San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera

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The San Francisco Opera was founded by Gaetano Merola (1881-1953) and incorporated in 1923. The company's debut took place on September 26, 1923, in Civic Auditorium, with a performance of La Boheme, including soloists Queena Mario and Giovanni Martinelli, Maestro Merola conducting.On October 15, 1932, the company moved into the newly built War Memorial Opera House, and performed Tosca with Claudia Muzio, Dino Borgioli, and Alfredo Gandolfi, Maestro Merola conducting.Following Merola's death in 1953, Kurt Herbert Adler led the company through 1981. McEwen, and by Lotfi Mansouri, from 1988 through 2001.Under current conductor Pamela Rosenberg's baton, the San Francisco Opera is now the second-largest opera company in North America. Since its inception, the company has presented debut performances of numerous artists, including Vladimir Atlantov, Inge Borkh, and Boris Christoff, to name a few.Since 1971, the San Francisco Opera has presented an annual free concert in Golden Gate Park on the Sunday following opening night of the Fall season. The event is open to the public and draws some 20,000 listeners.In 1982, the opera’s third general director, Terence A. McEwen, created the San Francisco Opera Center to coordinate the opera company's numerous affiliate training programs. Providing a coordinated sequence of performance and study opportunities for young artists, the San Francisco Opera Center includes the Merola Opera Program, Adler Fellowship Program, Showcase Series, Brown Bag Opera, Opera Center Singers, Schwabacher Recitals and Education Programs.During the 1983 Fall season, the student/family matinee performances of La Traviata were presented with supertitles: English translations of the libretto, projected over the proscenium simultaneous with the action on stage. Supertitles, an innovation of the Canadian Opera Company, are now used for all San Francisco Opera productions.In November 1992, General Director Lotfi Mansouri introduced Pacific Visions, a program designed to maintain the opera repertoire's vitality through new commissions and the presentation of unusual works. It was launched with the commissioning of the following operas: Dangerous Liaisons, composed by Conrad Susa; Harvey Milk, a new opera by composer Stewart Wallace; A Streetcar Named Desire, composed by André Previn; and Dead Man Walking, composed by Jake Heggie.In January 2001, General Director Pamela Rosenberg announced her first artistic initiative for the San Francisco Opera, a multi-year plan of interwoven themes and series.

War Memorial Opera House

The War Memorial Opera House is an opera house in San Francisco, California, located on the western side of Van Ness Avenue across from the west side/rear facade of the San Francisco City Hall.

It is part of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center. It has been the home of the San Francisco Opera since opening night in 1932.

It was the site of the San Francisco Conference, the first assembly of the newly organized the United Nations in April 1945.


The film opens on the eve of New Year's Day, 1906. A young lady, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), inquires for work after losing her job at the Bristol, that just burned down in a fire. She meets "Blackie" Norton (Clark Gable), the saloonkeeper and gambler, who owns the Paradise Club on Pacific Street in the notorious Barbary Coast.

Blackie hires Mary for "75 Bucks a week," who faints after hearing his job proposal. Mary is a promising, but impoverished, classically trained singer from Benson, Colorado. She becomes a star attraction at the Paradise, especially for singing "San Francisco" (a song composed for the movie, which became one of the city's official anthems). [4] The club piano player, "The Professor" (Al Shean), can tell Mary has a professionally trained voice. Mat (Ted Healy), Blackie's good friend at the Paradise, wisely predicts that Mary is not going to stay long on the "Coast".

The scene changes, as two men in boxing gloves and trunks sparring vigorously. One is them is Blackie. The other sparring partner lands a wicked right cross, knocking Blackie to the canvas, which concludes their session. Changing out of their exercise gear, Blackie dons a natty suit, the other guy, a priest's collar. The other boxer is Blackie's childhood friend, Father Tim Mullen (Spencer Tracy), a Roman Catholic priest, who has made several attempts to reform Blackie, while the other nightclub owners urge him to run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in order to protect their crooked interests. Encouraged by Father Tim, who believes Blackie can use the supervisor position to implement reform, Blackie decides to run for office. Despite Father Tim's best efforts, Blackie remains a jaunty Barbary Coast atheist, although Blackie secretly paid for the new organ at Father Tim's parish.

Blackie's feelings for Mary intensify, but complications arise when she is offered an opportunity to sing in the opera. Although she initially refuses to break her contract with Blackie, she later leaves the Paradise Club due to the overtly sexual manifestation of Blackie's feelings for her.

Mary is hired by the Tivoli Opera House on Market Street. There she becomes involved with Nob Hill scion Jack Burley (Jack Holt). Blackie wants to stop Mary singing at the Tivoli. He arrives the night of her premiere with a process server in tow to shut down the show however, when he hears her sing he's deeply moved, and decides to let her perform the opera until the final curtain. After her performance, Blackie visits Mary in her dressing room. Realizing she still loves him, Mary forwardly asks him to marry her. Blackie agrees, but their reunion is soon interrupted by Burley, who had proclaimed his love for Mary and proposed to her prior to the show. Blackie, seeing Burley as competition for Mary's affections, is happy to tell him of their intent to marry. However, as Blackie gloatingly tells Burley of their plans, it becomes clear that Blackie intends to take Mary away from the Tivoli and put her back on stage at the Paradise. Burley appeals to Mary, but Blackie presents Mary with an ultimatum by asking if she wants to marry him or stay at the Tivoli.

Mary's choice is to return to the Paradise. Backstage, before the opening night of her return performance, she asks Blackie if they can set the date for their wedding. Blackie agrees, but wants to postpone getting married until after the election. Father Tim drops in, and is angered by Mary's skimpy stage costume. He defies Blackie to put her on the stage in front of the rowdy Paradise audience. Mary observes Blackie's reaction to Father Tim's statements, and decides to leave with the priest after Blackie strikes him in the face.

Mary goes back to Burley and eventually meets his mother (Jessie Ralph) at her Nob Hill mansion. In a private conversation, she confesses her unworthiness, but Mrs. Burley informs Mary that she started out in 1850 as Massie, a simple washerwoman in Portsmouth Square. Mrs. Burley also empathizes that she also once had a "Blackie" in her younger days, but chose to marry the more steadfast elder Burley. This cements Mary's decision to accept Burley's proposal of marriage.

It is now the evening of April 17, 1906. Burley has called in some favors and had the San Francisco Police Department raid the Paradise, destroying its gambling equipment and running off the patrons. Blackie, distraught about the future of his club, ends up at the city's annual Chickens Ball. [5] Mary and Burley are in attendance. After performances by acts from the other Barbary Coast clubs, the MC requests the Paradise's entry. When no one steps on stage, Mary, just having learned of the club's closing, enters the Chickens Ball competition for the Paradise. She rouses the audience to join in a chorus of "San Francisco", and wins. However, Blackie angrily refuses the prize money, tossing the prize cup and gold coins to the stage floor. He angrily states that Mary had no right to sing on behalf of his club. Embarrassed, Mary is about to leave the ball with Burley.

Then, at 5:13 a.m. April 18, 1906, the earthquake hits the city. The city is devastated and hundreds are killed.

As Blackie wanders the city searching for Mary, he walks to Nob Hill, where he sees Mrs. Burley, who senses her son has died. Blackie did indeed witness the dead Burley when wandering the devastated streets. She leaves the area as US Army troops from the Presidio blow up her mansion in preparation to create a firebreak. Blackie then comes upon Mat, who was injured at the destroyed Hall of Justice on Washington Street. A nurse indicates to Blackie that Mat is dying. Before he dies, Mat tells Blackie he was wrong regarding his feelings toward Mary.

Blackie later meets Father Tim, who takes him to Golden Gate Park, where there is a tent camp for the homeless. There, Blackie hears Mary's voice lifted in song "Nearer, My God, to Thee" with those in mourning. After seeing Mary, Blackie falls to his knees and thanks God for sparing Mary's life. From a distance, Mary sees Blackie praying, and as she walks toward him, word spreads through the camp that "The fire's out!" As people shout about building a new San Francisco, Blackie and Mary join the crowd – a surprisingly multi-racial group, given the era of the film – as they leave the park marching arm-in-arm, singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".

The film ends with a dissolve from the smoldering ruins into the "modern" San Francisco of the mid-1930s. Each year when the film is shown near April 18 by Bay Area television stations, the scenes of the 1930s city are replaced with stock news footage of the city in the current year.

1906 San Francisco Earthquake: Aftermath

Despite the utter devastation, San Francisco quickly recovered from the earthquake, and the destruction actually allowed planners to create a new and improved city. A classic Western boomtown, San Francisco had grown in a haphazard manner since the Gold Rush of 1849. Working from a nearly clean slate, San Franciscans were able to rebuild the city with a more logical and elegant structure. The destruction of the urban center at San Francisco also encouraged the growth of new towns around the San Francisco Bay, making room for a population boom arriving from other parts of the United States and abroad.

San Francisco Opera - History

Photo: Museum of Performance + Design

A few years after the earthquake and fire 1906, Luiza Tetrazzini performed before tens of thousands of admirers at 3rd/Kearny and Market next to Lotta's Fountain on Dec. 24, 1910.

Photo: provenance unknown, via Facebook

Luiza Tetrazinni singing, Dec. 24, 1910.

Photo: San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum

San Francisco's love affair with opera is legendary. From the first performance by the Pellegrini Opera Company (Bellini's "La Somnambula" on February 12, 1851) until today, the city has demanded and supported opera to an amazing degree.

Between 1851 and 1932, more than 90 different opera companies visited San Francisco, and in the late 1800s one could choose from four or five different performances on a given evening. San Francisco became a regular stop for great singers and touring companies.

San Francisco Opera, now in its 71st season, began at the Civic Auditorium on September 26, 1923, with "La Boheme." The top price was $4 and 5,000 patrons were in attendance. Maestro Merola, founder of the company, was the conductor.

1932--War Memorial Opera House opens with a performance of Puccini's Tosca.

1935--First San Francisco production of Wagner's monumental Ring of the Nibelung cycle.

1940--San Francisco Opera debuts of German soprano Lotte Lehman, and Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling. First San Francisco performance of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss.

1940--San Francisco Opera Ballet presents the first full-length American production of Swan Lake.

1944--America's first full-length production of The Nutcracker is performed by the San Francisco Ballet.

1945--World leaders gather to sign the United Nations charter, and celebrate the event at the Opera House.

1949--The great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad was scheduled to sing in San Francisco at the Opera House. Her husband had been reputed to be a collaborator with the Nazis in Norway during the war, and Flagstad's appearance on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House "would desecrate the War Memorial and the ideas it stands for. It would be better for the Opera Association to go out of business than hire a traitor from Norway," said a lawyer for the Veteran's Legion. Flagstad performed as scheduled without incident.

1953--Gaetano Merola, founder of the San Francisco Opera, dies while conducting a concert at Stern Grove.

1957--American soprano Leontyne Price performs in her American debut season, singing in Tosca and Aida.

1957--Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) receives its American stage premiere.

1963--Lofti Mansouri makes his San Francisco Opera debut directing six of the season's productions.

1969--Placido Domingo makes his SFO debut in La Boheme.

1977--Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballe perform together in Turandot.

1983--When the scheduled tenor for the San Francisco Opera's opening night performance of Verdi's Otello becomes ill, Placido Domingo flies cross-country to serve as replacement. The delayed performance ends at 2:30 am.

1989--Loma Prieta earthquake leaves the War Memorial Opera House in need of major repairs.

1995--War Memorial Opera House closes for repairs.

1996--Performances for this season are given in Civic Center Auditorium and Orpheum Theater.

1997--Refurbished War Memorial Opera House opens with gala celebration featuring Frederica von Stade, Jerry Hadley, Placido Domingo and many others.


The complex was developed in the 1920s on two blocks on Van Ness Avenue facing San Francisco City Hall from the west. The "War Memorial" name commemorates all the people who served in the First World War, which ended seven years before the project commenced. It was designed by Arthur Brown Jr in 1927-1928, and is one of the last Beaux-Arts style structures erected in the United States. The project resulted in the construction of a matched pair of buildings across a formal courtyard park: the War Memorial Opera House and the multi-purpose Veterans Building next door. Both were completed and opened in 1932.

The upper floors of the Veterans Building housed the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (formerly the San Francisco Museum of Art) from 1935 to 1994. In 1980 the new Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall opened, on a site on Van Ness across the sidestreet from the Opera House, as part of the SFWMPAC complex.

United Nations Edit

The SFWMPAC has historical significance. On June 26, 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed in the Veterans Building's Herbst Theatre by the group of 50 founding nations, following the two-month-long United Nations conference in the Opera House.

In 1951, the Peace Treaty with Japan (commonly called "Treaty of San Francisco"), formally ending World War II hostilities with Japan, was signed in the Opera House. The Center has been host to U.S. presidents and foreign heads of state. In 1990 the Center was chosen to host the first Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony, and this prize is now presented annually at the Center.

The following venues make up the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center—SFWMPAC:

Singing the Opera's Praises / Sumptuous photos highlight enthusiastic history of the San Francisco company

Big, bubbly and breathless, Joan Chatfield-Taylor's ebullient new coffee-table book is less a history of the San Francisco Opera than a celebration of it.

Dominated by glorious photographs from throughout the company's 75-year history, this is a book made for enraptured browsing. Many readers may not have known, for example, that "Soprano Beverly Sills's San Francisco career began with a couple of catastrophes," as the author states in a nearly hidden caption. Sills "came to the city for the first time in late August 1953 when no one met her, she made her way to (founding director Gaetano) Merola's house, where she learned that he had just died.

"Penniless, she spent the next weeks in a Market Street hotel . . . playing roles that ranged from a maidservant in 'Elektra' to Donna Elvira in 'Don Giovanni.' That same season, while she played a Valkyrie, her helmet fell off and she rushed to pick it up instead of ignoring the mishap. Kurt Herbert Adler was furious and asked if she were drunk. She did not return to San Francisco until 1971, when she sang the title role in 'Manon' on the opening night of the 1971 season. When she arrived in her dressing room, she found the same helmet filled with orchids and a welcoming note from Adler. Peace restored, she returned to San Francisco many times."

With descriptions like that, the book allows us to consider opera through the lens of the San Francisco company, its intentions and ambitions, stage designs, training programs, master classes and out-of-house events ranging from recitals at Stern Grove to touring troupes near the Arctic Circle. Living up to such a task, the pages are heavy and glossy, the artwork magnificent and the captions both chunky and bite-sized.

Chatfield-Taylor presents a clean, fluidly written narrative, especially early on. She writes entertainingly about the early history of opera in San Francisco, when singers could earn unheard-of sums presenting opera to enthusiastic Barbary Coasters, and she gives a good sense of the energy and resourcefulness with which Merola went about founding a local company.

Here are shots of some of the century's most celebrated songbirds, caught mostly in performance: From two of the greatest Italian singers of the '20s and '30s, soprano Luisa Tetrazzini and tenor Beniamino Gigli, right up through the present day's Canadian heldentenor Ben Heppner and Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, they're all here (except for legendary soprano Maria Callas, who never sang with the company).

Other participants are amply represented each of the company's four general directors -- Merola, Adler, Terence McEwen and Lotfi Mansouri -- gets a chapter to himself.

The whole thing is designed for maximum fizz, and it works. How much of a lifespan the book will have is hard to guess, though clearly someone anticipates a significant shelf life: Several aspects of the upcoming season, including the reopening of the Opera House with "Tosca" and designer Thierry Bosquet's new production of "Pelleas et Melisande," are confidently described in the past tense.

Chatfield-Taylor is a former feature writer for The Chronicle, and most of her book reads like newspaper writing of the breeziest, most ephemeral kind. The chapter on Mansouri, for example, is a personality profile of the director, studded with many, many quotes from the subject and none from anyone else -- and certainly little or nothing in the way of a critical appraisal of his tenure to date.

Chatfield-Taylor paints a somewhat more complete picture in her earlier chapters -- acknowledging, for instance, that Merola's repertoire choices were famously conservative, or that Adler "believed in crisis and drama as management tools, and . . . conjured up storms just to keep everyone on their toes." But the overall tone is adulatory throughout.

Nor is the book designed to be useful as a reference tool. It includes a helpful chronology of every production in the company's history, complete with principal singers, conductors and production teams. But because these are not cross-referenced by the individual participants, there is no way, for example, to locate all of Birgit Nilsson's performances with the company. And the lack of an index is a particularly regrettable oversight.

In this respect, "San Francisco Opera: The First Seventy-Five Years" could scarcely be more different from its ostensible predecessor, Arthur Bloomfield's densely packed, informative and rather laborious season-by-season traversal of the company's history through 1978. Photos it may not have, but the hard facts of the company's past are there in profusion.

With any such undertaking, the occasional inaccuracy will inevitably creep in. For instance, contrary to Chatfield-Taylor's assessment, the 1991 U.S. premiere of Hans Werner Henze's "Das Verratene Meer," was hardly a "showcase" for Brian Asawa, who played one of four largely indistinguishable juvenile delinquents. That was simply the countertenor's main-stage debut the showcase came the next season, when he sang a splendid Oberon in Britten's "Midsummer Night's Dream."

But all of that comes second to the book's visual dimensions, which are outstanding. The photographs are the key, and the camera, as we well know, doesn't lie.

Eight for 80: The Greatest Moments in the History of the San Francisco Opera Ball

Opera Ball 2013 chairs Mai Shiver and Ann Girard with Guild President Karen Kubin and Mayor Ed Lee and wife Anita. (Photo by Drew Altizer)

In the summer of 1941, the nascent Opera Guild announced that it would host an Opera Ball, a gala to be held the first night of the approaching opera season. The glamorous event was to be held at the Museum of Modern Art in the Veterans Building. The ball was anticipated to be the highlight of the social season, and proceeds would benefit the guild student matinees.

The success of the debut Opera Ball established a new and lasting San Francisco tradition that firmly took root. Opening nights at the San Francisco Opera have always proved to be special, magical evenings of great social import, a nightof society swells “to make the scene and be seen” — one part performance, one part party, one part fashion, one part philanthropy.

“The Opera and the Opera Ball have always been the jewel in the crown of the City’s performing arts organizations,” says SF Opera Guild President Mary Poland. “I firmly believe the ball has always been a welcoming social event, an opportunity for newcomers to meet the old guard and, most importantly, for everyone to enjoy the musical talents of our extraordinary San Francisco Opera company. Besides, it’s a swelluva party.”

Each year the guest list is a constellation of opera lovers political leaders from City Hall, Sacramento and Washington, D.C. national civic and philanthropic leaders old faces from legacy families (and some that have been gently tweaked) new faces from the latest business boom diplomats, fashionistas of all stripes and celebrities who want a memorable night out on the town.

Here’s a look back at some of the evening’s greatest hits.

October 13, 1941

The opera: Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Opera Ball chair: Mrs. Kenneth Monteagle Guild president: Mrs. Henry Potter Russell. The scene: The inaugural OperaBall was held at the Museum of Art, Veterans Building. Anticipated as “society’s keynote event of the month,” the ball attracted a list of who’s who social mavens to work on the candlelit dinner. Guests included famed soprano Lily Pons along with society doyennes (who took their husbands’ full monikers) Mrs. Robert Watt Miller, Mrs. I. W. Hellman, Mrs. Stanley Powell and Mrs. Cabot Brown.

Mrs. Richard S. McCreery, the City’s most honored dowager, in 1956.

September 13, 1956

The opera: Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. Opera Ball chair: Mrs. Robert Watt Miller Guild president: Mrs. Richard C. Hamm. The scene: Life magazine noted the dazzling opening night pre- and post-opera parties, including every move of the City’s most honored dowager, Mrs. Richard S. McCreery, dripping in white mink. Hailed as the “start of the city’s best social season in years,” the glittering Champagne supper included opera stars Dorothy Kirstenand Jussi Bjoerling, and socialites Mrs. J. D. Zellerbach, William Crocker, Mrs. Prentis Cobb Hale, and hostess extraordinaire Mrs.William P. Roth.

September 9, 1983

The opera: Verdi’s Otello. Opera Ball chair: Jane Osgood Guild president: Eileen Ludwig. The scene: This was the infamous opening that got delayed when Placido Domingo flew cross-country to save the night. The performance began at 10:30 p.m. and concluded at 1.30 a.m. Twin pre-parties were in motion at 5 p.m.: a Champagne-soaked feast at the Veterans Building and the guild’s dinner-dance at City Hall. Guests included author Arianna Stassinopoulos and Werner Erhard, Carmella Scaggs, Sally Debenham and Urania Ristow. Columnist Herb Caen noted when the curtain finally went up the gilded audience was “more than slightly sloshed.”

September 8, 1989

The opera: Verdi’s Falstaff. Opera Ball chair: Sara Duryea Guild president: Jane Hartley. The scene: Celebrity chanteuse Rosemary Clooney sang at the pre-performance dinner fashion designer Bob Mackie attended along with film and Broadway actor Raul Julia. The Falstaff performance was delayed due to a surprise demonstration by dozens of AIDS activists. More than 100 of them bought cheap standing-room tickets and, seconds before the maestro was to start the Star-Spangled Banner, the activists took off their jackets to reveal STOP AIDS tees and marched down the aisles, chanting and blowing whistles. Meanwhile, gala-goers in box seats voiced displeasure. It was quite the scene and the buzz of ball afterwards.

Danielle Steele with her date, Hollywood actor George Hamilton in 1997.

September 5, 1997

The opera: Gala Celebration Concert hosted by Beverly Sills and Derek Jacobi. Opera Ball co-chairs: Gretchen Leach, Sally Jordan and Jane Hartley Guild president: Jackie Shinefield. The scene: Reopening of the War Memorial Opera House after 18 months of seismic repairs and the 75th anniversary of SF Opera. Pat Steger noted the “Opera Ball was one of those everyone-who-is-anyone events” for over 1,200 swells, including Washington socialite Lucky Roosevelt, actor George Hamilton, playwright Terrence McNally and politicos up and down the Left Coast. The chatter at the ball was how beautiful the restored Opera House chandelier looked.

George and Charlotte Shultz in 2000.

September 8, 2000

The opera: Lotfi Mansouri Gala Concert. Opera Ball chair:Dede Wilsey with co-chairs Dianne Taube and Irene Kivitz The scene: An elegant gala concert with superstars Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and guest appearance by Dame Joan Sutherland.

September 10, 2005

The opera: Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri Opera Ball Co-chairs: Victoria Kornblum and Katie Jarman Guild President: Cheryl Baxter. The scene: The Opera Ball theme, “Midnight at the Oasis,” was a knockout from the belly dancers and snake charmers to Kazzy the camel. Food Network host Giada DeLaurentiis created a Behind the Bash TV segment.

September 6, 2013

The Opera: Boito’s Mefistofele. Opera Ball co-chairs: Mai Shiver and Ann Girard Guild president: Karen Kubin. Facts: “In the Garden of Good and Evil” was the theme. Guru Colin Cowieen livened the look of the event, transforming staid City Hall into equal parts heavenly and celestial with a devilishly red-hot after-party.

Our History

Constructed in 1888 by the Masons, the Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theatre (known affectionately as "the Opera House") is located at 4705 Third Street in the heart of the Bayview Hunters Point district - San Francisco's most ethnically diverse community.

The Opera House is San Francisco's oldest theater and a registered historical landmark. However, the Opera House is more than just a building. Operated as a community cultural and arts center by the nonprofit Bayview Opera House, Inc., with funding from the San Francisco Arts Commission and other public and private donations, Bayview Opera House is a vital community institution for Bayview residents and holds a significant place in the history and culture of Bayview Hunters Point.


Originally named the South San Francisco Opera House, still the name engraved over the historic front entrance, the building became the Bayview Opera House when South San Francisco became its own incorporated city. In 1995 the building was renamed per resolution of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in honor of playwright, director, actress and activist, Ruth Williams, the "Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theatre".

History Timeline

Listen to Ruth Williams speak live (courtesy of Bay Area Television Archive):

Listen to Ruth Williams at about 30 seconds into the video, supporting the Black Student Union strike in 1968:

Belva Davis reporting on threatened closure of childcare center in community center next to the Bayview Opera House in 1967:

Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theatre
Renovation Project 2014 - 2016

Our historic home, the Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theatre, re-opened to the public on September 17, 2016.

It all started with the restoration of the original wood floor of the auditorium in the summer 2010, with grant funding provided by the National Park Service's Save America's Treasures program. Previously covered by layers of plywood, asbestos and linoleum, the 75% intact 1888 Douglas Fir floor emerged in all its glory and led to the acceptance of the building into the the National Register of Historic Places. This fact in turn provided additional historic protection, and, most importantly, made it clear to everyone that this building deserved more than a makeshift fix of some significant problems, including a structurally weakened exterior wall, a sagging balcony and the glaring lack of compliance with the requirements of the Americans with Disablilities Act.

The owner of the building, the San Francisco Arts Commission, was able to raise the additional funds to do it right. They hired renowned project manager Deborah Frieden, who previously oversaw the construction of the De Young Museum. Also on board came San Francisco architectural firm TEF, and Oakland-based landscape architect and artist Walter Hood. After a series of community meetings soliciting input, the architectural teams came up with the stunningly modern and beautiful outdoor design we enjoy today, and the interior improvements to the structure remained invisible, as they should be for a protected building.


A new plaza at 3rd & Newcomb exposes the grand entrance from the street, showing off the new modern walkway connecting the entrance to the porch.

On the large amphitheatre wooden stage artists can entertain audiences on the seats, the lawn, or milling about the walkways.

New permanent outdoor seating makes outdoor events a snap. Imported from Germany, these chairs are good-looking, robust and comfortable.

A lawn was planted where once there was only concrete. Children can play, families have a picnic and watch a performance.


The early years Edit

The orchestra's first concerts were led by conductor-composer Henry Hadley. There were sixty musicians in the Orchestra at the beginning of their first season. The first concert included music by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Haydn, and Liszt. There were thirteen concerts in the 1911–1912 season, five of which were popular music.

In 1915, Alfred Hertz succeeded Hadley. Hertz helped to refine the orchestra and arranged for the Victor Talking Machine Company to record it at their new studio in Oakland in early 1925. [4] Hertz also led the orchestra during a number of radio broadcasts, including on The Standard Hour, a weekly concert series sponsored by Standard Oil of California. The series began in 1926 when the orchestra faced bankruptcy Standard Oil of California paid the orchestra's debts and in return was given broadcast rights to that year's concert series. The first broadcast aired on the NBC Pacific Network, on October 24, 1926. [5] and the broadcasts continued for more than 30 years. [6] : 633

Pierre Monteux Edit

After Hertz's retirement in 1930, two conductors, Basil Cameron and Issay Dobrowen, jointly headed the orchestra. During the Great Depression, the Symphony's existence was threatened by bankruptcy and the 1934–35 season was cancelled the people of San Francisco passed a bond measure to provide public financing and ensure the organization's continued existence. Pierre Monteux (1875–1964) was subsequently hired to restore the orchestra. Monteux succeeded to the point where NBC began broadcasting some of its concerts and RCA Victor offered the orchestra a new recording contract in 1941. In 1949, Monteux invited Arthur Fiedler to lead summer "pops" concerts in the Civic Auditorium. Fiedler also conducted the orchestra at free concerts in Sigmund Stern Grove in San Francisco and the Frost Amphitheater at Stanford University. Fiedler's relationship with the orchestra continued until the mid-1970s.

When Monteux left the orchestra in 1952, various conductors led the orchestra, including Leopold Stokowski, Georg Solti, Erich Leinsdorf, Karl Münchinger, George Szell, Bruno Walter, Ferenc Fricsay, and William Steinberg. Stokowski made a series of RCA Victor recordings with the orchestra in 1952 and 1953.

Enrique Jordá Edit

In 1954, the board hired Enrique Jordá as music director. Surviving eyewitness and newspaper accounts describe him as having youthful enthusiasm, energy, and charm. Jordá sometimes conducted so vigorously that his baton flew from his hand. [7] As the years passed, Jordá reportedly failed to maintain discipline or provide sufficient leadership, resulting in inadequate rehearsal of the orchestra [8] George Szell (1897–1970), the longtime music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, guest-conducted the orchestra in 1962 and was so dismayed by the lack of discipline that he publicly condemned Jordá and even chastised San Francisco Chronicle music critic Alfred Frankenstein for commending Jordá and the orchestra. [9] Szell's comments, along with growing dissatisfaction among musicians and the public, led the symphony board to dismiss Jordá.

Josef Krips Edit

In the fall of 1963, Josef Krips (1902–1974) became music director. He quickly became known as a benevolent autocrat, and would not tolerate sloppy playing. He soon began to refine the performance of the musicians, particularly of the standard German-Austrian repertoire. One of his innovations was an annual tradition on New Year's Eve, "A Night in Old Vienna", which was devoted to music of Johann Strauss and other Viennese masters of the nineteenth century. Similar concerts continued into the 2000s, though the format has changed in recent years. Krips would not make recordings with the orchestra, insisting they weren't ready. He did agree to allow KKHI to broadcast some of the Friday evening concerts. He also paved the way for his successor when he invited Seiji Ozawa to guest conduct the orchestra Ozawa impressed critics and audiences with his fiery Bernstein-like conducting, particularly in the performances of the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, and Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. Krips retired at the end of the 1969–70 season and only returned once, to guest conduct the orchestra in Stern Grove, before his death in 1974.

Seiji Ozawa Edit

Ozawa's guest appearances had generated interest before he became the symphony's director in 1970. Concerts were frequently sold out. He greatly improved the quality of the orchestra's performances and convinced Deutsche Grammophon (DG) to record the orchestra in 1972. A special concert series devoted to Romeo and Juliet, as interpreted by Hector Berlioz, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Sergei Prokofiev and Leonard Bernstein's symphonic dances from West Side Story, inspired DG to record the same music with Ozawa. He introduced a number of innovations, including presenting partially staged versions of La vida breve by Manuel de Falla and Beatrice and Benedict by Berlioz. He had dancers on the stage for some modern ballets performed by the orchestra. For a few seasons Ozawa used local university choruses when needed, but later formed a San Francisco Symphony Chorus to ensure consistent singing. Ozawa purchased a home in San Francisco, planning to stay for many years. However, he agreed to become music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and for a time simultaneously directed both orchestras. After leaving San Francisco, Ozawa has returned twice as guest conductor.

Edo de Waart Edit

Edo de Waart succeeded Ozawa in 1977. Though considered to be not as flamboyant as Ozawa, de Waart maintained the orchestra's high standards, leading to additional recordings, including its first digital sessions. He conducted the orchestra's first performances in the newly constructed Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in September 1980, including the nationally televised gala. At this time the regular season was extended, beginning in September and lasting until May. This was possible because San Francisco now had two major classical venues, Davies Hall and the War Memorial Opera House. Consequently, musicians could choose to play in the Symphony, or the Opera and Ballet. A large Fratelli Ruffatti concert organ featuring five manuals, 147 registers and 9235 pipes, was added to the new hall. This organ was used in the orchestra's performance of the recording of Saint-Saëns' third symphony with Michael Murray as soloist. Philips also taped Joseph Jongen's Symphonie Concertante and César Franck's Fantaisie in A. A highlight of de Waart's final season, 1984–85, was four sold-out performances of Mahler's eighth symphony, incorporating the Symphony Chorus, the Masterworks Chorale, the San Francisco Boys Chorus, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

Herbert Blomstedt Edit

Herbert Blomstedt became music director as of the 1985–1986 season. He had been offered the position immediately after guest conducting for two weeks in 1984, while he was music director of Staatskapelle Dresden. He emphasized precision and confidence, and worked to develop sensitivity, warmth and feeling in the orchestra's performances. The orchestra began its annual tours of Europe and Asia under Blomstedt, and resumed syndicated weekly radio broadcasts. He recognized the continuing shortcomings of Davies Symphony Hall's acoustics, helping push for a major renovation, completed in 1992, contributing a substantial amount of money to the cause. He has remained Conductor Laureate of the orchestra, conducting several weeks of concerts each year.

Michael Tilson Thomas Edit

Michael Tilson Thomas (known colloquially as "MTT") became music director in 1995, coming from the London Symphony Orchestra. Thomas had guest conducted the orchestra as far back as 1974, and already had a relationship with the musicians. Like Ozawa, Thomas ensured that the orchestra played more American music and this has been carried through to its recordings, for RCA/BMG and its own label SFS Media. Tilson Thomas has focused on Russian music, particularly Stravinsky, as well as a prominent Mahler cycle. He recruited London Symphony Orchestra leader Alexander Barantschik to become SFS concertmaster. During his leadership the Symphony achieved financial and artistic stability. Tilson Thomas is currently the longest-serving music director in the Symphony's history. In October 2017, the orchestra announced that Tilson Thomas is to conclude his tenure as its music director at the close of the 2019–2020 season, and subsequently to take the title of music director laureate. [10] [11] Thomas was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2017. [12]

Esa-Pekka Salonen Edit

Esa-Pekka Salonen guest-conducted the orchestra in 2004, 2012, and 2015. In December 2018, the orchestra announced the appointment of Salonen as its next music director, effective for the 2020–2021 season, with an initial contract of 5 seasons. [13]

The San Francisco Symphony was the first to feature symphonic radio broadcasts in 1926, and in 2003 the Symphony was heard in syndicated radio broadcasts on over 300 radio stations. There were regular live, stereo broadcasts for many years on KKHI in San Francisco featuring music directors Josef Krips and Seiji Ozawa, including the first live transatlantic stereo satellite broadcast in 1973, originating in Paris.

The orchestra makes regular tours of the United States, Europe and Asia. Its first tour was from March 16 – May 10, 1947, when Pierre Monteux conducted the musicians in 57 concerts in 53 American cities. Josef Krips led them on a Japanese tour in 1968, in which they gave 12 concerts in 7 cities. The May 15 – June 17, 1973 tour saw then-music director Seiji Ozawa and Niklaus Wyss conduct the orchestra in 30 concerts in 19 cities in Europe and the Soviet Union. They returned to Japan from June 4–19, 1975, with Ozawa and Wyss and played 12 concerts in 11 cities. Edo de Waart and David Ramadanoff led an American tour from October 20 – November 2, 1980, giving 10 concerts in 7 cities. There was another American tour from October 27 – November 12, 1983, again led by Edo de Waart, with 13 concerts in 11 cities.

The San Francisco Symphony has toured regularly with current music director Michael Tilson Thomas, most recently a highly successful East Coast tour in April 2016 which included performances in Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. This coming November, the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas will embark on their fourth tour of Asia together with performances in Seoul, South Korea Tainan, Taiwan Taipei, Taiwan Shanghai, China Beijing, China Osaka, Japan and Tokyo, Japan.

In 2006, the San Francisco Symphony launched Keeping Score – MTT on Music, a series of projects comprising audio-visual performances for DVD and broadcast on PBS's Great Performances, multimedia websites, and educational programs for schools.

Throughout its history the San Francisco Symphony has had numerous great conductors, instrumentalists and singers as guests. Many famous composers have also led the Orchestra over the years. In 1915, Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) conducted the Orchestra at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held that year in San Francisco's Marina District. In 1928, Maurice Ravel conducted some of his music including La Valse and Rapsodie espagnole. In 1937, George Gershwin (1898–1937) conducted a suite from his opera Porgy and Bess, then was soloist in his Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue with Pierre Monteux conducting. Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) was a regular guest conductor, appearing periodically from 1937 until 1967. Aaron Copland (1900–1990) conducted the Orchestra in 1966. Other composers who have led the Orchestra include Ernst von Dohnányi in 1927, Ottorino Respighi in 1929, Arnold Schoenberg in 1945, Darius Milhaud in 1949, Manuel Rosenthal in 1950, Leon Kirchner in 1960, Jean Martinon in 1970, and Howard Hanson. John Adams, composer-in-residence from 1979 to 1985, also frequently conducts his own works with the Orchestra.

The San Francisco Symphony gave its first performance on Friday, December 8, 1911 in the Cort Theater at 64 Ellis Street. The Symphony stayed at the Cort Theater when it was renamed the Curran Theatre in 1918 (not to be confused with the present day Curran Theater at 445 Geary Street, which wasn't built until 1922). [14] The Symphony then moved to the Tivoli Theater at 75 Eddy Street for the 1921–22 season, then moved to the newly constructed Curran Theater in 1922 and stayed until 1931, then back to the Tivoli Theater from 1931 to 1932. On November 11, 1932, the Symphony moved to the new War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue, where most of their concerts were given until June 1980. The pops concerts were usually presented at the Civic Auditorium. The final concert in the opera house, a Beethoven program conducted by Leonard Slatkin, was in June 1980. The Orchestra now plays almost exclusively in Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall at Grove Street and Van Ness Avenue, which opened in September 1980 with a gala concert conducted by Edo de Waart, televised live on PBS and hosted by violinist/conductor Yehudi Menuhin. Davies Symphony Hall underwent extensive remodeling in the 1990s to correct a number of acoustical problems. The hall is also home to the second largest concert hall organ in North America, a Fratelli Ruffatti 5–147.

The orchestra has a long history of recordings, most notably those made with Pierre Monteux for RCA Victor, Herbert Blomstedt for Decca, and Michael Tilson Thomas for RCA Victor and the Orchestra's own label, SFS Media.

The first recording, of Auber's overture to Fra Diavolo, was made on January 19, 1925. The early recordings, for the Victor Talking Machine Company, included music by Auber and Richard Wagner, conducted by Alfred Hertz. Hertz also conducted the orchestra's first electrical recordings for Victor in mid 1925. These recordings were produced by Victor's Oakland plant, which had opened in 1924. The 1927 recordings were made on the stage of San Francisco's Columbia Theater, now known as the American Conservatory Theater. In 1928, the orchestra made a series of recordings at Oakland's Scottish Rite Temple on Madison Avenue near Lake Merritt, now the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California. One early complete set was of the ballet music from Le Cid by Jules Massenet. During the 1925–30 recordings, Hertz conducted music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Léo Delibes, Alexander Glazunov, Charles Gounod, Fritz Kreisler, Franz Liszt, Alexandre Luigini, Felix Mendelssohn, Moritz Moszkowski, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz Schubert and Carl Maria von Weber. All of these recordings were issued only on 78 rpm discs and are prized by collectors, although restored versions are now available from France's Pristine Audio.

Monteux's recordings were made for RCA Victor in the War Memorial Opera House from 1941 to 1952, at first piping the microphone feed from San Francisco to Los Angeles and then in the later 1940s on magnetic tape there was also a stereo session for RCA Victor with Monteux in January 1960. Monteux's first released album with the orchestra was of the Symphony in D Minor by César Franck (the first recorded was Maurice Ravel's La Valse) his last was of Siegfried Idyll by Richard Wagner and Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss. Some of the recordings have been re-released on LPs and compact discs, as well as internationally via the Pierre Monteux Edition from RCA. A substantial selection of Monteux's live broadcasts on The Standard Hour have been released by the Music & Arts label.

Enrique Jordá made several stereo recordings for RCA in 1957 and 1958, and an album for CRI in 1962. Jorda's recording of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto, with pianist Alexander Brailowsky was in the catalogue for many years. The recording of Manuel de Falla's "Nights in the Gardens of Spain" with pianist Arthur Rubinstein has remained available.

Commercial recordings resumed in June 1972 with Seiji Ozawa for Deutsche Grammophon in the Flint Center at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. In May 1975 Ozawa recorded Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat and Dvořák's Carnival Overture and Symphony No. 9 in E Minor for Philips. For Deutsche Grammophon, Ozawa and the orchestra recorded William Russo's "Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra" with the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band, and Bernstein's Orchestral Dances from West Side Story. These recordings featured solo performances from hornist David Krehbiel, concertmaster Stuart Canin, trumpeter Don Reinberg, and violist Detlev Olshausen. Recordings of the SFS under the direction of Edo de Waart, including digital recordings made in Davies Symphony Hall, were released by Philips and Nonesuch. One of de Waart's sets of digital recordings was devoted to the four piano concertos of Sergei Rachmaninoff, featuring pianist Zoltán Kocsis. A number of works by American composer John Adams were premiered and recorded by the SFS under de Waart's leadership, and Harmonium was also released with Adams conducting.

Soon after the arrival of Herbert Blomstedt, the SFS signed contracts with the British label Decca resulting in 29 CDs released in the U.S. under the London label. Several of the recordings won international awards. Among their recording projects were the complete symphonies of Nielsen and Sibelius, choral works of Brahms, and orchestral works of Richard Strauss and Hindemith. The recordings helped to build the orchestra's worldwide reputation as one of the best in the United States.

In 1999, the Symphony hit a new commercial high on the album S&M with heavy metal band Metallica. The album reached number two on the Billboard 200, selling 2.5 million units and earning platinum status five times over. The track "No Leaf Clover" was number one on the Mainstream Rock Charts, 18 on Modern Rock Charts and 74 on the Billboard Hot 100. The version of "The Call of Ktulu" featured on the album won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

The orchestra returned to RCA Victor when Michael Tilson Thomas became music director. Its first recording of the new contract was extended excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. There were special tributes to three American composers, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and George Gershwin, on the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday. With the RCA label decision to cease from producing new classical recordings, the SFS created its own label, SFS Media, and continued producing its Mahler recording cycle, which was completed in the Fall of 2010.

Recorded live in concert and engineered at Davies Symphony Hall, the audio recordings are released on hybrid SACD and in high-quality digital formats. SFS Media has garnered eight Grammy awards, [15] the most current for its recording of John Adams’ Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine and seven for its recordings of MTT and the SFS performing all nine of Gustav Mahler's symphonies, the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony, and his songs for voice, chorus and orchestra. With a slate of new recordings and releases of music by Harrison, Cowell, Varèse, Beethoven, Ives, and Copland, the Orchestra's recordings continue to reflect the artistic identity of the San Francisco Symphony's programming.

In 2014, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony released a live recording on the SFS Media label of the first-ever concert performances of Leonard Bernstein’s complete score for the musical West Side Story featuring a Broadway cast including Cheyenne Jackson (Tony), Alexandra Silber (Maria), and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The two-disc set includes a 100-page booklet featuring a new interview with MTT, notes from Rita Moreno and Jamie Bernstein, as well as a West Side Story historical timeline, archival photographs, complete lyrics, and rehearsal and performance photos from the June 2013 live performances at Davies Symphony Hall. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of Best Musical Theater Album.

In November 2014 on their SFS Media label, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony released Masterpieces in Miniature, a collection of short orchestral works by Mahler, Debussy, Schubert, Dvořák, Sibelius, Ives, and featuring Pianist Yuja Wang in Litolff’s Scherzo from Concerto symphonique No. 4. The recording was released in conjunction with the celebration of MTT's 20th season as music director of the SF Symphony. In May 2015, MTT and the SFS released a live recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, followed by another release in August 2015 – a live audio recording of Absolute Jest and Grand Pianola Music by John Adams. The album contains the first-ever recording of Absolute Jest, originally commissioned by the SF Symphony and premiered in 2012 during the orchestra's American Mavericks festival.

In November 2015, SFS Media released "Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 & Mass in C." In March 2016, it released its album of music by Mason Bates, "Works for Orchestra", which includes the first recordings of the SF Symphony-commissioned The B-Sides and Liquid Interface, plus the first CD release of Alternative Energy. In October of the same year, the label released "Debussy: Images, Jeux & La plus que lente", which was subsequently nominated for a 2018 Grammy award in the category of Best Orchestral Performance. In 2017, SFS Media released two albums: "Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra", the label's first digital-only album, and "Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1–4".

The SFS has won 19 awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for programming of new music and commitment to American music. In 2001, the San Francisco Symphony gave the world premiere of Henry Brant's Ice Field, which later won that year's Pulitzer Prize for Music. [16]

Watch the video: Verdi: Aida - San Francisco Opera starring Luciano Pavarotti (July 2022).


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