Wednesday, September 25, 2019

SFO (an opera house opera review post)

Over the past few years, opera and going to the opera have become rather significant things in my life. My wife's life, too, probably, but I'm not going to speak for her as to how significant. I know it's an important thing for her and the fulfillment of a lifelong love, but I'm not going to put those words in her mouth. In short, we love the opera and going to the opera and SFO in particular. Therefore, it pains me to have to talk about some ways that SFO is really missing the high notes lately.

Some of this stuff is not new. I mentioned toward the end of last season's opera run that Matthew Shilvock, the general director of SFO, seems rather on the traditional side of things in how he's running the San Francisco Opera. I mean, he's British; it's probably in his DNA or something. And maybe it's not fair of me to speculate -- because what I'm saying is speculation -- buy that's how it feels to me (and I'm generally pretty good at intuitive conclusions). It feels like SFO is attempting to appear new and fresh by reaching back and putting on traditional productions of obscure or rarely performed operas, like the just reviewed Billy Budd and the soon to be reviewed Romeo & Juliet (yes, R&J isn't much performed, probably because it's a French opera and they're not really in style these days). However, that doesn't make something cutting edge; it means it's going harder and faster at being traditional. Like I said, the performance of Billy Budd we attended was the lowest attendance of any opera we've been to.

Here's what I'm going to say about the entire discussion I could have here (because I don't want to spend this entire post talking about all of the things that SFO could be doing to pull in new people): Hamilton is an opera, and it's insanely popular. One of those events that changes the public. SFO is doing nothing to approach what Hamilton has done. They're not looking at what works but trying to find ways to keep doing what they've been doing in a way that seems new when it's really the "same old thing."

And, look, I have nothing against "traditional" opera, as should be apparent from all of the opera review posts that I do. I like exploring all of these classic operas but, let's face it, there hasn't been a significant opera composer since Puccini (by significant, I mean popular with the masses and performed constantly). I want to make one thing very clear about Puccini: He wrote for the masses and frequently re-worked pieces after seeing the audience reaction to early performances of his works. I think opera has lost its way in appealing to the "common man," or however you want to say that. But it doesn't have to be that way!

The thing is is that it wouldn't really matter if SFO was making money. When you're turning a profit, you can pretty much do whatever the fuck you want, even if that means doing the same old thing over and over again. However, SFO seems to be suffering financially, at least somewhat due to a lack of attendance (probably mostly due to a lack of attendance judging from Billy Budd).

Here's how we found out:
SFO has, for years, offered something called operavision. You know how when you go to a concert there are often huge screens behind the stage which show the musicians performing so that people in the wayback can see what's going on rather than just seeing ants on stage? Opervision is kind of like that, except that it's smaller screens that come down out of the ceiling so that people in the balcony can see closeups of the performance and not be forced to use opera glasses. The screens also contained the supertitles, making them easier for people in the balcony to read. And just as an aside, if you're in the balcony and using opera glasses to see the performers, you can't also read the supertitles while doing that.

My wife loves opervision, and we always buy the season tickets that include operavision (because, actually, they would only offer that on one or two performances of any given production). Oh, and opervision nights cost more. So we went to see Billy Budd and... no operavision. There were, we thought, only two real possibilities of why there was no opervision: 1. My wife accidentally purchased the incorrect package. 2. They sent us tickets to the wrong performance.
During the intermission, my wife checked to see if the error had been hers because that would mean we would need to see if we could fix our tickets for the rest of the season.
The mistake was not hers. SFO had just failed to inform us that, even though they let us purchase the operavision package, opervision had been discontinued. Due to the expense. They couldn't afford to offer it any longer. There was a long list of reasons, none of which are really that important other than the underlying message that SFO is struggling financially right now.

This was further backed up when I called about the whole operavision thing and whether we had been charged for it. Oh, but wait! No, they had not charged us for it, but they also had not honored our seating choice (the cheap seats up in the top balcony) for some of the operas. For Romeo & Juliet and next month's The Marriage of Figaro, they had given us more expensive seats. And charged us for that, instead, which was quite a bit more than our cheap seats with operavision. I still am failing to understand the thought process that went into this decision.

Yeah, I was a little upset.

But, you know, we'd already paid for all of this and, sure, I could have known sooner if I had looked carefully at our tickets when they arrived in the mail but, hey, we'd never had any problems before with the seats being wrong, so it didn't occur to me check the tickets for every performance ahead of time, not until I saw that our tickets for R&J were for seats in a more expensive section. This is where I expressed my concern to the woman I was speaking to that all of this had been done without ever communicating with us about it. And, hey, I even stayed calm through this whole discussion. So, not only had they failed to inform us that operavision had been discontinued, but they also charged us for upgraded seats without asking us.

The woman got my point, at which point she gave us upgraded seats (to some of the really expensive seats) for the rest of our season! So, yeah, I'm not complaining because the new seats are quite nice, but it underscores that SFO is having some... issues... right now.

The other thing I brought up was their opera cd. Ever since we started buying season tickets, at the beginning of the season we would get a cd with an introduction to each opera on it. Our tradition has been to listen to the portion for any given opera we were seeing on the ride down to that opera. This year we didn't receive a cd. Guess what. They discontinued that, too. Why? They needed to cut costs. That's what she told me. So I got it straight from someone there.
And, you know, fine. We don't have to have the cd, but it is something that they actually advertised as part of buying season tickets.

Clearly, they made all of these cost-cutting decisions after printing all of their materials with all of the season information from which people purchase tickets, but they really need to be better at communicating if they're going to make changes like that. And, actually, I feel like if they sold season tickets with operavision included then they need to honor that. But maybe that's just me.

They're also only doing eight productions this season instead of the usual nine, and there's some speculation that they couldn't afford to do more than eight. I wouldn't know if that particular thing is true or not.

Now, I'm not going to go so far as to say that Matthew Shilvock should be replaced as general director; I don't know enough details of the problem or how long it's been going on to make that kind of statement. What I do know, though, is that someone needs to be working on how to make the opera more appealing to the masses rather than trying to convince the masses that they need to like the opera the way it is. That's a recipe for disaster that will end the opera rather than people coming to see something they don't want to see.

And we love the opera and we love SFO, and we don't want to see SFO shut it doors due to a lack of funding.


  1. It really seems like they just want to charge people more money instead of making them happy, and with a thing like opera, people aren't going to tolerate that.

    1. Jeanne: I don't think that's really what's going on. I think it's more likely the easiest explanation: people being bad at communication. After all, they did give us free seat upgrades without me asking for them.