History of San Francisco Opera

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A leader among international opera companies for nine decades, San Francisco Opera was founded by Gaetano Merola (1881–1953) and incorporated in 1923. Merola and Kurt Herbert Adler were the Company’s first two general directors. Merola led the Company from its founding in 1923 until his death in 1953; Adler headed the organization from 1953 through 1981. Legendary for both their conducting and managerial skills, these two leaders established a formidable institution that is internationally recognized as one of the top opera companies in the world and heralded for its first-rate productions and roster of international opera stars. Following Adler’s tenure, the Company was headed by three visionary leaders: Terence A. McEwen (1982–1988), Lotfi Mansouri (1988–2001), and Pamela Rosenberg (2001–2005). Originally presented over two weeks, the Company’s season now contains approximately seventy performances of ten operas between September and July.

In 2012, San Francisco Opera celebrated the 80th anniversary of its performing home, the War Memorial Opera House. The venerable beaux arts building was inaugurated on October 15, 1932 and holds the distinction of being the first American opera house that was not built by and for a small group of wealthy patrons; the funding came thanks to a group of private citizens who encouraged thousands of San Franciscans to subscribe.
David Gockley became San Francisco Opera’s sixth general director in January of 2006 after more than three decades at the helm of Houston Grand Opera. During his first months as general director, Gockley took opera to the center of the community with a free outdoor simulcast—the first in the Company’s history—of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in May 2006. The subsequent twelve simulcasts throughout the Bay Area, including eight at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, have collectively drawn more than 200,000 opera fans. These simulcasts are made possible by the Company’s Koret-Taube Media Suite, which Gockley led San Francisco Opera to create in 2007. The first permanent high-definition broadcast-standard video production facility installed in any American opera house, the Koret-Taube Media Suite gives the Company the permanent capability to produce simulcasts and other projects including OperaVision, retractable screens providing close-up shots in high-definition video for patrons in balcony seats. Gockley ushered in another first for San Francisco Opera in the spring of 2008 when the Company presented a series of four operas in movie theaters across the country; this series, now expanded to sixteen titles, are available to theaters and performing arts venues as the Company’s Grand Opera Cinema Series. In 2007 Gockley also launched radio partnerships that have returned regular San Francisco Opera broadcasts to the national and international radio airwaves.
San Francisco Opera’s first two general directors, Merola and Adler, regularly conducted for the first six decades of the Company’s history. In 1985, the Company appointed Sir John Pritchard as its first permanent music director, and he was followed by Donald Runnicles in 1992. Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti, one of the opera world’s most exciting conductors, succeeded Donald Runnicles as music director in the fall of 2009.

Born and raised in Italy, Maestro Luisotti made his international debut in 2002 leading a new production of Il Trovatore at the Stuttgart State Theater. He has since led productions at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden; the Metropolitan Opera; Milan’s La Scala; the Vienna State Opera; Madrid’s Teatro Real; Paris Opera; and Munich’s Bavarian State Opera (Tosca), among many others. He made his debut in Japan with a staged production of Tosca at Suntory Hall and has established growing relationships with the orchestras of Zagreb, Sofia, Genoa, NHK, Tokyo Symphony, Munich’s Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Rome’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra. In 2012, Luisotti was appointed music director of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples.

Since its inception, San Francisco Opera has embodied a spirit of innovation by presenting the world premieres of Blood Moon (1961), Angle of Repose (1976), Meeting Mr. Ives (1976, Spring Opera Theater), Tartuffe (1980, Opera Center), The Women in the Garden (1982, Opera Center), Full Moon in March (1982, Opera Center), The Dangerous Liaisons (1994), A Streetcar Named Desire (1998), Dead Man Walking (2000), Arshak II (2001), and Doctor Atomic (2005). Under the leadership of David Gockley, the Company has added six new operas to that list: Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton’s Appomattox (2007), Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2008), Christopher Theofanidis and Donna Di Novelli’s Heart of a Soldier (2011); Nolan Gasser and Carey Harrison’s The Secret Garden (2013); Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (2013); and Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy’s Dolores Claiborne (2013). In 2015, the Company presents the world premiere of Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara (Two Women), with a libretto by Tutino and Fabio Ceresa. Future planned commissions include an opera by Chinese–American composer Bright Sheng and librettist David Henry Hwang. 

San Francisco Opera offers a comprehensive array of acclaimed training programs and performance opportunities for young artists under the auspices of the San Francisco Opera Center and the Merola Opera Program (each a separate institution). Both are led by renowned soprano Sheri Greenawald.

San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Opera Guild annually bring opera and music education programs to more than 60,000 students throughout Northern California. San Francisco Opera’s groundbreaking Opera ARIA (Arts Resources in Action) programs work with classrooms and educators in grades K–12. Aimed at connecting professional artistic and creative elements of opera with classroom curricula, Opera ARIA’s methodology focuses on empowering educators to work with both San Francisco Opera and their own colleagues to develop connections to curriculum and the California State Arts and Academic Standards.

For seventy-five years, the San Francisco Opera Guild has continued to bring award-winning opera arts in-school programs to children in more than 200 Northern California schools. The Guild’s many engaging K–12 programs nurture children and support educators through programs that inspire children to make positive choices and help them grow to be conscientious, sensitive, and culturally aware adults.
In addition to these in-school programs, San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Opera Guild provide countless education opportunities for all ages, including workshops for adults, pre-opera talks, preview lectures, insight panels, professional development for educators, family opera movie screenings, opera arts training camps, student dress rehearsals and opera house and backstage tours.