SFOpera - Did you know? Inside the War Memorial Opera House’s history

Did you know? Inside the War Memorial Opera House’s history

We’re missing the War Memorial Opera House these days. The usual rhythm of opening nights, rehearsals, and events. The unmistakable energy that comes from people creating something great and an audience soaking up every aspect of a production.

While we eagerly await the day that we can enter the building again, we reflect upon the excitement leading up to its opening back in 1932 and other events that have occurred on its stage.

Before there was ever a building, the Italian impresario Gaetano Merola realized San Francisco’s potential as a major artistic hub. He launched San Francisco Opera in 1923, anticipating the day when the city’s plans for a new opera house would be complete.

Gaetano Merola from San Francisco Opera Archives, photographer unknownGaetano Merola from San Francisco Opera Archives, photographer unknown.

After the opera’s first season, an audience member wrote to the editor of The San Francisco Chronicle to express his excitement for the new company and its eventual home. His letter was printed and preserved in the Chronicle’s archives:

Editor The Chronicle – Sir: The people and press of San Francisco are to be commended for their splendid support of the marvelous season of grand opera just closed; also we are to be congratulated on having Gaetano Merola as director, who, by his artistry and untiring efforts, has made the opera a permanent organization. Let us now build our War Memorial opera house, and build it right. All who have the interest of our beautiful and beloved city at heart will rejoice that we have again demonstrated to the world this time that SAN FRANCISCO KNOWS HOW. – San Francisco, Oct 16, 1923

The announcement of the new theater’s groundbreaking was made on October 6, 1926, following the closing night of Il Trovatore. The Chronicle recorded the scene as the announcement was made:

“The fund at present in hand,” E. C. Kendrick of the memorial committee said, “is about $2,000,000. We shall call upon you music lovers and proud citizens of San Francisco to raise the rest of the money needed.” These words were greeted by the assemblage with stentorian applause.

The enthusiasm of the audience that night reflected that of the general public, eventually making the War Memorial the first opera house in America built entirely through community donations. If you want to walk down memory lane — or if you have never visited — you can take a virtual tour of the Opera House here.

Here are other highlights from the War Memorial Opera House’s history:

1. Tosca is in our DNA

Opening night on October 15, 1932, kicked off with a performance of Puccini’s Tosca, conducted by Gaetano Merola, our first general director. You can find the program in our archives here. In the intervening years, San Francisco Opera has performed Tosca 153 times within 30 seasons, most recently in October 2018. That production, directed by Shawna Lucey, is a new part of our repertory, a legacy that will last for years to come.

Tosca2018 production of Tosca by Cory Weaver

2. We’ve weathered world wars and more

During World War II, the windows of the Opera House were blacked out and performances were monitored by air raid wardens. From 1942 to 1945, the San Francisco Opera Guild suspended its Student Matinee program, choosing instead to use the funds to provide 55-cent opera tickets to US Armed Services personnel on leave in San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle hosts a vast and varied collection of stories of what life was like during that tumultuous time. There are too many to account for here, but it can be safely assumed that the uncertainty, sorrow, and dread that hung over San Francisco and the world was profound. Perhaps a collective sigh of relief was breathed in spring 1945, when the Charter of the United Nations was signed in the Herbst Theatre. The theater was also host to the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco, declaring peace with Japan six years later in 1951.

One of our stagehands, Tom Edwards, nicknamed “Moose,” is credited for saving the signing ceremony for the United Nations Charter. There was an issue syncing the interface of worldwide network of teletypes — the newswire — and radio broadcasts for the simultaneous translations. But Moose always carried, under his arms, stacks of cigar boxes full of screws, nuts, and electrical parts. Somehow, he had just the right parts in the cigar boxes to cobble together the teletype network just in time for the ceremony.

3. In San Francisco, opera is housed at the intersection of counterculture and innovation

San Francisco has experienced many transformations. Counterculture movements such as The Beat Generation in the 1950s and the Summer of Love in 1967 infused a distinctive character to an already creative and rebellious city. The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 caused major destruction that eventually led to the revitalization of our neighborhood, Hayes Valley. The dot-com boom and bust brought innovation and gentrification that changed the landscape of the city — for better or for worse. Throughout it all, San Francisco Opera has been a refuge for music-lovers and has adapted to changing tastes while honoring its storied tradition.

For example, the rock group The Band borrowed our La Traviata set for their 1976 farewell performance at the Winterland Ballroom, which was captured in Martin Scorsese's 1978 documentary The Last Waltz. Though it was an unusual usage of the set, The Band’s choice hints at how “high” and “low” art have blurred in the public’s opinion. But this wasn’t the first connection San Francisco Opera had with the famous concert venue: The ballroom was initially named Dreamland when it opened in 1928, and San Francisco Opera presented its 1928 and 1929 seasons there.

4. We’ve captured California history on stage — and fostered the next generation of opera-goer

Throughout its history, San Francisco Opera has produced innovative works that capture the spirit of the city, such as Girls of the Golden West by John Adams in 2017, and push boundaries of what the art form can be. Making opera accessible to everyone — whether they are an aficionado or a passerby — is the goal of community-outreach programs like Opera in the Park and simulcasts at the Oracle Stadium.

La Traviata
1973 production of La Traviata by Ron Scherl

As San Francisco Opera approaches its centennial, the War Memorial Opera House has become more than brick and mortar. It is not only a structure where big art can be created and appreciated: It is a symbol of this city’s immense ability to strive toward greatness.

The Spirit of this Place: Mozart’s 'The Marriage of Figaro'
The Rest of the Story: 'Tosca's' Historical Background