San Francisco Opera presents seven operas, traditional favorites but also a timely spin on Beethoven’s “Fidelio” as well as works new to the War Memorial Opera House — Paul Ruders’ “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Alexander Zemlinsky’s “Der Zwerg” — and two concerts in the company’s 98th season opening Sept. 11.
On Wednesday, general director Matthew Shilvock announced the 2020-21 season, describing it as one of “thrilling story-telling” and “very special one-time events,” beginning with the opening night gala featuring soprano Albina Shagimuratova and tenor Pene Pati, the first time since 2004 the company opens the season with a concert.
“We’ve been hearing increasingly from patrons that they would like to see a different format for opening night, and one that takes us in a more celebratory vein with a gala concert, a shorter evening, an evening that allows us to celebrate the totality of the season,” Shilvock says.
Eun Sun Kim, named music director designate in December, conducts the gala concert and Matthew Ozawa’s woke new production of “Fidelio” the following evening. Ozawa, whose father was born in a World War II Japanese internment camp in Wyoming, takes “Fidelio,” which symbolizes peoples’ struggle against oppression and tyranny, and sets it in a government holding facility to focus attention on the current global detention crisis.
The production includes Alexander V. Nichols’ set made of a rotating cube of cells, interrogation rooms and offices with surveillance equipment, in which soprano Elza van den Heever as the heroine Leonora pursues the daunting task of obtaining freedom for her husband, Florestan (tenor Simon O’Neill), that ultimately results in the liberation of all prisoners.
“This piece gives us such a strong sense of hope and possibility of change and the capability of one woman of such great courage to take on a system and to overcome the tyranny and oppression of that system,” Shilvock says. “That was a story we felt was very important to be telling at the moment.”
“Fidelio” isn’t the only politically conscious work on tap: “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a new production of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” in the fall, and “Der Zwerg” in the spring all have socio-political themes.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1984 best-seller (and a 1990 film and 2015 award-winning TV series) about women forced to bear children by a theocratic regime, makes its West Coast premiere in librettist Paul Bently’s English-language version. Director John Fulljames’ production premieres in Copenhagen in May, and at SFO will star resourceful mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as the courageous handmaid Offred.
“Così fan tutte” is the second Mozart/Da Ponte opera in director Michael Cavanagh’s three-season trilogy set in Erhard Rom’s changing “Great American House,” which will morph into a country club during the Great Depression. Baritone John Chest, who sang the title role in SFO’s 2019 “Billy Budd,” portrays Guglielmo, one of four privileged lovers playing out a wager as the nation sinks economically and lurches toward war.
“Der Zwerg,” based on Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale “The Birthday of the Infanta,” is Austrian Jewish composer Zemlinsky’s moving one-act opera that debuted in 1922 and later was suppressed by German authorities. Making its SFO premiere directed by Darko Tresnjak, it stars soprano and local favorite Heidi Stober as the infanta.
The upcoming season, which also includes revivals of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Puccini’s “La Bohème” and Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and outstanding sopranos Lianna Haroutounian and Iréne Theorin in concert, runs in April and May 2021 to acccomodate seating replacement work in the Opera House beginning in June. The free Opera in the Park concert, with radiant soprano Sondra Radvanovksy, is rescheduled from its usual opening weekend spot to Oct. 18.
“We will have fewer performance weeks but fewer technical weeks in the summer, and so it was about finding the right combination of things we could put on stage and still keep as much opera in the community as possible,” Shilvock says.
IF YOU GO: San Francisco Opera 2020-21 season
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: Sept. 11 to May 16, 2021
Tickets: Half and full subscriptions ($63 to $2,921) on sale now; single tickets on sale in June
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com
Albina Shagimuratova, Pene Pati Gala Concert: Sept. 11
Fidelio: Sept. 12-Oct. 1
Rigoletto: Sept. 13-Oct. 4
Così Fan Tutte: Oct. 6-28
The Handmaid’s Tale: Oct. 29-Nov. 22
La Bohème: Nov. 15-Dec. 6
The Barber of Seville: April 25-May 16
Der Zwerg: April 27-May 15
Lianna Haroutounian, Iréne Theorin in Concert: May 2, May 6, May 8