My last subscription opera was Friday, and since the theater gods had smiled on me and given me a wonderful evening, I decided not to pursue my original plan for marking the end of my sixteen-or-so-year subscription, which was to ascend to the topmost balcony, cry out in electrifying tones, O Gockley – avanti a Dio!, and then hurl myself into the orchestra pit, where with any luck I would land on the cymbals and timpani with a resounding crash. Also, the last thing San Francisco Opera needs is yet another performance of Tosca. Besides, Gockley’s name doesn’t scan right.
So I’ll be slipping unnoticed into the ranks of the single-ticket buyers. From the way I’ve been carrying on, you’d think I was never going to set foot in the place again. But it does feel different, and sad, to me, and I’ve considered just surrendering to habit and resubscribing, even though most of the upcoming season leaves me bored and indifferent. Part of it – and this may just be that relentlessly upbeat, incurably sunny-side-up optimism which has become a byword among all who know me – is that I just cannot figure out Gockley as an artistic administrator, and I don't think that's a bad thing.
I loved Pamela Rosenberg’s programming, but I have no opinion on how she ran the company or worked with people or whatever; I was sorry to see her go, but I had certainly noticed long ago that things have a way of changing even when you don’t want them to, so I was interested to see what Gockley came up with. He is of course best-known for commissioning new works, so that looked promising, and I had a sentimental link to Houston since the first opera I ever saw was their touring production of Porgy and Bess. And on my one trip to Houston, shortly after Gockley had been announced as SFO’s new general director, I had really admired HGO’s production of L’Incoronazione di Poppea.
Since then it’s been a very mixed bag. His first season here had largely been planned by Rosenberg, and though I was not thrilled that his one major change was to add Die Fledermaus to the schedule, I figured that, given all my sneering at opera-goers who refuse to attend anything they haven’t already heard a hundred times, I had better cowboy up and give my first Fledermaus a fair listen. So I did, and the singers were wonderful, the orchestra excellent, and the staging top-notch, and I loathed every minute of it. I’m too lazy to link to my write-up, but I believe I compared it to being clubbed to death with meringues, which makes for a long, sticky, and endless end. But now I know, right? It’s always better to speak from knowledge than prejudice.
Later I read an interview in which he seemed puzzled that anyone responded to that year’s closing production of Iphigenie en Tauride, which to me seemed so clearly one of the most memorable evenings at the opera that season and perhaps for several seasons that I was puzzled that he was puzzled. I had tried to ignore the interviews in which he assured the SF Philistines, like a man trying to soothe a yappy little lapdog, that there would be no “Eurotrash” productions. I hate that meaningless term anyway. I figured that if he needed to assure nervous patrons that they would be fed a safe diet of sloppy seconds from the Met, then that’s just part of running a big opera house.
But it was starting to look as if he just had fairly uninteresting taste. Then came Graham Vick’s Tannhauser, and Gockley made it clear that he felt this was a signature production for him, which floored me, since it out-Rosenberged anything Rosenberg had presented here. I loved it, but many others didn’t, which, let me say, is an understatement. Given the vehemence of the reaction, I wonder if he simply figured San Francisco audiences are even more averse to nontraditional productions than he had thought. But how could someone who spoke longingly of staging Andrea Chenier with big stars from the Met also consider this art-installation Tannhauser a good example of what he was all about?
I felt Gockley did an excellent job this season balancing the new, the familiar, and the less familiar. So I was stunned by the announcement of next year’s plans. The upcoming season is entirely respectable, and if you hear an undertone of dull and safe in that description, then thank you for reading me as I intended you to read me. Rudolf Bing himself might have assembled this season and proudly presented it to his Met patrons; in fact, with the obvious exception of the new works, it may well actually be one of Bing’s seasons, plucked straight from 1954 (oh, the now fashionable mid-century years!) and dropped into the laps of a San Francisco audience that has longed for nothing else, as it wonders vaguely where all the past years went, and why the glitter has left the atmosphere, and maybe Tony Bennett will be singing later in the Carnelian Room. . .
So I can’t just write Gockley off; he seems to have a zig for every zag, and if the cumulative effect is not one I find interesting or appealing, clearly many others feel differently. I was looking at the calendar for next year and realized I could see just about all the operas I was interested in by early October. For all I know by December I’ll be begging for tickets to Boheme, but somehow I suspect that I’ll just check out some of the DVDs that have piled up while I’ve been out: Britten, Janacek, Schoenberg, Berg, Henze, Chin, Dusapin, and Handel, as well as Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. I know it’s ironic that I repeat myself in criticizing the repetitive season, but we all enjoy our habitual pleasures, and hate to have them taken away, and I'll miss having all my tickets lined up. I sometimes wonder if I rely so much on routine because it frightens me deeply to realize how quickly I adapt to anything’s absence.