San Francisco Opera | Celebrating Opening Night

Celebrating Opening Night of the Opera

Tonight would have marked the opening night of the 2020–21 San Francisco Opera Season — a swirl of energy and activity and promise for a thrilling season ahead. On opening nights of the season, I get to experience the view of the artists as I stand behind the curtain with our Chairman of the Board, John Gunn, and President of the Association, Keith Geeslin, and see the curtain rise on you, our treasured audience.

War Memorial Opera House interior

Photo: Drew Altizer

I’ve been thinking a lot about that curtain lately, and how impactful it will be when it rises once again. It is a symbolic and important moment in the theatrical experience. As it rises, it connects the hundreds and hundreds of Company members behind the scenes, on stage and in the pit with the thousands of audience members in the auditorium. Opening the curtain allows us to complete the “artistic circuit” and bring the whole event to life.

War Memorial Opera House gold curtain

Photo: David Wakely

When I was visiting the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden some years ago, I stopped by the wonderfully titled “Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop” in the marketplace and brought home an old-fashioned cut out theater for our children, complete with cardboard curtain, legs, borders, and backdrops — all of the elements of a proscenium theater. We set it up recently and I was taken by how effectively these simple elements can create a perspective that draws you in and compels you into the action on stage, even in cardboard!

Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop

To raise a curtain, whether on a small cardboard cutout theater, or the great gold curtain of the War Memorial Opera House, is an invitation. It is an invitation to you, the audience, to enter the world of possibility about to unfold onstage. The conductor, creative team, artists, musicians, and crew members are welcoming us into their world of creativity, asking us to join them emotionally in the story about to unfold.

On opening night of the season, that invitation is staggered in layers. First the gold curtain rises in a swag for the speeches, the stage set tantalizing beyond reach masked by a black-out curtain, maybe just a little hint of the floor showing. Then the conductor enters the podium and greets the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and the audience. This year would have been particularly meaningful with Eun Sun Kim leading her first opening night with the Company. And then, with the stage reset, the curtain goes out again in all its majesty, and we are swept up into the story-telling onstage, journeying into another world.

We were excited to welcome you into some very special stories this fall — artistic endeavors that have been in the works for years and that would have ushered in some new productions tailored particularly for this community. Stories like Fidelio and The Handmaid’s Tale — so powerfully aligned with our times; the new Così fan tutte, moving through American history in an arc that I think has even greater resonance in our world today; and the return of beloved classics in Rigoletto and La Bohème. Each of these stories would have offered up a completely different emotional world and, with each curtain rising, you would have been welcomed into a new exploration of the human condition.

Fidelio set model

A design rendering of our new production of Fidelio.

Operatic stories are so important to interpreting the world. Integrating voice, music, and drama, these stories pull us into a very deep level of consciousness. They allow us to experience emotions at the extremes of possibility from the safety of our seat. Opera stories open up new worlds, new experiences, new emotions; and they allow us to connect with what we ourselves are feeling and help us make sense of those feelings.

As we reflect on what goes into our opening nights, I want to honor each and every Company member — artists, musicians, crew members, staff members, front of house staff — everyone who would have brought their artistry, their craft, their passion, their talents, their inner selves to bear on these stories. Opera is the most collaborative artistic endeavor ever conceived and the result is the most amazing, unified, interconnected experience one could imagine. We experience that in such a wonderful way on opening nights of the season, and I desperately hope that we are able to reconnect with each other before too long and bring that collaborative energy back to life.

Company after Götterdämmerung dress rehearsal, 2018

The full Company taking a bow after the conclusion of the
Götterdämmerung dress rehearsal in 2018.

We are an organization filled with such creativity, and we are working tirelessly to be in a place where we can raise our curtain once again and invite you back into our world of story-telling. We are developing flexible units that will allow us to tell stories in new, adaptable ways and with whatever social distancing is required. I talked about the new orchestral shell that we’re creating in my last Backstage with Matthew. We are also continuing to build our Fidelio set, which will give us great flexibility as we are allowed to do more programs either inside or outside. That will be the subject of an upcoming Backstage with Matthew as we head into the fall! We are looking at new forms of programming, activation of digital possibilities to showcase our amazing artists and musicians, and a return to the streaming of weekly titles that has been so important in keeping us connected with the artistic excellence and emotional energy of San Francisco Opera.

The return to full productions will likely be incremental. Like the curtain on opening night of the season, we will gradually reveal things layer by layer as health protocols permit, shining a spotlight on individual aspects of our work in the short-term and then adding layers of possibility. We are working internally (headed up by our Technical and Safety Director, Erik Walstad), and externally (with our team of physicians at UCSF headed by Dr. George Rutherford), to find ways to bring back those layers of operatic storytelling. And we are making good progress. Our scene and costume shop are open and active; we are exploring new technologies that will help us make music throughout the coming months; and we are continuing to map out contingency plans that will allow us to work as healthcare orders expand. With each passing day, we are that much closer.

Members of the San Francisco Opera Scene Shop with the swimming pool for Così fan tutte
Members of the San Francisco Opera Scene Shop with the swimming pool for Così fan tutte that they’ve built in the last few weeks. Photo credit: John Del Bono.

The most important layer to add will be you, the audience. That will be an extraordinary moment for us as a company because you complete the artistic circle. Your emotional journey through the proscenium and into the story onstage, brings art to life. We crave creating art with you. We miss you and cannot wait to get back to sharing our stories together.

I am deeply grateful to our opening weekend sponsors Diane B. Wilsey, John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem, Joan and David Traitel, Bernard and Barbro Osher, the Edmund W. and Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Fund, and Gretchen Kimball of the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund all of whom have maintained their support despite the loss of our fall season; as well as the many thousands of patrons and donors who have kept their memberships and donated the value of their tickets back to the Opera. Thank you all for continuing to hold San Francisco Opera close to your heart this fall. Your support is vital to sustaining the Company and the Company members. Your continued friendship will allow us to survive through to the point when we can, once again, raise that beautiful curtain, and invite you into the world of infinite possibilities on our stage.

With deepest gratitude and my warmest wishes for a Happy Opening Night,


Matthew Shilvock
Tad and Dianne Taube General Director

San Francisco Opera

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