SFOpera - Looking Back: My Favorite Operas of the Gockley Era

Looking Back: My Favorite Operas of the Gockley Era

Kristen Jones has been with San Francisco Opera for nearly seven years. For the past two years, she has served as Director of Audience Engagement, and she is passionate about making opera approachable and accessible to all. In today's blog post, she reflects on the productions of David Gockley's tenure that have stuck with her most. 

I joined the Company in September 2009, days before the season opened. I had moved cross-country 10 days before, and two and a half weeks later I got married. It was a little nuts. But I was thrilled to be working for this Company, and for David, who both had such an incredible artistic history. Working for David has been one of the great privileges of my career.  His trust, support, and friendship have made an indelible impression on me, and I will always be grateful to him for the opportunities he has given me.

In a lot of ways, I am not your typical opera employee. Many of my colleagues have rich backgrounds in music, whether as an academic, a musician or a vocal artist themselves. I, on the other hand, have a voice best suited for the shower, and my instrumental talents peaked playing saxophone in the 5th grade.  But I grew up regularly attending theater and concerts with my family. And while I attended a couple of operas as a child, it wasn’t until my husband and I lived and worked in Vienna that I truly got exposed to the art form and started my love affair with it.

So I come to opera as an appreciator only. And while I have only worked for the Company for seven of David’s 10 years, here are 10 of my favorite operas from the past seven years (in chronological order).

#1: Il Trovatore (2009)

As the season opener of my first season here, this was one heck of an introduction. Let’s be honest: the story is crazy – it’s what soap opera dreams are made of – but this production was stunning. The huge, beautiful set, the massive chorus pieces such as the Anvil Song, and the stellar cast set the bar very high. In the final act, when the incomparable Sondra Radvanovsky (as Leonora) sings about losing her lover, I thought to myself: that is the sound of the human heart breaking. Her voice was so exquisite, so devastating, that I found myself in tears. Stephanie Blythe and Dmitri Hvorostovsky rounded out a stellar cast. 

#2: Il Trittico (2009)

All three of these one-act operas were gems, but the one that surprised me the most was Il Tabarro. What first seems like another story of operatic infidelity (this time the wife cheats on her abrasive husband with a hunky dockworker) later exposes that the husband and wife lost a child some years before and both are still grieving. It felt modern, timely, and relevant, in no small part because of the portrayals by Patricia Racette (see #7, 8) and Brandon Jovanovich (see #4). The piece was also damn SEXY before it turned around and broke your heart. Great theatre as well as great music.

#3: The Daughter of the Regiment (2009) 

When I think of this production, I think of The Princess Bride. Why? Because The Princess Bride is a movie I have seen a hundred times but never gets old. It makes me happy just watching it. I could watch this fabulous production with Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez countless times and it would still bring a smile to my face. Every time Flórez hit all of his high C’s in “A Mes Amis” I wanted to cheer.

#4: Die Walküre (tie: 2010 and 2011)

I know, I know, I’m cheating because we did this production twice, but I loved both casts. The entire Ring Cycle was an incredible experience, but this installment is the jewel for me. The previously mentioned Brandon Jovanovich was fantastic, as well as Nina Stemme, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Anja Kampe, Mark Delavan, all of the Valkyries, etc.  Just glorious.

#5: Heart of a Soldier (2011)

In full disclosure, I have a personal connection to this one. A friend in our Production department called me a few weeks before the show opened and begged asked me to be a supernumerary in it “because I would fit the costume.” I said yes, not exactly knowing what I was signing up for. As I later learned, the costume hadn’t been built and was later made to fit me, but she desperately needed someone to be in a featured role for 20 minutes on stage (!!).

I played Rick Rescorla’s first wife in the wedding scene, and I got to kiss Tom Hampson on stage every night. There are certainly worse ways to spend an evening. But what sticks with me was standing on stage during the bows on opening night: September 11, 2011. To be telling this story on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 – a story about real people, many of whom were alive and in the audience – was an emotionally overwhelming experience. It made me proud that San Francisco Opera would commission an opera about something so current. Not many other companies would. And it had some standout performances, including Bill Burden (see #10), Michael Sumuel, Melody Moore and a great group of Adler Fellows that included Nadine Sierra, Maya Lahyani, Susannah Biller, and Sara Gartland. 

#6: Moby-Dick (2012)

My favorite of the world premieres commissioned during my time here.  Jake Heggie’s music is gorgeous, and Gene Scheer took a brilliant but dense novel and managed to distill it into a concise and captivating libretto, beautifully sung by a cast that was terrific from top to bottom.  And can we talk about the set and projections? I mean, COME ON. Visually arresting, vocally and musically superb, and an engrossing theatrical experience.

#7: Mephistopheles (2013)

Grand opera at its grandest, but also featuring some good comedy and stunning intimate moments. The Heavenly Hosts scenes (with our outstanding chorus as well as the San Francisco Boys and Girls Choruses) gave me chills, but what stays with me is Patricia Racette’s mad scene as Marguerite. I’ve become a big fan of Pat’s in the time I’ve been here, in no small part because her acting skills are as good as her formidable vocal talents. I would pop down into standing room each night just to watch her in this scene. It gutted me every time.

 #8: Show Boat (2014)

As a theatre lover, I was afraid this production of Show Boat wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Boy did it though. Experiencing Show Boat with a full orchestra, full chorus, two ballets de corps and a massive cast was something I will never forget. Even though Kern and Hammerstein wrote it for the full complement listed above, you would never see it staged this way on Broadway today – honestly because it’s so darn big and expensive. It was worth every penny. Melding great operatic talent like Pat Racette, Morris Robinson, and Heidi Stober with phenomenal theatre legends like Bill Irwin and Harriet Harris made it unforgettable.

 #9: The Trojans (2015)

On the night of the last performance, I was watching The Trojans from behind the stage manager’s console and I genuinely felt heartsick that the show was closing. And to be clear, I’m not the sort of person who gets excited to sit down and watch anything for 5+ hours straight. But the hours flew by for The Trojans. The gorgeous music from our orchestra and chorus, the unbelievable David McVicar sets, the UNREAL cast, including Susan Graham, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Bryan Hymel, Sasha Cooke and René Barbera, made it possibly my favorite piece of the last seven years. I loved every darn thing about it.

#10: Jenůfa (2016)

As I write this blog I am literally days away from having my first child. On multiple occasions I was asked how I could love a show so much when the subject matter was so dark, particularly to watch while pregnant.  It’s a testament to the artists in it – Karita Mattila, Malin Byström and Bill Burden in particular – who took Janacek’s glorious music and elevated it to new heights, all the while creating palpable dramatic tension. It was a revelation. Plus my son would kick like crazy every time Bill Burden sang (he did this for Michael Fabiano and René Pape in Don Carlo, too), and knowing that he was hearing this music and enjoying it made me smile. If I could have made this list longer, it would include 2010’s The Makropulos Case because it was another fabulous piece and Mattila was a force of nature in that as well.

I’m not at liberty to talk about some of operas planned for future seasons, but I can say that I am thrilled with the types of operas and productions Matthew Shilvock has in store, and the next seven years will be as exciting and stimulating as these last seven years have been for me under David. He’s a tough act to follow, but if anyone can, it’s the remarkable Matthew Shilvock!

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