San Francisco Opera | Goosebumps and Ghost Stories With Opera House Head John Boatwright

Goosebumps and Ghost Stories With Opera House Head John Boatwright

In the gloom of night, after the audiences have filed away and the stage door swings shut, John Boatwright steps onto the empty stage.

He carries with him a little bulb, affixed to the end of a stand: a ghost light to shine when the theater is dark — and a fall from the stage is especially perilous.

As head of San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, Boatwright is often the last to leave. From his perch center-stage, he can check for outages on the chandelier, things that need fixing. But as he stands there in black expanse, not a soul to be seen, he listens — “and you always hear something.”

Sure, Boatwright knows that pipes can rattle, and fixtures can moan, and walls can creak. He’s used to the banging that happens when the boilers fire up and the steam flows from the Veteran’s Building next door to heat the 3,126-seat theater. But there’s something about that sound at night, something not so easily explained.

“There’s clicking sounds. It’s almost like somebody clicking a lighter, the old-fashioned lighters where the lid of the lighter would click open,” Boatwright explains. Then, every once in a while, he’ll catch the sound of a whisper lingering in the air. “And I know that I’m alone,” he says “It sounds like it’s close to you, but you can’t quite make out the words.”

Since he was a child, Boatwright has been steeped in the lore of this 88-year-old institution, the first municipally owned opera house built in the United States. In fact, he is part of the second generation of his family to work in its halls.

His stepfather, Alfred Lorente, used to manage a supply store on Market Street. There, the former World War II Merchant Mariner would indulge his love of opera, playing it through the store speakers. After a time, several of his customers took notice. They were from the San Francisco Opera wardrobe department.

Lorente told Boatwright that, one day, they approached him with a question: “Do you like opera?” The answer was an emphatic yes. The opera was in need of a male wardrobe attendant for night shows. Lorente, with his passion for music, seemed like the perfect fit.

For the next 42 years, Lorente went to work at the War Memorial Opera House. He married Boatwright’s mother when Boatwright was around 5 years old. And as Boatwright grew up, he remembers “Dad” would always make a point after work to check in on his children and wish them a good night, no matter how late his opera shift ended.

When he came home early, Lorente would treat Boatwright and his siblings to a story. “Our bedtime stories were all about things that were happening in the San Francisco Opera house,” Boatwright recalls. One of Lorente’s favorites was about the star of an old production of Turandot.

“The guy playing the part of the emperor said, ‘Al, I've got this date tonight. I can't make it to the very end of the show. Can you go on for me?’” Since the emperor didn’t have any more singing lines, Lorente agreed to step in. The team backstage helped him into his costume and makeup, and soon, Lorente was being borne aloft, carried via litter onto the stage.

Then-general director Kurt Herbert Adler happened to be watching the opera from the wings that night. Before he left on his date, the singer stopped to surprise him. “The guy tapped Adler on the shoulder and said, ‘Pretty good, huh?’”

As an adult, Boatwright initially served in the U.S. Army. After he left the service, he anticipated a career as a civilian intelligence agent. But a government hiring freeze scuttled his plans, and Boatwright turned to his stepfather for help.

The next thing he knew, he was pulling a “midnighter” at the opera house, working through the wee hours to replace 1988’s La Bohème with the set of another opera for the next day’s performance. It was “a little more chaotic than the army,” Boatwright says, “but really super fun.”

Since then, the War Memorial Opera House has been Boatwright’s professional home. And he’s not alone. His stepbrother, brother, and sister have all worked there at one time or another. Nowadays, his son is also learning the ropes: He started on the grip crew just before the coronavirus pandemic began.

Lorente didn’t live to see Boatwright named to in his current position, as opera house head. But Lorente always hinted there was an element of destiny involved in Boatwright’s career: His mother met Lorente at a party held by the lighting company — the same lighting company that helped build the Opera House’s famous aluminum chandelier.

“You have to take care of it,” he used to tell Boatwright, nodding up at the aluminum star. And now, Boatwright says, he does.

But in the decades since, Boatwright has uncovered a hidden history to the opera house: a ghostly one. Backstage, among the crew, workers share legends and lore about the unexplainable incidents that happen in the dark, isolated corners of the theater.

The one Boatwright relishes the most was from 1995. A member of the crew was alone in the theater’s expansive attic, where four large follow-spotlights are housed. Given that they burn at 2,000 watts, according to Boatwright, they’re extremely hot after hours and hours of performance.

It was the crew member’s job to stay behind: A series of fans help to cool the follow-spotlights, but they need to be turned off before the night is done. Satisfied that the spotlights were no longer scalding, the crew member flicked the fans off. He climbed a ladder back up to the attic walkway and started toward the exit.

But ahead of him, in the shadows near the electrical equipment, a figure loomed. At first the crew member scoffed: Stage hands are notorious for playing practical jokes on one another, and this seemed like yet another attempt. “I see you,” the crew member shouted. “I see you!”

The figure, however, didn’t move. It didn’t flinch. It didn’t acknowledge the crew member’s shouts at all. And as he got closer, Boatwright explains, the crew member noticed the figure’s eyes were not looking at him so much as through him. And somehow the crew member could see the staircase the figure was blocking, as if he wasn’t really there at all.

“The only way out was to keep walking towards that figure,” Boatwright says. “He kind of turned his head away and kept walking. And as he got in parallel with it, he felt something like fingers touch the back of his neck. And then he turned and looked and there was nobody there.”

The next year, in 1996, the opera house closed for an $88.5 million seismic retrofit, to make the theater better able to withstand California’s earthquakes. The work led to a grisly discovery, Boatwright says — right where that crew member saw the ghostly figure.

“The construction crew up there found a box with some human ashes, cremains, in it,” he says. “There was no real ID on the box. They didn't know what to do. So since they were doing all this construction and they had big open holes in the wall, they just sealed it into the wall. And no one has ever seen anything else up there.”

After the theater reopened, the crew member who had the supernatural sighting decided not to return. “He said, ‘No, I had enough,’” Boatwright says with a chuckle.

Boatwright has also heard about Kurt Herbert Adler roaming the deserted theater, long after the celebrated impresario passed away. As San Francisco Opera’s second-ever general director, Adler cast a long shadow, increasing the Company’s repertoire, expanding performance seasons, and scouring the world for new talent.

A noted perfectionist, Adler would often observe performances and rehearsals from different nooks in the opera house. One of his favorite spots was a sound-mixing station that used to be located in the Grand Tier section of the auditorium. A member of the sound department told Boatwright he always made a habit of waving to the general director as he came and went.

But then Adler died in 1988, an event that shook the classical music world. Obituaries hailed him as a visionary who shaped the company into “one of the leading opera ensembles of the world.”

The sound mixer “had become very accustomed to seeing him,” Boatwright explains. Months after Adler’s passing, the sound mixer felt a figure walk past once again, headed to Adler’s habitual lookout.

“He turned and looked. He said he caught just enough of an image from the corner of his eye to say there had been something there,” Boatwright says. “He felt it was Adler.”

Most of the ghost stories, however, that take place in the War Memorial Opera House are of the theatrical variety: Operas are filled with witches, hauntings and spectral beings, from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor to Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. Even modern works, like John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, continue opera’s spooky tradition.

Boatwright himself was once enlisted to haunt the stage. With his dark hair and sturdy build, Boatwright was a physical match for the famous Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas. The tenor was set to star in a 2010 production of Jules Massenet’s Werther, but there was a catch: Even after the hero died, he still had to deliver an aria.

So Boatwright appeared as Vargas’s body double, expiring from a gunshot wound while Vargas sang from center stage.

But as steeped as Boatwright is in the legends of the Opera House, he has a shocking confession: “You know, I’ve never seen a show in my theater.” He’s caught one of the shorter ballets before but never the massive spectacles the theater is known for. There’s simply too much to do behind the scenes. “I’ve only seen opera from the side, waiting to do my part.”

But if San Francisco Opera ever stages Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten again — the mythical tale of an empress from the spirit realm who casts no shadow — Boatwright says you can be sure to find him haunting the audience, perched on a lookout to watch the magic unfold.

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