Looking Through the Lens – a San Francisco Opera retrospective


Ildar Abdrazakov as Mefistofele and Ramon Vargas as Faust in a scene from Boito’s ‘Mefistofele’ (2013) © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In 2022, San Francisco Opera celebrates its Centennial – although, according to the Company’s historical notes, the City’s ‘love affair with opera’ began as early as the days of the Gold Rush!  Nearly 5,000 performances took place in 26 different theaters between 1851 and the 1906 earthquake, but it wasn’t until 1923 that San Francisco’s resident company was established, thanks to the endeavors of a young Neapolitan conductor, Gaetano Merola.

The first event in the public celebration of this historic anniversary is the permanent photographic exhibition which opens next week in the Diane B Wilsey Center for Opera – leaving us in no doubt that the centenary of the oldest surviving opera company on the West Coast will be marked in grand style.

Entitled Looking Through the Lens: The Glory of San Francisco Opera, Past and Present, this fascinating retrospective has on display 135 images selected from the recently formalized Edward Paul Braby San Francisco Opera Archive collections.  Many of these images are unique in that they have never before been published, exhibited or seen by anyone other than Company staff members and volunteers.  The exhibition has been curated and assembled by Jon Finck, San Francisco Opera’s Director of Communications and Public Affairs, assisted by Barbara Rominski – the Company’s Director of Archives – and a group of archival volunteers, members of the Communication Department, and local and national specialists in this field.


The Triumphal Scene from Verdi’s ‘Aida (1935) Photo: Franklin & Rognon. © San Francisco Opera Archives

The exhibition divides naturally into two sections – the black and white photographs, in the David Gockley Gallery, representing the early years of the Company, and the color images, in the Hume Family Gallery, reflecting the past three decades of San Francisco Opera, honoring not only the stars, but the Company’s orchestra, chorus, dancers and others who have contributed to its success. “The images,” says Jon Finck, “are breathtaking and they capture those special moments that communicate why opera is so extraordinary.”  They are indeed breathtaking – and full credit to the photographers, both past and contemporary, whose genius has delivered this remarkable perspective on the operatic history of San Francisco.

The realization of the number of illustrious artists who have graced the Company’s productions is awe-inspiring, as shown in these images – dating back to the inaugural season in 1923.  A particularly fascinating example – the centerpiece of the Gockley Gallery – was taken after a performance of Andrea Chénier at the Civic Auditorium during that first season.  The work of Geo F Courser, it shows Gaetano Merola and his wife Rosa, with soprano Bianca Saroya, tenor Beniamino Gigli and baritone Alfredo Gandolfi (all in costume), the San Francisco Symphony (who performed with the Company at that time) and the entire cast, crew, company staff, and members of the Board of Directors.


Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde in Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’ (2011) © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Others include a photograph of Hungarian soprano Anne Roselle in the title role of the 1927 production of Turandot, of Italian diva Claudia Muzio as Tosca in the 1932 performance – which opened the War Memorial Opera House – and of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in her United States operatic debut in 1955, as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier.  More recent images include those of Placido Domingo in Cyrano de Bergerac, Renée Fleming in Rusalka and Nina Stemme in Siegfried.  There are scenes from US premieres such as Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre and Riemann’s Lear; from world premieres including Adams’s Doctor Atomic and Wallace’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter.  There are those of delicate beauty, as from a 1966 production of Madama Butterfly, others demonstrating incredible feats of design, like the magnificent ‘clockwork’ head of a horse which dominated the stage in the 2015 production of Les Troyens.  There are images of high drama and heartbreak, frivolity and fun – perfectly illustrating the brilliance of opera in its ability to portray the range of emotions of which the human spirit is capable.


Philippe Sly as Ormonte in Handel’s ‘Partenope’ (2014) © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Looking Through the Lens is admission-free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. It’s located in the Diane B Wilsey Center for Opera, in the Veterans Building, adjacent to the War Memorial Opera House, at 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.  For more information, contact the Archives at archive@sfopera.com, and to learn more about San Francisco Opera’s history, visit the online performance archive database at archive.sfopera.com.


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