San Francisco Opera (SF Opera) has opened a new small venue and with it comes an experimental performance series aimed at drawing in a younger audience. The Taube Atrium Theater is the centerpiece of the Wilsey Center for Opera, which opened on the 4th floor of the recently refurbished Veterans Building in San Francisco's Civic Center neighborhood at the end of February.
Once a sculpture court for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the 299-seat theater retains many neoclassical elements of its original 1932 beaux arts design such as arched niches and garlanded detailing. It also has unabashedly contemporary features more reminiscent of a modern-day multiplex movie theater than an opera house. These include seats with cup holders, an octagonal lighting catwalk, and a state-of-the-art sound system.
The space is a physical manifestation of the series it hosts, SF Opera Lab. The freshly launched programming concept seeks to appeal to those interested in unorthodox performing arts offerings that involve both the human voice and theater. And the Lab's programming is curated by someone well-positioned to take on this challenge: Director Elkhanah Pulitzer has a track record for staging gutsy operas, as evidenced by her bold production of Lulu for West Edge Opera last summer that featured full nudity.
The room can be configured in a variety of ways, and the challenging acoustic — the 30-foot-high ceiling is great for monumental physical artworks but less forgiving on the human voice — is rectified by an acoustic system of 24 microphones and 75 loudspeakers discreetly placed to adjust reverberation. Made by Berkeley-based Meyer Sound, the system can be optimized for, among other things, spoken text versus sung lyrics just by tapping on a screen.
The theater is already in use for recitals by up-and-coming singers enrolled in the San Francisco Opera's young artist program. And on Friday, Mar. 11, SF Opera Lab officially launches its programming with a multimedia version of Franz Schubert's Romantic song cycle Winterreise ("Winter Journey").
This west coast premiere of a 2014 take on Winterreise by William Kentridge -- a famed South African artist known for stark black and white video art -- is certainly edgier fare than the company's regular programming. Kentridge's Lulu premiered last November at the Metropolitan Opera in New York to great acclaim and was shown in movie theaters across the globe as part of the Met Live in HD season. For this work, Kentridge sets Schubert's 24 gloomy-beautiful songs about lost love and loneliness to 24 corresponding short films. The films are not meant to be descriptive of the words or music, but rather stem from Kentridge's childhood memories of hearing German art songs.
Kentridge's main collaborators are German baritone Matthias Goerne and Austrian pianist Markus Hinterhäuser. Both the singer and accompanist performed the work with the artist's images in the south of France, Vienna, and New York, and will take the show to Paris, Lille, and Barcelona after the San Francisco run this weekend. A highly-regarded interpreter of art song, the sought-after Goerne is known for his mastery of Winterreise. "Having Matthias Goerne here, mixed with the powerful visual language of Kentridge is an alchemy that will hopefully attract audiences from the visual and fine art worlds," says Pulitzer. "As well as those that appreciate great poetry and song."
Aiming opera at a younger crowd
SF Opera Lab is clearly going for a relaxed atmosphere with its new offering. The venue has a bar; audiences can sip their drinks throughout the show (which they cannot do in the War Memorial Opera House); and there is no dress code. The performances tend towards brevity, especially by opera standards, running at around 90 minutes without intermission. In addition to the casual atmosphere, tickets to Lab events are cheaper on average than performances at the War Memorial, ranging from $25 to $125 depending on the show.
The first season continues with an eclectic program. The lineup includes a contemporary Serbian chamber opera, a pop-up event at The Chapel, and a couple of salons curated and performed by musicians of the SF Opera Orchestra. There's also the animated feature The Triplets of Belleville performed to a live score led by Benoît Charest, the film's Academy Award nominated composer, and soprano Deborah Voigt's one woman show.
Bay Area institutions mark a trend
SF Opera Lab is the latest in a series of attempts by traditional performing arts institutions to go beyond the over 50s that constitute the core audience and focus on getting a new generation of opera fans engaged.
Cal Performances is taking a similar traditional-with-a-twist tack with its Berkeley RADICAL series starting with Beethoven and a residency featuring rock star conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the hip, young Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela last fall. The next program in April features violinist Gil Shaham playing J. S. Bach's Partitas accompanied by slow-motion videos depicting the human face and body from artist and Bay Area native David Michalek.
The non-traditional approach to presenting classical art is already starting to pay off for local arts organizations. SoundBox, a series of small concerts hosted by the San Francisco Symphony (SF Symphony) in a re-purposed rehearsal hall behind the organization's main auditorium has consistently sold out -- and lately within a few hours of tickets being released for sale -- since it was launched in Dec. 2014. At $35 apiece, ticket prices are low compared to the average cost to experience a concert in Davies Symphony Hall, and the programs are eclectic. The last event in February featured a thoroughly eclectic lineup that included contemporary Estonian composer Veljo Tormis and medieval German mystic Hildegard von Bingen. The music came to life visually through large-scale video projections on the walls of tree shadows and stained glass cathedral windows .
Smaller institutions are also seeing success from taking an innovative stance. San Francisco Performances' new PIVOT series sold out its inaugural event at the Strand Theater recently with a late-night performance of Georg Friedrich Haas' Quartet No. 3, In inj. Noct. Played by the Jack Quartet, the challenging piece has many quirks, including being played in complete darkness. Even the exit signs were turned off in the theater and audience members were asked to put away their phones and watches.
According to an SF Symphony audience survey, a third of the SoundBox audience is under 35. That's triple the amount of young people that usually attend traditional concerts at Davies Symphony Hall. If SF Opera Lab's first pop-up event last month at Public Works is any indication, the formula for attracting younger audiences in large numbers just might work. That event sold-out well in advance and even had a wait list.
"The success of these programs is going to depend on the quality of the outreach process and the repertory chosen," says classical music critic Lisa Hirsch. Opera does have an advantage on both counts as it is a multi-media art form by nature, combining music, sets, costumes, lighting, acting, singing and often dance. So SF Opera Labs should be at an advantage in terms of getting people from its Lab audience over to the main stage for more traditional fare.
But how innovative is the Lab's programming, really? "A standard song cycle, a live-music-accompanied film that's old hat at this point, and Deborah Voigt," says Hirsch of the inaugural season's lineup. (Voigt is a 50-something soprano and a staple of major opera houses.) "The only new item is the a capella opera, Svadba-Wedding." If Hirsch is correct in saying repertoire is key to making a connection with that elusive new audience, SF Opera might need to get even more creative in future seasons in order to ensure the success of its new venture.