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Rossini at Drive-In, as San Francisco Opera returns


SAN FRANCISCO – It’s almost too good to be true after a Wagnerian-wide pandemic shutdown: Audiences watching a cast of singers enter the War Memorial Opera House here to rehearse and perform Rossini’s classic comedy ‘The Barber of Seville ”.

And, indeed, we are not quite there yet. After 16 months, the San Francisco Opera returned last week for a concert with “The Barber of Seville”, but not inside the War Memorial, its usual home. Instead, he presents the work until May 15, some 20 miles north, in a park in Marin County. The cast of this shortened version is reduced to six main characters, who appear as singers returning to work at the opera to play their Rossini counterparts.

Much of the plot was reconfigured in a day of rehearsals, culminating in a performance of the final scenes “on” the stage of the War Memorial. By then, contemporary street clothes had been replaced by 18th-century-style costumes – the illusion of restored art, at last.

“We wanted to ignite and celebrate the return of this living, breathing art form with a sense of joy, hope and healing,” said Matthew Ozawa, who adapted the opera and directed the production, in an interview. . “The audience really needs a laugh and catharsis.”

The San Francisco Opera House needs it too. As the centennial season approaches, in 2022-2023 the company is attempting to write the most dramatic crisis and comeback chapter in its history at breakneck speed.

The damage was brutal. Arts organizations around the world have been devastated by closures due to a pandemic, but San Francisco has been closed much longer than most. Due to her season’s structure, which divides her calendar into fall and spring-summer segments, her last in-person performance was in December 2019.

This enforced silence came at a cost: eight productions had to be canceled, wiping out some $ 7.5 million in ticket revenue. The company, which was struggling with deficits even before the pandemic, had to cut its budget by about $ 20 million by about $ 70 million. In September, his orchestra accepted a new contract containing what musicians called “devastating” pay cuts.

“We felt it was so important to come back to the show when we could,” said Matthew Shilvock, chief executive of the company. “There has been such a hunger, a need for this in the community.”

Like opera companies in Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, upstate New York and elsewhere, the return of San Francisco has a retro precursor: the drive-in. “The Barber of Seville” is presented on an open-air stage erected at the Marine Center of San Rafael. Spectators, in their cars, can opt for premium ‘seats’ with a frontal view of the stage, or for an adjoining area where the opera is shown simultaneously on a large cinema screen – for a total capacity of around 400. cars.

The logistics to get there have been complex – not only to accommodate an unusual space, but due to Covid protocols, which in the Bay Area have been among the strictest in the country. The company has adhered to a rigorous testing and masking regime; the wind players used specially designed masks, and during rehearsals the singers wore masks developed by Dr Sanziana Roman, an opera singer turned endocrine surgeon. Even during performances, the cast members should stay at least eight and a half feet from each other – 15 feet if they are singing directly to someone else.

Shilvock realized in December that it might be possible to bring the opera live back to the days of the company’s originally planned production of “Barber”, but only if it could “remove so many uncertainties. as possible”. The idea of ​​a drive-through presentation began to take shape. But that meant ditching the company’s in-house production and conceptualizing and designing a whole new staging in just a few months.

A tent village behind the stage houses the infrastructure and staff needed to organize the show. A tent acts as an orchestra pit, where conductor Roderick Cox, who makes his company debut, conducts a small ensemble of 18 musicians. In addition to adapting to using video screens to communicate with singers – while wearing a mask – Cox noted an additional layer of challenge in the absence of audible responses from the audience.

“I had to rethink some of my tempi and how to keep that excitement,” he said. “To know when to step on the accelerator a little harder.”

The sound of the orchestra is mixed with that of the singers and transmitted live as an FM signal to each car radio. “Rather than the sound coming from large groups of loudspeakers, across a huge parking lot,” said Shilvock, “it’s coming straight from the stage and from the orchestra tent in your vehicle.”

A sense of drive-in populism – keeping in mind the comfort and attention span of listeners in the car – resulted in the decision to present a simplified English “Barber”, with no intermission, lasting for three hours. ‘about 100 minutes. All the recitative is cut, as well as the choirs.

The famous War Memorial Opera House is evoked by projections of the theater’s exterior and replicas of its boxes as part of Alexander V. Nichols’ two-level ensemble. Ozawa’s staging takes as a poignant underlying theme the transition to performing arts: the singers, with sometimes spiritual self-awareness, must negotiate a labyrinth of distancing precautions, but with the hope of being able to return soon. in very missed theaters.

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, who plays Rosina, spoke in an interview about the cathartic effect of finally being able to “play for real people, have that connection with an audience”. Tenor Alek Shrader, her lover in opera and her husband in real life, said he felt “a combination of longing and excitement for what was to come”.

Despite all the novelty of the production, there was something reassuring about the family ease with which the actors interacted. Mack and Shrader reprise roles they previously performed here in San Francisco opposite Lucas Meachem’s charismatic Figaro. And Catherine Cook’s friendly housekeeper, Berta, has been part of the company’s Barber since the 1990s. All four, along with Philip Skinner (Dr Bartolo) and Kenneth Kellogg (Don Basilio), are from the San Francisco Adler Fellowship Young Artist Program.

Shilvock said ‘Barber’ production costs were comparable to what the company would have spent for the 2021 summer season it had predicted to be pre-pandemic – but construction of the temporary site and Covid restrictions added between 2 and 3 million dollars in additional costs.

Still, Shilvock said it was worth it – and on opening night on April 23, the curtain calls were greeted by an exuberant chorus of horns. Shilvock said about a third of buyers of “Barber” tickets were new to the business.

“I don’t see it in any way as a band-aid to get us to the point where we’re getting back to normal,” he said. “Rather, I see it as a sign of something new in our future. It’s creating this energy for opera for people who would never have thought of us otherwise.



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