SF Opera 2019 Fall Season Evokes a Long, Proud History

Janos Gereben on August 12, 2019
In 1932, when the War Memorial Opera House opened, there was audio “live streaming” of Lucia di Lammermoor to the Civic Auditorium and Civic Center Plaza | Credit: SF Opera Archive

As San Francisco Opera is approaching its 2023 centennial, there are reminders at every turn of its distinguished history at “the other side of the world” that singers and conductors from Europe a century ago took weeks of demanding travel to reach.

But travel they did, from Enrico Caruso’s unfortunate encounter with the Big Quake of 1906, long before Gaetano Merola started up the company in 1923, to such opening season stars as Benjamino Gigli, Giuseppe de Luca, Giovanni Martinelli, and many others.

Just one example of the many historic connections: When the 2019 fall season-opening Gounod Romeo & Juliet is simulcast live and free on Sept. 21 from the War Memorial to the SF Giants’ ballpark, it will recall an 87-year-old precedent.

The scene at the SF Civic Auditorium, where a full house was listening to the live broadcast from the Opera House of Lucia di Lammermoor with Lily Pons | Credit: San Francisco History Center of the SF Public Library

When SF Opera inaugurated the Depression-era miracle of the Opera House in 1932, after the opening-night Tosca, there was Lucia di Lammermoor with Lily Pons, one of the most popular divas of the time, in the title role.

Her second performance, on Oct. 23, 1932, was radio broadcast live to the Civic Auditorium (the company’s former home and future temporary venue after the ’89 quake) and the Civic Center Plaza.

(Broadcasting opera goes back all the way to 1884 and King Luís I of Portugal ... but that’s another story.)

Rendering of a scene from Romeo & Juliet as it will appear in live-streaming on the new score board in the ballpark on Sept. 21 | Courtesy: San Francisco Opera

The 2019 live stream will be a special one, inaugurating for opera the ballpark’s new $10 million Mitsubishi scoreboard, stretching out to 10,700 square feet. If you remember how strange love-scene closeups looked on ever-larger movie screens, get ready for something much bigger.

This fall’s opening offering of the Gounod Romeo & Juliet has other links with the past: it was featured on the inaugural 1923 season, with Queena Mario, Gigli, and De Luca, with Ezio Pinza as Friar Laurence in the 1927 revival. In the 2019 title roles, all four singers are alumni of the Merola Program, named for company founder Gaetano Merola, and of the Adler Fellowship, honoring SF Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, who spent four transformative decades in leadership positions here.

They are Nadine Sierra (2010; 2011–12) and Bryan Hymel (2001); and, for one performance on Oct. 1, Amina Edris (2015; 2016–17) and Pene Pati (2013; 2016–17). The production is new to San Francisco, by Opéra de Monte-Carlo Director Jean-Louis Grinda; it will be conducted by Yves Abel, who made his SFO debut in 1996, leading Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet.

The season continues with the West Coast premiere of Michael Grandage’s Glyndebourne production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. The all-male cast is headed by John Chest in his company debut in the title role, William Burden as Captain Vere, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Claggart. Dutch-Maltese conductor Lawrence Renes, who made his San Francisco debut with Nixon in China in 2012, leads six performances of Billy Budd.

Michael Grandage’s production of Britten’s Billy Budd plays Sept. 7–22 | Credit: Alastair Muir/Glyndebourne

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Oct. 11 – Nov. 1, marks the first of a multiseason project to present the three Mozart-Lorenzo da Ponte operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte) in new productions by Michael Cavanagh, with sets by Erhard Rom, costumes by Constance Hoffman, and lighting by Jane Cox. The trilogy is described by SFO General Director Matthew Shilvock:

It will take us on a three-year arc of storytelling, using the constant of “The Great American House” as the place in which emotions, relationships, and the very bonds of society are explored. The Marriage of Figaro will begin in the time of the opera’s composition — the late 18th century and, here, in the nascent years of a new American democracy.

The subsequent operas will jump forward in time but always in the same neoclassical house: Così in the 1930s when the house has become a country club amidst the anxiety of the pre-war years, and Don Giovanni in a dystopian future around 2090 when the house is crumbling, as are the bonds of society. It promises to be a fascinating journey through epochs of American history.

Apart from Michael Sumuel in the title role, Figaro is cast with four artists making company debuts: soprano Jeanine De Bique as Susanna, baritone Levente Molnár as the Count, soprano Jennifer Davis as Countess Almaviva and mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi as Cherubino. Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási, who made his company debut in 2017 with Richard Strauss’s Elektra, will be on the podium.

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (Nov. 8–26) returns for the first time in 13 years in Olivier Tambosi’s production. Soprano Lianna Haroutounian and tenor Brian Jagde make role debuts as Manon Lescaut and Chevalier des Grieux, and former SF Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti returns to the podium.

Bryan Hymel sings Romeo in the season-opening Gounod opera | Credit: Marc McCourt

A new San Francisco Opera co-production with London’s Royal Opera, of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, Nov. 15 - Dec. 7, closes the fall season.

Conducted by Christopher Franklin — who made his debut here leading Turandot in 2017, and last year conducted the 2018 Adler Fellows’ The Future Is Now concert — the cast features mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (Hansel) and soprano Heidi Stober (Gretel).

Featuring storybook sets by Antony McDonald, and cameos by familiar fairytale figures, the production also reunites three members of the 2017 Elektra cast: Michaela Martens (Gertrude), Alfred Walker (Peter), and Robert Brubaker (the Witch).

Antony McDonald’s co-production of Hansel & Gretel with the Royal Opera will close the fall season | Credit: Cory Weaver

Special events of the fall season, besides the Sept. 21 ballpark simulcast, include Opera Ball 2019: The Capulets’ Masked Ball, on Sept. 6; Opera in the Park on Sept. 8; the SF Opera Chorus concert on Nov. 22, under the direction of SFO Chorus Director Ian Robertson; and the Adler Fellows’ The Future Is Now concert, conducted by Eun Sun Kim, who made her company debut this summer leading Dvorák’s Rusalka.

NOTE: Plácido Domingo’s sold-out concert slated for Oct. 6 has been cancelled. Read more about that decision here. 

Season and individual event ticket information is at https://sfopera.com/buy-tickets/.