Backstage with Matthew December 18, 2017

Backstage with Matthew: Looking Back with Joy

On December 10th we lowered the curtain on a fall season bursting with extraordinary opera. I am so proud to work for a company that makes possible this kind of work—both our exceptionally talented employees, and our generous and dedicated audiences. You all enable us to sustain one of the great opera companies of the world, and I am very grateful for the role you played this fall in bringing soaringly impactful opera to the stage. 

In this last backstage email of 2017, I wanted to share with you a few of the stories you may not have been aware of this year—aspects of our work and art that took place behind the scenes, or that were new ventures for us. This is by no means a comprehensive list, rather a sampling of the diverse activities that make us the company we are.

Recently, a number of mainstage artists took a trip to San Quentin prison to present a concert of arias, ensembles and spirituals, shared with a mesmerized audience of inmates, correctional officers and staff. The artists then engaged in a talkback session, exploring the impact of opera as a story-telling art-form, and its ability to connect people to their deeper emotions. It was a moving experience both for the San Quentin community and the artists, and we hope to build and develop this into a more regular program.

SFO artists talkback with inmates at San Quentin
Artists from SFO’s productions of Girls of the Golden West and Turandot engage in a talkback with correctional inmates at San Quentin recently. Photo: Stefan Cohen.

In April this year, we discovered with horror that our legendary Turandot production had sustained major water damage and had to be drastically remediated and, in part, rebuilt, during the summer. Our productions are currently stored in shipping containers on Treasure Island, and the combination of rust, salt water, and sweating inside the containers has led to major problems in our scenic storage. We are in the process of rehousing our scenery, but the refurbishment of Turandot was a major triumph for the production department, including our scenic facility in Burlingame. They lovingly researched and recreated the stunning painted drops, giving us a bold and vital new look at this iconic David Hockney production.

damage to our Turandot set
Scenic damage to our 
Turandot production before a major restoration effort.

Turandot restored to it's vibrant glory
The glorious colors and fabrics of 
Turandot, lovingly restored by SFO’s crews. Photo: Cory Weaver. 

On the administrative side we saw major upgrades this fall in two support systems. First we changed our payroll system from a thirteen-year old program to UltiPro, a much more nimble and responsive program better equipped to handle the complexities of our payroll. With a large variety of different contracts and work-rules, our payroll runs are multi-layered and fiendishly complex. After six months of preparation and hundreds of hours work, including checking more than 4,000 historic payroll records, the switch was flipped and, thanks to the collective talents of our Finances, IS and HR teams under CFO Michael Simpson, the first payroll run was a complete success!

On the fifth floor of the Opera House is our music library with vocal scores, recordings and many other resources available to members of the Company and visiting artists. This year we moved to a digitized library management system, allowing company members to browse and request materials right from their desktops. The cataloguing and barcoding of the collection began in 2015 and is still ongoing under the supervision of DeAnna Sherer and Michael Bragg, but the system is already active and revolutionizing the way we work with musical materials in the company.

Our library barcoding and new software
Barcoding the library’s holdings and the new app-based library software.

The Opera is a place of continual exploration, learning, research and development. New productions yield new challenges and the Opera’s employees rise to those challenges with gusto and enthusiasm. An example this year was in our production of Manon in which you may recall a tutu’d ballerina in the gambling scene. The tutu that arrived from Lithuania did not work size-wise and so a new tutu had to be built. Unlike our colleagues at the Ballet, we don’t typically see tutus on the opera stage, and so our costume shop had a crash course in tutu-making, leading to one of our assistant cutters, Kristen Eiden, developing this new skill and creating an exquisite tutu for us. This kind of professional growth is so endemic to this company—it’s fabulous to see the hunger for new opportunities and adventures!

Kristen Eiden's tutu created for our production of Manon
SFO Dancer, Rachel Spiedel Little, wearing Kristen Eiden’s tutu in Manon, with Robert Brubaker as Guillot. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Over in the Wilsey Center and the Edward Paul Braby Archive, our Director of Archives, Barbara Rominski is forging a terrific path, creating a more formal and dynamic repository of this Company’s storied legacy. Barbara oversees a mighty volunteer force of twenty people, including past employees, who give generously of their time. I thought you might enjoy a few statistics. This year they collectively contributed 3,350 volunteer hours. They inventoried and prepared for digitization 50,000 35mm slides. They transcribed 200 reviews from the 1920s to the 1960s. And they digitized all our program books from 1923-1960. This is herculean work and we are deeply indebted to the volunteers who are so dedicated to preserving the extraordinary history of SFO. If you’ve not explored it, I’d recommend a visit to our digital archive where you can delve deep into the who/what/where of our past!

entering the Archive
The entrance to our Archive in the Wilsey Center. 

Also over in the Wilsey Center is our Marketing Department, under the new leadership of Lisa Bullard who joined us this fall from the Philadelphia Orchestra. We are working hard to improve the increasingly challenging experience of getting to, and parking at, the Opera House, and one of our newer marketing staffers, Steven Shear, is overseeing the development of a number of patron enhancements including our Chariot Bus Service which is in its second season, running between the Civic Center Bart Station and the Opera House. We also have a Sunday shuttle service that transports patrons to and from Palo Alto. We and our colleague arts companies want the experience of getting to the arts district to be as easy, stress-free and safe as possible and are collectively working on ways to improve this. This fall over 1,600 Opera patrons were served through the shuttle service.

On a festive note, some of you experienced the exuberant Sol3 Mio concert on December 1 with Adler Fellows Pene Pati, Amitai Pati and their cousin Moses Mackay, giving us a joyous holiday experience, accompanied by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and beautifully lit by our Assistant Lighting Designer Mark Hueske Thomas. In our commitment to becoming a more nimble, experimental organization, we developed a number of pilot programs around the concert, with dedicated staff members taking on leadership of the concert itself as well as experiential enhancements both inside and outside the Opera House. These experiments were supported by an OPERA America Innovation Grant (generously funded by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation) allowing us to develop, test and refine user experiences and then share outcomes with the field. I was particularly excited by our “Holibevvies Lounge”: we took over the parking area at the rear of the Opera House, and brought in food trucks and vendors to create a Holiday Fair pre-show experience. It is so exciting to feel a dynamic energy outside the building, welcoming people to the arts district and trumpeting to everyone driving up Franklin Street that this is a place to be! I’m so grateful to all those employees who participated in making this such a success. 

A special holiday pre-show lounge
The Holibevvies Lounge outside the Opera House as part of our Sol3Mio holiday concert. Photo: Kristen Loken.

After being at San Francisco Opera for almost 13 years now (by which reckoning I’m still a newbie given the incredible longevity of so many in the Opera Family), I realize how much one begins to see the cycle of life within our opera community. I wanted to end with a heartwarming piece of ‘family’ news. A few years ago our Principal Clarinet, Jose Gonzalez Granero (from Spain) and one of our First Violins, Annie Asuka Yano (from Japan) met in the Opera Orchestra and married. We were thrilled earlier this year to welcome Luna Sofia Yano-Granero into the world—beautiful evidence of the connective power of our art-form!

a family portrait
First Violinist Annie Asuka Yano, Principal Clarinet Jose Gonzalez Granero with their daughter Luna Sofia Yano-Granero.

San Francisco Opera is an incredible community that each of us is so privileged to be a part of. It is a community replete with amazing stories of dedication, possibility and talent, and for every story told here there are another thousand waiting to be told. Thank you for being a part of a community so rich in life and vitality and for all you do to celebrate this extraordinary art-form. I hope that you have a peaceful and festive holiday season, full of good cheer and merriment. Thank you for making 2017 such a spectacular one for SFO and for looking forward with us to 2018 and that most monumental of operatic experiences: The Ring!

By the way, if you’re interested in what I’m listening to this holiday season, here’s a little Spotify playlist—an eclectic compilation of some of my favorites!

Backstage with Matthew: Sitting Side by Side