Monday, May 29, 2017

Matthew Shilvock at the Wagner Society

Terri Stuart, left, presenting Matthew Shilvock with something 
at the March Wagner Society meeting.
Photo by Lisa Hirsch.

Matthew Shilvock, the still-new general director of San Francisco Opera, spoke to the Wagner Society of Northern California back in March, giving a talk that combined his own introduction to opera, his first encounter with the Ring (it did not end well, owing to circumstances beyond his control - a case of mono), some Wagner productions he's seen, a glimpse of the future, the cast of the upcoming Ring, and an in-depth look at the specialized project management skills that are needed for scheduling rehearsals for the Ring, or, for that matter, any opera season.

He also talked very frankly, and with numbers to back up what he said, about some aspects of ticket sales and publicity, and the effect of the Met HD broadcasts on ticket sales. (The jury is still out; nobody can fully judge the impact, in part because the Met keeps so much information confidential. I was especially interested to hear that the best guess based on public information is that the Met breaks even on the broadcasts. That was a surprise to me because of the size of the audience. The best guess takes into account the costs of the broadcasts, which I have no idea of.)

It was a great talk, erudite and charming. Also, he has a sense of humor and almost fell over when I held up a sign during the future repertory discussion with one word on it.

Photo by Matthew Shilvock


Here's the bullet-list version of some of what he said.
  • Francesca Zambello will be coming back to direct the Ring. (I believe that at the season announcement she mentioned that there would undoubtedly be some changes of approach based on both the cast changes and what she learned from staging the production at the WNO  last year and here in 2011.)
  • SFO is talking with both Donald Runnicles and Nicola Luisotti about future projects.
  • Having just one director and one conductor for the summer, as for the Ring, can make it a more straightforward than usual season for the company....in some ways. Summers are still extremely intense.
  • The Ring has children as the Nibelungs. The company works very hard to adhere to the strict child labor laws in California, which were enacted with Hollywood and the film industry in mind. Children must attend stage school, for example
  • Strauss orchestra is bigger than the Ring orchestra; St Francois was the biggest orchestra they have had.
  • The Rheingold anvils are piped in from chorus room
  • The Ring needs lots of rehearsal space. Having the Wilsey Center will make it easier to rehearse the Ring, bringing the orchestra in from the Presidio.
  • Production is shared with Washington National Opera, which staged the first three and then was only able to do Götterdämmerung in concert because of financial challenges following the 2008 recession; they staged the whole thing last year.
  • Matthew showed us the 2011 rehearsal schedule; this utterly fascinated the project manager in me. He talked about it a lot and my notes are incomplete.
    • Color coded
    • Very complex
    • Done in Excel
  • In 2011, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung got more rehearsal time because they were being brought up in SF for the first time, Walküre and Rheingold had been staged before and needed less rehearsal time.
  • Evelyn Herlitzius will be a very different Brünnhilde from Nina Stemme, who sang the role in 2011. Stemme is more classically poised, Herlitzius more elemental. 
  • Sometimes they have to have two orchestra rehearsals for same opera same day; it's not ideal, but sometimes it's the only way to do what needs to be done.
  • The Ring operas require an unending amount of work for singers. Wagner singers understand this and are mellow about it.
  • The covers do rehearsals sometimes for the health of the singers doing Brünnhilde and Wotan. (I'm thinking, maybe Siegfried too? The eponymous opera is absolutely brutal to the tenor.)
  • In 2018, they'll have a full run of dress rehearsals in order; they weren't able to do that in 2011.
  • This is a big benefit to the crew.
  • One week less of rehearsals in the rehearsal room, but  Walküre and Rheingold will get more  rehearsal time than in 2011.
  • Baroque opera, can be more playful because expectation are different; they are not set as with core repertory.
  • Moses and Aron, maybe, or works that, like Moses, are pillars of the contemporary repertory. (There was an audible gasp in the room when he mentioned Moses. I, for one, would love to see this.)
  • Another Handel opera is planned.
  • He mentioned the user friendliness of War Memorial Opera House, where during intermissions the audience has to choose between beverage and bathroom.
  • In their renovated building, the Royal Opera has better user experience than SFO. 

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