SF Opera under the glass

A new general director enters singing — plus classical and other selections for the new season

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There is no lack of world-class talent in the upcoming fall season, but as far as the portentous tenants in the Civic Center are concerned, the new season's repertoire stands out as an exercise in artistic tepidness. Perhaps still traumatized by the Bush economy's brutal impact upon the arts, the San Francisco Opera and Symphony and other big Bay Area arts presenters are taking few chances. Projects with even the subtlest hints of experimentation this season — such as the SF Symphony's multimedia production of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights — are being served to the public in carefully marketed packages, brandishing favorite performers with tried-and-true creative teams that have been thoroughly tested over the years.
So as the curtains go up next week, the best performance to watch may well be the one that is taking place offstage: David Gockley, the SF Opera's new general director, heads his first full season as the top choice for the job. With the company's somewhat contentious regime change (Pamela Rosenberg vacated the lead post last season), Gockley knows that his every move is being scrutinized by the opera world.
Rosenberg was the only woman leading a major American opera company during her tenure at the SF Opera, boldly introducing on the War Memorial stage the US premieres of major contemporary works such as Olivier Messiaen's massive St. Francis of Assisi, György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, and the world premiere of John Adams's Dr. Atomic. Even while facing the funding challenges of a deflated economy, Rosenberg chose to focus the company's resources on creating the daring, provocative concept-driven productions that are common in Europe. Instead of squandering her production budgets on expensive star singers, Rosenberg brought a fertile artistic sensibility to the company that was wholly fresh and exciting.
Yet the lack of recognizable marquee names combined with the high level of abstraction in her productions displeased the opera's more conservative, traditional constituencies. Typically, the anti-Rosenberg camp was made up of Metropolitan Opera–jealous patrons and the shrill, mercilessly critical traditionalists who prefer museumlike productions — the kind of stagings populated with ornate period costuming and opulent sets that are often mere vanity vehicles to glorify star singers. So, faced with the criticism of diva-starved patrons and the prospect of having to devote an enormous portion of her time on the job to fundraising, Rosenberg chose not to renew her five-year contract with the SF Opera when it expired.
Attempting to find a less polarizing replacement, the SF Opera's search committee came up with Gockley, the highly respected former general director of Houston Grand Opera. Chief among Gockley's strengths is the rapport he has with top talent in the field, paired with a proven ability to entice them into high-profile collaborations.
"I would like to pursue a policy of bringing more of the most prominent stars back to San Francisco, similar to the kind that the public enjoyed during the [Kurt Herbert] Adler and [Terence] McEwen years," Gockley said in a phone interview last week. "People expect that of a great international company — to provide the big personalities and the most glamorous performers."
Yes, the divas are back, though certainly not in the abundance suggested by the opera's tacky marketing campaign launched during the summer season. But what could be the rationale behind the extreme conservatism of SF Opera’s 2006–07 season, in which the most modern entry is Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and the production rosters are populated by stalwart traditionalists such as Michael Yeargan, Thierry Bosquet, and John Conklin? "This year is not mine," Gockley pointed out, indicating that it was planned by his predecessor before his arrival.
Not unlike Rosenberg, in Houston, Gockley was also known as an innovator and risk taker.

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