SFOpera - Backstage with Matthew: Reflections

Backstage with Matthew: Reflections

What an incredible year of opera we have just experienced!

It all began on April 13 when we began our first musical rehearsals for the Ring cycle, ushering in eight months of intense creativity and transformational artistic experiences onstage.

The Ring was one of those moments that defined San Francisco Opera as one of the great opera companies of the world: a level of excellence in all aspects of our art and craft that made this Ring a life-changing experience for many, and one that scaled the heights of emotional possibility.

Ring Cast

Ring Cast

Ring Cast

Ring Cast

Backstage remembrances of the Ring.

Soon after that we immersed ourselves into the first season of programming for the new management team, which was at the same time exhilarating and nail-biting for me! As we close out this year, I thought it might be interesting to reflect back on 2018 and some of my own personal highlights, both onstage and off. I don’t have space to speak to everything here, so this is just a brief reflection on a few of the exciting moments we’ve had.

First is the immense pride felt by the whole company and community as we unveiled our new Tosca production by director Shawna Lucey and designers Robert Innes Hopkins and Michael James Clark. This is the first of our so-called “legacy productions” – new productions that are intended to become repertoire classics for us. These will become lasting parts of our repertoire for decades, much as have been the productions that they replace. From the conception to the design to the building, the entire SFO family brought a level of care, love and skill to this new production. Along with the stratospheric talents of Carmen Giannattasio making her role and house debut, this became a moment of incredible collective accomplishment in which it really did feel as though we were seeing the piece as new.

Shawna Lucy

Director Shawna Lucey presenting her new Tosca production at the design presentation.

Tosca Cast

Brian Jagde, Carmen Giannattasio, Scott Hendricks, bringing this new production to life.

The impact of Tosca is further heightened now that we have a new facility in which to store it! Our new scenic warehouse in the Central Valley allows us, for the first time in many years, to properly store and care for our scenery. As a major repertory company, we need to be able to program new productions along with established ones, but the number of productions we own has diminished greatly over the years. With productions like our new Tosca, and our Carmen next June (a Francesca Zambello production that we purchased from Opera Australia), we are gradually rebuilding that repertoire, but we needed safe and secure storage for these critical assets. You may recall the shocking situation with David Hockney’s Turandot last year, in which we had to rebuild much of the set after it began to disintegrate in containers on Treasure Island. Now that iconic production is safely stored in the warehouse filled with racks specifically designed by our production team. The stunning Turandot, our beautiful new Tosca and other beloved San Francisco Opera productions will now have secure storage until we bring them back to the War Memorial or another company rents them.


Our new Modesto warehouse providing essential storage for our opera productions. (Photo: Ryan O’Steen.)

An incredible number of you have told me that Roberto Devereux was one of the greatest experiences that you’ve had, not only in this theater, but in any theater! For many it was an unexpected revelation, not only in the astounding artistry of Sondra Radvanovsky, Russell Thomas, Jamie Barton and the rest of our phenomenal cast, or in the stunning production of Stephen Lawless, but also in the piece itself and the dramatic intensity of this early 19th century journey into the romantic world of Queen Elizabeth I. I’ve talked before about the importance of “total art” in our artistic philosophy – the idea that every aspect of what we do has to work perfectly if one is to have a moment of transcendence in the opera house. And that is what happened here. Musically, dramatically, visually, experientially – for so many of you this clicked in just the right way, and it was a fabulous reminder of how a work like that can take you by surprise and create a lifelong memory.

Devereux Cast

The amazing Roberto Devereux cast!

We were very grateful to enter into new collective bargaining agreements with a number of our labor partners this past year, including the Stage Crew (IATSE Local 16), the San Francisco Opera Orchestra (AFM Local 6), the Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild (IATSE Local 706), the Theatrical Wardrobe Union (IATSE Local 784) and the Art Directors Guild (IATSE Local 800). We are blessed to have incredibly talented people in so many different disciplines make up the Company and are very grateful for the collegial partnership of our labor unions in bringing thrilling opera to life in our theater.


Many of you have been aware of the long process to secure a stronger connection between arts funding and the hotel tax in San Francisco. This has been four years in the making and has seen all of the arts and cultural groups in the City, large and small, come together in an unprecedented way. The goal: to champion a more robust public commitment to the arts. On November 6, in our second ballot attempt, the vitality of the arts prevailed and, with the full support of Mayor Breed and the Board of Supervisors, we realized over 75% of the vote! It is a historic turning point for the arts in San Francisco and I am so grateful to all of you who participated in its success.

Yes to prop E

It was such a joy to have It’s a Wonderful Life on our stage and I want to recognize the whole SFO family for bringing Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s new opera to life with such heart and creative soul. Our great friends at Houston Grand Opera originated the work very successfully in 2016 and we were able to build upon that original presentation, working with the creators to make musical, dramatic and visual changes that helped bring the production to an even greater level of storytelling and emotional impact. It was heartwarming to see so many people respond so positively to the work, bringing families, and singing with gusto Auld Lang Syne at the end (both in the audience and behind the scenes!). And we were very proud to develop a community partnership with our friends at Community Housing Partnership and Compass Family Services in our Earn Your Wings campaign, supported by OPERA America’s Innovation Grants. At a time of such great tragedy with the terrible Camp Fire, it was very meaningful to have a work that spoke with such positivity to audiences and to our broader community.

Wonderful Life Cast

The It’s a Wonderful Life family.

Patrons and wings

Patrons engaging with our angel wings filled with notes of good deeds.

Finally, I will never forget this year as the one where I got to sing with Plácido Domingo on the War Memorial stage! For those of you there for the concert on October 21, no you didn’t miss a number! This happened after the performance when we were backstage. Maestro Domingo wanted to share a happy birthday greeting to his son, and so the assembled group burst out into song. I happened to be standing next to Maestro Domingo and so, for one brief moment, I got a glimpse of singing next to one of the greats in the history of this art form!

Placido and Matthew

My musical moment with Plácido Domingo. (Photo: Valentina Simi.)

It has been an extraordinary year of artistic experiences, and I want to thank each of you for the role you play in bringing amazing operas to the War Memorial stage. Whether a philanthropist, a board member, an artist, an artisan, a technician, an administrator, a volunteer or an audience member, each of you is a part of the amazing community that is San Francisco Opera. Each of you is a part of telling and receiving these vital stories of the human experience, and it is only because of each of you that we are able to tell these stories at the highest levels of excellence and impact in the world. You are an amazing community of opera lovers and it is my great privilege to be part of that community with you. I can’t wait to share our next season together; we’ll be unveiling it on January 22!

Backstage with Matthew: Dressing through Time