SF Opera Lab - The Many Faces of R&D
SF Opera Lab, the recently launched R&D branch of San Francisco Opera, is gearing up for its second season of programming. According to Elkhanah Pulitzer, Artistic Curator for SF Opera Lab, many valuable lessons learned from the program’s inaugural season have shaped what lies ahead for Season Two.
Reflecting on the first season of SF Opera Lab, Pulitzer observes it was a fruitful time of experimentation and learning. “R&D takes many forms,” she says. “We did all kinds of practical testing, including signage and routing so people can easily find us on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building, internal systems and methods, creating the whole front of- house visitor experience with a less formal approach and experimenting with different start times and levels of pricing for programs.”
While Season One saw many triumphs—three of the four programs sold out and SF Opera Lab was featured in The New York Times—some hard lessons were also learned. Pulitzer notes frankly, “One show did not sell as well as we’d hoped. Across the board, valuable insights gleaned from Season One experiments— about what worked and what didn’t—have informed the upcoming season.
Pulitzer and her team also discovered a great deal about the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, the 299-seat venue for SF Opera Lab performances presented at the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera. “We have learned a lot about what that room can do. We know what the space is capable of—how to work in it and how to tell stories—and what the sound quality is like,” she says. “One surprising takeaway from the new venue is how fulfilling a performance experience can be even with very few forces involved. Intimacy is the beating heart of the whole operation. To get up close and personal with people—that is the reason why I got involved in the first place. Intimately scaled music plus theater is a worthy platform for sharing ideas and being relevant in a community.”
One such intimately scaled program, ChamberWORKS, turned out to be one of Season 1’s biggest successes. “This series allowed us to lift the veil on some of the incredible talent we have inhouse. Each concert was curated by members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra together with Adler Fellows and a visual artist. A Q&A session followed every performance, allowing the audience to connect with the artists in a very pure and direct way.”
Looking ahead to the upcoming season of SF Opera Lab, Pultizer shares that ChamberWORKS will return with another inspiring evening of programming. She also notes there will be more events in SF Opera Lab’s ongoing series of Pop-Ups. “Last season we presented three of these low-cost, very informal pop-up concerts at alternative, non-traditional venues around the City.” Performances at the Taube Atrium Theater kick off on February 24 with The Source, an immersive production by composer Ted Hearne about Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army Private who leaked military documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. Then, on March 11, Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci returns to San Francisco with a selection of French art songs and Poulenc’s onewoman opera La Voix humaine. And on April 23 the eight-voice a cappella group Roomful of Teeth performs a program called Shaw & Shakespeare, which will include Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer prizewinning Partita for 8 Voices, presented in collaboration with SF Performances’ PIVOT series for one night only.
Pulitzer admits that running a small program like SF Opera Lab within a cultural juggernaut like San Francisco Opera comes with challenges. “There are ways of doing business and ways of creating art that are all very grand at San Francisco Opera. Launching a smaller-scale kind of experience inside a machine that is muscled to produce really big things took some adjustment. We’ve had to figure out how to stay institutionally nimble.”
In the end, all the experiments and challenges are worthwhile. “Based on our findings from the first season, we can prioritize what to test next,” says Pulitzer. “We plan to keep figuring things out—which is exactly the job of an R&D branch—and to keep making interesting work that people want to see!”
Learn more about Season Two of SF Opera Lab at sfoperalab.com, or visit sfopera.com/labpartners to find out how you can provide support for this cutting-edge program.