San Francisco Opera returns to live performances at a refurbished War Memorial Opera House after a 20-month-long absence Aug. 21 with a frugal season of two concerts and five operas — three new productions salvaged from its aborted 2020-21 season and two revivals — and the inauguration of Eun Sun Kim as music director, as the company transitions away from a punishing pandemic toward a full-repertory centennial in 2022-23.
On June 22, general director Matthew Shilvock announced SFO’s 99th season, which begins with a revival of Puccini’s “Tosca.” At first blush, it would seem the company is risking audience overload by staging it only six months after a Fort Mason Flix drive-in presentation of the classic. Yet it has carried symbolic weight as the go-to opera on key dates in the company’s history, since opening with it in the first season in 1923.
“Tosca” is a popular work that tends to fill the house — no small matter after the cancellation of the 2020-21 season erased about $7.5 million in ticket revenue and prompted the company to slash its budget by more than $20 million. But its choice as the season opener also came with pandemic-practical considerations.
“Other than the ‘Te Deum’ scene, it is an opera that has a relatively few number of people onstage at any one time, making it ideal when protocols and permissions were not fully clear at the time of planning,” Shilvock says.
“Tosca” will mark the title role debut of soprano Ailyn Pérez, and tenor Michael Fabiano will reprise his performance as Tosca’s lover Cavaradossi weeks after his role debut at the Paris Opera.
High ticket sales from productions such as “Tosca” would be important to the company’s finances, but also pivotal for the opera’s orchestra members, who in September grudgingly accepted a modified contract, effective through July 31, 2023, which averted furloughs and preserved health care benefits but resulted in a 50 percent reduction in fall 2020 salaries with lesser reductions thereafter — and tied additional pay hikes to increases in ticket sales.
“When the pandemic hit, it was vitally important to the company that we find ways to keep compensation and benefits flowing to as many company members as possible,” Shilvock says. “Negotiations with all eight of our unions enabled us to reach revised agreements that allowed us to keep payments to many company members, albeit with very hard sacrifices. We were able to avoid any COVID-related layoffs and keep the fabric of San Francisco Opera intact.”
Through a combination of salary cuts, government assistance programs and support from patrons contributing to SFO’s Company Relief Challenge, Shilvock says the company has been able to meet payroll and should achieve a near-balanced fiscal year ending in July. In essence, though, cost-cutting and fundraising also helped SFO maintain its healthy endowment, which most recently stood at roughly $225 million.
COVID-related safety concerns have resulted in a spaced-out balance of the fall season after “Tosca”: “Live and in Concert: The Homecoming,” with soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton (who appeared in 2019’s “Rusalka”) on Sept. 10 will be simulcast for free in Oracle Park, with a toast for patrons and a separately ticketed dinner in the Veterans Building. A new production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” rescheduled from last season, follows in October, before a new production from 2020-21 of Mozart’s “Cosí fan tutte” in November, the second in a trilogy of Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte works set in an American house across a 300-year timespan.
There will be no opening gala ball in the fall.
SFO’s return in summer 2022 opens with a new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” also from the canceled season, which completes the Mozart/Da Ponte Trilogy. The summer schedule also includes a revival of Bright Sheng’s “Dream of the Red Chamber,” as well as “Eun Sun Kim Conducts Verdi Concert,” with soprano Nicole Car, tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz and bass Solomon Howard.
Each concert is less costly to stage than several performances apiece of the five operas, and having much of the set design, costumes and other elements already prepared also will save money. But that is not to say the company hasn’t been busy with production tasks, sometimes in cost-saving ways.
“There are new elements to the ‘Cosí fan tutte’ and ‘Don Giovanni,’ and those are being built in our Burlingame scene shop as we speak,” Shilvock says. “Similarly, we were able to utilize part of the ‘Fidelio’ set for the outdoor ‘Barber of Seville’ this past spring, finding intriguing and creative ways to utilize flexible scenery in very different ways.”
Shilvock said Sheng made adjustments to the score and various scenes in “Dream of the Red Chamber” during the opera’s tour in China after its premiere at SFO in 2016, and the composer is making additional tweaks for its return here.
SFO’s concert simulcast to Oracle Park, its live-streaming of certain performances of “Fidelio” and “Cosi fan tutte” and development of new digital content, such as “The Atrium Seasons,” which will screen a variety of diverse works from the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater on the performing arts campus, suggest that the company has acquired a taste for digital content that’s here to stay.
“As we emerge into the post-pandemic world, it is going to be critical for companies to provide a variety of ways of engaging with content, live and digital,” Shilvock says. “I am very excited to see what evolves in the coming year and beyond.”
IF YOU GO
San Francisco Opera 2021-22 season
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: Aug. 21 to July 3, 2022
Tickets: Mini subscriptions (3 or 4 operas) from $78, full subscriptions (5 operas or 4 operas plus “Homecoming” concert) from $105,on sale now; single tickets for fall on sale now, summer 2022 tickets on sale this fall; select livestreams are $25
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com
Tosca: Aug. 21-Sept. 5
Live and in Concert-The Homecoming: Sept. 10 (also simulcast free to Oracle Park)
Fidelio: Oct. 14-Oct. 30
Cosí fan tutte: Nov. 21-Dec. 3
Don Giovanni: June 4-July 2
Dream of the Red Chamber: June 14-July 3
Eun Sun Kim Conducts Verdi Concert: June 30