1931. World War I had not been assigned a Roman numeral, The Good Earth
was the hot new read, and rent advertised eighteen dollars per month – an amount today that buys about 6.5 hours in the average San Francisco studio apartment. This era witnessed the persistence of Mahatma Gandhi, the tax evasions of Al Capone, and the bass-baritone of Bing Crosby.
In the midst of these headlines, an old spot of land in San Francisco replete with eucalyptus trees transformed from private property to performance venue. The area was once known for the popular Trocadero Inn, where privileged guests enjoyed barbeques, boating, dancing, and beer gardens. The roadhouse was known to get rowdy, and yes, there are still bullet holes in the front door. I hear the parties were off the charts.
That all changed in 1931, when Rosalie Stern, wife of the recently deceased nephew of Levi Strauss, Sigmund Stern, purchased the land to memorialize her late husband. She declared that the new Stern Grove would be an admission-free amphitheater open to the public for the purposes of “music, dramatics, and pageantry” (though I don’t think she meant Miss America). Times are much different now: Gandhi and Capone have been etched into history by textbooks and film, popular radio has turned from Bing Crosby to Carly Rae Jepsen, and the book of the hour is not by Pearl Buck but E.L. James. Through all of these winds of change, however, Stern Grove remained stationary.
The grove’s dedication took place on June 4, 1932. Two weeks later, on June 19, the San Francisco Symphony offered the first official performance, conducted by Gaetano Merola, founder of the San Francisco Opera. The program for this performance featured Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
, Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto
(Andante), Bizet’s L'Arlesienne Suite Number 2
, Borodin’s Steppes of Middle Asia
, and Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz
. Incidentally, this exact concert was repeated 50 years later, and the original 1932 program was reprinted – with only a few minor updates to date and personnel.
(Above: The program from the 1982 Stern Grove Concert, commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the original program in 1932.)
1938. July marked the beginning of the Stern Grove Festival, a concert series that furthered Rosalie Stern’s vision by providing free performances to the public every summer. San Francisco Opera often gives performances in the festival. The public has seen names such as Patricia Racette, Ruth Ann Swenson, John Relyea, and Dolora Zajick, to name a few. Last Sunday, the festival featured the wondrous vocal talents of soprano Leah Crocetto and tenor Michael Fabiano, as well as San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows and the Opera Orchestra, led by Giuseppe Finzi. That the amphitheater bustled with thousands of appreciative opera fans of diverse age groups and backgrounds is a clear testament to the festival’s success.
(Above: Soloists with Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi and the SFO Orchestra at the 2012 Stern Grove Festival Concert.)
Travel backward, 1953. Living rooms filled with laughter at the expressions of Lucille Ball, Watson and Crick revealed the structure of DNA, and Stern Grove encountered a stunningly tragic moment in its history. On August 30, Gaetano Merola conducted the San Francisco Symphony in what would be his final concert. The program, featuring soprano soloist Brunetta Mazzolini, was slated to feature Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville
, Saint-Saëns’ Le Deluge
, “The Jewel Song” from Faust
, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol
, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite Number 1
, “Micaela’s Aria” from Carmen
, Andante from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony
, “Un bel dì” from Madama Butterfly
, and “Hungarian March” from Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust
. Halfway through the penultimate piece, “Un bel dì,” the baton at the podium quivered, and Gaetano Merola collapsed and died in the middle of the performance. Though it may be a bit apocryphal, some say that he collapsed right before Mazzolini sang the word “morire.” I’ll take that with a grain of salt, but what strikes me as incredible is that, tragic as this event was, Gaetano Merola died while immersed in his life’s passion. A truly remarkable story.
(Above: Headline from the San Francisco Examiner on August 31, 1953.)
Stern Grove has remained loyal to Rosalie Stern’s vision, facilitating lots of music, plenty of dramatics, and even a bit of pageantry. Between the days of the Trocadero and today, it has seen about everything: dancing, drinking, families, friends, music, and death. That’s practically an opera in itself.