Born in Vienna and trained as a conductor, Adler remains a towering figure in San Francisco Opera history. He succeeded founder Gaetano Merola to become the Company’s second-ever general director, a position he occupied for almost 28 years.
As general director, Adler forged a reputation for being uncompromising in his drive for perfection. He scowled. He yelled. And he ultimately lifted San Francisco Opera to new heights, bringing in new talent and productions from around the world.
While his fiery leadership style was widely known, Adler also harbored a softer side. As it turns out, he had a penchant for off-kilter humor.
For instance, when he’d find himself stumped in a conference or conversation, he’d occasionally lean to his left and ask questions to the empty air — “Persephone, what do you think of this?” — as if the Greek goddess herself were standing by his side.
Adler’s colleagues embraced the quirky routine, and as his 66th birthday neared, they decided to up the ante by finding him a real Persephone to talk to. Only this time, Persephone, the great ruler of the underworld, would be a humble pig.
That spring in 1971 had been a particularly busy time for Adler and the Company. They had just finished staging short runs of Rigoletto and La Clemenza di Tito at the Curran Theatre, and they were preparing to start Don Pasquale and Faust Counter Faust.
Adler’s birthday was the perfect excuse to cut loose and play a little practical joke on the general director. His colleagues managed to locate a little piglet at a local farm, and they spirited it into a conference room adjacent to Adler’s office, hidden in a cage under a cloth.
When Adler arrived, off came the cloth, and Persephone the Pig made her official San Francisco Opera debut!
Thus, an opera legend was born. Her reign over the opera house was short — maybe one to two nights, according to colleagues — but Adler took a shine to the young porcine ingenue, often checking in on her when she was relocated elsewhere.
After her stint at the opera, Persephone took up a residency at another local institution, the San Francisco Zoo. Adler’s wife Nancy says she was put “in charge of managing [Persephone’s] homes,” and she secured the piglet a plum position greeting guests in the petting enclosure.
When Persephone finally grew too large for the petting zoo, Nancy moved her to the farmlands of Sonoma County. There, Nancy reports, “Persephone lived to a ripe old age,” no doubt basking in the glow of her time in the limelight.
Special thanks to Ann Farris and Nancy Adler for providing material for this story. (Photo: Margaret Norton)