Rossini at drive-in as sci-fi opera returns
After 16 months, the San Francisco Opera returned last week for a concert with “The Barber of Seville”, but not inside the War Memorial, their usual home. Rather, it presents the work until May 15, some 20 miles north, in a Marin County park.
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 the pandemic shutdowns, but San Francisco has been closed much longer than most. 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 around $ 20 million by around $ 70 million. “We felt it was so important to get back to performing arts when we could,” said Matthew Shilvock, CEO of the company.
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 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.
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.
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 millions of dollars in additional costs.