Early this afternoon San Francisco Opera (SFO) General Director Matthew Shilvock announced plans for the 2017–18 repertory season. That means that current subscribers should be receiving their respective renewal packets in the mail within the next few days (if they have not already been received at the time this text is being read). This will be a particularly special season, and subscribers have already received another packet that explains why. Instead of the usual summer offering of three operas, each with a different conductor and stage director, the month of June in 2018 will be devoted to three performances of the entirety of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle of four operas. Those performances will take place on three successive weeks, with evening performances of Das Rheingold on Tuesdays, Die Walküre on Wednesdays, and Siegfried on Fridays. The final opera, Götterdämmerung will be given matinee performances on Sundays.
Now I must confess that it does not take much to get me started when it comes to writing about the Ring cycle. For now I suspect I should resist that urge, because the “real news” of the day concerns the five operas that will be produced during the coming Fall season. Nevertheless, I cannot resist reporting that I had an opportunity to put a question of Francesca Zambello, who conceived this staging when the cycle was first performed in its entirety in the summer of 2011; and that production has also been performed by the Washington National Opera. My question was whether or not, in either San Francisco or Washington, she had encountered members of the audience for whom this four-opera marathon was their first opera experience. She replied that, yes, indeed, she had encountered quite a few “Wagner virgins.” Given the appeal of stories told out over several movies (Star Wars probably being the most successful) or narratives that take multiple television seasons (such as The Wire), I should not have been surprised. Everyone likes a good story, even if the telling takes some time.
There will also be plenty of time to write about the five operas that will be performed during the fall season. Therefore, I shall confine myself for now to the basic “nuts and bolts,” raising only a few of the points that will distinguish each of the offerings:
- Turandot by Giacomo Puccini: Opening night will be devoted to the return of Puccini’s last opera with Garnett Bruce directing the production conceived by David Hockney. In all likelihood Hockney knows more about Chinese art than Puccini ever endeavored to know, and there are any number of ways in which his production reveals the extent of his knowledge. This year the opera will be performed at the very beginning and very end of the season. The title role will be shared by Martina Serafin singing in September and Nina Stemme singing in November and December. Similarly, Music Director Nicola Luisotti will conduct the September performances, while those at the end of the season will be led by Christopher Franklin.
- Elektra by Richard Strauss: Second night will present the world premiere performance of a new production of this opera shared with the National Theatre in Prague and the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe. The staging was designed by Keith Warner and will be directed here by Anja Kühnhold, both of whom will be making SFO debuts. In addition Stephanie Blythe will be making her role debut as Klytemnestra. The title role will be sung by Christine Goerke.
- La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi: This will be a revival of the production that John Copley created for SFO. It will also be the final production conducted by Luisotti during his tenure as Music Director. Aurelia Florin will be making her United States debut as Violetta Valéry. The roles of Alfredo Germont and Giorgio Germont will be SFO debuts for Atalia Ayan and Artur Ruciński, respectively.
- Manon by Jules Massenet: This will be the second new production of the season, staged by Vincent Broussard. The leading roles will be taken by two very familiar faces. Nadine Sierra will be singing the title role, while the Chevalier des Grieux, who falls under Manon’s spell, will be sung by Michael Fabiano.
- Girls of the Golden West by John Adams: Finally, November will see the world premiere of the latest partnership between Adams and stage director Peter Sellars. This is the result of a co-commission and a co-production involving the Dallas Opera, the National Opera & Ballet of Amsterdam, and the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. The opera is based on The Shirley Letters, 23 letters written in 1851 and 1852 from gold-mining sites in California by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, known in the mining camps as Dame Shirley. Her role will be sung by Julia Bullock, who will be making her SFO debut.