A Surprise Highlights San Francisco Opera’s 2020–2021 Season

Janos Gereben on January 22, 2020
Set model for Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Not since his recent announcement of Eun Sun Kim’s appointment as the company’s music director designate has San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock sounded as enthusiastic as when we talked about the next season:

“I am thrilled that it is coming to our stage — it’s such a gorgeous, sumptuous, multi-layered piece,” he said.

“It” is the surprise of SF Opera’s 2020–2021 season, which Shilvock announced today, the company premiere of Alexander Zemlinsky’s 1922 Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), April 27 – May 15, 2021.

Scene from Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg | Credit: Robert Millard

Given the inevitable “old warhorse” lineup — albeit with some brilliant casting — this is an unexpected appearance of an operatic rarity. It was performed for the first time on the West Coast in 2008, as part of James Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” series at LA Opera. This series — unfortunately suspended for some years — revived works by Jewish composers who were silenced in the Holocaust.

The one-act opera is based on Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Birthday of the Infanta,” about an outsider who courts a princess in vain. Zemlinsky — who taught Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Wolfgang Korngold among others — might have been prompted to write the opera by his dismissal as “a hideous gnome” by his pupil Alma Schindler, who left him for Gustav Mahler (and, subsequently, Walter Gropius and then Franz Werfel).

Henrik Nánási will conduct, stage direction is by the debuting Darko Tresnjak, and the cast features sopranos Heidi Stober and Sarah Cambidge and American heldentenor Clay Hilley.

Thomas Søndergård | Credit: Martin Bubandt

Also different, although expected, is the West Coast premiere of Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Oct. 29 – Nov. 22, 2020), in a new English-language coproduction with the Royal Danish Opera. The opera is based on Margaret Atwood’s novel about a dystopian American future where fertile women are forced into child-bearing servitude by a theocratic regime.

Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård makes his company debut, along with Royal Danish Opera Artistic Director John Fulljames as stage director and set designer Chloe Lamford. The cast includes mezzos Sasha Cooke and Michaela Martens, Cambidge, and bass-baritone James Creswell.

Be ready for unusual dates during the next summer season because the War Memorial will be closed from May through August next year for the long-delayed replacement of orchestra, grand tier, and dress circle seats in the theater. So, while the fall 2020 Opera season will be as usual, September through December, summer 2021 performances will be moved up to April and May. The seating upgrade will be first seen on Sept. 10, 2021, at the opening of SF Opera’s 2021–2022 season.

Something else that’s new: the 2020 opening night will be a gala concert, rather than an opera. SF Opera’s 98th season opens on Sept. 11, with the Opera Orchestra conducted by Eun Sun Kim, and featuring soprano Albina Shagimuratova and tenor Pene Pati in concert.

Soprano Albina Shagimuratova (above) and tenor Pene Pati will sing at the season-opening gala concert | Credit: Laura Cassi

Promised for the evening: “a program of virtuosic arias and passionate love duets spanning from Bellini to Broadway.” Festivities include SF Opera Guild’s Opera Ball, Bravo! Club’s Opening Night Gala, and two new events: the Opera Supper in the Veterans Building’s Green Room and, for the entire audience, a celebratory post-concert toast to the season.

On the next day, Sept. 12, Kim — full title: San Francisco Opera’s Caroline H. Hume Music Director Designate — will be on the podium again to lead a new production of Fidelio, marking Beethoven’s 250th birthday year. The opera is directed by Matthew Ozawa, whose father was born in an internment camp in Wyoming during World War II. His production places Beethoven’s ode to freedom in a government holding facility, similar to those seen in present day on the border with Mexico.

Ozawa says Fidelio is “a shockingly relevant work that has served as a symbol of hope for generations of people afflicted by oppression and tyranny. At the heart of our story is a woman, a vision for the modern age, whose personal sacrifice to free her husband results in the liberation of all those imprisoned. What better way to embrace the opera’s revolutionary history than to view the story through a modern lens, highlighting both our heroine as well as the global detention crisis through this production.

“My hope is that experiencing this opera not only helps us shine a light on injustice but reminds us that we too have the power to be agents of change.”

Fidelio set design by Alexander V. Nichols

Built entirely in the company’s Bay Area scenery, costume, and wig shops, the production features a rotating cube of cells, interrogation rooms, and offices, with video surveillance feeds showing the activities of detainees in all areas of the facility. The sets and projections are designed by Alexander V. Nichols, costumes by Jessica Jahn.

Merola Opera Program alumna Elza van den Heever — who sings with SF Opera for the first time since 2007 — is cast as Leonore, Simon O’Neill is Florestan, Falk Struckmann is Pizarro, Eric Owens portrays Rocco, and Alfred Walker is Fernando.

Set design for Così fan tutte

Shilvock emphasizes the importance of Beethoven’s opera “in this season of thrilling storytelling on the War Memorial stage, and a season of some very special one-time events. In new productions of Fidelio, Così fan tutte, and The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as the company premiere of Der Zwerg, we will experience people striving to overcome obstacles of society, yearning for the triumph of hope.”

Special concert events featuring great singers include an October presentation of Opera in the Park, the annual free concert in Golden Gate Park, headlined by soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, and a May 2021 concert with sopranos Lianna Haroutounian and Iréne Theorin performing arias by Verdi and Wagner, Nánási leading the SF Opera Orchestra in the War Memorial Opera House.

"Opera in the Park" 2016 | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The rest of the season:

* Verdi’s Rigoletto, Sept. 13 – Oct. 4, Sir Mark Elder conducting, with Georgian baritone George Gagnidze in the title role; Armenian soprano Nina Minasyan makes her American operatic debut as Gilda, Pati reprises his role as the Duke of Mantua.

Speranza Scappucci will conduct Così fan tutte | Credit: Silke

* Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Oct. 6–28, directed by Michael Cavanagh in the second of the company’s Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy, in set designer Erhard Rom’s “Great American House.” Liege Royal Opera Music Director Speranza Scappucci conducts; the cast includes Irish soprano Jennifer Davis as Fiordiligi, in her American debut; mezzo Irene Roberts returning as Dorabella; Korean soprano Hera Hyesang Park in a company debut as Despina; another company debut by Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun as Ferrando; baritone John Chest as Guglielmo; and Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Alfonso.

* Puccini’s La bohème, Nov. 15 – Dec. 6, reprising the 2004 production with John Caird’s direction, and stage design by David Farley and Michael James Clark. Former SF Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducts; Italian soprano Maria Agresta makes her company debut as Mimi; tenor Michael Fabiano is Rodolfo; soprano Amina Edris, a former Adler Fellow, is Musetta. In the second cast, Romanian soprano Aurelia Florian is Mimi, Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz is Rodolfo, and soprano Janai Brugger is Musetta.

Scott Conner as Colline, Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Rodolfo, Erika Grimaldi as Mimì, Ellie Dehn as Musetta, and Audun Iversen as Marcello in SFO's 2017 production of Puccini’s La Bohème | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

* Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, April 25 – May 16, 2021, is a a co-production with the Lithuanian National Opera, conducted by Roderick Cox in his company debut; Emilio Sagi is stage director; Llorenç Corbella is set designer. Another of the many company debuts is South African tenor Levy Sekgapane as Count Almaviva; Merola Program alumni Daniela Mack and Lucas Meachem sing Rosina and Figaro, respectively. Stephanie Lauricella is Rosina in three performances, along with Lawrence Brownlee as Almaviva.