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Where 80-Year-Old Marble Meets Meyer Sound

With its $21 million new digs, the Wilsey Center for Opera aims to revitalize the art form.

Rendering of the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater

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Illustration of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera exterior

Photo: Jacobs Illustration

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A rendering of the John M. Bryan Education Studio, which will also be available for community arts programs.

Photo: Visualize It Built

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The inaugural season launches with Winterreise (March 11–13), a series of 24 animated short films paired with Franz Schubert’s song cycle, featuring pianist Markus Hinterhäuser and baritone Matthias Goerne.

Photo: Patrick Berger/ArtComArt

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The animated French film The Triplets of Belleville (April 14–23) will have live musical accompaniment by composer Benoît Charest.

Photo: Courtesy of the San Francisco Opera

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Ana Sokolović, composer of Svadba (April 2–10), a Serbian a cappella chamber opera for six women.

Photo: Donat/SMCQ

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The original home of SFMOMA for 60 years, the fourth floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building was once a grand feat of architecture, its 1932 beaux arts design distinguished by high vaulted ceilings, ornate skylights, and expanses of marble. But by 2010, when the San Francisco Opera was on the hunt for a new campus, that same site had fallen into neglect. “It was decrepit,” moans David Gockley, the opera’s general director. Water trickled down the walls and pattered onto plastic bags laid out beneath the skylight. The drywall, once the backdrop for masterpieces by Matisse and Kahlo, was riddled with holes and mildew. Formerly pristine galleries were heaped with a decade of forgotten junk.

At the time, the opera was seeking a way to consolidate its comically far-flung operations—a scene shop in Dogpatch, a costume shop in SoMa, leased rehearsal rooms in the Presidio, and offices in Hayes Valley—into a single sprawling space. The organization was considering a projected $60 million expansion to the Veterans Building when Elizabeth Murray, the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center’s managing director, offered the 28,000-square-foot fourth floor and 10,000-square-foot basement at a comparative bargain: $21 million. Longtime opera patron Dede Wilsey offered to donate millions toward the extensive renovation, and the new Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, set to open on February 28, was born.

The opera sought out architect Mark Cavagnero, revered for his success with both new construction, like the SFJazz Center, and restorative architecture, like the Legion of Honor and the Oakland Museum of California. After his presentation to the opera board, Gockley says, “we could tell that he’s a visionary.” The ambitious new Center for Opera will feature the 299-seat Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, an education and rehearsal studio, a new basement-level costume studio, the San Francisco Opera archive, and two exhibition galleries filled with historic photographs and costumes. Cavagnero’s challenge was to deftly juxtapose the building’s ’30s detailing with sleek walls of glass and state-of-the-art acoustics. “I didn’t want to do any faux-historical design,” he says. “I wanted to restore the building back to its beautiful origins, but be unapologetic in inserting necessary modern elements.” It required a delicate balance.

Cavagnero began by uncovering the fourth floor’s classic bones, most of which had been entombed in drywall by SFMOMA in the ’70s and ’80s. Working backward from the building’s original 1930s drawings, he revealed features that had been hidden for over 40 years, like a series of elegant black scagliola columns. A catwalk bearing lighting and audio equipment was installed in the formerly leaky atrium, and the theater now fills SFMOMA’s former sculpture court. The space is outfitted with a Meyer Sound Constellation acoustic system that features 24 microphones and 75 self-powered loudspeakers. In rehearsal rooms, plaster was replaced by glass. Transforming a place originally tailored for visual art into a theater with pristine sound quality was a complicated task, but Cavagnero discovered a welcome surprise. “As a former art gallery, it has glorious light,” he says. “This place is ethereal—it glows.”

Elkhanah Pulitzer was hired as director of programming for the intimate theater. Taking cues from alternative performance spaces like the RedCat in Los Angeles, the Center for Opera’s inaugural season presents a handful of nontraditional works. “There’s an explosion of small pieces coming out of New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles,” says Gockley. “It’s an exciting time in the world of opera.” The programming is designed to lure younger theatergoers who may not yet be opera devotees with performances like Winterreise (Winter Journey), in which Franz Schubert’s song cycle is paired with animated short films by the South African artist William Kentridge, and Svadba (Wedding), an all-female a cappella opera by the Serbian composer Ana Sokolović.

The theater’s flexible seating also flouts convention, allowing for in-the-round and cabaret-style settings. There’s a bar in the lobby and cup holders built into the seats. Ticket prices will be lower than usual for an opera—most in the $30 to $60 range—and to round out the revolution, no piece will run longer than 90 minutes. “Modern audiences have short attention spans,” Gockley says with a shrug. “Plus, people want to be able to go out to dinner beforehand.” San Francisco, welcome to the future of opera.

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco 

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