By now most of you realize that the Opera is celebrating its 90th season of producing opera in the Bay Area. Let’s use the occasion to take a brief backward look at the highlights of this extraordinary institution.
In June of 1922, Italian immigrant conductor Gaetano Merola held the first season of his new opera company at the Stanford football stadium in Palo Alto. This initial success led to the founding of the San Francisco Opera and the Company moved to downtown San Francisco, settling in what is now called the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, and for two seasons at the Dreamland Auditorium.
With Europe in disarray following the Great War and only New York’s Metropolitan Opera, founded in 1833, offering reliable seasons of international opera this side of the Atlantic, SFO quickly became part of the annual itinerary of artists such as Licia Albanese, Giovanni Martinelli, Ezio Pinza and Kirsten Flagstad. A 1950 Aida
with Renata Tebaldi and Mario Del Monaco was an especially memorable occasion.
San Francisco Opera's first General Director, Gaetano Merola
Opera seasons took place in the fall, with the opening night the Friday after Labor Day, becoming the symbolic opening of the city’s fall social season, none more glittering than the 1932 unveiling of the War Memorial Opera House, a landmark addition to the Civic Center Complex, making it purportedly the largest concentration of Beaux Arts Revival structures in the world. Claudia Muzio sang Tosca
on that occasion in a production that was duplicated in 1997 to re-open the Opera House after its closure in 1995 for seismic and restorative work, following the Loma Prieta earthquake. (This stately traditional production will be seen once again later this season.)
Alfredo Gandolfi as Scarpia and Claudia Muzio as Tosca in the production that opened the War Memorial Opera House in 1932
When Merola died of a heart attack in August 1953, conducting at Stern Grove, the Opera board promoted the company’s Austrian-born chorus master Kurt Herbert Adler to be his successor, ushering in the company’s “Golden Age.” Between 1953 and 1981 virtually every great opera star appeared in San Francisco and many of them for many consecutive years, including Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Luciano Pavarotti, Marilyn Horne, Plácido Domingo, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Leonie, Rysanek, Kiri Te Kanawa, Frederica Von Stade, and many more. The fall seasons grew in size to 74 performances of 11 works in 1981. Thereafter, the trend towards substantial and imaginative theatrical productions forced the company to decrease the number of operas offered, while increasing the number of performances per production. One great director/designer, Jean Pierre Ponnelle, symbolized this new era. His productions of Falstaff
, and The Flying Dutchman
provided some of the Company’s finest hours and thrust it into a leadership position theatrically as well as vocally.
In 1981, the company added the five week summer festival season that took a while to establish itself, but which is now the equal of the fall season in attendance and artistic interest.
Adler’s successors have provided their share of defining moments: Terry McEwen’s extraordinary 1985 Ring
directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff; Lofti Mansouri’s Russian series conducted by Valery Gergiev; and Pamela Rosenberg’s transcendental St. Francis of Assisi
are among them. Throughout these ninety seasons the Company has been an overachiever, offering a quantity and quality of work way out of proportion to size the size of the Bay Area population. What has driven the achievement is the knowledge and passion of the audience and the staggering generosity of the donors.
Laura Aiken as The Angel and Willard White as St. Francis in 2002's St. Francois d'Assise
If the Company is to enjoy another golden age it will have to do so in the context of a resurgent Europe, which has become a powerful magnate for talent. We will have to cover higher and higher costs brought about by a number of factors, including international competition, aggressive unionization, and increasing marketing and fundraising costs. We will have to compete with the plethora of new low-priced entertainment forms that are products of the electronic age. We will have to inspire and cultivate audiences whose formal education no longer includes music, or even the liberal arts. These are challenges worthy of an overachiever!