Returning from COVID-19’s 15-month hibernation and ensuing personal and professional distress, San Francisco Opera is planning a 2021–2022 season of five operas and three special events.
“I’m still pinching myself that we are announcing a season and preparing to raise the curtain again. We need the collective catharsis of the arts in a way as never before, and I have so much anticipation for what it will feel like to gather once again — artists and audiences alike — in the Opera House, engaging with these profound stories of human experience,” Matthew Shilvock told SF Classical Voice.
Shilvock, San Francisco Opera’s Tad and Dianne Taube General Director, had to deal with the War Memorial Opera House being shut down since March 7, 2020 (the first pandemic-caused theater closure in the nation), loss of all income while expenses continued, medical emergencies all around, and catastrophic dislocation everywhere ... yes, just as everybody else, but with the fate and future of hundreds of singers, musicians, craftsmen, and staff on his shoulders. This is how today’s announcement came about:
We began planning the revised season back in the fall of 2020, before vaccinations were even a possibility, and so had to find a season that was resilient under a wide variety of possible health scenarios. That led us to adjust the flow of the season, separating out the operas of the fall such that nothing was playing in repertory, allowing us to adjust and refine the protocols for each piece separately. That elongation is why we are starting a little earlier than usual on Aug. 21.
Programmatically, we wanted to find works that would speak to the moment artistically, but that also stood a greater chance of working amidst the changing nature of the health situation, avoiding works with massive forces on stage for extended periods, or long 4–5 hour pieces. I am excited by what has emerged. It will be a return to full-scale, full-length opera, showcasing the full talents of the company in a broad range of styles, but very resilient thanks to health protocols as we emerge into this post-pandemic period.”
Budget figures reflect the company’s dizzying operating budget swings: from the pre-pandemic $78.5 million to the current $55 million.
Summarizing the plan for the season:
• Aug. 21, 27, 29, Sept. 3, 5 — Puccini’s Tosca — Eun Sun Kim, conductor; Shawna Lucey, stage director; Robert Innes Hopkins, production designer; the cast includes Ailyn Pérez, Michael Fabiano, Alfred Walker
• Sept. 10 – “Live and in Concert: The Homecoming” in the War Memorial and a free live simulcast to Oracle Park, conducted by Kim, featuring Rachel Willis-Sørensen and Jamie Barton
• Oct. 14, 17, 20, 22, 26, 30 — Beethoven’s Fidelio — new production; Kim, conductor; Matthew Ozawa, stage director; Alexander V. Nichols, production designer; the cast includes Elza van den Heever, Russell Thomas, Greer Grimsley, James Creswell, Soloman Howard, Anne-Marie MacIntosh, Christopher Oglesby
• Nov. 21, 23, 27, Dec. 1, 3 — Mozart’s Così fan tutte — new production; Henrik Nánási, conductor; Michael Cavanagh, stage director; Erhard Rom, production designer; the cast includes Nicole Cabell, Irene Roberts, Ben Bliss, John Brancy, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Nicole Heaston
• Dec. 10 – “The Future Is Now” Adler Fellows Concert (in Herbst Theatre)
• June 4, 10, 12, 15, 18, 21, 26, July 2 — Mozart’s Don Giovanni — new production; Bertrand de Billy, conductor; Michael Cavanagh, stage director; Erhard Rom, production designer; the cast includes Etienne Dupuis, Adela Zaharia, Carmen Giannattasio, Amitai Pati, Luca Pisaroni, Christina Gansch, Soloman Howard
• June 14, 17, 19, 23, 25, July 1, 3 — Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber — Darrell Ang, conductor; Stan Lai, stage director; Tim Yip, production designer; cast includes Meigui Zhang, Yijie Shi, Hyona Kim, Karen Chia-ling Ho, Hongni Wu, Sabina Kim, Guang Yang
• June 30 — Verdi Concert; Kim, conductor; with Nicole Car, Arturo Chacon-Cruz, Soloman Howard
As Shilvock is looking to the near future of the 2022–2023 centennial season, here’s the loss list from last year: For the time being, all of the planned 2020 summer season is gone — Verdi’s Ernani, Handel’s Partenope, and the Bay Area premiere of Mason Bates’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.
From the 2020 fall season, planned painfully and with restraint in the middle of the pandemic, only Fidelio and Così fan tutte are retained, leaving for the future realization of Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale, along with the frequently repeated Rigoletto and La bohème.
Shilvock is proud to say that “all of our productions this season will be new, or recently new to our stage, in a testament to the local artisans who built them and to the local community which has supported this company so magnificently during this year.” (The “recently new” productions are Tosca and Dream of the Red Chamber.)
Five operas add up to a season about half of the company’s usual offerings, and Shilvock calls the coming season 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 are scheduled in succession rather than overlapping as in a typical repertory season. This provision, along with other protocols, allows maximum flexibility as the company and audiences navigate this early period of emergence from the pandemic shutdown.
“The summer of 2022 will bring the return of repertory presentations (multiple operas presented each week), and in 2022–2023 the company will celebrate its centennial with a full repertory season.”
Kim was named the company’s music director in December 2019, but her debut in that capacity was one of the pandemic’s casualties. She is only the fourth music director in the company's 99-year history, after John Pritchard, Donald Runnicles, and Nicola Luisotti. Having kept working remotely with the Adler Fellows, she says she is “so proud of the way the entire San Francisco Opera family has worked to remain resilient during this time. We’ve created new ways to make music together and encouraged each other in strength.” Her inaugural season is welcomed by Shilvock, who expects “so many transformative experiences ahead under her leadership.”
Speaking of the casts, Shilvock says “the season brings together spectacular artists on our stage including Michael Fabiano, Ailyn Pérez, and Alfred Walker in Tosca, Elza van den Heever, Russell Thomas, and Greer Grimsley in Fidelio, spectacular ensemble casts for our two Mozart operas including returns from artists such as Ferruccio Furlanetto, Carmen Giannattasio, Nicole Cabell, and Luca Pisaroni, and debuting artists including Adela Zaharia, Etienne Dupuis and Ben Bliss.
“Dream of the Red Chamber brings back such extraordinary talents as Yijie Shi and Hyona Kim, while welcoming some thrilling new voices including Meigui Zhang [Merola 2018] and Hongni Wu. In addition to Eun Sun Kim, we welcome back Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási to the podium, and are excited for the debuts of French conductor Bertrand de Billy and Singaporean conductor Darrell Ang.”
Yet another of the many challenges before Shilvock was the urgent national/global attention to diversity. Following the company’s decades-long interchange with Asia (with hundreds of Merola and Adler participants from there), and employment of great Black artists going back to the days of Kurt Herbert Adler, Shilvock responded:
It has been critical to us to bring a much more focused lens of equity to the work and art of the company, and we were the first major opera company to hire a director of diversity back in the summer of 2019, Charles Chip Mc Neal. The company has been on a path of transformative learning and growth since that time, and we continue to bring that lens of equity to everything we do from programming to casting to our operations.
It is imperative that our stage be a place where stories are told that speak to many communities, and we are looking at new titles for the stage for future seasons. As the Bay Area grapples with the horrific rise of AAPI hate, it has been important to us to bring back Dream of the Red Chamber after premiering the work in 2016.
It is a wonderful celebration of Chinese literature and Asian artists and creative team members. The work returns after playing in Hong Kong and China, to great acclaim.
Our ‘In Song’ series has also been very powerful in exploring the connection between singers and cultural identity and history, finding a short-form digital way for artists to share intimate perspectives and performances. We still have much work to do as a company and, as we emerge from the pandemic, we do so with renewed commitment to be a company where inclusivity and equity underpin everything we undertake.”
Concerning the COVID-19 health protocols making the season possible: While the San Francisco Symphony, in Davies Hall across the street from the War Memorial, is ending all pandemic regulations on June 24, SF Opera’s announcement calls for full observation of all pandemic protocols, at least through the Tosca run, through Sept. 5:
“Upon entry, patrons will be required to show proof of full vaccination (defined as two weeks after final shot) or a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of performance or antigen test taken within 1 day of performance (paper or electronic/photo documentation), along with a photo ID. All patrons, including those who have received a COVID-19 vaccine, will be required to wear a face mask while attending performances.”
The War Memorial is welcoming audiences back with all 3,126 seats originally installed in 1932 replaced in a multimillion dollar project, but seating for Tosca will be with buffer seats, keeping one seat free between parties, the house capacity being reduced significantly.
Speaking about conditions in the two halls, John Caldon, managing director of the SF War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, which is in charge of the theaters, told SF Classical Voice:
“Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House are both in full compliance with CDC guidelines regarding air circulation. By design, airflow rates are not consistent throughout the facilities. Together the buildings have a combined total of approximately 30 Air Handling Units, each of which has a unique rate of flow based on a variety of factors.
“To ensure the safety of patrons and employees, the War Memorial worked with Enpowered Solutions to assess our HVAC systems [Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning] and develop operational guidelines, which include the use of MERV-13 or higher-rated filters, operating HVAC systems 24/7, using 100 percent outside air, and performing maintenance to ensure all Air Handling Units are functioning as designed.
“The CDC recommendation regarding air changes is based on ASHRAE guidelines, which recommend that the air in a given space be changed three times between uses of the space. All War Memorial venues are in compliance with this recommendation. Davies Symphony Hall can change the air in its auditorium three times in approximately four hours. In the auditorium of the War Memorial Opera House, air can be changed three times in approximately 72 minutes. Building activity is scheduled based on these air change rates to ensure safety.”