second century. It was always going to be an important season, but now it is even more. A reaffirmation of all the possibility of opera as a communal art-form, bringing us together as a community of artists, artisans and audience members alike, all part of the same live moment.

San Francisco has sustained that in incredible ways for a century. What an extraordinary moment to honor Merola’s initial guiding vision and pay tribute to it by propelling boldly into the future!”

SF Opera today is a huge organization, running, before the pandemic, on a $78.5 million operating budget, involving hundreds of employees, orchestra musicians, soloists, chorus members, technicians, costumers, makeup artists, security, and stagehands. The company has assets in excess of a quarter billion dollars: At the end of fiscal year 2019, it was $273 million, with an operating deficit of only $650,000.

Then the pandemic struck, and the War Memorial became the first opera house in the nation to be shut down. In the 532 days between March 7, 2020, and Aug. 21, 2021, when the current season opened, Shilvock 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.

The budget was eventually revised from $78.5 million to $44 million — an unprecedented change reflecting a unique situation. New plans and budget adjustments are forthcoming for the centennial season, but no information is yet available.

Along with the city, SF Symphony and SF Opera have gone through many great crises, including the Great Depression of 1929 – 1933 (during which the construction of the War Memorial continued and was completed), World War II, the Vietnam War and its domestic turmoil, and the Loma Prieta Quake, which required a reconstruction of the Opera House.

SF Opera — and the city — had to deal with damages from the Loma Prieta Quake

When Shilvock and his predecessor, David Gockley, arrived together in San Francisco from Houston in 2006, while confronted with grave problems left by the previous administration, their attention was also already on the centennial.

In 2014, Gockley addressed the prospect and challenge of the centennial by saying it should celebrate the past and build greatness in its second century. “I’m not going to be around then,” he said, having announced stepping down from the position in 2016, but planned to do the programming — along with the artistic and board leadership — “determined to set the course of the company right.”

Gockley couldn’t have foreseen the disaster of the pandemic, and he had boldly forecast the following for 2020:

— Operating budget: $92 million
— Subscribers: 80,000 estimated
— Ticket sales providing percentage of budget: 29 percent

Already back then, budgets grew over inflation rates, ticket sales slightly declined, contributions remained remarkably steady (annual support growing from $3.7m in 1980 to $40m projected for 2015), and Gockley said decisive action was needed to bring down an estimated budget of $106 milion.

San Francisco Opera Music Director Eun Sun Kim with SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock outside the War Memorial Opera House | Credit: Marc Olivier Le Blanc/SF Opera

“There are structural problems we face as a company and some of the systemic issues facing the industry as a whole,” Gockley said, “the slowly declining role of subscriptions, the difficulty of balancing budgets, the lack of bankable stars, the marginalization of the classical arts in education and the mass media, the plethora of competing entertainment forms and opportunities that compete for the time and attention of people who could be going to the opera.”

This was seven years ago. What does SF Opera face today? As usual, published records are available only 18–24 months back, and so the most recent information is for Fiscal 2020, which shows:

Total assets of $288 million, total liabilities of $18.6 million, total expenses (“the budget”) of $78.5 million, with several pandemic contributions, including a Payroll Protection Program Loan of $8.9 million (for 2 years, with interest rate of 1 percent). The SF Opera Endowment at the end of Fiscal 2020 was $244.7 million, almost all “restricted.”

Shilvock eased into the current, 99th, season with only five operas, calling it 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 were scheduled in succession (“stagione”) rather than overlapping (“repertory”) as in a typical season. This provision, along with other protocols, allowed maximum flexibility as the company and audiences navigated through this early period of emergence from the pandemic shutdown.

The summer of 2022 is promised to bring the return of repertory scheduling (multiple operas presented each week), and in 2022–2023 the company will celebrate its centennial with a full repertory season.

Labor contracts reached during the pandemic run through the end of the centennial and remain effective, retroactively, from Aug. 1, 2020 through July 31, 2023. But some of their provisions may have to be adjusted anyway to avoid further friction with the orchestra and chorus.

Set model for Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Will it return in the upcoming season?

The season will be announced in January, so for now, it’s just speculation — opera fans’ favorite pastime. Chances are two existing SF Opera co-commissions will be produced:

SF Opera Music Director Eun Sun Kim has spoken of her interest in conducting Verdi and Wagner, two composers always in the forefront of standard repertory sessions, so it’s more a question of “which,” not “if.” The critic’s hope is to avoid the most frequently produced warhorses from Verdi and Puccini, as always.