San Francisco Opera is expanding into the historic Veterans Building adjacent to the War Memorial Opera House. On the top floor, construction of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera is nearing completion, and everything is on track for the first performance in the brand-new Dianne & Tad Taube Atrium Theater in early March, 2016.
The Wilsey Center brings most of the Company’s creative and administrative talents together onto one integrated campus. In addition to the 299-seat Taube Atrium Theater, the Wilsey Center also houses the Norby Anderson Costume Shop,the John M. Bryan Education Studio, the Hume Family Gallery and the Edward Paul Braby San Francisco Opera Archive, as well as offices and conference rooms.
Elkhanah Pulitzer, the first Director of Programming for SF Opera Lab, is involved in every facet of opening this new space. “Every week is full of surprises,” she says, “and I’ve learned to do things that I certainly didn’t anticipate.”
One of those unexpected challenges was a changing awareness about the Wilsey Center’s mission and in particular its relationship to the Opera’s mainstage programming. Elkhanah notes, “In the process of developing the programming for the Center, giving it a logo and a name, it evolved into what we have now titled SF Opera Lab. This new programming initiative doesn’t have to live exclusively at the Wilsey Center; it can take place at any number of venues across the City or even the Bay Area.”
Over the last few weeks, Elkhanah has been developing a mission statement for SF Opera Lab with a focus on developing experimental programs that will attract and engage new audiences. “Its mandate is essentially to help challenge perceptions and be a forum for an intimate, stripped-down musical and theatrical experience, which is very different from what we do on the main stage. That is why I am thinking of it more in terms of the Opera’s R&D branch: a testing ground and incubator for new ideas and working methods across the entire Company, with an active flow of creative energy back and forth between the Wilsey Center and the Opera House.”
The Center will also provide opportunities to create collaborative partnerships with other Bay Area community organizations and expand San Francisco Opera’s presence and visibility in the Bay Area arts scene.
Meanwhile, the first season of programming at the Taube Atrium Theater has taken shape. “We start in March with Schubert’s evocative song cycle Winterreise featuring German baritone Matthias Goerne in a theatrical production designed by South African artist William Kentridge. Then we present Svadba, an a cappella chamber opera for six female voices written by Serbian-Canadian composer Ana Sokolovic. Svadba, which means ‘wedding’ in Serbian, tells of a group of women who gather to celebrate on the evening before one of them is to be married.
April presentations include 10 live screenings of the 2003 animated French film The Triplets of Belleville, which was nominated for two Oscars and will be performed with a live chamber orchestra, a chanteuse and sound effects. And we conclude with Voigt Lessons, an evening with soprano and former Adler Fellow Deborah Voigt, in which she shares insights into the struggles and joys of her career both on and off the stage.”
SF Opera Lab will also offer a chamber music series featuring three unique evenings curated by San Francisco Opera Orchestra members in collaboration with the Adler Fellows to create an up-close-and-personal experience of music-making in an intimate space.
“Programming for the Wilsey Center is about more than just filling seats,”Elkhanah says. “Attracting a younger crowd and having them share their experience with their friends would be a success. Other metrics for success highlight shifting attitudes about how musical theater gets made, about embracing innovation, and how that in turn can influence our approach to presenting work on the Opera’s main stage. SF Opera Lab is not your parent’s opera, but also not opera light or chamber opera. It is a litmus test for what opera can be and can become.”