San Francisco Opera, long accustomed to presenting dramatic re-creations, has experienced a dramatic challenge of its own like no other it has ever faced, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of its 2020-21 season. But the company has learned how to cope, found new ways to continue presenting opera, and is making plans for a less tempestuous future.
The 2020-21 season was shaping up to be momentous when the pandemic upended plans, as Music Director Designate Eun Sun Kim was set to preside over the opening night gala concert and a new production of “Fidelio,” and the company was scheduled to finish the season earlier than usual to accommodate seating replacement work at the War Memorial Opera House.
As a result of the cancellation, the seating project was moved up earlier to take advantage of the period when the Opera House is dark, and Kim altered her plans for what would have been the heart of the company’s season during the fall.
“My work has certainly shifted in the past few months, but, thankfully, new opportunities have arisen,” Kim says. “Instead of leading ‘Ernani’ and ‘Fidelio’ in the bustling War Memorial, I gave online sessions with conducting and opera students in Germany and Sweden. And for months, I worked daily with the resilient and positive San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows — even with all the frustrations of Zoom delays and having to sing a cappella — there has been such an immediate joy in music-making.”
Though the pandemic foiled SFO’s plans for opening its fall season with Kim at the helm, she was able to avail herself of the opportunity to conduct a live outdoor concert in Paris, an experience that rekindled her desire to return to conducting an orchestra before an audience.
“I will admit, having the chance to conduct an outdoor concert in Paris over the summer absolutely reaffirmed the necessity of live performance for me,” Kim says. “The energy among the musicians was electric, and it was an indescribable feeling to create something new and urgent with the orchestra and soloists.”
While the energy that would have surrounded live performances of “Fidelio” or of works new to the Opera House (such as Paul Ruders’ “The Handmaid’s Tale” or Alexander Zemlinsky’s “Der Zwerg”) has been absent this fall, SFO has made up for the loss of the aborted performances through streaming operas from its archives. Efforts have been notably productive.
“It was so important when the shutdown began that we keep opera alive in every way possible,” says General Director Matthew Shilvock. “While we knew that we wanted to get to newly created products, we also knew that we had a unique repository of full-length titles thanks to the capture of everything on our stage since 2006.
“We were able to work with our union partners to secure the rights for weekend streaming and have been so happy to offer these titles to the public and then, on a longer-term basis, to donors. We have seen around 6,000 viewers for each stream — that’s approximately two full houses in the War Memorial — and the viewership has been worldwide.”
The late-season addition of drive-in opera screenings at Fort Mason have been a refreshing complement to the company’s offerings, and a big success.
“We have now done five screenings and all but one have sold out completely,” Shilvock says. “I’ve been to several and I have to say the experience is revelatory. After being sequestered away for so long, to be able to be out with other opera lovers experiencing opera real-time together, is a deeply emotional experience.”
Drive-in screenings of “Tosca” in December had to be postponed due to the latest shelter-in-place order, but the company is eager to present the Puccini favorite and other operas in the drive-in setting as soon as possible.
“I am heartbroken that our ‘Tosca’ screenings have had to be postponed, but I am hopeful that we will get back to these drive-in screenings as they really do provide that collective energy that is so important to the opera-going experience,” Shilvock says.
Although the company has managed to present some semblance of a season with its streamed and drive-in presentations, the loss of live performances has been irreplaceable for the singers.
“The challenges have been, for me, more mental than anything else,” says soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, whose performances at SFO include a brilliant reign in 2018 as Elisabetta in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux.”
“It has felt, in a way, that I am grieving the loss of something very private and special — singing live in front of an audience and the camaraderie of making music as a whole,” she says. “Isolation is against human nature, especially for people who are constantly on stage and in front of people. So this adjustment of being artistic in front of a camera has been a hard one for me.”
Radvanovsky, who would have starred in SFO’s popular “Opera in the Park” on Oct. 18, laments that cancellation, but she was able to sing in a few concerts and operas in Europe before the latest wave of the pandemic forced another shutdown. She has stayed involved with other opera-related pursuits.
“My best friend and fellow opera singer, Keri Alkema, and I started a YouTube show called ‘ScreamingDivas,’ she says. “We were desperate to reach out to our friends and colleagues during these difficult times and see how they are doing and let them know they are not alone in all these emotions we are going through. We have done almost 50 interviews of fellow opera singers and Young Artists Programs, including the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows, general directors of opera houses around the world like Matthew Shilvock, as well as a few celebrities.”
Opera singers who managed to pick up a few roles still available, such as Radvanovsky and tenor Pene Pati, who was a radiant Romeo to Nadine Sierra’s Juliet in SFO’s 2019 production of Gounoud’s “Romeo and Juliet,” nonetheless faced continuing challenges during rehearsals.
“If you were lucky to still have shows, the rehearsals were difficult because you could not interact in your usual capacity,” Pati says. “Romantic scenes were suddenly done with distance between the lovers; orchestras were distant from the singers, which made it hard to keep time; and choruses were all but stripped down to bare minimums, so it was no longer a ‘full’ sound. These challenges impacted the art greatly — emotionally, musically and theatrically.”
Uncertainties raised by the pandemic and its long duration have posed additional serious issues for the opera singers.
“The biggest challenge for me was finding the motivation to keep going,” says Pati, who would have co-starred with soprano Albina Shagimuratova in the 2020-21 opening night gala concert. “When the pandemic hit, I truly did not believe it would have lasted this long. I don’t think anyone thought it would last this long. But as the year went on, one by one gigs were canceled, and the reality of not singing started to sink in. You would learn so much music, only to have the gig canceled on the eve of performance or weeks out.”
Such a volatile scheduling environment has not only been jarring emotionally for the singers, it also has had other impacts.
“This was not only heartbreaking; it totally throws your financial year off and thus you are faced with another issue,” Pati says. “These compounded issues made it incredibly difficult to remain focused on the music, which made it difficult to keep practicing and maintaining the skill level required.”
SFO’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which the company will present free online Jan. 16-17, is an example of what Pati points out as a means for addressing the “challenges of live theater by embracing unconventional opera mediums such as live streaming or broadcasting.”
“These free operas help to keep audiences entertained and to remind them of the artistry that San Francisco Opera has produced and will continue to produce once we emerge from this pandemic,” he says.
Other operas streaming include the 2007 production of Saint-Saëns’ “Samson and Delilah” with tenor Clifton Forbis and mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina in the title roles and the 2014 presentation of Verdi’s “La Traviata” with soprano Nicole Cabell and tenor Stephen Costello.
During the period in which SFO has not presented live performances, the company nonetheless has made preparations for what it anticipated would be a return to the Opera House stage.
“For some months after the lockdown, I was leading virtual rehearsals on Zoom with the opera chorus for productions that were eventually postponed or canceled,” says Opera Chorus Director Ian Robertson.
However, much of the groundwork that SFO has been laying out during the canceled season will likely pay dividends.
“I have been studying and preparing opera choruses for S.F. Opera’s next couple of seasons — when they happen,” Robertson says. “I have also been seeking new and unusual choral music for another S.F. Opera Chorus concert — we already had several — should it ever be needed.”
SFO is exploring new initiatives for 2021, including a program which permits young artists to coach in real time regardless of where they are.
Also, the pandemic has prompted acceleration of some plans already in the pipeline.
“Before we went into lockdown, we were already beginning to look at new artistic horizons for the company – horizons that spoke to growth, to branching out into new definitions of opera, and to new audiences,” Shilvock says.” This was very much in the spirit of our recently adopted strategic vision ‘to crack the code on producing big art in the 21st century.’ The pandemic has super-charged that need and the urgency of finding solutions.”
Shilvock says the relationship between live and digital performance will be forever different as the pandemic recedes and that the nature of storytelling will also change. Nevertheless, a longtime characteristic about opera will remain a guiding principle, albeit with modifications to reflect the current realities.
“Opera tells the fundamental stories of human existence and, what we have all gone through must inflect the kinds of stories that we want to hear and that we, as an opera company, need to tell,” Shilvock says. “The pandemic has been a huge schism in everything we do as a society. As an art form that reflects humanity, we will see profound artistic changes coming out of this time, and I’m excited for us to chart our path forward through that change.”
Opera Is On
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Tickets: Streaming free
Romeo and Juliet: 10 a.m. Jan. 16 to 11:59 p.m. Jan. 17
Samson and Delilah: 10 a.m. Jan. 23 to 11:59 p.m. Jan. 24
La Traviata: 10 a.m. Jan. 30 to 11:59 p.m. Jan. 31