Opera season rings true

Despite the recession, last year the San Francisco Opera’s fall season attracted an audience of 118,000.

Thousands of these patrons came from other states or countries, bringing in millions of dollars in hotel-restaurant-transportation revenue and taxes to The City, and aiding its No. 1 industry: tourism.

Next summer, when the 2010-2011 season climaxes with three cycles of Richard Wagner’s four-opera “Ring of the Nibelung” in the War Memorial, the tourist presence and spending should be more pronounced. The last time the “Ring” played in town, 1999, 38 percent of ticket buyers were from out of town.

Opera is big business, requiring an annual operating budget of $70 million here, and giving no end of headaches to General Director David Gockley.

On the plus side, it is also a major economic force, providing jobs to hundreds of singers, orchestra musicians, artists, administration officials, stagehands and others.

But there are cautions. Both opera companies run by Plácido Domingo had trouble recently with the “Ring,” The Washington National Opera canceled its coproduction with San Francisco before the full cycle, and the Los Angeles Opera ended up with a $5 million deficit earlier this summer.

Notwithstanding these problems, even in economic hard times, there is interest in opera. New York’s Metropolitan set a record recently on its first day of ticket sales, with fans snapping up 24,000 tickets worth $2.6 million.

Beyond the financial impact, there is the magic of a 500-year-old genre, music drama, the most complex and demanding art form. It often appears archaic, but opera persists, evolves and thrives.

Although there’s a variety in this fall season, with some musical highlights and world-class singers, there will be no new works — the most expensive ventures in the business of opera — but fully a dozen performances of the tried-and-true “Madama Butterfly.”

For Gockley, who had an unprecedented 33-year run as head of the Houston Grand Opera, presenting at least one world premiere each season, it’s difficult to settle for standard repertory, but his clear priority is to assure the opera company’s survival and he promises commissions and premiers to come.

“Some of the things that are particularly exciting to me about the upcoming season are [Music Director] Nicola Luisotti conducting Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ theater legend Hal Prince’s staging of Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly,’ [Finnish soprano] Karita Mattila’s role debut as Emilia Marty in Janácek’s ‘The Makropulos Case,’” Gockley said.

“The highlight of the season, of course, is the return of Plácido Domingo in one of his signature roles, Alfano’s ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’” the general director said.

Gockley is also continuing his hallmark campaign using electronic media. Once again he opens the virtual doors of the Opera House for a free public simulcast of Verdi’s “Aida” on Sept. 24 at AT&T Park. The opera partners with the San Francisco Giants and Webcor Builders to make this annual “Opera at the Ballpark” possible.

Conductor Luisotti says the season is “going to be amazing. Deeply attuned to our audiences, each year we work tirelessly to present opera at the absolute highest level. Passion, sacrifice and love are the simple secrets for great music, and they inform everything that we bring to the stage this fall.”

Another Gockley innovation: OperaVision screens will hang from the ceiling of the less-expensive balcony section of the cavernous opera house and provide a close-up, high-definition simulcast of the stage at many (but not all) performances.

OperaVision is of special significance for those of maximum devotion and sturdy legs, adding close-ups to what is the best acoustics in the house in the top-of-balcony $10 standing-room section. Standing room is also available in the back of the orchestra section, but the cognoscenti rise to the top — along with the sound.


San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave.

Tickets: $96 to $1,824 for subscriptions to all six operas; $20 to $360 single tickets (“Cyrano” available only in subscription); complete 2011 “Ring” cycle subscriptions for all four operas range from $120 to $2,800; $10 standing-room tickets

Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

Music to The City’s ears 

Free events:

  • Chamber Music Day, with 31 ensembles and soloists performing on three stages, noon to 6:30 p.m. Sept. 12, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St.
  • San Francisco Symphony concert, noon Sept. 24, Justin Herman Plaza
  • San Francisco Opera in the Park, 1:30 p.m. Sept. 12, Golden Gate Park
  • Webcor Builders live simulcast of “Aida,” 8 p.m. Sept. 24, AT&T Park [online registration, at www.sfopera.com/simulcast, recommended for best seating]
  • Cal Performances’ concert and dance “Fall Free for All” on the UC-Berkeley campus, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 26

The fall season

All operas with English supertitles:

“Aida” (1871)

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi

Language: Italian

Length: 3 hours

Conducted by Nicola Luisotti

Starring Micaela Carosi* (Aida), Dolora Zajick (Amneris), Marcello Giordani (Radames)

When: Opening the season Sept. 10; also Sept. 16, 19 (matinee), 24, 29; Oct. 2, 6

“Werther” (1892)

Composer: Jules Massenet

Language: French

Length: 2½ hours

Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume

Starring Ramón Vargas (Werther), Alice Coote (Charlotte), Heidi Stober* (Sophie)

When: Sept. 15, 18, 22, 26 (matinee), 28; Oct. 1

“The Marriage of Figaro” (1786)

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart</p>

Language: Italian

Length: 3½ hours

Conducted by Luisotti

Starring Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Danielle de Niese* (Susanna), Ellie Dehn* (Countess), Michèle Losier* (Cherubino)

When: Sept. 21, 23, 25, 30; Oct. 3 (matinee), 10, 16, 22 (last three performances with another cast)

“Madama Butterfly” (1904)

Composer: Giacomo Puccini

Language: Italian

Length: 3 hours

Conducted by Luisotti

Starring Svetla Vassileva [Daniela Dessì, Nov. 5-27] (Butterfly), Stefano Secco (Pinkerton)

When: Oct. 12, 15, 20, 23, 26, 29; Nov. 5, 11, 14 (matinee), 17, 21, 27

“Cyrano de Bergerac” (1936)

Composer: Franco Alfano

Language: French

Length: 2½ hours

Conducted by Patrick Fournillier*

Starring Plácido Domingo (Cyrano), Ainhoa Arteta (Roxane), Thiago Arancam* (Christian)

When: Oct. 24 (matinee), 27, 30; Nov. 2, 6 (matinee), 9, 12

“The Makropulos Case” (1926)

Composer: Leoš Janácek

Language: Czech

Length: 2½ hours

Conducted by Jiri Belohlávek

Starring Karita Mattila (Emilia) and Miro Dvorsky (Gregor)

When: Nov. 10, 13, 16, 20, 24, 28

Second run of “Aida”

Conducted by Giuseppe Finzi

Starring Michele Capalbo, Guang Yang, Carlo Ventre

When: Nov. 23, 26, 29; Dec. 2, 5 (matinee)

* Debuting artists

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