David Gockley, S.F. Opera’s boss, looks back at successful summer season
By Bruce Bellingham
As the San Francisco Opera’s Summer Season draws to a close, it’s being heralded as one of the most successful runs on record for the company.
There was a mad rush for tickets to all three productions. Tosca, with wonderfully tight, well-crafted performances, and La Traviata, with Anna Netrebko, the most famous soprano in the world, were on their way to being completely sold out at this writing. Porgy and Bess was a sell-out from the day the box office opened. Tickets were reportedly being scalped at $600.
One of the season’s highlights was the simulcast of Puccini’s Tosca at AT&T Park. It drew 27,000 people on June 5. That’s 4,000 more than last year’s event at the ballpark. Beer, hot dogs and arias are compatible after all.
Back at the Opera House, the ballpark crowd was part of the performance. People stood in the house and in the stadium to sing the national anthem.
“Say, there are some pretty good voices here tonight,” marveled the S.F. Opera’s Julia Inouye.
Gockley, the opera’s general director, took the stage and exclaimed, “Play opera!” And the game, according to Puccini, began.
But it’s Porgy and Bess that holds a special place in Gockley’s heart. Northside San Francisco sat down with him to talk about this phenomenally American masterpiece.
When you were running the Houston Grand Opera, you staged Porgy and Bess as a real opera for the first time. Then you took the show on the road. That’s now part of opera history. [The production won Gockley a Tony Award and a Grammy back in 1977]. That was the first time you brought Porgy to San Francisco, right?
Yes, the point is that we always tried to keep the costs down, working out of Houston. It worked well in smaller, commercial houses, like the Golden Gate Theatre or the Orpheum. But when we later brought that small company to the Opera House, the production was dwarfed. That was also a summer season, directed by Lotfi Mansouri. I remember being frustrated by it. Should we amplify? Should we take the chorus downstage? But this year, we have 50 choristers, a full orchestra. It’s the first time under my aegis there’s been a fully operatically scaled production. But it’s a regular opera. We’re not trying to double-cast. We have our Porgy, we have our Bess. It’s not something being exploited because it has popular songs in it.
There are those who have complained for years that Gershwin’s opera was never taken seriously enough as an opera.
What we did was add back the recitative. We added back some music numbers because it had devolved by that time into a musical with dialogue connecting the music numbers. There was no “Buzzard Song,” there was no “Jazzbo Brown” and so on. I think it devolved out of a tour that went to Russia under the stage direction of someone named Ella Gerber. She was the only stage director authorized to direct it. You had to hire Ella Gerber. She had her own musical comedy version of it.
The Gershwn Estate has complete control over all this, yes? Is that the Strunsky Family here in San Francisco?
Yes, the Gershwin Estate does have control. The Strunskys represent the Ira Gershwin side. There’s also a group that represents the George side. They were eager to license the piece as much as possible. I guess it was easier to license to a cut-down version than a full opera. The first hurdle we had was to get Jack O’Brien engaged as director. We had to start from scratch. [O’Brien has won three Tony Awards, nominated for seven more, and won five Drama Desk Awards.]
Where do you find the parts of the opera that have been set aside for years?
The person who did a lot of that detail work is John DeMain, who is here. [He served as music director and principal conductor for the Houston Grand Opera for 18 years.] He was the conductor on the 1976 version in Houston. I think he went to the Library of Congress where a lot of Gershwin materials are stored.
You hired the great Anna Netrebko to sing in La Traviata this season. Do you have to sacrifice a part of your budget in order to acquire a superstar like that?
We stick to a top fee. The gossip is that it’s $15,000 per performance. To go back to Lily Pons in the 1940s, she was getting $5,000 then. And Merola was paying it. It’s interesting that the singers of that era got much more of a percentage of the budget than they do today – with the unionized orchestras, the unionized stagehands, the choruses, the extensiveness of the physical productions and all that now. They [the star singers] get paid more when they do a concert. A typical Renée Fleming concert fee – in Europe where she’s more of a box office draw than she is here, and according to gossip – is more like $75,000. So doing a string of concerts is much more lucrative. We have to go up against that when we’re trying to get people to be here for five weeks to do seven performances. Five weeks, seven performances. Seven times 15. Do the math.
What are you working on next? How far do you have to plan in advance?
Well, yesterday we were talking about the 2015 season.
Really? How optimistic?
We were talking about Meistersinger, we were talking about [The] Trojans, we were talking Die Frau Ohne Schatten, we were also talking about the more popular pieces. We’re considering new commissions. We announced three new commissions in January, and they are chugging along.
Do you worry about the composers of new works not being able to make their deadlines? Does that sort of thing keep you awake at night?
The aches and pains of being my age are the things that keep me awake at night. I don’t worry too much. I just get up, do my best.
Did you ever have a career disaster, one that still hurts to this day?
Yes, I suppose I have. A Quiet Place by Leonard Bernstein. A wouldn’t call it an out-and-out disaster – more of a stinging disappointment. It’s a serious, worthy piece. As you know, Michael Tilson Thomas does a part of it in his opening concert every year at Carnegie Hall. But it was not what the Houston public was looking for, the ones who love West Side Story. You see, the first line of A Quiet Place is “Merry Christmas to you, too, a--hole.”
Not so quiet. And it’s downhill from there, right? Is Candide also pushing the audience too much?
Candide, yes, we did that. It didn’t make much of an impression. It was when we were still in a 3,000-seat, old, multipurpose theater in Houston. We didn’t have any real big personality people in it. I wouldn’t call it a chamber opera, but I’d call it, you know, for a theater with 1,200 or a 1,000 seats. Other than that, it just did not have an impact.
I attended a kick-off, if you will, for the upcoming Opera Ball. [The major fundraiser for the Opera’s Education Program for the public schools.] Is that the sort of thing that could alienate people during this dreary economic slump?
Our purpose in having that event was to remind people that there’s a very positive outcome of the Opera Ball, whether it being good times, or very, very challenging times. One might ask, ‘Why have something this frivolous as a society Opera Ball?’ Well, it’s because people come out, put on their dresses, spend that kind of money, and have all that good food because it raises $800,000 to $1,000,000 that is spent exclusively on education. I want to emphasize that connection.
San Francisco Opera Summer Season: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue (at Grove); tickets $15–$290 at 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com; standing room tickets $10 (cash only) available at 10 a.m. performance day. All performances feature a free, informative Opera Talk 55 minutes prior to curtain for patrons with tickets to the corresponding performance.