‘Show Boat’ sails into the repertoire of San Francisco Opera


The ‘Cotton Blossom’ arrives at Natchez, Mississippi © Robert Kusel, Lyric Opera of Chicago

In a delightful departure from conventional programming, San Francisco Opera opens its Summer Season on June 1 with Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical masterpiece, Show Boat.

At its first Broadway performance in December 1927, Show Boat marked an important milestone in the history of American theater – the confluence of European operetta and American opera, resulting in what would later come to be known as ‘musical theater’.

This production, by San Francisco Opera’s General Director, David Gockley, is staged by internationally acclaimed opera and theater director, Francesca Zambello. It’s based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Edna Ferber, and includes substantial sections of the score and dialogue from the original 1927 production.

Following the lives of those who inhabit the Mississippi riverboat, Cotton Blossom, Show Boat spans a period of 40 years – from 1887 to 1927. It’s a passionate story of tragic love and racial prejudice, mirroring the vast social changes of the time. The score includes a host of enduringly popular songs such as Ol’ Man River, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, Make Believe and Why Do I Love You, and the San Francisco Opera production promises wonderfully colorful sets by Peter Davison, gorgeous costumes by Paul Tazewell, and thrilling dance sequences choreographed by Michele Lynch.


‘Show Boat’ features thrilling dance sequences choreographed by Michele Lynch © Robert Kusel, Lyric Opera of Chicago

Although a first for the Company, David Gockley’s production had its world premiere with Houston Grand Opera in 1982. Following an extensive tour across the United States, the show ultimately reached the Uris Theatre on Broadway, and was subsequently recorded as a best-selling album on the EMI label. In 1989, Gockley revived the production for Houston Grand Opera – described in the Houston Chronicle as “a towering work, [with] magnificence in its music, its narrative sweep, its deep awareness of something bigger than ourselves” – and then took it to Cairo as the inaugural performance of the newly-constructed Cairo National Culture Centre.

Although the inclusion of Show Boat in the operatic repertoire might seem unusual, Gockley’s rationale is sound. “In this day and age,” he explains, “only opera companies command the resources necessary to give a grand work like Show Boat its artistic due ….. As a top tier opera company, we are able to present this work the way Kern and Hammerstein intended it, and we are able to cast the type of rich, legitimate voices required to give it its luster”.


© Scott Suchman, Washington National Opera

Francesca Zambello – having directed Show Boat for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Washington National Opera – now brings her consummate skills to the San Francisco Opera production. “Show Boat has it all,” she says. “It gives us a rich musical study in opera, operetta, vaudeville and musical comedy, but – equally important – a compelling American story of social and political importance ……… We could not have had Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or even Sondheim without this work. Nor could we have found a bridge from opera to our own evolving American art form.”

The cast of San Francisco Opera’s production includes performers from the worlds of opera, Broadway, theater, dance, television and film. Soprano Heidi Stober makes her debut as Magnolia Hawks, and Cap’n Andy Hawks is played by actor and vaudeville performer, Bill Irwin. Michael Todd Simpson – in his debut performance for San Francisco Opera – is the handsome gambler, Gaylord Ravenal, a role with which he achieved great success at Washington National Opera. Actress Harriet Harris – well known for her television appearances – is Parthy Ann Hawks, and soprano Patricia Racette appears in her first performances of Julie LaVerne. Joe is played by Morris Robinson, who also appeared in both the Chicago and Washington productions, and was described by The Huffington Post as having “a rich basso that can penetrate the listener’s bones”, and whose Ol’ Man River “brings the house down”. Joe’s wife, Queenie, is played by dramatic soprano, Angela Renée Simpson, who played opposite Morrison in the Chicago and Washington productions as well.


Angela Renée Simpson (Queenie) and Morris Robinson (Joe) © Robert Kusel, Lyric Opera of Chicago

The San Francisco Opera and Chorus are led by Maestro John DeMain – who teamed up with David Gockley for the 1982 production of Show Boat for Houston Grand Opera as well, and was instrumental in recreating much of Jerome Kern’s original score. His most recent collaboration with San Francisco Opera was the Gershwin masterpiece, Porgy and Bess, in 2009 – also directed by Francesca Zambello – which the Company has recently released on DVD and Blu-ray.

The current production of Show Boat will be recorded in high-definition for future release on DVD and Blu-ray as well – once again in partnership with EuroArts Music International and Naxos of America, the organization responsible for the release of the Company’s other two DVD and Blu-ray productions – Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick, and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia.  (San Francisco Opera Shop)


© Robert Kusel, Lyric Opera of Chicago

San Francisco Opera’s production of Show Boat runs in repertory with Verdi’s La Traviata (June 11–July 13) and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (June 15–July 9).  All performances take place at the War Memorial Opera House and feature the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus.



San Francisco Opera

David Gockley

Francesca Zambello

John DeMain



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