San Francisco Opera turns 100 this year, and it’s using the opportunity to look forward, not back, through operatic scavenger hunts, performances inside shipping containers and memoir-writing workshops.
The centennial season includes eight mainstage operas, including two new works, as well as an array of free special events.
Integral to the company’s push for new audiences in its second century is a full-throttled embrace of diversity. That means structural changes that impact every decision the organization makes—from casting to production, hiring to events.
“On any given weekend, my staff and I are out in the community at events, whether there's a street fair in the Tenderloin or a family event at Bayview Hunters Point,” said Charles Chip McNeal, the opera’s director of diversity, equity and community. “That's what we do so that people don't think of the opera as being elitist or separate or esoteric,” he said.
McNeal’s efforts to humanize the art form go far beyond the lip service that so many hidebound institutions pay to avoid criticism or cancellation. San Francisco Opera hired McNeal in 2019—two years before the Metropolitan Opera made a similar move and well before the racial reckoning that swept America in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, which spurred many high-profile American cultural organizations to reconsider their practices.
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Cultivating new opera fans has been a top priority. A recent highlight was Dream of the Red Chamber, based on one of the most famous Chinese works of fiction and staged with an all-Asian cast. In advance of the production, San Francisco Opera created an Asian Advisory Committee, whose work will continue.
“Instead of just handing out tickets to an Asian audience to go to an Asian production, you're engaged in dialogue,” McNeal said. “We’re asking what would make this more relevant, what events would make your theater-going experience connected to a sense of belonging?”
But it’s not only about bringing in a more diverse audience.
“You've got to look at your organization's culture, its makeup, because it's only a diverse group of people that can effectively tell stories from diverse perspectives,” McNeal said. “The history of opera has privileged some and marginalized others.”
A 2022 study by Opera America revealed that only one fifth of employees and board members at operas in the United States and Canada identify as people of color, despite being 39% of the population. While opera has long had famous Black singers—soprano Jessye Norman, contralto Marian Anderson—it has struggled to represent people of color in its administration.
Michael Bragg, a music planning associate and music librarian who’s also an opera singer, singled out Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites as one of this season’s standouts. The work saw its U.S. premiere at San Francisco Opera in 1957.
“It was also the company debut of Leontyne Price, one of the most famous African-American opera singers,” said Bragg, who is Black.
Yet there’s an inherent tension between appealing to new audiences—who tend to be younger—and satisfying older patrons who may have deeper pockets and more conservative tastes.
“It's completely a both/and situation,” said General Director Matthew Shilvock. “You need to honor the traditions, but you need to expand the traditions.”
The company’s willingness to experiment with new productions seems to be working, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm around Korean conductor Eun Sun Kim, who began her tenure as music director in August 2021. The season begins with John Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra, the first time in the opera’s history that the opening performance is also a world premiere.
San Francisco resident Vivien Sin, who is in her early 30s, has been a member of the Opera’s BRAVO! Club for young professionals since she moved to the Bay Area in 2015. Through the club, she has attended operas, holiday parties and classes.
“When I was new to the city, it was great for meeting folks,” said Sin, who typically sees three or four operas a year. “I’m particularly excited about this season. There’s a lot of new work, and I’m very optimistic about the new music director.”
Young opera aficionado John Lisovsky is also buoyed by the appointment of the new music director.
“Women of color, and in particular women of Asian descent, are like unicorns as directors in the classical music world,” Lisovsky said. “I’m delighted but it’s also sad that it’s so rare.”
The massive expense of producing operas—the budget for the centennial season is a cool $95 million and includes eight mainstage operas—coupled with lingering uncertainty around audiences post-pandemic means attracting fresh audiences is paramount to the organization’s survival.
The crowded calendar includes many free events that are open to the public: Sunday afternoon’s performance of arias and duets in Golden Gate Park, a family-friendly community open house on Oct. 23 with backstage tours and scavenger hunts, Opera at the Ballpark on Nov. 11 and mobile performances of Puccini’s warhorse La Bohème in a converted shipping container.
One of the most compelling initiatives for attracting new audiences is the reduced ticket program in partnership with Dolby. It makes 100 tickets for $10 available at each performance—and in prime seating areas.
“There’s a huge amount of excitement and energy about this program,” Shilvock said.
The tickets are released one month in advance, and you must have a Bay Area ZIP code and not attended an opera in the past three years. The reduced seats for “Antony and Cleopatra” sold out in under 24 hours, and the initial 1,500 tickets for the first 15 performances have all been claimed.
Opera’s appeal endures, largely because of its ability to play off emotion. In his native Los Angeles, Lisovsky would travel two hours by public bus as a high schooler in order to attend three- or four-hour performances.
“It’s sensory overload,” said Lisovsky of his love of opera. “There’s nothing like it.”
“Most of the stories are about human interactions and human relationships. And that’s translatable no matter what decade you're in,” Bragg said. “People who are in tumultuous relationships will always be relatable, no matter if it's the 1800s or Kim and Kanye.”
Julie Zigoris can be reached at [email protected]