Wednesday, August 31, 2016

San Francisco Opera Honors its History with Two Impressive Galleries of Photographs

The latest addition to the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera is a photographic record of the 94-year history of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) distributed across two galleries on the north and south corridors of the fourth floor of the Veterans Building. The title of the exhibit is Looking Through the Lens: The Glory of San Francisco Opera, Past and Present. The south side is the David Gockley Gallery consisting of 58 black-and-white images devoted, for the most part, to SFO’s early history:

The David Gockley Gallery (by Scott Wall, courtesy of SFO)

The north corridor, on the other hand, houses the Hume Family Gallery consisting of 77 color images from recent decades depicting cherished artists in distinctive roles and unforgettable scenes from SFO productions in the War Memorial Opera House:

The Hume Family Gallery (by Scott Wall, courtesy of SFO)

That makes for a total of 135 images taken from the Edward Paul Braby San Francisco Opera Archives, which is now also based in the Wilsey Center.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this exhibition is how close it gets to the very beginning of SFO. It is always hard to write about an exhibit without playing favorites; but the “main attraction” of the Gockley Gallery has to be the panoramic “group portrait” made by Geo F. Courser in 1923. This image takes in the entire cast of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, all in costume (including the members of the chorus), as well as all those members of the San Francisco Symphony who served as the “pit orchestra.” (Andrea Chénier was the second opera to be presented in SFO’s first season, preceded only by Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème.) Company founder Gaetano Merola conducted, and the production was staged by Armando Agnini. They are seated on either side of Bianca Saroya in her costume as Maddalena de Coigny. (Merola is the one with the cigarette in his right hand.)

The most striking of the black-and-white photographs were taken by Lawrence B. Morton, whose unerring eye for light and shadow is perhaps best appreciated in a “portrait” photograph of baritone Lawrence Tibbett capturing all the sinister nuances of Baron Scarpia from Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca in a single image:

Baritone Lawrence Tibbett (by Lawrence B. Morton, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives)

Many of the color images, on the other hand, are distinguished by their ability to recall key moments in the dramatic action of the opera being depicted. My own fondest memories come from the Fall 2013 production of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville staged by Emilio Sagi. Cory Weaver does an excellent job of capturing the many zany qualities of Sagi’s production. Choosing among his photographs for my articles was a great delight. This is one of my choices that bears a close “family resemblance” to the photograph on display in the Hume Gallery:

The Barber of Seville (by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

Looking Through the Lens is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building, located on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. Perhaps the impressive qualities of these photographs will convince at least some that history is a fascinating subject that really does extend back further than the last six months.

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