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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. The Company's first performance took place on September 26, 1923 in the City's Civic Auditorium (La Bohème, with Queena Mario and Giovanni Martinelli, conducted by Merola). Originally presented over two weeks, San Francisco Opera's season now contains approximately 75 performances of ten operas between September and July.
San Francisco Opera inaugurated its current home, the War Memorial Opera House, with a performance of Tosca on October 15, 1932 (Claudia Muzio, Dino Borgioli, and Alfredo Gandolfi sang the principal roles in a production conducted by Merola). The venerable beaux arts building 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.
Since 1923, San Francisco Opera has presented the United States debut performances of numerous artists, including Vladimir Atlantov, Piotr Beczala, Inge Borkh, Boris Christoff, Marie Collier, Geraint Evans, Mafalda Favero, Tito Gobbi, Sena Jurinac, Mario del Monaco, Anna Netrebko, Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Margaret Price, Leonie Rysanek, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Giulietta Simionato, Ebe Stignani, Renata Tebaldi, and Ingvar Wixell; conductors Marco Armiliato, Gerd Albrecht, Valery Gergiev, Charles Mackerras, Georg Solti, and Silvio Varviso; and directors Francis Ford Coppola, Harry Kupfer, and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.
Gaetano 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 pioneering 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). 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.
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), The Dangerous Liaisons (1994), A Streetcar Named Desire (1998), Dead Man Walking (2000), Arshak II (2001) and Doctor Atomic (2005). Under David Gockley’s leadership, the Company has added five 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), a co-commission with Cal Performances at UC Berkeley; and Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (2013). Future commissioned works include Dolores Claiborne (fall 2013) by Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy and La Ciocara ("Two Women") by Marco Tutino and Luca Rossi (summer 2015).
Gockley is committed to broadening and diversifying audiences for San Francisco Opera, and during his first months as general director he 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. Subsequent simulcasts included Rigoletto in October 2006, reaching 15,000 people in San Francisco and Stanford University's Frost Amphitheater and Don Giovanni in June 2007, which was broadcast to 7,000 people in four theaters across Northern California. In September 2007, San Francisco Opera began its tradition of presenting simulcasts at San Francisco Opera’s AT&T Park, home of the 2010 and 2012 World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants. The seven simulcasts since then have drawn more than 200,000 opera lovers across the Bay Area.
In 2007, Gockley led San Francisco Opera to take these innovations even further and created the Koret-Taube Media Suite. 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, where retractable screens provide full stage, close-up and mid-range ensemble 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 four operas—La Rondine, Samson and Delilah, Don Giovanni and Madama Butterfly—in movie theaters across the country. These operas, in addition to twelve other titles, are now available to theaters and performing arts venues as part of the Company’s Grand Opera Cinema Series. In 2007 Gockley also launched radio partnerships with San Francisco’s Classical 102.1 KDFC and the WFMT Radio Network in Chicago, returning regular San Francisco Opera broadcasts to the national and international radio airwaves for the first time in 25 years.
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. During his tenure, Runnicles has championed new repertory ranging from the world premieres of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic (2005) to Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons (1994), in addition to the spectacular American stage premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise (2002) and the West Coast premiere of Stewart Wallace’s Harvey Milk (1996). After 17 years with San Francisco Opera, Maestro Runnicles stepped down as music director in August 2009, and Nicola Luisotti, an exciting star in the opera world, took the reins beginning in the 2009–10 season.
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 (Il Trovatore, Madama Butterfly, Turandot), the Metropolitan Opera (Tosca, La Bohème, La Fanciulla del West), the Vienna State Opera (Simon Boccanegra), Madrid’s Teatro Real (Il Trovatore), Paris Opera (Tosca), the Canadian Opera Company (Un Ballo in Maschera), Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice (Il Viaggio a Reims, Simon Boccanegra), Munich’s Bavarian State Opera (Tosca) and Frankfurt Opera (Il Trittico), among 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. Luisotti also serves as principal guest conductor of the Tokyo Symphony and was appointed music director of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples in 2012.
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; both are led by renowned soprano Sheri Greenawald. In 1982 the Company’s third general director, Terence A. McEwen, created the San Francisco Opera Center to oversee and combine the operation and administration of the numerous affiliate educational and training programs. Providing a coordinated sequence of performance and study opportunities for young artists, the San Francisco Opera Center includes the Adler Fellowship Program, the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series, as well as education and outreach programs.
Named for San Francisco Opera’s founder and first general director, Gaetano Merola, the Merola Opera Program began during the 1954–55 season and was established with its current name in 1957. The program annually offers approximately 30 gifted singers, apprentice coaches, and apprentice stage directors the rare opportunity of studying, coaching, and participating in master classes with established professionals for 11 weeks during the summer. Participants have several chances to demonstrate their artistic growth as they perform two fully-staged operas during the summer, a free concert at the Yerba Buena Gardens, and the famed Merola Grand Finale at the War Memorial Opera House.
San Francisco Opera Guild was founded in 1939 to develop greater understanding of opera and to increase the audience reached by this art form through educational and outreach programs. The Guild also supports San Francisco Opera through contributions and coordinating the services of hundreds of volunteers who give their time and expertise to assist Company staff and to act as tour guides to War Memorial Opera House visitors. To support its programs and operations, the Guild hosts a number of fundraising events throughout the year, including the annual Opera Ball, the Celebration of the Seasons at Christmas, Auction Gala and in partnership with Nordstrom, the Couture Gown Show.
Since 1971, San Francisco Opera has presented an annual free concert in Golden Gate Park on the Sunday following opening night of the fall season. It traditionally features artists from the opening weekend in full concert with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. The event is open to the public and draws some 20,000 listeners. The concert is presented in conjunction with the Friends of Recreation and Parks and the San Francisco Chronicle.
San Francisco Opera’s BRAVO! CLUB (B!C) was founded in 1991 by a group of young professionals who share an enjoyment of opera. Members attend performances, informal concerts, Opera House tours, receptions, and parties with special guest speakers to expand their appreciation of opera and to meet other young professionals with common interests. B!C currently boasts a membership of more than 500 members. Marking the opening night of San Francisco Opera's new season, B!C hosts a gala celebration in September that is considered one of the most elegant and exciting social events for the year. Specially discounted subscriptions series and other exclusive benefits are offered to members each season.