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Opera Stays Woke

The San Francisco Opera sets out to be anything but stuffy.

Street art by Retna, whose work inspires the set designs for Aida this season.


The San Francisco Opera opens its 2016–17 season this fall under newly installed general director Matthew Shilvock, who, replacing 10-year vet David Gockley, has the Herculean task of maintaining the opera’s classical bona fides while also getting the Twitter crowd through the doors. Here are a few ways the 94-year-old organization is working to reboot.

1. It’s going pop (-up)
With the opening of the 299-seat Wilsey Center in early 2016, the opera has begun developing casual, intimate pop-up events for small audiences. “We have to be a little more measured in our choices for the main stage, since the stakes are so high filling a 3,000-seat theater,” Shilvock says. Through the pop-ups, “we have the freedom to think of things where we can potentially fail, that don’t have to be perfect—that’s very liberating.” A new season begins next spring.

2. It’s finding new stories
The season kicks off with the world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber, based on an 18th-century novel as well-known in China as Romeo and Juliet is in the West. The work was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera and features the highly acclaimed David Henry Hwang as co-librettist. 

The San Francisco Opera's new general director, Matthew Shilvock.

Photo: Corey Weaver

3. It’s getting kinda hip
Even favorites like Aida are getting new treatments. This year’s production will feature set designs inspired by L.A.-based street artist Retna, whose work incorporates hieroglyphic, Arabic, and Hebrew scripts. “It’s important we find a way to inspire people so they realize that opera is anything but stuffy—that it can have an immediate impact on the senses that almost no other art form can,” Shilvock says.


Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco 

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