SFOpera - A Dream Come True

A Dream Come True

After six auspicious decades as the first home of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—which boasted early shows by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse and others—the fourth floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building sat for many years as a law library and then, most recently, dormant for a seismic retrofit. Its handsome galleries were abandoned, its skylights shuttered.

Enter San Francisco Opera (stage right, across the courtyard) with its cadre of architects, directors and donors with a dream. And now, when visitors in hard hats step off the elevator on the fourth floor, they experience the exhilaration of a space in the middle of a stunning transformation. Instead of darkness, light floods in from refurbished glass ceilings, elegant columns that had been walled off now stand tall and gleaming and abandoned SFMOMA galleries now await new installations of archival photography from the Opera, which has gutted and reinvented this space in the last two years.

And soon, music will ring through its hallways for the first time since it was built almost a century ago.

Welcome to the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, named for Diane “Dede” Wilsey, who generously gave the project’s lead donation, and which, when opened, will boast 12,000 square feet of shared community performance/rehearsal space and education studio, as well as 16,000 square feet of public archives, galleries, administrative offices and even a costume studio complete with dye vats.

The heart of the new complex, the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, will be a high-tech, modular 299-seat venue—perfect for the Opera’s edgier and more family-friendly programming. Equipped with a state-of-the-art Constellation Acoustic System by Meyer Sound, the Atrium Theater will also accommodate film screenings, lectures, panel discussions, business meetings, and receptions. Other important spaces within the center will include the John M. Bryan Education Studio, the Edward Paul Braby San Francisco Opera Archive and the Norby Anderson Costume Studio. And downstairs in the basement, the Opera will have an additional 10,000-square-foot space for costume storage and fitting rooms.

For General Director David Gockley, the Wilsey Center for Opera is nothing short of a dream come true—if one born of absolute necessity.

“When I took this job ten years ago it became clear to me that we were strewn all over the city, from the Presidio to Dogpatch,” says Gockley in his Opera House office, where windows face the Veterans Building. “It would take twenty minutes just to drive to the Presidio to watch a rehearsal—and that was only one of seven locations! The lack of efficiency and the expense were staggering. Being that spread out made it very difficult to promote a sense of family. If you’re separated from the center, you tend to do your own thing and are not involved in problem solving.”

So the Company did a feasibility study to examine the possibility of “bumping out” the back of the Veterans Building to add more square footage, an idea that was eventually ruled out mainly due to the price tag: $50–60 million. In addition, altering a historic structure in any way would require years of planning and hearings.

“Historic preservation is such a hot button issue in this town,” says Gockley. “We talked to virtually everyone at the Historic Preservation Board and they all had their own opinions.”

Then, in 2010, came a major breakthrough. “Elizabeth Murray, who is managing director of the War Memorial Performing Arts Center—essentially our landlord—said ‘David, would you be interested in the fourth floor of the Veterans Building?’ I said, ‘Absolutely!’”

Murray says the idea was hatched by the War Memorial Board of Trustees, for whom she works. “The Opera wanted to expand; they were all over the city,” she says. “And historically, the fourth floor was designated for arts and culture use. It was always the Board’s goal to restore it for that. So this was combining their needs with our needs, and it will result in a benefit for many groups who will be able to use the facility.”

“And,” she laughs, “they came up with the money for it! How much better a gift could this possibly be?”

Michael Simpson, San Francisco Opera’s Chief Financial Officer, says the figure that Murray quoted for the refurbishment was $21 million—just a third of what it would have cost to do the bump-out. “It’s a tighter space than an annex would have been,” he says. “But it will allow for some wonderfully intimate programming, and the city is happy that we agreed to a six-month split of the two community spaces, which will allow other arts organizations to use them.”

Once an agreement was struck, the task became finding an architect with the professional skills to transform the historically significant structure into a state-of-the-art performance space. The choice, it seems, was near-unanimous.

“I was recruited by several people involved from various angles. I was on several lists,” says architect Mark Cavagnero with a smile. “And I was thrilled that we were selected.”

Cavagnero is perhaps the pre-eminent Bay Area architect of both civic and arts institutional projects, including the new SFJAZZ Center, Oberlin Dance Collective’s dance company headquarters, the Legion of Honor, Brava Theater Center, Oakland Museum of California and many more.

Once awarded the job, Cavagnero said he “just waded in and started trying to solve problems. Step one was working with engineers on different schemes to strengthen it. Then the question became how to best utilize the space for the Opera. The challenge was how to respect the space but completely reimagine it, how to repurpose it without destroying the character. For me, those are always really interesting projects.”

Of course, the other critical step in a project of this magnitude is securing funding, which began as soon as the ink was dry on the agreement with the City of San Francisco. Happily for the Opera, arts angel “Dede” Wilsey stepped forward with the lead gift of $5 million, getting the $22 million campaign off on the right foot.

“I have been the Opening Weekend sponsor of the Opera for many years, so when David Gockley approached me, I said ‘Yes,’” she says. “It’s both cost-saving and more time-efficient for the company to use space in the Veterans Building, rather than multiple Company locations around town.”

“Dede’s $5 million gift set the tone,” says Simpson. Wilsey’s gift was followed by generous donations from Dianne and Tad Taube, Leslie and George Hume, Susan Anderson-Norby and Doug Norby, and many more. “After a wide appeal for smaller donations, we found ourselves almost there,” says Simpson. “We’ve raised $22 million, which includes $1 million for the first year of programming.”

As fundraising continued, so did the overhaul of the fourth floor—a feat rendered easier, says Cavagnero, by the fact that a historic building’s interior is less challenging to alter than the exterior. “The interior is less monitored than the exterior. It’s not a problem for someone to tear down an interior wall.” And in doing so, they discovered some wonders, including four beautiful columns in the center of the floor which had been walled off years ago. “The MOMA started covering things up that they deemed a distraction from the art,” he explained.

Chief among the many challenges was the space that would become the Atrium Theater. “This room had everything going against it: terrible acoustics, inflexible floor plan,” says Cavagnero. “We also needed to create isolation between the theater and the Herbst auditorium below, so we had to add mass to the floor.”

They also had to cover the antiquated glass ceiling, which was in need of extensive repair anyway, in order to create lighting and sound for the theater. But when it’s complete, Gockley is convinced it will be a jewel of a venue.

“The theater is limited to 299 seats. A hundred more would have been great, but we’ll scale our programming and get creative. You can sell out with 299 tickets and build the excitement. The possibilities for alternative programming are huge.”

The other challenges included adding climate controls to the archive center—something the Opera has never had. “In Houston we started an archive and I thought we desperately need this here,” says Gockley. “I worked closely with Jon Finck on this.”

“It will have everything from programs and photos, to video, rare radio broadcasts, production renderings and costumes, and all available to the public,” says Finck, Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the Opera. “It will be led by a newly appointed director of archive and associate archivist and supported by a highly knowledgeable volunteer corps. Because this will be a public archive, there will be desks with computers for students, scholars and other interested people to do research.”

Acoustics were also a major challenge in the raw space, and to solve the problems, project managers went for the gold standard: a Constellation Acoustic System by Meyer Sound. “This sound system is famed,” says Gockley. “Constellation creates a totally dead room—like you’re surrounded by cotton—but then it amplifies it back to life with a hundred tiny microphones and speakers.”

But the Wilsey Center is far more than a theater, an archive and an education center. It will also boast galleries of archival production photographs dating back to the 1920s, offices for 130 Opera staff, theater storage, displays of historic costumes, and, of course, the costume studio—complete with dye vats, sewing machines and more.

Programming for the Wilsey Center’s first season in the Taube Atrium Theater is already set—all under the moniker SF Opera Lab—and its new curator, Elkhanah Pulitzer, has been hired.

“The Wilsey Center’s one directive is that each presentation needs to combine a theatrical as well as vocal performance aspect,” says Gockley. “There will be a Schubert song cycle with the very exciting German baritone Matthias Goerne and stunning visuals by William Kentridge, an a cappella opera for six women by Serbian-born Canadian composer Ana Sokolović, a live music presentation of the film The Triplets of Belleville, chamber music concerts with members of the Opera Orchestra and Adler Fellows, the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series, and finally Voigt Lessons with soprano Deborah Voigt, written by Terrence McNally.”

Gockley’s voice conveys the excitement he feels about the new stage. “We’ll be keeping the ticket prices low, which will allow us to offer intimate programming to a younger audience,” he says. “The audience will be looking for non-traditional material and a more casual experience. For example, the seats will have cup holders for one's favorite beverage.”

The Wilsey Center will begin to come to life in December, when the first to move in are the costume studio, followed by staff in February.

“The wonderful thing about it is that it will give San Francisco Opera for the very first time year-round exposure,” says Finck.

Murray is equally enthusiastic from the city’s perspective. “This will be a marriage with lots and lots of mutual benefits,” she says.

For Wilsey, hopes are high that the center named after her will “stimulate interest in the opera in young people, and make it easily accessible to all. The arts are the basis for culture in a civilization, and it is important for each generation to be exposed to the art form.”

And for Gockley, who retires in July after a decade of leadership, it will become part of his legacy. “Creating this beautiful space is the best gift we can give the next generation,” he says.

Jane Ganahl has been a journalist, author, editor, and producer in San Francisco for more than three decades. She is the co-founder of Litquake, the West Coast’s largest independent literary festival, author of the memoir Naked on the Page, and contributor to many magazines, from Harper’s Bazaar to Rolling Stone, Ladies’ HomeJournal and San Francisco Opera Magazine.

Director Puts Her Stamp on New SF Opera Lab