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Coronavirus Shuts Down San Francisco Opera for the Rest of the Year

June 16, 2020

As most opera houses remain shuttered by COVID-19 around the world, San Francisco Opera today announced the news long feared by hundreds of singers, orchestra members, production workers, thousands of loyal audience members, and restaurants going broke around the War Memorial: the 2020 SF Opera fall season is canceled.

SF Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago today joined the Metropolitan Opera shutting down through the year, making a nine-month hiatus for the country’s three largest opera companies uniform.

“It is heartbreaking to have to make this announcement today,” said SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock. “It will mean a full year without opera on the War Memorial stage, and the loss of projects that would have connected powerfully with our world today.

“As painful as this moment is, we remain a company of extraordinarily creative artists, artisans, and technicians, dedicated to doing everything we can to bring opera to life in other contexts, whether digitally or live in other venues, as government mandates and critical issues of safety allow.

“The creative urge to share our art with audiences has never been stronger. I am so grateful to every member of the Opera family for their resilience and belief. We will keep the music alive.”

Shilvock responded to questions from SF Classical Voice about the lack of specifics in SF Opera’s announcement about salaries, contracts, and staff cutbacks, saying, “All that is being discussed in conversations that begin now.” He did not offer a timeframe for when that information will become available.

At a video-conference staff meeting earlier today, SF Opera employees heard the news about the cancellation but were not told about their future. This approach to the fall season is in contrast to Shilvock’s statement to SF Classical Voice at the time of his cancellation of the summer season in April, when he pledged “full compensation and benefits for employees through the current May 3 shelter-in-place period.”

Most music organizations canceling their seasons include the status of their artists and staff in the announcement. Some are as specific as the Nashville Symphony, listing the furloughing of 79 musicians and 49 staff members. On the other hand, the Metropolitan Opera created a storm of protest when furloughing an enormous number of people at the cancellation of performances in 2020, but communication was incomplete and some artists were finding out what had happened on social media, not from the Met.

At the time of the summer season cancellation in April, Shilvock said 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.” Presumably, the same negotiations are in progress again.

Asked what is added now to his estimate in April of the company’s $8 million loss as the result of the summer season’s cancellation, Shilvock said no ticket sales and reduced contributions for the fall are expected to cause a 27-percent reduction in revenue, an approximate loss of $20 million.

SF Opera’s most recent fiscal situation showed a $72.5 million budget, “pre-COVID.” Shilvock said both the current and next budget are now being revised according to major new developments. 

The company’s total assets at the end of fiscal year 2019 were $273 million, according to SF Opera Chief Financial Officer Michael Simpson, total operating expenses were $78.6 million, and the operating deficit was $650,000.

“The summer loss will impact FY20, and any loss in the upcoming fall will be reflected in our FY21,” Simpson said. No information was available about possible use of the company’s endowment, but the SF Opera financial statement shows “$15.6 million unrestricted endowment funds available for unplanned use of cash.”

Good news from Shilvock is that the Adler Program will continue during the shutdown; the young artists will receive remote instruction from Music Director Designate Eun Sun Kim and others. However, the Adlers’ “Future Is Now” concert is canceled along with all other public performances, and next year, there will be no selections for the Adler program:

“The company has learned a great deal about remote training over these past months and will plan for fall training based on what we’ve learned. The Adlers will also continue to take part in online content creation, as well as any upcoming performances should we be allowed to produce events in the fall.”

Having lost the 2020 summer session (Verdi’s Ernani, Handel’s Partenope, and the Bay Area premiere of Mason Bates and Mark Campbell’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs), these are now the fall cancellations, 37 performances of five operas, in addition to concerts and major fundraising events:

  •  Opening Night Celebration Concert, Sept. 11: Eun Sun Kim, conductor; with soprano Albina Shagimuratova and tenor Pene Pati

  •  Fidelio, Sept. 12 – Oct. 1: Eun Sun Kim, conductor; with Elza van den Heever, Simon O’Neill, Falk Struckmann, Eric Owens, Alfred Walker

  •  Rigoletto, Sept. 13 – Oct. 4: Sir Mark Elder, conductor; with George Gagnidze, Nina Minasyan, Pene Pati, Zanda Švēde

  •  Così fan tutte, Oct. 6–28: Speranza Scappucci, conductor; with Jennifer Davis, Irene Roberts, Frédéric Antoun, John Chest, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Hera Hyesang Park

  •  Opera in the Park with soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, Oct. 18

  •  The Handmaid’s Tale, West Coast Premiere, Oct. 29 – Nov. 22: Thomas Søndergård, conductor; with Sasha Cooke, Michaela Martens, Sarah Cambidge, James Creswell, Abigail Levis, Katrina Galka, Rhoslyn Jones, Nicole Birkland, Sara Couden

  •  La bohème, Nov. 15 – Dec. 6: Nicola Luisotti, conductor; with Maria Agresta/Aurelia Florian (double-cast), Michael Fabiano/Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Amina Edris/Janai Brugger, Artur Ruciński/Anthony Clark Evans, Soloman Howard, Dale Travis

  •  The Future Is Now: Adler Fellows Concert, Nov. 27

Ticketholders will be contacted with options including contributing the value of their tickets as a tax-deductible donation, receiving a gift certificate for the value of their tickets, or obtaining a full refund. Ticket holders may also visit sfopera/fall2020 now to select their preferred ticket options.

The following are scheduled productions in 2021, possibly with additions because of the fall cancellations and the revised time for the replacement of seats in the War Memorial:

  •  The Barber of Seville, April 25 – May 16: Roderick Cox, conductor; with Lucas Meachem, Daniela Mack/Stephanie Lauricella (double-cast), Levy Sekgapane/Lawrence Brownlee, Maurizio Muraro, Simon Lim, Catherine Cook

  •  Der Zwerg, April 27 – May 15: Henrik Nánási, conductor; with Clay Hilley, Heidi Stober, Sarah Cambidge

  •  Concert: A Celebration of Verdi and Wagner, May 2, 6, 8: Henrik Nánási, conductor; with sopranos Lianna Haroutounian and Iréne Theorin

In today’s announcement, Shilvock spoke of his determination to save some of the canceled projects:

It is hard to imagine an opera more resonant than Fidelio, particularly in what would have been a profound interpretation by our Music Director Eun Sun Kim and stage director Matthew Ozawa. We hope to find homes for the new projects of Fidelio, Così fan tutte and The Handmaid’s Tale in future seasons — they are all operas that speak to the creative potential of San Francisco Opera.”

Eun Sun Kim, whose conducting debut in the role of music director is now delayed, responded to the cancellation announcement:

As I’ve been preparing Fidelio, I’ve been reminded of one of Beethoven’s most powerful ideals: per aspera ad astra, which means “through hardship to the stars.” Perhaps this philosophy can offer inspiration to us now, while we are separated by physical distance, each nurturing our own small flames of dedication to our beloved art form.

When our orchestra, chorus, and loyal audiences are finally reunited at the War Memorial, these individual lights will be magnified, reminding us all of the community we continue to build with each note played and sung. We must take comfort in the knowledge that this time of hardship is not our ultimate destination — we will persevere until we reach those stars.”

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