San Francisco Opera | Backstage with Matthew: Creativity amidst Adversity

Creativity amidst Adversity

Happy July 4th Weekend! I hope that you are staying well and that you have been able to enjoy a festive weekend. I hope that you’ll tune in tonight at 8pm to Classical KDFC for our Broadway edition of The Opera Hour. President of KDFC Bill Lueth and I will explore the operatic side of Broadway in this holiday-weekend festival of song!

It is hard to believe that it’s July already – time is moving in very strange ways in this pandemic. It feels in the same breath as though time has both stood still since March, and that it’s careened forward at unbelievable speed. We have missed being together with our Company members, our artists, and our audiences over the last few months, so I am particularly happy that we are gathering digitally on July 10 for a very special event: Celebrating the Summer Season! Beginning at 7:30pm on Friday July 10, and available for the whole weekend, we will be sharing a very special program honoring the operas and artists of our summer season.

We’ll hear some fabulous music making from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, with arias and conversations with some of the extraordinary artists who would have been on our stage these past weeks. It’s a wonderful chance to connect with the artistic energy of San Francisco Opera and to experience the creativity that that is being kept alive during this time of otherwise silence. So many company members are coming together to make this event possible and it’s been very exciting for us to be building up to a performance again! Please join us on Friday evening for this very special presentation – we’ll be coming to you from the media suite of the Opera House and I hope that you’ll join us at

Doug Mitchell and Stage Manager Jenny Harber

Master Audio/Video Engineer Doug Mitchell and Stage Manager Jenny Harber, preparing for our 7/10 event in the Media Suite.

The arts are facing so much uncertainty at the moment, but we are remaining creative and optimistic that we will get back to live music making however, wherever, and whenever we can. I feel a tremendous collective energy for us to return and for us to create the next chapter of this great Company. Live music making will feel so different on the other side of this: each and every note will have greater meaning; the stories we tell must have greater resonance; the very act of gathering will be treasured as something special. I am very eager to continue this journey back to our stage.

New banners on the front of the Opera House

The new banners on the front of the Opera House celebrating the online work of the Opera and Ballet.

We are seeing hints at the return of opera, and I am so proud that the music directors of San Francisco Opera, present and former, are leading the way, finding exciting ways to create live music in cities where there are more opportunities to make music in ensemble. (At the moment in San Francisco we cannot have two singers in a room together, but we are working on protocols to help make that possible.)

  • Eun Sun Kim is currently in Paris, preparing for a very exciting upcoming live concert – “Le Concert de Paris”. She will be conducting the annual Bastille Day concert at the base of the Eiffel Tower with L’Orchestre National de France.

  • Just a few days ago, Nicola Luisotti led the Teatro Real in Madrid in the first of a month of Traviata performances starring Michael Fabiano among other San Francisco Opera friends. You can see a video of the Libiamo here, showing the social distancing grid that they used onstage.

  • A few weeks ago, Donald Runnicles led the Deutsche Oper Berlin in a reduced version of Wagner’s Das Rheingold on the top story of the parking garage of the opera company! You can see some highlights here.

Artists are craving the opportunity to return to music making — it’s in the DNA of everyone who works in a company like ours, and I wanted to share with you some particularly impactful moments of music making from the past weeks from members of the SFO family. I hope that you enjoy watching:

  • J’Nai Bridges singing a medley including “He’s got the whole world” conducted by Gustavo Dudamel at the Hollywood Bowl just a few days ago during Global Goal: Unite for Our Future. It was just a year ago that J’Nai was on our stage for Carmen performances and it’s so meaningful to see her creating music live in this way.

  • Louise Alder singing “Tornami a vagheggiar” from Handel’s Alcina, live from the Royal Opera House stage in their first on-stage event, accompanied by their music director Antonio Pappano. Louise was to have been our Partenope, and this will give you a sense of what we’ve missed. You can see Louise featured in our Celebrating the Summer Season event on July 10.

  • Nina Stemme singing the Wesendonck Lieder by Wagner, performed with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert. This was probably the first orchestra to return to performance, back in May, and the experience of seeing 40 or so musicians with Nina in the midst of them is so powerful. (The Wesendonck Lieder begin at 12:12.)

  • And for something really fun and fabulously produced, our Assistant Principal Cellist, Peter Myers, playing his own arrangement of the Nintendo Wii Shop Music, multi-tracking himself in almost infinite permutations. This is some extraordinary at-home music making!

I cannot begin to express how meaningful it is to see creativity beginning to return to our world. It has been a very long period of silence but as you can tell from these examples above, and as you’ll see on July 10, the world is gradually finding its voice again. We still have a very long, hard road ahead of us but moments of creativity are still here and they give me great hope.

At San Francisco Opera, we have also been able to reenergize creativity in other areas of our work. Our scene shop opened about a month ago down in Burlingame and our costume shop opened just a couple of weeks ago as manufacturing guidelines have made possible the return to work in these spaces. The return has been carefully governed by protocols developed by our Production Department and, in particular, our Technical and Safety Director, Erik Walstad.

One of our many safety protocols

One of the many safety protocols put together by our Production Department to govern work on the stage.

Our shops are working on a few projects for future seasons so that we can be better prepared for when our return to the stage happens. We have been able to do some maintenance work on the Opera House stage, again under very strict protocols. I’ll share more information about this work at a later date, but I wanted to recognize here the deep-rooted creativity of the employees of San Francisco Opera and all they are making possible at the moment.

Work happening on the Opera House stage

Work happening on the Opera House stage following strict protocols.

The newly reopened Costume Shop

Costume Director Daniel McCartan looking out over the newly reopened Costume Shop.

When we are producing opera, we solve intractable problems with collaboration, creativity, and a vast collective of artistic and technical talents. We are all now working on a challenge more intractable than any of us have ever experienced — how to safely bring back opera to the stage. I have complete confidence that the creativity of San Francisco Opera will find that pathway, and we will all take that pathway together.

I look forward to being with you on July 10 for Celebrating the Summer Season. Thank you for believing in San Francisco Opera and for supporting us as we journey with you back to our stage. Each and every one of us wants to see our gold curtain rise once again, to be in the same space — creators and audience together, sharing the energy of live performance.

With warmest wishes,

Susannah and Sam Polk Speak: An Interview with Patricia Racette and Brandon Jovanovich
American Icon: Carlisle Floyd Talks About Life and Opera