There's a remarkably revealing interview with the outgoing general director of San Francisco Opera, David Gockley, in the May 2016 issue of Opera News. He paints a grim picture of the future of the company:
I don't envy my successors. Unless they can find a way to engage a very distractible, multi-interest, transient-minded public to attend opera more frequently, to go from attenders to donors to bequeathers, and engage these generations who have not had musical training in schools...we won't survive.According to Gockley, opera companies face three key problems:
1. Attracting younger audiences: There are too many other claims on their attention, and the musical form, subject matter, and staging conventions of opera are unfamiliar to them. Gockley has had some excellent ideas about bringing opera into people's lives, with education programs in the schools and initiating free live simulcasts from the opera house to the Giants' ballpark; it will be imperative for his successor to continue and expand these programs.
But has opera ever appealed primarily to people under 35? I didn't start listening to opera regularly until my mid-30s, and didn't become a subscriber right away. Perhaps SF Opera should worry a bit less about getting 20-year-olds into the opera house for the first time, and worry more about retaining its existing audience.
2. The decline in subscriptions: If younger audiences do go to the opera they tend to buy single tickets instead of subscribing:
The young single-ticket buyer, or the older single-ticket buyer, likes the twelve major chestnuts. If you want to have full houses with subscribers now occupying only forty-five percent of the theater—and you've got fifty-five percent of your capacity left to sell—you are looking at reviving Carmen every three years, rather than every five years.So in Gockley's view, the decline in subscriptions leads to conservative scheduling.
But what if Gockley's got it backwards, and conservative scheduling leads to a decline in subscriptions? Next season at SF Opera features Verdi's Aida and Rigoletto, Puccini's Madama Butterfly and La Bohème, and Mozart's Don Giovanni. Aida was last seen as recently as 2010, Rigoletto in 2012, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème in 2014 (!), and Don Giovanni in 2011.
Including next year, in the past sixteen seasons SF Opera has produced Madama Butterfly an astonishing seven times—almost every other season. Not far behind are Puccini's Tosca (six times), La Boheme and Mozart's Magic Flute (five times), Bizet's Carmen, Rossini's Barber of Seville, and Verdi's La Traviata and Rigoletto (four times).
This is not to say that these are not great operas, or that they don't deserve their popularity. And they are works that may well entice first-time audiences into the opera house. But for subscribers who are contemplating renewal, such repetitive programming offers few rewards.
Gockley would say, no doubt, that the full houses for Madama Butterfly and Tosca make possible productions of less familiar and/or more costly repertory, such as Berlioz's epic Les Troyens and the delightful Surrealist-themed production of Handel's Partenope from the 2014/15 season. (SF Opera had last produced Les Troyens in 1968, and had never before staged Partenope.) But when the opera schedule relies too heavily on Gockley's "chestnuts," it diminishes the sense of excitement that is a major reason we started subscribing in the first place.
After the financial and artistic disasters of Pamela Rosenberg's tenure as general director (2001-2005), Gockley has brought financial stability to the company. But by programming a handful of opera's greatest hits over and over, the company may have reached the point of diminishing returns.
When I look back on the most memorable productions we experienced during Gockley's tenure at SF Opera, I see that most of them were not often-revived operas. In chronological order, they are:
Season Opera What made it so memorable 2006-2007 Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck) A great, rarely produced Mozart-era opera with a searing performance by its Iphigénie, Susan Graham 2009-2010 Die Walküre (Wagner) Nina Stemme's Brunhilde and some visually arresting moments conjured by director Francesca Zambello, set designer Michael Yeargan, and Projection Designer Jan Hartley in the most involving opera in the Ring Cycle 2009-2010 Il Tabarro (Puccini) Conductor Patrick Summers brought out all of the richness of Puccini's darkest and most cinematic score, and Patricia Racette was utterly compelling as the doomed Giorgetta 2012-2013 Les Contes d'Hoffmann (Offenbach) A staging that evoked nightmares, an amazing cast, and the use of the new integral edition of the score which gave this fragmented opera narrative and dramatic coherence 2014-2015 Partenope (Handel) An excellent young cast and a playful and dramatically apt updating to the milieu of the Surrealists 2014-2015 Les Troyens (Berlioz) This production featured the world's leading exponents of the roles of Didon (Susan Graham), Énée (Bryan Hymel), and Cassandre (Anna Caterina Antonacci) 2010-2011 & 2014-2015 (toss-up) Le Nozze di Figaro (Mozart) Brilliant young casts in SF Opera's handsome staging of Mozart's greatest opera
What these productions have in common is creative programming (with the possible exception of Figaro, most of these operas are not among the "twelve chestnuts"), excellent casting (the singers were not always famous, but they were always superb and dramatically committed), and insightful, engaging, and visually striking productions.
Gockley also complains that touring is not financially feasible. In these days of live streaming, there would seem to be other possible ways to reach audiences outside of the Bay Area.
These complaints also ignore that these contracts were negotiated and approved by SF Opera management, including Gockley. And weren't Gockley's predecessors operating within the terms of similar contracts? The tenure of Lotfi Mansouri as general director (1988-2001) seems like a golden age of programming diversity in comparison to the last ten years, but surely he had to meet contractual obligations as well.
A larger problem, literally, is that SF Opera is trapped in a dynamic that is the result of opera's 19th-century success. Along with other large companies such as Chicago's Lyric Opera and New York's Metropolitan Opera, SF Opera has to fill a vast house for show after show. So it must program works that will sell 3,000 tickets per performance. If five performances is the minimum number that would justify the expense of producing a work, that means that SF Opera has to count on selling at least 15,000 tickets per production. That's a lot of tickets.
On the scale of things, opera tickets are not that expensive. I've spent more on certain meals and rock concerts than I have on decent seats at the opera, and have gone standing room for less than the cost of a movie ticket. But it's clear that the need to sell at least 15,000 tickets per production places constraints on the company. Even given these constraints, though, exciting programming is still possible—as Gockley himself has proved.
Meanwhile, many smaller opera companies in the Bay Area and beyond have not only embraced artistic risk and challenge, but see it as part of their mission. They are providing audiences with anything but routine experiences.
New SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock, a Gockley protégé who takes over in August, faces a crucial choice. Will he give us more of the same "pound them over the head with Butterfly and Tosca until they submit" scheduling, or will he try to find a better balance between the well-known and the less-familiar-but-worthy? In my view, if the company doesn't do some serious reconsideration of its current programming choices, it risks becoming artistically irrelevant. And as I said above, I think such unimaginative programming may be a significant factor in the decline of the company's subscriber base.
So I offer a dozen or so operas for Shilvock's consideration for future seasons. None has been produced during Gockley's time at SF Opera, and some have never been produced there at all:
Opera Last performed at SF Opera Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (Monteverdi, 1640) 1990 La Calisto (Cavalli, 1651) Never Dido & Aeneas with Venus & Adonis (Purcell and Blow, 1680s) Never Hippolyte et Aricie (Rameau, 1733) or Medée (Charpentier, 1693) Never Semele or Hercules (Handel, 1740s) Semele, 2000; Hercules, never Alceste (Gluck, 1767) Never Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Paisiello, 1782—this would make a great pairing with their next Marriage of Figaro in 2020) or Il Matrimonio Segreto (Cimarosa, 1792) or Il Mondo della Luna (Haydn, 1777) Never Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky, 1879) 2004 Pelléas et Mélisande (Debussy, 1902) 1997 Arabella (Strauss, 1933) 1998 Dialogues des Carmélites (Poulenc, 1956) 1982 Follies or A Little Night Music or Passion (Sondheim) Never