Saturday, October 04, 2014

Not Exactly News

Last Saturday, I received a printed invitation from San Francisco Opera to an Important Company Announcement, to be held Friday morning in the lounge behind the opera shop. I figured it must be one of three things:

1. Announce David Gockley's successor, since we've all known for the last year that he planned to retire after the 2015-16 season.

2. Announce Nicola Luisotti's departure and his replacement, though the news that he has quit his Italian job made this less likely.

3. Announce a gigantic gift to renovate or replace the elderly and space-constrained War Memorial Opera House.

But I was wrong.

The press conference was to formally announce Gockley's retirement and to chat a bit. "At the request of the Board," he'll be planning the two seasons after his departure, because you have to sign singers and conductors now for four years out. So he is planning 2016-17 and 2017-18. He confirmed that there will be a Ring revival in 2017-18, meaning summer 2018. He didn't mention who is conducting, but it's not Nicola Luisotti.

He mentioned that when he joined the company, he told the Board he was committed to ten years, more or less, and thinks that is a good tenure for an opera company executive. (Says the man who ran the Houston Opera for 33 years!) Asked what he was proudest of in his time here and which of his commissions he was proudest of, he mentioned first, the 2011 Ring, and second, said he was very proud of The Bonesetter's Daughter, Heart of a Soldier, and Dolores Claiborne. He did say the critics didn't always agree. (You bet: I thought Bonesetter was an embarrassment with one good scene and a horrid libretto.)

(If I were him and I'd been asked that question, the slam-dunk answer is Nixon in China. It's a great piece, it has entered the repertory, and he took a big chance on Adams when he commissioned it, at a time when Terry McEwan was saying it would appear in the War Memorial Opera House over his dead body.)(Oh, and by the way, Appomattox is being performed in DC a couple of years out.)

Opera Association President Keith Geeslin and Gockley both discussed the challenges facing the company, including:

  • The ever-rising cost of presenting opera
  • The shrinking subscriber base. (See this SFCV report for figures Gockley discussed earlier this year.)
  • The need for a huge amount of fund-raising
Asked about mistakes he'd made that he would counsel his successor to avoid, he said more or less the following:
  • We're space and facilities challenged in a 1930s house. There are ways to create productions for the house, but you have to be careful.
  • It's challenging to co-produce with other houses because of the size of the house and the facilities. He specifically mentioned Covent Garden, a much small house with a smaller stage.
  • Keep the constraints in mind and be creative.
  • It's very labor intensive to move sets on and off stage because of the space constraints, and this increases costs.
  • No new house in the offing.
  • Spend time in Europe and put in time talking face to face with the artists of the day, because that's the only way to persuade some of them to perform in San Francisco.
At this point, Nicola Luisotti pointed out that in the 1980s, weak European currencies made European artists eager to work in SF. Now that the Euro is strong against the dollar, they'd rather work closer to home and get paid better.

Luisotti's contract has been extended through 2017-18. He is conducting three operas that fall. This gives Gockley's successor the opportunity to replace Luisotti if he or she wants to. (You may recall that on her way out the door, Pamela Rosenburg signed Donald Runnicles to a new contract, extending well into Gockley's tenure. I'm glad to have had Runnicles around for that extra time, but I own that it was not exactly a collegial act.)

Also - the only real news - there is another commission out to Jake Heggie, date and subject not known.

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