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'There's a Place for Us, Somewhere'

August 19, 2008

The wistful lyrics from West Side Story must have had a special meaning for David Gockley as he contemplated the lack of appropriate performance venues in the city. It was a couple of years ago, and Gockley had just arrived as the new general director of San Francisco Opera. Among the first questions asked of him was whether he'd be interested in reviving the company's old Spring Opera Theater. The answer was an instant "yes," clearly indicating that Gockley is among the many fans of the low-cost series featuring young talent in the 1960s and '70s.
The problem, Gockley said at the time, was that he couldn't find a medium-sized hall with stage facilities. Spring Opera used the Curran Theater most of the time, but the Best of Broadway series has made that venue unavailable.

War Memorial Opera House

Photo by Terrence McCarthy

Gockley told San Francisco Classical Voice last week that the search continues:
The Opera would greatly benefit from the availability of a 900-to 1,200-seat proscenium/pit theater during certain weeks when the Opera House is unavailable and when we want to present something on a smaller scale. A renovated Herbst Theatre, in the Veterans Building, could fill the bill, but only if other current users of Herbst get a new facility nearby — a recital/lecture hall, something like Lincoln Center's Tully Hall — that's less expensive to build than a small opera house as it won't require a pit, large stage, and fly tower.

Fixed up and without the demand from all groups, Herbst could serve the Opera, and other organizations needing a fully functioning theater. Organizations producing recitals, lectures, and concerts may prefer the new hall, but in any case would still have a choice.

Herbst Theatre

Photo by Jim Woollen

Similar dilemma, different players and requirements: The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble and several other groups are stuck in the Veterans Building's Green Room, a hall with unacceptably bad acoustics. True, one floor below, there is the excellent, chamber-music-perfect Herbst Theatre, but it's a bit too large (916 seats versus 300 in the Green Room) and definitely too pricey for small organizations to rent.

"There are a thousand stories in the city" about finding the right performances place for the right price, even though the situation today is far better than it has ever been. Consider that until the 1980 opening of Davies Symphony Hall, all three of the city's major music organizations — the Opera, the Symphony, and the Ballet — shared a single venue, the War Memorial Opera House.

Originally, Davies seated 3,000, but after it got a major acoustical fix in 1992, capacity dropped to 2,743. The 1932 Opera House, which underwent a $86.5 million seismic reconstruction in 1997, seats 3,146, and has 200 standing-room spaces. The Opera and the Symphony are the main users of the Harold L. Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall, adjacent to Davies Hall, a uniquely configured, large space, which can accommodate up to 300 people.

Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall

Photo by James Baldocchi

(Want to put on a show? You should be, or have, both an accountant and an attorney to figure out the cost of renting a hall, paying personnel, coughing up for insurance, and the like. See if you can figure out what it takes to rent the Opera House for a night.)

More recent developments, resulting especially from a veritable explosion of new and rebuilt museums around town, have radically changed the inventory of performance spaces, and there is more to come. Here's a chronological list of those mushrooming venues (excluding churches and schools, which would require a whole other survey):

  • In 1993, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts opened, offering Fumihiko Maki's flexible Forum (which can accommodate up to 600 persons), a 94-seat screening room (also available for live events), and what is now called the Novellus Theater, James Stewart Polshek's 755-seat hall, a truly multiuse space, suitable for everything from dance to chamber opera.
  • Yerba Buena Center's Novellus Theater

  • Architect Mario Botta's San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which opened in 1995, has a fine, small hall, the 278-seat Phyllis Wattis Theater. It could well be used for chamber music concerts, but the museum administration still hasn't rallied around the idea. The museum's spectacular lobby is also suitable for after-hours events, though acoustics here are far from hi-fi.
  • In 2003, the Asian Art Museum moved to the former Main Library, spiffed up gorgeously by Gae Aulenti, and what used to be the card index room became Samsung Hall. It seats 250, allowing for many additional standees, but acoustics and sightlines are poor. The museum's North and South Courts have large skylights, look great, and seat upward of 200 persons each, but the sound is not suitable for performances. (An old plan to build a 350-seat dedicated concert hall on a vacant lot adjacent to the museum is being "held in abeyance," lacking the $40-million-plus it would cost.)
  • The San Francisco Jewish Community Center, on California Street, was completely rebuilt in 2004, unveiling the 468-seat Kanbar Hall, an auditorium with good acoustics and excellent sightlines (when a built-in, modular riser structure is employed). The handsome hall, of cranberry-colored walls, black-and-red carpet, and white acoustic tiles forming the high ceiling, has a relatively attractive rental fee for nonprofits: approximately $2,000 per event, inclusive of all charges.
  • Renovated in 2005, the 1924 George Applegarth-designed Beaux Arts Legion of Honor is part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Its beautiful Louis XVI-style Little Theater, renamed in honor of Florence Gould, looks better than ever and provides passable acoustics but no backstage facilities or orchestra pit. It seats 316, and is used by Pocket Opera, as well as chamber music groups.
  • In 2005, while also beginning work on what has since become the Beijing Olympics' famed "Bird's Nest" stadium, Herzog & de Meuron rebuilt the 1895 de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park from the ground up, providing a plethora of venues, still not fully utilized: the Koret Auditorium (280 seats), Piazzoni Mural Room (150), de Young Café (190), Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden Terrace (500), and Wilsey Court (450). For music, Koret Auditorium is by far the best. For big events, several units may be combined to seat as many as 1,250, and the rental is about $20,000. Don't expect your typical string quartet there anytime soon.
  • De Young Museum

  • The San Francisco Conservatory of Music moved, at the end of 2006, to a new $80 million facility near the Civic Center, after SMWM Architects transformed an old ballroom into a first-class concert hall, seating 404, with additional standing room. The building is packed with performance venues, including the 100-seat Osher Salon, a 121-seat recital hall, the Kimball Green Room for artists preparing for a performance, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Student Lounge, the Phyllis Wattis Atrium, the Milton Salkind Terrace, 44 studios, 14 classrooms, 33 practice rooms, a 6,500-square-foot music library, a percussion suite, a keyboard lab, and recording and electronic music studios. Concert Hall rental for nonprofits starts at $1,600.
  • Conservatory Concert Hall

  • Just a couple of months ago, Daniel Libeskind's Contemporary Jewish Museum opened across Mission Street from Yerba Buena, sporting a huge blue cube standing on its corner. Inside is the Yud Gallery, which could probably accommodate 100-plus for events. In the main building — a former power substation, designed by Willis Polk in 1907 — there is the 250-seat Richard and Rhoda Goldman Hall, a flexible auditorium. It hasn't proved itself yet as a performance venue, mostly for lack of trying. Exploration of the place may be deterred, in part, by the $6,500 rental fee per weekend evening.
  • Outside and inside the Contemporary's cube

The Future, Near and Far, Real and Possible

A segment of the California Academy of Sciences' all-glass piazza

  • On Sept. 27, Renzo Piano's stunning, $488 million California Academy of Sciences building will open in Golden Gate Park, across from the de Young, both museums having been razed and replaced by bold new structures. It will take time to figure out the venue possibilities in the enormous Academy building, all 410,000 square feet of it. It's already clear that its flexible Forum (which can accommodate some 180 people) and revolutionary new, 300-seat Planetarium may well add to the city's performance-venue inventory. The 90-foot dome with a 75-foot screen will debut as the country's largest planetarium.
  • One configuration of the California Academy of Sciences Forum

    Additionally, the Academy sports a central piazza surrounded by glass (not using columns for support), creating a huge open space and making the building transparent across its East-West axis. And, if the city ever produces an underwater opera, there could be no better place for it than the Academy's new Steinhart Aquarium, a dumbfounding combination of indoor tropical rainforest, coral reef, California's coastal ecosystem, a new perspective on the Amazon river, a crocodile-filled swamp, and a "Costa Rican Butterfly Canopy" full of free-flying butterflies. Come to think of it, it's a place entertaining enough without opera.

    • Then there are ongoing stories about two possible museums in the Presidio, with much feuding in the planning process; each may include performance venues.
    • The San Francisco Giants are said to be planning to exchange their 16-acre Parking Lot A, used by up to 2,000 cars during games, for a concert hall structure, seating between 4,000 and 5,000. Will believe it when I see it.
    • From time to time, rumors are floated about a medium-size music theater to be built on the now empty lot kitty-corner from the War Memorial, at Van Ness and Grove. There was a dreamy plan for this plot of earth not long ago, invoking a specter of Munich's Cuvillés Theater, but in spite of its perfect location and apparent availability, the lot is just sitting there, an eyesore instead of becoming an important junior partner for San Francisco Opera.

    Of Landlords and Earthquakes
    The owner/operator of performance spaces in the Civic Center is the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center. The center comprises the War Memorial Opera House, the Veterans Building (including Herbst Theatre and Green Room), Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, Harold L. Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall, and the Memorial Court — over an area of 7 1/2 acres.

    Location of the Performing Arts Center overlaps with the Civic Center's many major buildings, such as City Hall, an old and a new State Building, several court buildings, city and state offices, along with the San Francisco Ballet Building, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the new Main Library, and the Asian Art Museum that supplanted the old library building, the Conservatory of Music's new headquarters, and so on.

    In yet another overlap — of a most complex nature — the $1 billion federal-state-city-business-individual seismic upgrade project involves both the Performing Arts Center and other Civic Center buildings. Thus multimillion-dollar seismic retrofits have applied equally to the Opera House (PAC) and City Hall (CC) through multiple-entity organizations without clearly discernible top leadership. In spite of the strong potential for chaos, retrofitting has been an unqualified success, preserving the Opera House's acoustics, City Hall's classical architecture, and so on, while modernizing facilities, and making the buildings safer.

    No fiddler on these roofs

    Photo by Janos Gereben

    Against this good-news story, which I have followed closely for the past two decades, there was an unexpected sight just this Sunday, as I idly surveyed this heart of the city. High in the sky, there! not a bird, not Superman, but rust and decay, on both Opera House roofs (one over the auditorium, the other over the fly tower), in stark contrast with the excellent condition of the new and renovated buildings. Considering that the city has gone without rain for some six months now, I wonder what might have mottled those roofs. And, a related question: What will happen once the much-delayed, hoped-for rains do arrive?

    Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].