Monday, December 14, 2015

Matthew Shilvock Appointed General Director of San Francisco Opera (Belated Commentary)

Matthew Shilvock
SFO/Scott Wall

Back in September, San Francisco Opera made the announcement that everyone who cares about the company had been waiting for: Matthew Shilvock, currently Associate General Director of SFO, will become General Director when David Gockley retires at the end of the season.

During the press conference at which this announcement was made, Steven Menzies, head of the search committee, went into some detail about the selection process. The committee made a list of some 70 potential candidates, consulted with numerous experts and people in opera, and winnowed the list down to around 20 plausible candidates, then did more winnowing. They wound up with 3 to 5 finalists, if I'm remembering this correctly. (I have notes from the press conference, but they are at home and I am not. And I'm not in a good position right now to watch the video of the press conference.) The finalists were then asked to make presentations discussing repertory, future plans of other sorts, and so on. Then the final selection was made.

There's no question about Shilvock's qualifications for the post. He has a master's degree in public administration, specializing in nonprofit administration; he worked at Houston Grand Opera from 2003 to 2005 and has been with San Francisco Opera since 2005, in a series of increasingly responsible roles. Putting it another way, he has had 12 years of working with David Gockley, who has had a sterling record in managing the business, labor, and other operations at both Houston and San Francisco. And at SFO, Shilvock has been in charge of crucial areas, including labor negotiations and media.

I'm confident that Shilvock will continue Gockley's superb financial and management record. He was extremely poised during the press conference, and he has worked successfully in a couple of the most potentially volatile areas for an opera company manager. 

I am less confident about matters of repertory. It's no secret that Gockley's programming has been more conservative, with more repetitions of a few standards, than many of us would like, including David Gockley. Here's what I wrote after the December, 2012 press conference announcing the 2013-14 season:
During his introductory remarks, Gockley was explicit about this: that the need to keep the company on a decent financial footing has been paramount during the ongoing recession. His priority has been to keep quality high while sacrificing repertory. He said that he is leaving repertory holes, and he knows it, that he hopes will be filled by his white knight successor. During the chit chat after the press conference, I told him that this had pre-emptively answered my planned question about whether we'd be seeing From the House of the Dead and Die Frau ohne Schatten, because....both are very expensive to stage and risky as far as ticket sales go.
At this point, the recession is essentially over in the Bay Area, where the economy is white-hot and unemployment is under 4%. (Not that many people aren't suffering, between long-term unemployment and the difficulty of finding a place to live.) And this year, the company has put on two very expensive productions, Les Troyens and Die Meistersinger.

During the press conference, which you can view on the SFO web site,  several of us tried to pin Shilvock down on his plans. I led off, with a very specific question that I had thought out with both hands:
The Royal Opera commissioned The Minotaur from Harrison Birtwistle, and the opera was popular enough that they were able to sell out two runs. Do you have plans to present this or any other opera by Birtwistle?
Okay, nobody is going to commit to such a thing during a press conference unless the journalist has somehow managed to read the GD's mind. So I did not get anything like a yes or a no. Joshua Kosman followed up with a different repertory question. Some time later, William from the Opera Warhorses blog also asked a rep question.

What we got in response was a lot of very polite bobbing and weaving, with no specifics, though there was some mention of Rameau (Shilvock's undergraduate speciality). I also understand that he has said that we are due for a Parsifal production, which is certainly true, but I can't recall whether this was at the press conference or on another occasion. We've now seen a bit about what is planned for the Wilsey Center's 299-seat theater.

A bit later in the press conference, I asked about concert and semi-staged opera, which is the most economical way for a company to put on large-scale, but risky, works, and where San Francisco Symphony has show just how well this can be done. (For example, the rehearsal period for last year's magnificent Peter Grimes was about 10 days, versus three weeks or more for a fully-staged production.) Shilvock didn't duck this one, but said that the expectations for the company are that it puts on fully-staged opera, and it might not meet expectations to present opera in concert.

Now, I am all about repertory. As much as I'd like to see Sonya Yoncheva in La Traviata, I would prefer to see almost anyone in an opera I've never seen before, whether staged, semi-staged, or strictly in concert. I realize that this puts me in a minority, but how many more performances of Butterfly, Rigoletto, Traviata, Boheme, Tosca, etc., etc. does the world need? SFO has some responsibility to persuade its audience of the value of the entire repertory, not just the opera warhorses, as it were.

And I'm just not very happy with some of what Shilvock said in his AP interview in September:
"We want people's first experience in the opera house to be resonant and to be exciting and to be to some degree comfortable, so that they will come back," Shilvock said during a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "So I think we have to treat the 'Traviatas' and 'Bohemes' very sensitively." 
 Unlike their European counterparts, U.S. companies have very little government assistance, which factors into decisions on operas and directors. 
[paragraph deleted] 
"Our patrons are also our investors, and because many of our core subscribers are also our most generous philanthropists, we need to make sure that our programming jibes with their expectations, what they'd like to see onstage," Shilvock said. "That doesn't mean that we have to be conservative. Many of them have very adventurous tastes and interests, but I think it does mean that we have to be careful about what happens on our stage."
We'll have to wait a year or two for Shilvock's programming interests to come to the fore, because Gockley was asked by the board to do at least some of the programming for the next couple of seasons (and that was necessary, given how far out you have to go to sign singers, directors, etc. and start designing new productions). I'm certainly hoping that Shilvock will be the repertory white knight that Gockley was hoping for in 2012. He's inheriting a company on a sound financial footing, with an endowment that David Gockley has done a superb job of building. Let's see what he can do with that.


Henry Holland said...

Lisa, how awesome are you to mention The Minotaur as your rep choice? Answer: very.

However, I'm not naive, the chances of any Birtwsitle/Reimann kinds of thing being programmed are about nil. As with the LA Opera, I just wish they'd lay off the warhorses a bit, there's no good reason to program more than one Puccini or Verdi opera a season than purely being a money thing.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I needed a recent, non-tonal opera that had been successfully revived...and while I haven't seen the DVD, I expect I'd like The Minotaur a whole lot.