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Newly Unearthed: The First Known Photograph of the San Francisco Opera

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Large sepia-toned group photo of men, women and children on risers inside high-ceilinged space
A detail from an October 1923 photograph of the San Francisco Opera company in the Civic Auditorium shows performers and family in pre-performance street clothes. (San Francisco Opera Archives)

For over a decade, the oldest known image of the San Francisco Opera was a panoramic group photograph taken on Oct. 6, 1923 with a cryptic “Picture #2” inscribed on its lower left-hand corner. Pictured inside the Civic (now Bill Graham) Auditorium, founder and conductor Gaetano Merola, star tenor Beniamino Gigli, chorus members and orchestra musicians pose in costume and tuxes, ready for the night’s performance of Andrea Chénier.

Singer Chung-Wai Soong performs with a number of Bay Area choirs and companies, including the SF Opera’s extra chorus. (Courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

But we now have what the opera believes to be a new oldest photograph, showing members of the fledgling company earlier on the same day, in their pre-performance street clothes.

Credit for its discovery goes to Chung-Wai Soong, a professional opera singer who is also a member of SF Opera’s extra chorus. Soong purchased the print on a bit of a whim at the Antiquarian Book Fair “at least 10, 15, maybe even 20 years ago,” he says. “I’m not a collector, but it’s always fun to have these sort of talismanic articles.”

The 6-by-24-inch print Soong purchased was already mounted to cardboard, slightly warped and bent — and it remained in that state for years, sitting on top of a mirror in his home. It was always in the back of his mind, he says, that he should show it to the folks at the opera.

Barbara Rominski, director of the opera archives since 2016, remembers the day Soong brought the photograph to her attention. “He just sort of whipped it out of his canvas grocery bag,” she says, laughing, “and he said, ‘Have you ever seen this?’”

Rominski initially thought it was the same image the opera proudly displays on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building — that Oct. 6, 1923 photograph from the Andrea Chénier performance.

Large sepia-toned group photo of men, women and children on risers inside high-ceilinged space
An October 1923 photograph of the San Francisco Opera company in the Civic Auditorium, discovered by opera singer Chung-Wai Soong and recently donated to the archives. (San Francisco Opera Archives)
Large black-and-white group photo of people in costumes and tuxes on risers inside high-ceilinged space
The opera’s ‘Picture #2’ photograph was long thought to be the earliest image of the company’s inaugural season in 1923. (San Francisco Opera Archives)

“Then I took a closer look at it and went ‘Oh — swear words — in fact, no Chung-Wai, I have never seen this photograph ever,’” she remembers. “It was a total surprise to everybody in the room.”

Sponsored

The print was in ill repair. With Soong’s permission, Rominski sent it off to Berkeley art conservator Heida Shoemaker. It returned, restored and no longer attached to cardboard, just a few weeks ago; Soong has officially donated the photograph to the SF Opera archives.

The singer says he’s of two minds about his unexpected discovery. “[I’m] gleefully thrilled it’s finally going to a proper home, and it’s been properly taken care of,” he says. “But also slightly horrified that it’s spent all these years sitting on top of my mirror. I mean, it could have fallen down and my cat could have chewed it. Anything could have happened!”

To Rominski, Soong’s relationship with the photograph, its place in his home, is a testament to its special power. “You sort of think, wow, that was a 100-year-old photograph that you were fairly nonchalantly carrying it around, but it also just shows the beauty of a photograph, right? It’s just this wonderful object that we feel very close to.”

Large crowd in auditorium facing stage
A view of a packed Civic Auditorium during an SF Opera performance in 1926. (San Francisco Opera Archives)

The image comes from SF Opera’s first season, when the company performed in the vast expanse of what is now the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Tickets were $1; box seats were $5.

The Civic Auditorium was not an ideal venue for opera: it seated around 5,000 people, but it had no backstage, fly galleries or dressing rooms. The company moved to its current home in the War Memorial Opera House in 1932.

For Soong, who is currently in rehearsals for Pocket Opera’s production of La Cenerentola, the group photograph captures the true community endeavor of starting an opera company from scratch. “I look at all these faces, these sort of progenitors to what I do, and some of these are well-known singers,” he says, “but some of these people … some of their grandkids probably still live in North Beach, you know?”

Gaetano Merola trained up his early chorus (seen in dirndl costumes in the group photograph) from local amateur singers.

As an archivist, Rominski gets excited about possibilities this photograph represents. “You never know what’s going to come out of the woodwork,” she says. “Now there are two photographs that we know of. Is there a third or fourth and a fifth?”

If this photograph managed to remain relatively unknown for over 100 years, other objects significant to the opera’s early days are out there. Rominski is certain of it: “I am going to be delighted and surprised and super happy, because there’s going to be more stuff that’s coming out of the woodwork.”

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