SF Opera Ticket from 1932
A ticket for the War Memorial Opera House Grand Opening | Credit: San Francisco Opera Archive

San Francisco Opera’s 2022–2023 season, announced today, celebrates the company’s 100th birthday; it’s an ambitious, bold plan that would be remarkable even if all was well.

It’s painfully obvious that all is not well. Even on the day the Opera first released information about the next two years, SF Symphony, across the street from the War Memorial, canceled a subscription concert 30 minutes before it was to begin, having found positive tests of viral infection among the musicians.

The past two years, during the crucial climax of the decade-long centennial preparations, have cast a giant shadow of tragedies and uncertainty on a project that involves thousands of people and the expenditure of millions of dollars. COVID-19 makes us appreciate even more the accomplishment of the founders, led by a dozen Italian immigrants in 1922–1923, between the end of World War I and the Spanish Flu and before the beginning of the Great Depression (during which the War Memorial Opera House was built, against all odds).

Gaetano Merola, who had promoted opera in San Francisco since his first visit here after the Great Quake of 1906, established SF Opera in 1922 and conducted its first performance — of La bohème — on Sept. 26, 1923, in the Civic Auditorium.

Gaetano Merola
Gaetano Merola in rehearsal (1940) | Credit: San Francisco Opera Archives

The centennial year, SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock told SFCV, “makes us appreciate what this company means to the community, the sense of longevity and loyalty. In November 2020, before the vaccine, we had no sense of what may be possible, but with the support of the board and the whole company, we carried on. As [former General Director] David [Gockley] said, it’s a monumental task to honor all that went on before and stepping up to the future.”

Shilvock’s administration and Music Director Eun Sun Kim have announced an exceptionally rich season to mark the centennial, with two co-commissioned premieres, the revival of two grand operas that had their U.S. premieres in the War Memorial, and new productions.

John Adams and Eun Sun Kim
Composer John Adams and San Francisco Opera Music Director Eun Sun Kim at an Antony and Cleopatra orchestra reading, December 2021 | Credit: Kristen Loken

Berkeley composer John Adams, 74, whose San Francisco Opera and Symphony history goes back nearly half a century, has been commissioned by SF Opera and two other companies for the September 2022 world premiere of Antony and Cleopatra, described in the company’s successful application for an NEA grant:

“As a co-commission with Gran Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona, Spain) and Teatro Massimo (Palermo, Sicily), the libretto for Antony and Cleopatra uses Shakespeare’s tragedy with supplementary passages from Plutarch, Virgil and other classical texts.

“The creative team will include conductor Eun Sun Kim, director Elkhanah Pulitzer, Tony Award-winning MacArthur Fellow set designer Mimi Lien, Tony Award-winning costume designer Constance Hoffman, and a cast to include American soprano Julia Bullock, Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, and American tenor Paul Appleby. Performances will benefit audience members in the San Francisco Bay Area, including students from local schools and colleges.”

Julia Bullock
Julia Bullock sings the role of Cleopatra | Credit: Allison Michael Orenstein

The other premiere is El último sueño de Frida y Diego (The last dream of Frida and Diego) by Bay Area composer Gabriela Lena Frank and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, exploring the lives and love of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Co-commissioned by SF Opera, San Diego Opera, Fort Worth Opera, and DePauw University, El último sueño de Frida y Diego will have its world premiere with San Diego Opera in October, 2022 before arriving to the War Memorial Opera in June 2023.

The composer says “Frida Kahlo has been a hero since my girlhood. Before I could read, I found her in the pages of an art book in my mother’s home library, the only woman in a multivolume set of ‘great artists.’

“My mother pointed out how Frida was small, brown and creative like us; moreover, of thick brow, disabled, and a daughter of both Europe and Latin America like me. Images in her paintings danced in my dreams for years. Now with my first opera with librettist Nilo Cruz, it has been a privilege to lose myself in this fantastical story exploring Frida’s tumultuous love affair, even beyond life itself, with Mexican painter Diego Rivera, against the vibrant backdrop of the Day of the Dead.” 

Gabriela Lena Frank | Credit: Mariah Tauger

Even more contemporary works are planned for the following season, in 2023–2024: SF Opera’s co-commissioned works — Kaija Saariaho and Sofi Oksanen’s Innocence, Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels’ Omar, and the pandemic-postponed The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates and Mark Campbell will all be performed in that season.

In 2022-23, the company’s fabulous past during the middle of the last century, under the leadership of Kurt Herbert Adler will be honored by the revival of two masterpieces that had their U.S. premieres here: Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow), conducted by the company’s former music director, Donald Runnicles; and Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites), led by Eun Sun Kim.

A scene from "Dialogues of the Carmelites"
A scene from Dialogues of the Carmelites | Credit: Vincent Pontet

Also in the centennial season:

– Robert Carsen’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, created for the Metropolitan Opera, and SF Opera’s first Russian opera in 14 years.

 – A new SF Opera production, by Robert Innes Hopkins, of Verdi’s La traviata, with Pretty Yende making her company debut in the title role.

– A new SF Opera production, by Alexander V. Nichols, of Gluck’s original, Italian version of Orpheus and Eurydice, with Jakub Józef Orlinski and Christina Gansch in the title roles.

– In 2023, a new coproduction, with Tokyo, Dresden, and Copenhagen of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, with Karah Son debuting in the title role.

Eun Sun Kim commented, “Music’s powerful language inspires us to better understand our world — and each other. I’m deeply honored to be a part of the legacy built over the first 100 years of San Francisco Opera, and I look forward to engaging with our community in so many ways during this celebratory year. San Francisco has supported, nurtured and energized this company. We musicians, in turn, will continue to strive for the highest levels of artistic excellence, to ensure this rich legacy can be handed down to future generations.”

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

Shilvock points to the relevance of the company’s past to the present and future:

“Since presenting Puccini’s still-new triptych, Il Trittico, in its inaugural season of 1923, San Francisco Opera has been an exponent of new music and gripping stories by contemporary artists.

“The company has presented the American premieres of works by many twentieth century masters, including Francis Poulenc, Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, Maurice Ravel, Dimitri Shostakovich, Leoš Janácek, Olivier Messiaen, and György Ligeti.

“Since 1961, the Company has been committed to commissioning new operas from living composers and presenting the world premieres of works by John Adams, Jake Heggie, Philip Glass, André Previn, Bright Sheng and others.”

When Gockley and Shilvock arrived in San Francisco in 2005 to take leadership of SF Opera, the issue of the centennial was already in their focus. Shilvock recalls:

“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.

“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. At a gathering of the Il Cenacolo club, founded just a few years after the birth of the Opera, I felt all of the extraordinary legacy of the Italian community which had founded  San Francisco Opera.”

Eight years ago, Gockley spoke of the centennial “when I won’t be around” (as Shilvock succeeded him as general director in 2016) with remarkable candor and foresight, predicting the fiscal situation exactly, calling for a $92 million operating budget, even before the unforeseeable huge temporary drop during the pandemic’s closure of the War Memorial. 

Set model for "La traviata"
Set-design model for Act I of La traviata | Credit: Robert Innes Hopkins

San Francisco Opera’s centennial season, fall 2022:

– Opera Ball and opening night concert, Sept. 9, 2022, at 8 p.m.
Eun Sun Kim, conductor; soprano Nadine Sierra, tenor Michael Fabiano, tenor Pene Pati, baritone Lucas Meachem

Antony And Cleopatra, by John Adams, world premiere, Sept. 10 – Oct. 5
Eun Sun Kim, conductor; Elkhanah Pulitzer, stage director; Mimi Lien, set designer; starring Julia Bullock, Gerald Finley, Paul Appleby

– Opera in the Park, Sept. 11, at 1:30 p.m., Robin Williams Meadow, Golden Gate Park
Eun Sun Kim, conductor

Eugene Onegin, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sept. 25 – Oct. 14
Vassilis Christopoulos, conductor; Peter McClintock, stage director; production by Robert Carsen and Michael Levine; starring Evgenia Muraveva, Aigul Akhmetshina, Gordon Bintner, Evan LeRoy Johnson

Dialogues Of the Carmelites, by Francis Poulenc, Oct. 15–30
Eun Sun Kim, conductor; Daniel Izzo, stage director; production by Daniel Izzo; starring Heidi Stober, Michelle Bradley, Michaela Schuster, Melody Moore

La traviata, by Giuseppe Verdi, Nov. 11 – Dec. 3
Eun Sun Kim, conductor; Shawna Lucey, stage director; production by Robert Innes Hopkins; starring Pretty Yende, Jonathan Tetelman, Simone Piazzola

Orpheus And Eurydice, by Christoph Willibald Gluck, Nov. 15 – Dec. 1
Peter Whelan, conductor; Matthew Ozawa, stage director; Alexander V. Nichols, set designer; Starring Jakub Józef Orlinski, Christina Gansch, Nicole Heaston

– The Future Is Now: Adler Fellows Concert, Dec. 2, Herbst Theater
Eun Sun Kim conducts the annual showcase for SF Opera’s resident artists in opera scenes and arias

– SF Opera Chorus in Concert, Dec. 4, Atrium Theater
Chorus Director John Keene, conductor

Scene from "Die Frau ohne Schatten"
A scene from Die Frau ohne Schatten | Credit: Robert Millard

2023 summer season:

Madame Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini, June 3 through July 1, 2023
Eun Sun Kim, conductor; Amon Miyamoto, production; Boris Kudlicka, set designer; starring Karah Son, Hyona Kim, Michael Fabiano

Die Frau Ohne Schatten, by Richard Strauss, June 4–28, 2023
Donald Runnicles, conductor; Roy Rallo, stage director; David Hockney, production and set design; starring Camilla Nylund, Nina Stemme, Linda Watson, David Butt Philip

El Último Sueño De Frida Y Diego (The last dream of Frida and Diego), by Gabriela Lena Frank, June 13–30, 2023
Roberto Kalb, conductor; Lorena Maza, stage director; Jorge Ballina, stage designer; starring Daniela Mack, Alfredo Daza, Yaritza Véliz, Jacob Ingbar

– 100th Anniversary Concert, June 16, 2023
Eun Sun Kim, conductor