Opera stars bid fun, fond farewell to David Gockley

Perhaps the best thing from “Celebrating David!” at the War Memorial Opera House on Thursday was news that beloved San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley won’t be leaving for good.

Commenting that “great impresarios never truly retire,” SFO Association President Keith Geeslin (who was introduced by Plácido Domingo, via video), told the gala audience that Gockley has accepted the position of general director emeritus, the first in the opera’s history.

The star-studded concert honoring Gockley’s extraordinary career — 10 years heading up SFO, 33 years at Houston Grand Opera and 45 world premieres commissioned — also provided the opportunity for Gockley, 72, to award soprano Renée Fleming with the San Francisco Opera Medal.

The glamorous “people’s diva” (who changed gowns several times and sang in four numbers, including arias from Dvořák’s “Rusalka” and Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”) thanked Gockley for taking a chance on a young singer 25 years ago.

The theme was echoed throughout the night, as every vocalist in the world-class lineup (except tenor Simon O’Neill) was mentored or assisted by Gockley — from current Adler Fellow, baritone Edward Nelson (the first singer, who opened with “News” from Adams’ “Nixon in China”) to internationally renown American mezzo Dolora Zajick (who sang from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana”).

Deftly directed by Jose Maria Condemi, the entertaining show featured classy projections and a set list of Gockley favorites and tunes reflecting his love of American composers.

It began with former Houston opera conductor John DeMain leading the impeccable orchestra in the overture from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” (bass-baritone Eric Owens also sang “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’”) and ended with the chorus and soloists in “Make our garden grow” from Bernstein’s “Candide.”

Composer Carlisle Floyd, 90, was in the house to hear soprano Ana Maria Martinez sing from his “Susannah.” So were hometown artists, composer John Adams, and retired mezzo Frederica von Stade, who managed the cute script with her co-host, baritone Thomas Hampson.

Soprano Patricia Racette not only charmed with “Bill” from Kern’s “Show Boat,” she executed a fantastic wolf whistle for devilish bass René Pape’s performance from Boito’s “Mefistofele,” which she followed.

A truly steamy scene from Massenet’s “Manon” featured lip-locking soprano Nadine Sierra and tenor Michael Fabiano, who also stood out in solo from Verdi’s “Luisa Miller.”

Up-and-comers Heidi Stober and Daniela Mack soared in music from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” and Rossini’s “La donna del lago,” respectively, both conducted by Patrick Summers, while SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti (who will leave the company after the 2017-18 season) showed his finesse conducting Italian works, including tenor Brian Jagde from Puccini’s “Turandot” and music from the 2015 SFO premiere of Mario Tutino’s “Two Women.”

Houston socialite Lynn Wyatt and San Francisco’s own Dede Wilsey did a great job with their funny scripted faux feud in opening remarks, and were among the many personalities — from artists to funders to ushers — Gockley thanked in his gracious closing speech.

Acknowledging his longtime right-hand man and successor Matthew Shilvock (“his biggest challenge will be finding a replacement for himself,” he said), Gockley, who instituted “Opera at the Ballpark” and is known for tirelessly promoting the art form to the masses, closed with his trademark invitation: “Any questions?”

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