Ken Garcia: S.F. Opera hopes to be on key by juggling art, commerce

The cost of a box seat at the San Francisco Opera on a premiere night is $235, not including dinner. The cost of a box seat at the opening night of the San Francisco Opera on Saturday is free, not including the labor required to bring a seat.

The extent of opera’s populist appeal will be on view this weekend when, in what will hopefully become a city tradition, the San Francisco Opera holds its first video simulcast of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly’’ in the Civic Center Plaza. The brainchild of David Gockley, the opera’s new general director, the simulcast is the first of many public events intended to introduce and generally attract more patrons to what is among the finest companies of its kind in the U.S. San Francisco has always been known as an opera town, and that reputation will be on tap inside and out of its ornate theater.

“Everything has to do with the weather,’’ Gockley said. “If it turns out to be a little cool, we’ll just get out there with jackets and various warmth-inducing libations.’’

But in truth, most of it has to do with Gockley, who took over the country’s second largest opera this year and is changing it structurally, financially and philosophically.

Known as an innovator during his long career reinvigorating and reinventing one of the premier companies at the Houston Grand Opera, which he led for three decades, Gockley, 62, arrived in San Francisco at a critical point for the organization. It had gained a reputation for risk-taking productions but was losing money and subscribers.

In less than six months, Gockley has brought in new senior management, cut a half-million dollars in “nonproductive costs’’ and repaired relations with the company’s musicians, which had frayed in recent years. Just this week the opera announced that its orchestra musicians had ratified a new five-year contract after just five days of negotiations.

The organization is also soon to announce that it has received a grant from the Koret and Taube foundations to build a new high-definition broadcast facility that will allow the opera to digitally record its stage productions. The simulcast and the digital recordings were ideas that Gockley brought with him from Houston — as well as a reputation as one of the most prodigious art fundraisers around, another trait that should serve him well here.

“People here might have felt that there was going to be a conservative backlash,’’ Gockley said, referring to the tenure of Pamela Rosenberg, who was known for her edgy productions such as “Doctor Atomic’’ but who was considered something of a polarizing force at the organization. “We probably won’t get as far out as some of the interpretations, but when we do one of the great operas we’ll have the best artists doing them. What we have to do is create an event each night, because it’s harder than ever before to command the attention of the public.’’

With a background in music and finance, Gockley is trying to bring “balance’’ to an organization that spent lavishly on eye-catching productions but, through a variety of factors, couldn’t successfully juggle its artistic ambitions and its bottom line. The opera has lost 20,000 subscribers in the last four years, and the word “deficit” has dogged it like a sour note.

Gockley is determined to change that through a capital campaign aimed at building the organization’s endowment and by attracting new patrons through the development of audience-friendly events such as Saturday’s free performance.

“We’re looking to find where the next audience will come from,’’ he said, which is why his first act was to re-brand the organization and push it to be hipper, younger, more iPod-friendly and definitely more accessible. The new opera director recently held an invitation-only event for about 1,500 people who had let their subscriptions lapse.

Gockley is keenly aware of the challenge of invigorating the opera at a time when there are so many local arts groups fighting for dollars and patrons. There are nearly two dozen small opera companies in Marin, Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco — each one fighting for attention against the major showcase on Van Ness Avenue.

“We’ll just have to be the one that rises above the clouds of the mundane,’’ he said.

He’s already pulling people in from the past. Joe Brucia, whose father was from one of the original Italian-American families who financed the first operas in the Bay Area, put up the bulk of the money for Saturday’s video simulcast.

Brucia’s presence is like a footnote in San Francisco’s rich opera history — the kind of theme that can be instrumental for its future success.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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