Backstage with Matthew - December 12
December 6 marked the close of the mainstage Fall Season and the hand-off of the stage to the Ballet. We celebrated with a festive, casual Company party in the “Patch” (the area just behind the stage added in the 1979 expansion). Two days later, the strings of the Opera rounded out the season with a sumptuous concert in the Taube Atrium of the Wilsey Center, repeated on Friday to celebrate our incredible 25+ year subscribers. I am so proud of what this Company has accomplished this fall and thank you for the role you play in the life and success of SFO.
Before we closed I headed off to Beijing for two days with our board member and Co-Chair of the Dream of the Red Chamber (DRC) Committee, Doreen Woo Ho, and my colleague Daniel Knapp, Managing Director: Production. Our objective: to try and secure safe passage for DRC in mainland China next year. Our trip was in conjunction with Mayor Ed Lee’s trip to Asia and we were honored to have the Mayor and his wife join us for two important dinners.
Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang’s DRC, directed by Stan Lai, conducted by George Manahan, and designed by Tim Yip and Gary Marder, was one of the most impactful artistic and audience experiences for the company this year. We sold 97% of the house and went $400k over our original projections, with 40% of single ticket buyers identifying as Chinese or Chinese-American. The work goes to the Hong Kong Arts Festival on March 17/18 (tickets are already sold out!), with ostensibly the same cast as SFO. Through the great perseverance of Doreen we have been working to chart its future in China.
Taking a large-scale work to China is no simple task and over the past months we’ve come to learn how multi-layered the process is. “Taking it to China” means, in this case, working with an independent producer who will rent the SFO production and put together the performing forces and venues to present the piece. Usually SFO wouldn’t get involved past the rental contract but here there is an important role that the SFO brand plays in validating the project and creating an invaluable layer of political goodwill and cross-cultural partnership. Public performing licenses have to be obtained from the Ministry of Culture, and the project’s security is much stronger with a seal of approval from the national government.
We were blessed to have two very strong entry points: firstly, the Cultural Consul and his staff at the SF Chinese Consulate, representatives of the Ministry of Culture who are enthusiastic to further the work’s presence in China. Secondly, the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, who has established a relationship for us with the China Nationality Culture Foundation, a group who would act as the fundraising arm for the project. During the course of the weekend the thorough pre-planning work done on all sides came to fruition and a model emerged that should allow the project to proceed.
One of the great highlights of the trip was a private tour of the Prince Gong Palace—an exquisitely preserved royal mansion just north-west of The Forbidden City. The Palace is one of three venues in China believed to be the inspiration for DRC and it was an amazing opportunity to set this piece in a tangible context. The director of the Palace, Sun Xuguang—a pioneer in museum education—gave us a private evening tour and hosted an elaborate banquet replete with extensive toasting. The “Gan beis” from the end of Act I of Nixon in China made much more sense after this trip!
We are learning the key lesson of Chinese business: that it can only happen after relationships are built. A business deal has to grow out of something more personal, and our dinner at the Prince Gong Palace with our Chinese partners, the Mayor of San Francisco and his wife, was the perfect example of a rich, abiding cultural bridge being built. We are doing this through an opera that has enriched Bay Area audiences, and stands to emerge as an exciting US-China cultural bridge. We have a long road ahead but the foundation is now wonderfully laid.
Thank you again for being a member of the SFO family and for a fabulous fall season! I will be moving to more of a monthly communication until we return to rehearsals in May, and so wish you a peaceful and merry holiday season—a great opportunity to express oneself in glorious song!