SF Opera Cancels Its Summer Season in a Painful Concession to COVID-19

Janos Gereben on April 14, 2020
SFO General Director Matthew Shilvock would see an empty War Memorial Opera House ... if only he could enter himself | Credit: Cory Weaver

Long feared in the wake of worldwide cancellations of summer festival events, and now clearly inevitable, SF Opera’s Summer Season today fell victim to the coronavirus. It was to take place in the War Memorial Opera House, closed by city edict since March 7, between June 7 and July 3.

Ongoing developments in the global effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, says the announcement, including orders by the City of San Francisco to shelter in place through at least May 3 (in addition to an open-ended California state order), travel and quarantine restrictions, and other safety measures, prohibit the company’s ability to prepare, build, rehearse, and perform this summer.

“Today I am announcing the heartbreaking decision to cancel our 2020 Summer Season due to the current pandemic,” said SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock. “The safety and health of our audiences, artists and employees must come first, and it is imperative that we continue to do our part in the critical effort to contain COVID-19.”

The summer season that’s not to be would have presented Verdi’s Ernani, June 7 – July 2; Handel’s Partenope, June 12–27; and the Bay Area premiere of Mason Bates’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, June 20 – July 3. Activities relating to the mainstage presentations were also canceled, including Bay Area Opera Previews, preperformance talks and Pride Night at the Opera. (The big LGBTQ Pride celebrations in San Francisco and New York have not yet been canceled, but in Los Angeles and many other cities cancellations were announced earlier.)

Danielle de Niese sang the title role of SF Opera’s 2014 Partenope the opera scheduled to return this summer, but now canceled | Credit: Cory Weaver

Still up in the air, but not looking well, are the Merola Opera Program, July 9 – Aug. 22, and SF Symphony’s grand events in June at the finale of Michael Tilson Thomas’s 25th and final season with the orchestra as its music director, including concert performances of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

“Odes to Joy” are musical performances by the SF Opera Adler Fellows on the company’s Opera is on website.

Since the March 7 closure of city facilities, the War Memorial Opera House, Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, and Burlingame Scene Shop have remained closed to SF operations, and the March 16 shelter-in-place order forced everybody out of the office, the staff working remotely. The SFO Chorus is continuing preparations for the upcoming year through online rehearsals with Chorus Director Ian Robertson, and the resident artists, the Adler Fellows, have been in regular coachings with Music Director Designate Eun Sun Kim through video conferencing.

“I am profoundly grateful to all who have invested so deeply of themselves in planning and preparing for our summer season, and I grieve that so much creative energy will sadly not find expression on our stage this summer,” Shilvock said.

This company has faced many challenges in its nearly 100 years — our very theater was built from the determination of San Franciscans to bring music back after the devastation of the 1906 earthquake. We have survived the Great Depression, a World War, the Loma Prieta earthquake, the dot-com bust, September 11, and the 2008 recession. I know San Francisco Opera will emerge from this doing what we do best: bringing works of soaring beauty to life and sharing them with our extraordinary community."

The company estimates financial losses of $8 million as the result of the cancellation, pledging to pay “full compensation and benefits for employees through the current May 3 shelter-in-place period.

No specific information was available in response to questions about orchestra and chorus salaries, and whether force majeure will be used in settling contracts with visiting artists. The announcement has this statement from Shilvock:

The company is in conversation with all eight of its union partners to determine how we can best support all our members during this unprecedented situation. At this time, we are focused on mitigating the devastating impact that cancellations could have on the lives of the artists, musicians, crew members, and staff who are the heart of this company, while also maintaining a strong organization when we return to the stage. I am very grateful to all of our unions for their partnership in working through this very difficult time."

Ticketholders may contact the SF Opera Box Office — by phone only, (415) 864-3330 — to contribute the value of their tickets as a tax-deductible donation, exchange for a currently scheduled, future mainstage performance, place the ticket value on account for future mainstage ticket purchases, or obtain a full refund.

SF Opera has launched “Opera is ON,” an online initiative for new and archival content for the public to explore and engage with opera during the shelter-in-place. With features to be added in the days ahead, current Opera is ON highlights include:

  • “Odes to Joy” musical performances by the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows, with personal dedications. #OdesToJoy.

  • Spotify playlists curated by the Company’s leadership, including General Director Matthew Shilvock, Music Director Designate Eun Sun Kim, and Managing Artistic Director Gregory Henkel.

  • Blog articles contributed by members of the orchestra, chorus, production artists and administration.

Faced with school closures and restrictions on gathering size, the company’s Department of Diversity, Equity and Community (DEC) is moving its education and outreach efforts online. Its professional development training sessions for teaching artists and classroom teachers are streamed live on Facebook and will be available on-demand to educators.

San Francisco Opera Guild has also moved many of its education programs online to continue serving its constituents. Teaching artists and students are meeting and collaborating in the digital space for Book to Bravo! Voices for Social Justice, Sing a Story, Opera Scouts and Madrigals programs. The Summer Conservatory Opera Camp, currently scheduled to begin July 6, is preparing for online programing if current social distancing measures are extended.

Still (relatively) safe, on SF Opera’s 2020–2021 season: Alexander Zemlinsky’s 1922 Der Zwerg (The dwarf) | Credit: Robert Millard

And, what of SF Opera’s future? What can be postponed or “repurposed”? Shilvock told SFCV:

At this time, we plan on being back onstage in the War Memorial Opera House for our fall season, but it is too early to know what the world will look like that we re-emerge into. It’s imperative that we remain flexible and adaptive, doing everything we can to share transformative opera with our community in any way we can.

"We don’t have plans at present to incorporate the operas or artists of the summer season into subsequent periods, but we are staying open to all scenarios. We hope that we can welcome back the artists of the summer season in the future and experience their great artistry on our stage."

The fall season is too far away for any certainty, and so is the summer of 2021 when the Opera House is scheduled to be closed to have its ancient seats replaced. Asked about this, Shilvock told me:

“Given the current situation, San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet are currently in discussions with the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center about the planned timeline for this project. While no decisions have yet been made and conversations are ongoing, we are discussing different scenarios should COVID-19 force a delay in the project.”