SFOpera - Backstage with Matthew: A Glorious Reawakening

Backstage with Matthew: A Glorious Reawakening

Dear Members of the San Francisco Opera Family,

Extraordinary things are taking place on the War Memorial campus at the moment. Extraordinary things that used to define our everyday existence, but that are now treasured moments of return and reawakening. In just two weeks, we will raise the gold curtain of the War Memorial Opera House on an opera for the first time in over 20 months. It is going to feel extraordinary. That we are returning after such a silence is already transformational; that we are returning with the beginning of Eun Sun Kim's music directorship makes it a completely historic moment, and one that signals a future of spectacular music making, creative energy, and thrilling experiences ahead.


In the last few weeks the stage has come back to life in wonderful ways, and the stillness of the stage is quite literally being blown away. The fly tower (into which we fly the scenery) is effectively a chimney. It pulls the air out of the auditorium and up 100 ft into the top of the fly tower. Well, imagine 18 months without any activity. The chimney needed sweeping! There was so much dust that an intervention was necessary. The stage crew were telling me that, one day recently, they all brought their leaf blowers in and went up to the top of the fly tower. A good session of leaf blowing left about 2 inches of dust on the deck, and a sparklingly clean fly tower. If that’s not pandemic problem solving, I don’t know what is!

Here’s a glimpse at what’s been happening in the last few weeks.
 
On July 6, the Chorus returned as the first group to start rehearsing for the new season. It was very fitting that they be the first back, because the Chorus has not been able to do anything together live until now. It is only now, with a fully vaccinated protocol, that collective singing is feasible again, and it was glorious to experience the sound of 45 artists, singing together. They began with the “Te Deum” from Tosca and, even though everyone was wearing our specially-designed singer masks, the sound was life-changing. I was in tears. It made me realize that we will hear music as though for the first time—each note resonating with new intensity, new meaning.

Backstage with MatthewThe San Francisco Opera Chorus in the first notes of music back together: the “Te Deum” from Tosca

We are requiring masks in rehearsals until the point at which we’re running a section “in time” or straight through. At that point we move into what we call Zone A, where everyone present is required to be tested weekly (in addition to being fully vaccinated). Masks are then able to be removed, and music can be made freely. That is the protocol we will use for mainstage rehearsals, and also performances. But other than those moments, all of the rehearsals are done with the Singer Masks.

On July 16, we welcomed the Tosca cast and creative team to the Wilsey Center for a Meet and Greet in advance of rehearsals starting in the Zellerbach rehearsal room. It was great to see wonderful artistic friends arriving from all over America (we don’t have anyone joining us from abroad until Fidelio given visa and immigration challenges). We begin every rehearsal period with a “Meet and Greet” in which we welcome the artists and introduce them to the Company, and then we introduce Company members to the artists. It’s like a first day of school immersion! For the first time since Hansel and Gretel in 2019, there we were, meeting and greeting! It was another of those moments of glorious return. It wasn’t quite ‘as normal’ though—we spent a good period of time walking through all of the safety protocols as compiled by our Technical and Safety Director, Erik Walstad, and shared a purpose-created safety video narrated by our Associate Technical Director (and host of our North Stage Door podcast), Chris Largent.

Backstage with Matthew
Artists and Company members gathered for a “Meet and Greet” in the Taube Atrium of the Wilsey Center.

From July 16 onwards, it has been rehearsals as usual (save for the masks). The Zellerbach rehearsal hall has been full of life and energy as Music Director Eun Sun Kim, and our Director, Shawna Lucey have worked through Tosca with the cast. With Ailyn Pérez and Alfred Walker making their role debuts as Tosca and Scarpia, and Michael Fabiano having taken on Cavaradossi for the first time only a few months ago, it’s a thrilling process to see everything come together. Shawna gave birth just a few weeks ago, and in awe-inspiring dedication to the return opera, she is in rehearsals with her baby. The rebirth of opera could not be more perfectly expressed. 

Backstage with Matthew
Staging rehearsals for Tosca in our main rehearsal room, Zellerbach A.

Backstage with Matthew
Backstage with Matthew
Backstage with Matthew
Backstage with Matthew
Shawna and JJ in rehearsals for Tosca.

While staging is set in Zellerbach, the stage itself is being readied for opening night. On July 26, we loaded in Tosca—yet another life-affirming moment of return. Now in this case, it wasn’t the first time we’ve had scenery in during the pandemic—as you may recall, we fully tech’d the set of Fidelio last year, after building it in the scene shop. But this was the first time we hung scenery and lights and utilized the full space of the stage, fly-tower, and storage area in the back of the theater. I was reminded on that load-in day of the incredible choreography that goes into the backstage world. Every person has a very specific role to play and they execute it with great precision, ensuring that their piece of the stage is set so that someone else can do what they need to do. We have one of the great stage crews of the world, and to see how immediately all of that collective precision returned was inspiring.

Backstage with Matthew
Backstage with Matthew
Backstage with Matthew
Scenes from load-in of Tosca: our incredible stage crew, hanging the lighting instruments (we have eight lighting bridges), and loading in the scenery.

As with any opera when we inch closer to opening, we begin ‘tech’ing’ the production, which means setting lighting cues, practicing scene changes, and ensuring everything is in good working order. That has been happening the last few weeks and, with each rehearsal, we add another layer and the whole production deepens and surges with intensity.

Backstage with Matthew
Backstage with Matthew
Tech’ing Acts I and III of Tosca in the theater

Just on Thursday the Orchestra returned for their first time in the Opera House since Hansel and Gretel. It’s particularly poignant that we are making our return with the beginning of the tenure of Eun Sun Kim as music director. It feels so right to be beginning our journey with Eun Sun at this time—to be reawakening opera with a new music director who cares so deeply about every person in the Company, and who is passionate about telling resonant stories with which we can identify. Hearing Eun Sun creating music with the orchestra is sublime and a wonderful indication of what lies ahead.

Backstage with MatthewThe Orchestra back in the pit for their first rehearsal with Eun Sun Kim.

Oh, and because opera is very much a forward-looking endeavor (planning years into the future), we are already looking ahead to next June. Down in Burlingame, our Scene Shop is hard at work on building our brand new Don Giovanni production. Here’s a glimpse of what I was able to experience just last week. But that’s a topic for another Backstage with Matthew!

Backstage with Matthew
Our Scenic Artists led by Steve McNally (center) with the large 18-ft high head they are sculpting for
Don Giovanni.

Opera is returning. Beautifully, safely, and collectively. We are building and building to opening night on August 21 and it will be a glorious moment. An extraordinary moment to cherish for all time.  I cannot wait to be back in the Opera House with you.

Backstage with Matthew

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