SF Opera under the glass

Pub date August 29, 2006
WriterChing Chang

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There is no lack of world-class talent in the upcoming fall season, but as far as the portentous tenants in the Civic Center are concerned, the new season’s repertoire stands out as an exercise in artistic tepidness. Perhaps still traumatized by the Bush economy’s brutal impact upon the arts, the San Francisco Opera and Symphony and other big Bay Area arts presenters are taking few chances. Projects with even the subtlest hints of experimentation this season — such as the SF Symphony’s multimedia production of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights — are being served to the public in carefully marketed packages, brandishing favorite performers with tried-and-true creative teams that have been thoroughly tested over the years.
So as the curtains go up next week, the best performance to watch may well be the one that is taking place offstage: David Gockley, the SF Opera’s new general director, heads his first full season as the top choice for the job. With the company’s somewhat contentious regime change (Pamela Rosenberg vacated the lead post last season), Gockley knows that his every move is being scrutinized by the opera world.
Rosenberg was the only woman leading a major American opera company during her tenure at the SF Opera, boldly introducing on the War Memorial stage the US premieres of major contemporary works such as Olivier Messiaen’s massive St. Francis of Assisi, György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, and the world premiere of John Adams’s Dr. Atomic. Even while facing the funding challenges of a deflated economy, Rosenberg chose to focus the company’s resources on creating the daring, provocative concept-driven productions that are common in Europe. Instead of squandering her production budgets on expensive star singers, Rosenberg brought a fertile artistic sensibility to the company that was wholly fresh and exciting.
Yet the lack of recognizable marquee names combined with the high level of abstraction in her productions displeased the opera’s more conservative, traditional constituencies. Typically, the anti-Rosenberg camp was made up of Metropolitan Opera–jealous patrons and the shrill, mercilessly critical traditionalists who prefer museumlike productions — the kind of stagings populated with ornate period costuming and opulent sets that are often mere vanity vehicles to glorify star singers. So, faced with the criticism of diva-starved patrons and the prospect of having to devote an enormous portion of her time on the job to fundraising, Rosenberg chose not to renew her five-year contract with the SF Opera when it expired.
Attempting to find a less polarizing replacement, the SF Opera’s search committee came up with Gockley, the highly respected former general director of Houston Grand Opera. Chief among Gockley’s strengths is the rapport he has with top talent in the field, paired with a proven ability to entice them into high-profile collaborations.
“I would like to pursue a policy of bringing more of the most prominent stars back to San Francisco, similar to the kind that the public enjoyed during the [Kurt Herbert] Adler and [Terence] McEwen years,” Gockley said in a phone interview last week. “People expect that of a great international company — to provide the big personalities and the most glamorous performers.”
Yes, the divas are back, though certainly not in the abundance suggested by the opera’s tacky marketing campaign launched during the summer season. But what could be the rationale behind the extreme conservatism of SF Opera’s 2006–07 season, in which the most modern entry is Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and the production rosters are populated by stalwart traditionalists such as Michael Yeargan, Thierry Bosquet, and John Conklin? “This year is not mine,” Gockley pointed out, indicating that it was planned by his predecessor before his arrival.
Not unlike Rosenberg, in Houston, Gockley was also known as an innovator and risk taker. In the heart of Bush country, he ushered in Adams’s Nixon in China, a momentous premiere in the history of American opera. A few years later, his controversial commission of Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie’s Harvey Milk was picketed by the religious right.
So what does he have in store for those who actually like more daring theatrical statements?
“Nothing this year,” he said dryly. “But we have already announced a world premiere by Philip Glass [an opera based on the Civil War battle of Appomattox] for next season and will announce the new season in January. Much as I did in Houston, we will have a blend of some core and peripheral repertory work, new works, and premieres — done with great singers and great musical and theatrical values.”
In all fairness, Gockley has the difficult job of being all things to all people during this transitional phase. Of course, this is only the beginning, and before he has the buy-in from all the locals, this former Texan will still have much to prove. SFBG
Philharmonia Baroque and Cal Performances join forces to present Purcell’s 1691 dramatic masterpiece in a new, fully choreographed staging by Mark Morris. The original cast from the production’s UK premiere is featured. (Sept. 30–Oct. 7. 510-642-9988, www.calperfs.berkeley.edu)
More than any so-called diva, violinist Hilary Hahn provides compelling evidence of the divine with her mesmerizing gifts. Appearing with the SF Symphony, Hahn is the soloist in the rarely heard Violin Concerto by Eric Wolfgang Korngold, a composer of forbidden music during the Nazi era. (Dec. 6–8. 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org)
Soprano Christine Brewer’s rendition of Isolde’s orgasmic, transcendent “Liebestod” at the end of this five-hour opera will be well worth the wait, while iconoclast David Hockney’s colorful sets will be mere icing on the cake. Thomas Moser sings Tristan, and Donald Runnicles conducts. (Oct. 5–27. 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com)
In the rarest of opportunities, the brilliant British composer and pianist Thomas Ades pays a visit to San Francisco to play a recital of his music at Herbst Theatre. Ades created a sensation when, as a fresh-faced 23-year-old composer, he premiered his opera Powder Her Face (containing the now-infamous fellatio scene) in Britain in 1995. (Dec. 9. 415-392-2545, www.performances.org)