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Backstage with Matthew: Weathering the Crisis

Matthew Shilvock

Last Monday, along with everyone else in the Bay Area, we learned of the city-mandated shelter-in-place and had just a few hours to close the Company and move to a complete work-from-home situation. Thankfully, on the Friday before, we had a mandatory work-from-home trial day to test our systems. That proved to be an invaluably-timed test! Remote access, video conferencing, box office functions, even payroll processing: everything is working smoothly thanks to our fabulous Information Systems team.

What has been particularly heartbreaking is the temporary closure of our creative shops — our scene shop and our costume shop. The work that goes into building our productions cannot be done remotely, and we hope that we can return to those spaces very soon to continue the tremendous work that happens there.

Before I left the Opera House on Monday evening, I went down to the auditorium and took a moment standing there in the silence of an empty building. The singular ghost light, placed on the stage by House Head John Boatwright, was doing what it always does: keeping the theater safe during the night. But it has never felt more poignant. To know that light would be shining for weeks, possibly longer, filled me with a deep ache for what should be happening on that stage. I know we will get back to that stage when the time is right, when it is safe, when John picks up the ghost light and indicates to us all that the stage is once again open. That time cannot come soon enough.

Image of Ghost Light on War Memorial Opera House Stage

I am confident that San Francisco Opera will emerge from this crisis doing what we do best: bringing works of soaring beauty to life on our stage. But it is also clear that this is the most serious crisis that we have confronted in at least a generation if not in our Company’s history. It is a time that will have a profound impact on the world we emerge back into, and it will necessitate new ways of thinking about all parts of society, including the arts community.

We have begun to hear from members of the Opera family, both with generous expressions of concern and offers to help, and with questions about the summer season and whether it will happen. We are not back in staging rehearsals until early May, and we do not have performances until June 7, almost 12 weeks from now. This means we are not in the position that many of our colleague companies have been in, having to cancel performances immediately. However, this is a time when we should be actively gearing up for the season and, as we study news reports and see the escalating severity of the situation, we are looking at every contingency, every possibility.

The decision to cancel the summer season would be an incredibly devastating one with losses initially predicted in the $9–10M range, and so it is a decision we will make only if we absolutely have to. I commit to staying in touch with you as we determine what is happening with the summer season. If you have tickets to the summer operas, please know that it is very important to us that we give you as much flexibility as possible. Should we have to cancel the summer season, we will offer you the options of exchanging into the 2020–21 Season, donating your tickets back to the Opera, or receiving a refund.

Many of you have been asking how you can best support the Opera during these extraordinarily challenging times. I try never to make asks of you, our Opera community, in these editions of “Backstage with Matthew,” but today I would ask you to consider renewing your subscription to the 2020–21 Season, or purchasing a subscription if you’re not yet a subscriber. Subscribing is a tremendous affirmation of your affection for the Opera, and it would mean a great deal to know that our most loyal audience is with us as we look to a new year of opera. We again want to offer as much flexibility as possible, and we are announcing a new risk-free policy. Should any performance in the 2020–21 Season be cancelled due to COVID-19, you will have refund or exchange options. We’re also extending our renewal deadline to at least April 24, so please don’t worry about our usual March deadlines and keeping your seat during this extremely uncertain time.

Thank you for considering your subscription for next year. It would be a heartfelt expression of your belief in the future of this wonderful Company.

As we look to that future, our work now is that of preparation. The irony that my March 5 edition of Backstage with Matthew was titled “Essential Preparation” has not been lost on me! We are a company of extraordinary ability to adapt, to create, to morph, to respond. Although we plan four to five years out, we can also respond in a heartbeat to changes in our world — “the joy of live theater” as we say. We are planning for different scenarios as we think through a situation that currently has very little certainty to it. We are running different versions of the calendar to see how we could rehearse shows in a compromised timeframe. We are contingency planning around every aspect of our business and assessing how and when we can best get back to performances on our stage.

We have an extraordinary group of people working on these questions — the “Mini-AMP” group. The AMP stands for artistic, music, production; the “mini” is a holdover from an earlier time when there was a larger group from the same set of departments. It’s a group comprised of managing directors of artistic, production, and operations along with other key staff. Their collective wisdom can probe through the most complex of problems with incredible thoroughness, speed, and completeness of perspective.

At the same time, our Philanthropy & Audiences team is exploring ways to bring creative content to you, the San Francisco Opera family and the broader public. We want to keep you fully connected with the artistic energy of San Francisco Opera through this period. Even if we cannot gather to produce opera as employees, or to experience opera as patrons, we can still find ways to experience its transformative power, and we are eager to share that beauty with you. This photo, taken on Friday, shows a Zoom call with our Adler Fellows and staff members exploring how individuals might share opera with the community remotely. 

Image of Adler Fellows and staff members on Zoom Call
Members of the Adler Fellowship program and SFO staff on a Zoom call exploring ways to Keep Opera Alive during this period (photo courtesy Jennifer Lynch).

As a starter, I would love to share with you my Spotify playlist of relaxing opera pieces — I’ve called it “Opera for the Soul”. These are pieces that I adore listening to, that allow me to find the center in any moment, and that, for me, are just some of the most exquisite pieces ever written.

San Francisco Opera is collaborating with a large group of other arts and culture organizations in the Bay Area as we work to secure provisions for the arts industry in the upcoming relief packages being discussed by Congress. It is imperative that the arts be considered in relief legislation, and I am very proud of the leadership role that the whole San Francisco arts community is taking in this. We were one of the first arts communities affected in the US by COVID-19 shutdowns, and we are at the forefront of leading efforts to ensure relief and recovery for our whole sector coming out of this. Please consider calling or writing to your elected officials at the federal level and encouraging that the next relief bill includes significant funding for the whole arts sector.

This is a time of great change, great uncertainty, and many questions. What we do know is that transformative opera will return to our stage, to our city, to the Bay Area, and we know that there are thousands and thousands of people on both sides of the proscenium who are desperate for that moment to come, for the moment when the curtain will rise once again and we will be transported into worlds of extraordinary beauty and possibility. I for one am holding the vision of that moment very close to my heart.

Thank you for your support, your understanding, your passionate commitment to San Francisco Opera. It is needed now more than ever, and it means the world to me to have your partnership as we chart a course forward.