Editor's Note: KQED is a partner of San Francisco Opera. The orgnizations collaborate on the annual broadcast of opera productions.
Hailed by his fans as the savior of the San Francisco Opera, general director David Gockley is stepping down at the end of this season after ten years, retiring at a spry 73. When he finally got the job — he was passed over twice before -- the company was a hot mess. And then the Great Recession hit. While other major opera companies such as the New York City Opera have folded since then, Gockley's tenure has brought with it some indisputably sublime artistic moments coupled with a strong business sense. At the same time, his attempts to please everyone have led on occasion to drab, uninspiring programming.
The dramatic years of the dotcom bust left the company in the lurch. But Gockley, an able fundraiser with 33 years at Houston Grand Opera to his credit and a certain flirtatious way about him, has been a consistent hit with the old guard of deep-pocketed donors, moving the company's deficit from close to $2 million during the Great Recession to just shy of $350,000 in 2014. Major wins along the way include two of the largest gifts ever made to any American opera company in the last decade: $35 million in 2006, and a cool $40 million in 2008.
Another great coup for Gockley is the forthcoming launch of a new center for opera that includes a 299-seat theater and consolidates many of San Francisco Opera's operations in the War Memorial Veterans Building. Known as the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, after the lead sponsor of the $22 million capital campaign that made it possible, the new venue opens early next year and is designed for presenting chamber works and master classes.
This business-forward attitude also comes across in Gockley's programming, where he often plays a populist card. The director generally tries for a balanced season of classic works, mostly in Italian and preferably with big stars (such as the 2013 production of Verdi's Falstaff that featured acclaimed bass-baritone Bryn Terfel singing a signature role) sprinkled with a few more obscure but usually lyrical pieces, like composer Carlisle Floyd's McCarthy era Susannah last year.
But if there's one composer that's been a consistent hallmark of Gockley's tenure, it's Puccini. San Francisco audiences have sat through no less than 82 performances of the 19th century Italian composer's warhorses like Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and La Bohème alone during Gockley's time here -- which basically amounts to a whole season. It's easy to understand why the director so often reaches for these beloved but overplayed works: they have recognizable music and plots and run under three hours -- short by opera standards. Other companies keen to bring in new audiences employ a similar strategy: both the Los Angeles Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York are programming gobs of Puccini in 2015-16.
Gockley's desire to appeal to a broad audience has followed a national trend of bringing musicals into the opera house. He began with Porgy and Bess in 2009, followed by Show Boat last year, and now Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. The hope is to bring in newcomers who might be less intimidated by the English lyrics and familiar tunes of musicals. These productions have so far been compelling to watch and many opera goers are starting to accept the works as part of the operatic canon.
Mr. Gockley's peculiar charm
Which bring us to the peculiar charm of Mr. Gockley. Somehow he has convinced his regular audience to accept Broadway and long runs of standard fare, partly because of the high quality of the productions, and partly because the work ensures the financial viability of the company. And he doesn't hold back from emphasizing the correlation between programming accessible works and raking in the cash at donor meetings. Porgy and Bess sold out every night of its run and Show Boat led to increased ticket sales for the 2013-2014 season. Both works were vibrant and impeccably performed, and both were released on DVD.
Some die-hard opera fanatics — we're talking people who go to the opera up to 75 times a year and travel well beyond the Bay Area to do so — have expressed quiet displeasure at these trends. In the dozens of interviews I've done with audience members for this article, nearly all temper their criticism with a dash of diplomacy. "It's hard to fault Gockley for knowing where the money lies," says opera devotee and art historian Letha Ch'ien.
Yet for all his playing-it-safe ways, Gockley has demonstrated some passion for risk-taking. New opera is where the director shows his sense of daring, as persuading audiences to take a chance on contemporary works without familiar melodies by living composers is tough. Despite the hard sell, Gockley has mounted seven world premieres here in only nine years. That's a lot. It's taken the Met roughly 50 years to rack up the same number, and Gockley's predecessor, Pamela Rosenberg, only staged two completely new works during her four-year tenure at San Francisco Opera's general director.
However, the music that comes with many of these new offerings has more to do with the tried and tested formulas of Broadway and 19th century grand opera than anything truly bold. Last season's Two Women by Marco Tutino was sweepingly pretty but retrograde. The flat, paper-thin characters didn't help matters. The piece was panned as being "drawn straight from the Puccini playbook" by the San Francisco Chronicle. Meanwhile, the Washington Post balked at the "themes that sound suspiciously like quotes from Tosca."
Unsurprisingly, only one of these seven contemporary works commissioned by Gockley during his leadership at the San Francisco Opera -- Philip Glass' Appomattox -- has gone on to get a follow-up production. And the work has been revised with an entirely new second act for its November opening at Washington National Opera.
To be fair, most new operas are not successful. But they often attract media buzz and San Francisco Opera has gotten national attention for mounting unlikely operatic pieces like the adaptation of Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter in 2008. Gockley also deserves credit for an acclaimed and widely performed co-production of Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick, seen in San Francisco in 2012 and broadcast on PBS.
And the director has still managed to surprise audiences on occasion with more edgy productions of classic works. Take, for example, the recent and delightfully surreal Partenope by Handel inspired by Man Ray and 1920s Paris that had shadow puppetry, tap-dancing, and flamboyant drag. The fact is, Gockley can get away with experimental productions in a way that the previous administration under Rosenberg could not. One wonders if he has Jedi abilities or has otherwise broadened the minds of the mostly stolid San Francisco Opera audience.
We'll see how the local operavores react to infamous director Calixto Bieito's Carmen here next summer. This production marks a U.S. debut for Bieto, known for his extreme interpretations of traditional works. His take on Mozart's Abduction From the Seraglio at Komische Oper in Berlin included nudity, rape, torture, and murder on stage -- none of which is in Mozart's opera. San Francisco Opera's communications department has issued a disclaimer, warning would-be ticket buyers about the production's "nudity and suggestive behavior."
While Gockley has worked hard to court the upper echelons of society to secure financial success for his company, he has also undeniably removed barriers to an art form that has long been perceived as elitist. San Francisco Opera is back on the radio after a 25 year absence. And, since 2007, the company has broadcast operas for free before a mass audience at AT&T Park. Many members of this audience have never experienced the art form before. More than 30,000 people attended the ninth live simulcast of The Marriage of Figaro last July at the ballpark, and there is some evidence that the exposure of opera to new audiences is working: as of January 2015, the company has pulled in more than $2.5 million in ticket sales to some 40,000 newcomers who had never set foot in the War Memorial Opera House until they went to a free simulcast.
Many folks continue to think opera is out of reach though, not realizing that at $10, the cheapest tickets run at less than the price of a movie. The San Francisco Opera is still running at a deficit, albeit a modest one, and subscriber numbers have fallen. 53% of ticket revenue came from subscriptions last year, down from 61% in 2013, following a trend that applies to most major American performing arts institutions today. The incoming seventh general director will need to work hard to shore up the future of the art form and captivate opera fans new and old.