Tosca Opens the Country’s First Municipally Owned Opera House
He promised to deliver the most brilliant season of grand opera ever presented on the West Coast. And San Francisco Opera founder Gaetano Merola had the perfect opera in mind to lead the season: Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca.
It was 1932, and San Francisco Opera was slated to move into the newly built War Memorial Opera House, the first municipally owned opera house in the United States. Its grand opening would be the event of the season.
Newspapers hyped the fact that the new $6-million opera house—one of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States—would inaugurate a new era for the city of San Francisco. The theater promised to propel the city into the ranks of cultural centers like New York or Philadelphia.
“We are building for the time when San Francisco will be a metropolitan opera center, with a season of six months or more,” one newspaper wrote.
Columnists encouraged readers to buy “War Memorial bonds” to help pay for the project, calling it a citizen’s “duty.”
Retailers, meanwhile, pushed their finest wares. The Livingston Shop advertised the latest styles to wear to opening night: floor-length formal gowns, high-puffed sleeves, and shoulder wraps in mink fur, baby lynx and silver fox.
It was a night to remember. And so Merola turned to his company’s history in selecting Tosca to open the opera house: Tosca had been part of the Company’s very first season in 1923. Its star that night would be another throwback, Claudia Muzio. She had played the title role in some of San Francisco Opera’s earliest productions, from 1924 to 1926.
October 15, 1932, was the big day. The doors opened. The public arrived. And Tosca was performed. In the weeks that followed, a grateful city would award Muzio a golden key to the city—as well as honorary citizenship to the county.
“The opera star, who came here from Italy to open the new opera house in ‘La Tosca,’ is the second singer to be accorded citizenship,” the San Francisco Examiner reported. “Because she ‘had a lump in her throat,’ Madame Muzio declined to speak and responded with song.”
A Teetering Tosca Brings Her Trend-Setting Performance to San Francisco
One of San Francisco Opera’s earliest Toscas was a performer who defined the role: soprano Maria Jeritza.
On Sunday, September 16, 1928, the blonde superstar—nicknamed the “Moravian Thunderbolt”—set foot in San Francisco to make her Company debut. She would star in San Francisco Opera’s sixth successive production of Tosca, one per year since the Company’s founding in 1923.
The media was there to welcome her. Reporters described her as miraculously fresh-faced after her long journey: The grand diva was, in all actuality, a “friendly person” whose disarming smile and open personality “makes one forget, at times, that she is a world-renowned artist.”
Wrapped in a fur stole, her face framed in a droopy cloche hat, Jeritza charmed her audience. The press rapturously recounted how she stood on the balcony of her San Francisco hotel, surveying the landscape and whispering little exclamations: “Marvelous!”
Her appearance as Tosca was a big deal, not least because she had previously performed the role under composer Giacomo Puccini himself. Throughout her career, Jeritza would tell the story of how she and Puccini came up with one of Tosca’s most enduring trends: singing from the floor.
Puccini had been attending rehearsals, but he was not satisfied with the show-stopping aria in Act II, “Vissi d’Arte.”
“Cara, I don’t like the aria as it is,” Puccini would gripe. “Tosca is a piece from the drama, and the drama is more important than the music.”
But the next day, at the general rehearsal, disaster struck. The man playing the brutal police chief Scarpia was too aggressive. He pushed Jeritza, and in her long gown, she teetered—and tumbled to the ground.
“He shoved me off the sofa onto the floor. I did not wish to disturb the general rehearsal, so I sang my aria from my position on the floor,” Jeritza told the press. “When it was over, Puccini clapped his hands and stopped the orchestra. ‘Exactly,’ he shouted. ‘Never make it otherwise: It was from God!’”
And so began the trend of divas delivering the song on hands and knees from the stage floor. But not everyone was charmed by Jeritza’s aw-shucks routine—or her big Tosca innovation.
Backstage, Jeritza was known to be competitive, leading to big-name rivalries, even scuffles. German soprano Lilli Lehmann, for one, didn’t buy into the fuss surrounding Jeritza’s Tosca: “A real artist shouldn't have to lie on her face to sing a big aria.”
Tosca’s Props Conceal a History as Long as San Francisco Opera’s
This August’s production of Tosca may be fairly new—it debuted in 2018—but look closely. Some of the props reflect San Francisco Opera’s longstanding history, continuing a tradition of recycling that goes back as long as the Company itself.
In 1960, the San Francisco Examiner reported on an ordinary, white linen table cloth with lace trim along the edges. It wouldn’t have garnered so much as a glance if it were sitting on a dining room table or folded in a linen closet. But this tablecloth was special. It represented a tangible link to a nearly forgotten past — a past through which Tosca was intimately threaded.
The linen tablecloth had come from an organization called the Women’s Properties Committee, a volunteer brigade that furnished San Francisco Opera with sets in its earliest days.
The newspaper identified Mrs. Horace B. Clifton as the tablecloth’s creator. She remembered the “lean years” after San Francisco Opera was founded in 1923. Not only did the fledgling company have to establish itself in the competitive world of opera, but it also faced the Great Depression by the end of the decade.
“We had no money for sets, so they all had to be donated,” Clifton told the paper. Still, when donated props came straight from the homes of some of San Francisco’s wealthiest patrons, the results weren’t too shabby. “Sometimes they were absolutely superb because we borrowed furniture right out of the homes of women like Mrs. William Fitzhugh, Mrs. James Flood, and Mrs. Joseph Grant.”
Clifton’s handmade tablecloth was reportedly passed down from one production of Tosca to the next, starting in the days when San Francisco Opera performed out of San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium. It was on stage again when the Company first performed at the War Memorial Opera House in 1932. And it was on stage again in 1960, when Clifton was interviewed ahead of the season opening. Both times, Tosca was on the marquee.
But the tablecloth wasn’t the only prop to traverse the decades. The first act of Tosca opens on an ornate Roman basilica, where the painter Mario Cavaradossi puts the final touches on a fresco of Mary Magdalene.
A version of that painting that reportedly appeared on stage in 1932—the year the War Memorial Opera House first opened—has endured all these years. It even made a cameo appearance in 2021’s drive-in production of The Barber of Seville
Tosca Has Been a Showcase for Great Divas, No Matter Their Age
Some of opera’s most popular sopranos have sung the role of Tosca on our stage: Leontyne Price, Montserrat Caballé, Renata Tebaldi, and Angela Gheorghiu, to name a few.
But one of the most inspiring performances came from Italian superstar Magda Olivero, who—after more than four decades singing opera—made her San Francisco Opera debut at age 68, in the final years of her career.
Olivero understandably tried to keep her age under wraps: She would be playing a role often awarded to young ingenues. Still, speculation abounded. Some reports pegged Olivera as 70 years old. Others guessed 71.
Whatever Olivero’s age, what was undeniable was the triumph of her portrayal. “There were so many bouquets flung her way as she took her curtain calls, it looked like a riot in a florist’s shop,” The San Francisco Examiner reported.
The night was equally bittersweet for its audience as well as its star. Legendary soprano Bidú Sayão was perched in one of the box seats: Though she and Olivero were contemporaries—Sayão was eight years older—Sayão was nearly two decades into her retirement at that time.
And sitting next to Sayão in the box was another luminary: civil rights leader Harvey Milk. Sayão had been the star the first time Milk ever saw a live opera, at the Met. Now, they were side by side, just two ordinary viewers giddy over the night’s show.
“The crowd went so wild that Mick Jagger would have been jealous—I can’t remember any reaction like that—and Sayão was like a youngster hearing her first live opera,” Milk wrote in a note to a friend.
“Ah,” he concluded, “life is worth living.” It was November 22, 1978. Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, would be assassinated five days later.
Tosca Even Inspires Homegrown Urban Legends About Firing Squads Run Amok
Tosca’s long history with the Company has become the stuff of legend—urban legend, even. Take one of the entries in Hugh Vickers’s beloved book Great Operatic Disasters. The book—a catalogue practical jokes, flubs, and drunken escapades—features San Francisco Opera two pages into its very first chapter.
Vickers sets the scene: The year was 1961, and Tosca was set to round out the season. With only three main characters—Tosca, her lover Cavaradossi, and the villainous Scarpia—it was an easy opera to stage. Get the three leads to hit their marks, and the rest of the show would fall into place.
However, this particular Tosca was beset by troubles so extreme that dress rehearsal had to be canceled. By the time opening night arrived, the show’s extras had been given meager directions.
A group of college students had been recruited to play a firing squad in the pivotal final scene, but the only direction they were given was to march on stage, wait for the signal, and shoot their guns. Then, when the scene ended, they had to “exit with the principals.”
Act III rolled around, and it was finally time for the firing squad to make its big debut. They marched on stage. But instead of seeing one target to shoot, they saw two: Tosca and Cavaradossi.
“Should they, perhaps, shoot them both?” the college students wondered in Vicker’s recounting. “But then they would hardly be standing so far apart—anyway, the opera was called Tosca, it was evidently tragic, the enormous woman on stage was presumably Tosca herself…” They pointed their guns and aimed.
But strangely enough, Tosca survived the gunfire—and Cavaradossi, who had not been in their crosshairs, was suddenly sinking to the ground. The firing squad was even more perplexed to see Tosca hoisting herself onto the ramparts of the set. Then, with a final heave, she threw herself off.
The firing squad had their orders: “Exit with the principals.” And they were nothing if not obedient. So one by one, as the curtain fell, they dove after her, each taking a plunge off the ramparts.
Now, it’s worth noting that there was no production of Tosca on stage at San Francisco Opera in 1961 and no evidence in our archives to corroborate this story. And yet, the legend of the amazing bulletproof Tosca lives on—even cropping up in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. After all, what’s opera without a little fantasy?