A Conversation with San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley

The following conversation with San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley took place in the administrative offices of the San Francisco Opera, whose facilitation of this conversation is greatly appreciated. It has updated my previous interviews with him [See An Interview with San Francisco Opera’s David Gockley, Part 1 and  An Interview with San Francisco Opera’s David Gockley, Part 2.]


[Below: General Director David Gockley attending a San Francisco Opera performance being simulcasted to A.T.& T. Park , home of the San Francisco Giants; resized image of a Scott Wall photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: The last time we sat down for a formal interview you were in your fourth season on the job. Now you are in your ninth of what you have determined to be ten years at the helm of the San Francisco Opera. I’d like to revisit some of the subjects we talked about a half-decade ago.

First, you very much identified with the goals of the previous General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, whose tenure was from 1954 through 1981. You spoke about Adler’s success in attracting many of best European opera stars to San Francisco, and the difficulty that American companies face in competing for their talents.

Yet, isn’t one of the phenomena of the past three decades or so that there have emerged so many North American superstars, whose ability to act appeals to American audiences?

DG: Certainly the perception is that Adler got the best people. I give him the benefit of the doubt that he was able to recognize good voices here and in Europe.

Did the public know that these were the best singers? Did everyone know that Leontyne Price was a nice girl with a beautiful lyric soprano voice?

Now, almost by necessity, we have to depend more on North American artists who live in this hemisphere and are happy to work for an American company. The young artists programs here, at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, at the Met, and at the Houston Grand Opera have turned out a stream of engageable people. Some have become prominent artists that are glad to work for us.

I think they have taken the place of the some of the Europeans who have not wanted to make the trek to North America where they earn lower income.

Wm: Then, it’s not enough for the American companies to offer a competitive fee structure.

DG:  For many European artists, no, because, when they are here for the six or seven weeks, all they can do is work through the rehearsal period and the wait for performance fees to kick in. In Europe, they can do guest engagements during the rehearsal periods with higher performance fees and also have lunch with spouses and children.

Wm: When Adler became San Francisco Opera’s General Director in the mid-1950s, no American Young Artists programs existed. You, yourself, were in one of the early classes of the Santa Fe Opera Apprentices, and, one could argue, the Young Artists program graduate whose career has had the greatest impact on opera in America. As the co-creator of Houston Grand Opera’s Young Artists Program with composer Carlisle Floyd, how do you assess the contributions these programs make to opera in North America?

DG: I assess that they have made a major positive impact. I think that being with a company for two or three years under the tutelage of top conductors, directors and coaches has fast-tracked a lot of American artists into careers that would have taken more time if they had had to knock around Europe.

[Below: Several of the 2012 San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows take part in a free community concert at San Francisco’s Sigmund Stern Grove, joined by soprano Leah Crocetto (third from right) tenor Michael Fabiano (second from right) and Maestro Giuseppe Finzi (right); resized image of a Scott Wall photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: Earlier this year you asked me informally if I thought that Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah” would prove too “folksy” for San Francisco. Yet, in my opinion and that of many others, it proved to be one of the great artistic successes of your tenure. Do you think the time has come for this opera to be scheduled more routinely by the world’s opera houses, particularly if they use the Cavanagh production created for San Francisco?

DG: I think that “Susannah” should be done at least once decade in American houses. Its American folksiness is probably less attractive to some countries in Europe and other places, but there is no reason for it to be outside of the central repertory of American companies.

[Below: David Gockley, left, congratulates Patricia Racette, in costume for the lead role in Floyd’s “Susannah” on receiving the San Francisco Opera medal; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]

RACETTE GOCKLEY (400)       ]

I also like the production created for the Lyric Opera of Chicago [Robert Falls’ production from 1993], that we used at the Houston Grand Opera. We might have used it here, but there were technical problems in staging it.

Wm: In our last formal interview, you mentioned that you would be introducing operas to San Francisco Opera audiences by Jake Heggie, Carlisle Floyd, John Adams and Daniel Catan. The first three have taken place and Catan’s “Florencia en Las Amazonas” is scheduled for a future season. You have had a big role in promoting all of these composers and their major operas, as well as promoting George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” as a main-stage opera company production. Are you satisfied that there is now a core of North American operas that will have a place in the world’s standard repertory of opera?

DG: Will these operas be part of the repertory of American companies? Absolutely. Will they become part of world’s repertory? It’s probable that some will have less of a chance of achieving that.

Wm: You spoke of your inability to finance new productions owned by San Francisco Opera with the same ease that Adler did, although you have participated in several fine joint productions with other companies.

Opera productions, even by the most important artists, are expensive to store and suffer “wear and tear”. Yet there were productions from San Francisco Opera’s Adler and McEwen eras that in the aggregate represented millions of dollars in donor contributions and whose destruction is a cultural tragedy. Do you see a remedy for assuring the preservation of the sets and costumes for operatic productions that should be regarded as “world treasures”?

DG: I think that containerization makes it more efficient and less costly to store. I think that if you have a successful, iconic production it should be maintained.

We’ve followed the practice of European companies by charging higher rental fees so as to pay for the storage costs for the company-owned productions. We now have some 300 productions in 40 to 45 feet sea containers that we store in Pier 96 by the San Francisco Bay Wharf. I have maintained all the productions that I inherited.

We have had new productions of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and “Trttico” and Mozart’s “Magic Flute”,  but have kept the old productions that they supplanted. One of the reasons is that they are regular rentals to other companies and help replenish the coffers for the storage costs.

Wm: You took over an opera company that was probably in much worse financial shape than its reputation and steered it through a major world depression. Are you satisfied that San Francisco Opera is on the right track in developing the long-term financial stability that you have sought for it?

DG: The big answer is increased endowment and contributions. Yes, it will have to come from the tech world and the firms that bankroll them.

I think that – while it is hard to digest – that there is the feeling within the opera Board and key supporters that the only real way to insure the success of a company is to raise more contributions and build endowments. The artistic area is not where cuts should be made. We won’t cost-cut our future and survive.

[Below: the audience attending the San Francisco Opera’s annual free concerts in Sigmund Stern Grove; resized image, based on a Scott Wall photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: The opera world was shocked earlier this year when the San Diego Opera without warning announced its closing just before its 50th anniversary season, creating a backlash in San Diego that reversed the decision and has resulted in a degree of community involvement in the fate of the opera company that I have not really seen in San Diego before.

Regardless of your thoughts on the circumstances that led to the original decision, do you find this evidence of community support for opera in another California city encouraging?

DG: Yes, of course. San Diego needs its own opera company, but it has to be one that works on San Diego’s terms. What works now is not necessarily what worked 20 years ago, and what worked then, is not what works now.

I believe that the San Diego Opera leadership had just stopped evolving and became mired in the way that things were always done, and that would be considered the only formula that had value.

It took the threat of total dissolution to get the San Diego Opera and the people of San Diego to be doing what they should have been doing.

Wm: Your legacy in both San Francisco and at your previous home at Houston Grand Opera includes considerable efforts in community outreach. From your experience, what kinds of community outreach activities do find especially effective in introducing people to opera and building audiences for the future?

DG: I have invested in electronic media, such as simulcasting opera house performances in the San Francisco Giant’s ballpark. We’ve televised opera performances on KQED, our local Public Broadcasting Station, and in movie houses, although we still have too few participating cinemas.

As to its effectiveness, do we have hard data that it’s working? In the case of the ballpark simulcasts, yes. Although the simulcasts are free, to get a ticket, you have to sign up by e-mail, so we have hard data on the attendees that allows us to track their later behavior.

We know less about the impact of the television and cinema broadcasts, but we sense that there they are having a positive impact. We are convinced that the most cost-efficient way to reach the people who will be our future audiences is through electronic media.

Wm: As late as the 1960s a center orchestra seat at the San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House was priced at $10. Now the same seat is priced at $248 or $306, depending on whether it is mid-week or weekend, yet you still manage to attract large audiences. This must put enormous pressure on you and the company to assure that every night’s performance is “world-class” and will attract audiences. Would you respond?

[Below: the grand front curtain of the War Memorial Opera House; resized image of a David Wakely photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


DG: Yes, there has been an unbelievable rise in prices, although those 1960s prices were for a company with a volunteer chorus, whose orchestra was comprised of members of the San Francisco Symphony and other musicians.

We don’t like to raise prizes, but the realities of improvements in artistry and increased expectations of audiences, make everything much more expensive. This is a union-friendly community, and the stagehands, the dressers, the makeup artists the painters, the designers all have unions that push for fair wages and benefits. I’m not saying that what they receive is not deserved, it’s just hard to afford. It pushes the need for increased contributions even faster.

Does each production have to be a hit? Yes! Some of that has to do with the decline in full subscriptions. Back when you started attending, 80 percent of the house was filled with subscriptions, now less than 50 percent of each performance is filled with subscribers. That means we have to attract ticket buyers for half the seats in the War Memorial Opera House every performance.

Wm: In the past, the subscribers would get a mix of their favorite operas and those unfamiliar to them or even ones they didn’t like. But your “less than 50 percent” also includes the “design your own series” where the subscribers only pay for operas they want to see.

DG: The “less than 50 percent” includes everything we call a “subscription”. 

Because the prices have to be high, and because there are many other attractive forms of entertainment for the single ticket buyer, you have to have one hit right after another.

What might have been acceptable to a subscriber-dominated audience in the past might not be tolerated at all today. The pressure for everything to be a success is considerable.

Wm: You are the sixth San Francisco Opera general director and a new director or team will be in place for the Fall 2016 season. Several of the transition periods between the terms of your predecessors have been notoriously rocky. What would you regard as an ideal transition from one management to the next?

DG:  We are planning for as clean a “finishing up” and starting as there can be, with as little overlap as possible. I am looking for good will and restraint from both the person who is leaving and the person who is arriving. The new person should not criticize the predecessor, nor should the reverse happen.

For a while there will be two masters. The opera company staff has to show good will and restraint, not to take sides. No one should criticize what has gone before nor what might be changed in the future. One should concentrate on the company’s successes.

It’s a big challenge because of all the advance planning that an opera company must do to assure that quality will continue.

Wm: One of the changes over the past years is the relative decline in the idea of a single powerful critic at a “paper of record”. Now there are more sources of information on performances, both in the traditional press and electronic media. Do you regard this as a positive trend?

DG: When there is only one voice in a community, it is a powerful information source. There have always been community newspapers beyond the main paper. However, we now have the opportunity to quote a much broader group of reviews, and that can be helpful.

I think it is important to have these multiple sources observing us going forward, even when they are critical of what we have done, because they increase interest in what we are doing. The San Francisco Opera and the community need these sources of information.

Wm: Thank you for your time.

DG: You’re welcomeLet’s talk again closer to the end of my tenure here.