Rossini at the Drive-In, as San Francisco Opera Returns
SAN FRANCISCO – It feels almost too good to be true after a pandemic closure of the Wagner scale: an audience watching a cast of singers enter the War Memorial Opera House here to watch Rossini’s classic comedy “The Barber of Seville ”to rehearse and perform.
And in fact we’re not quite there yet. After 16 months, the San Francisco Opera returned last week to perform live with The Barber of Seville, but not inside the War Memorial, his usual home. Rather, it showcases the work about 20 miles north in a Marin County park through May 15. The cast for this abridged version is reduced to six main characters who appear as singers who are back working in the opera house to impersonate their Rossinians.
Much of the plot was redesigned as a rehearsal day, culminating in a performance of the final scenes “on” the War Memorial stage. By then, contemporary street clothing had been replaced by 18th century style costumes – the illusion of art was finally restored.
“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 laughter and catharsis.”
The San Francisco Opera needs it too. With the centenary season rapidly approaching in 2022-2022, the company seeks 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 pandemic shutdowns, but San Francisco has been closed for significantly longer than most. Due to the structure of the season, which divides the calendar into autumn and spring-summer segments, the last personal performance was in December 2019.
This enforced silence resulted in high costs: Eight productions had to be canceled, which wiped out the ticket revenue of around 7.5 million US dollars. The company, which was already struggling with deficits before the pandemic, had to cut its budget of around $ 70 million by around $ 20 million. In September, the orchestra agreed to a new contract that includes the cuts in compensation that the musicians have described as “devastating”.
“We felt it was so important to get back playing live when we can,” said Matthew Shilvock, the company’s general manager. “There was such a hunger, a need for it in the community.”
As with opera houses in Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, New York State and elsewhere, San Francisco’s return has a retro forerunner: the drive-in. “The Barber of Seville” is presented on an open-air stage set up in the Marin Center in San Rafael. In their cars, viewers can opt for premium seats with a direct view of the stage or for an adjacent area in which the opera is broadcast on a large film screen at the same time – with a total capacity of around 400 cars.
The logistics required for this were complex – not only to adapt to an unfamiliar space, but also because of the Covid protocols, which were among the strictest in the country in the Bay Area. The company has adhered to a strict testing and masking regime. Brass players have used specially designed masks, and during rehearsals the singers wore masks designed by Dr. Sanziana Roman, an opera singer who became an endocrine surgeon. Even during performances, performers must be at least 8.5 feet apart – 15 feet if they are singing directly to someone else.
Shilvock realized in December that it might be possible to bring the live opera back to the time of the originally planned April production of “Barber”, but only if he could “remove as much uncertainty as possible.” The idea of a drive-in presentation took shape. However, that meant ditching the company’s in-house production and conceiving and designing a brand new staging in just a few months.
A village with tents backstage houses the infrastructure and staff needed to run the show. A tent acts as an orchestra pit in which the conductor Roderick Cox leads a reduced ensemble of 18 players on his company debut. In addition to adapting to the use of video screens to communicate with the singers – while wearing a mask – Cox found an additional challenge in the absence of audible responses from the audience.
“I had to rethink some of my tempos and how to keep that excitement going,” he said. “To know when to give a little more gas.”
The sound of the orchestra is mixed with that of the singers and broadcast live as an FM signal to the radio of each car. “Instead of sounding through large groups of loudspeakers over a huge parking lot,” said Shilvock, “it comes straight into your vehicle from the stage and from the orchestra tent.”
A sense of drive-in populism – taking into account the comfort and attention span of automotive listeners – led to the decision to feature a streamlined, non-stop, English-speaking “barber” that is around 100 minutes long. The entire recitative is cut along with the refrains.
The famous War Memorial Opera House is evoked by projections of the theater’s exterior and replicas of its dressing rooms as part of Alexander V. Nichols’ two-story set. Ozawa’s staging takes up the transition back to live performance as a poignant theme: the singers have to negotiate a maze of detached precautionary measures with sometimes witty self-confidence, but with the hopeful feeling that they will soon be able to return to much-missed theater.
The mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, who appears as Rosina, spoke in an interview about the cathartic effect of finally being able to “perform for real people in order to have this connection to an audience”. Tenor Alek Shrader, her lover in the opera and her husband in real life, said he felt “a combination of nostalgia and excitement for what is to come”.
For all the novelty of the production, the familiar ease with which the cast interacted was reassuring. Mack and Shrader repeat roles they previously played alongside Lucas Meachem’s charismatic Figaro here in San Francisco. And Catherine Cook’s likable housekeeper Berta has been an integral part of “Barber” in the company since the 1990s. All four as well as Philip Skinner (Dr. Bartolo) and Kenneth Kellogg (Don Basilio) emerged from the Adler Fellowship program for young artists in San Francisco.
Shilvock said the cost of producing “Barber” was comparable to what the company would have spent for the planned 2021 summer season. However, the construction of the temporary venue and the Covid restrictions resulted in additional costs of between $ 2 million and $ 3 million.
Still, Shilvock said it was worth it – and on the opening night on April 23, the curtain calls were greeted with a lush horn choir. Shilvock said around a third of “barber” ticket buyers were new to the company.
“I don’t see this in any way just as a band-aid to get us to the point where we can get back to normal,” he said. “I see this more as a signpost for something new in our future. It creates this energy for opera for people who otherwise would never have given us a thought. “