Monday, July 10, 2017

Shilvock, Part 2: Leadership, and Creating a New Canon

Simon Pauly, SF Opera

INTERVIEW: San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House

Erica Miner: How does Wagner’s magnum opus remain relevant in our day and age, historically and politically? 

Matthew Shilvock: I’ve been thinking a lot about the “connective tissue” between the Ring and John Adams’s Girls of the Golden West. Both pieces are very much focused on the quest for power, the greed for success and frenzy of people coming together trying to find quick wealth. There’s a huge amount of parallels that become more overt as we spend time with John Adams’s piece. Francesca’s conception of the Ring, the despoiling of nature and that tradeoff between hunger for power and the natural world, those themes are very much present in both of those pieces, but also in modern-day Bay Area. That goes back to this notion of building this bridge between the community and the opera company, finding ways of telling stories or the stories themselves, in the case of John Adams, that help us understand who we are right here in the Bay Area. 

EM: That’s what people respond to in such a big way. 

MS: Hugely so. That was a big part of the success of Dream of the Red Chamber last September. It allowed a new community within the Bay Area, the Asian American community, to understand how one of their great stories could be expressed on stage. 

EM: What are some of the supplementary activities related to the Ring that will take place in connection with Bay Area cultural institutions? 

MS: We know there are some people who just want to delve as deep as possible into the Ring. Other people just want to express it on their own terms, but for people who want to delve deep we’re putting together symposia, lectures, maybe even some concerts through the course of each cycle, utilizing the space next door like the Wilsey Center, so that people can feel they can take that journey on an even deeper level if they want to. We haven’t yet announced the specifics of that, but I think people who are coming to the city, or even in the city, can feel like they can spend a whole week immersed in the Ring. We’re working with various partners, including the Wagner Society, to put together some really interesting speakers. Again the quest for understanding the Ring is so deep with people, we can glimpse it through them. 

EM: Let’s talk about The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

MS: Yes! 

EM: There’s been an incredible amount of media attention surrounding Mason Bates. What led to your company’s co-commissioning the opera? 

MS: Cal Performances had already been involved in terms of the commission process, and they were participants in workshops that happened over the last few years. When Santa Fe took it on they were looking for partner companies. That was about the time of the transition here. When I assumed the role I had the chance to hear it workshopped at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and was blown away by the humanity that Mason was writing, and librettist Mark Campbell as well. I’d known about the development of the piece for a while. I was concerned it was too close to us, too recent for us to take on. The story of Steve Jobs here is very different from anywhere else in the country taking on the story. This is a community that he was a part of; people know him, his family. I was concerned that we be thoughtful about entering a piece like that. Having had the chance to listen to the piece at a workshop I came out of it saying, “How can we not be a part of this?” It not only tells the story of Steve Jobs’ life, it tells of modern day humanity in general - the tensions between work, life, love and relationships, how one prioritizes one’s life, how one looks back at the end and say, “Have I made the right choices? Did I put my priorities in the right place?” It does that in a very sweeping, beautiful way. The relationship between Jobs and both his girlfriend Chrisann and his wife Laurene - Laurene really comes out as the heroine of the piece, the moral compass in many ways. I just found it an achingly beautiful story, not in any way just a biographical piece of opportunistic writing. This was something much, much deeper, finding an emotional core in an iconic figure known for his products and success. 

EM: He’s had a huge impact on everyone. 

MS: Absolutely. Really defining a lot of how you think about technology now. This opera really pushed beyond that. It’s speculative because it’s a piece of art, but also the emotional underpinnings of one of the great icons of the 20th and 21st centuries. I was thrilled that we could join and become a part of that project and really talk to the importance of this community out of which Steve Jobs flourished, a real connection to that operatic story. It will be 3 years before we do it, 2020. Nonetheless I think it was very important we were a part of it from the beginning. 

EM: By the time you do it here, it’s going to become iconic.

Simon Pauly, SF Opera
MS: Right. It’s good that sometimes pieces have a chance to live and breathe before they get to a stage this big. It’s a daunting place to unleash a brand-new work. The most important thing to me is that we get a great work to the stage. It doesn’t have to be the first time it ever appears. EM: Speaking of brand-new work, how would you compare this opera with John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West that will premiere in November? Are the two composers totally different overall? 

MS: I think they have a very different style. But I do think there’s a great self-assuredness about both writers, which I find very appealing. A certain self-understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish in their music, which comes across very powerfully. There’s also an appreciation of the human voice and its storytelling capabilities. The fact that they’re both Bay Area composers is a wonderful testament to the fertile creativity of this community, and of course Jake Heggie as well. We’re doing his It’s a Wonderful Life next year. What a great affirmation of the creative energy of the Bay Area. 

EM: We did Jake’s Great Scott in San Diego and I interviewed him a couple of times. He is such a breath of fresh air, and full of energy. So you have these 3 composers, not to mention Mark Campbell, who is wonderful, all creating in this day and age, 400 hundred years after opera began. 

MS: It’s a great gift. I’m thrilled that we can celebrate John Adams, in his 70th birthday year, in this way that’s so fitting - tying a story of part of the world in which he lives - that we are raising a curtain on that here in the Bay Area. 

EM: The founding of the city and the state. 

MS: Right. You really feel you can reach back and touch that history, that it’s being illuminated in this dramatic way on stage, with costumes and scenic elements. Act 2 is this recreation of a 24-foot-diameter, 1,000-year-old tree stump from Calaveras State Park that was felled in 1850s for fun. The tree itself is still lying there, you can still see it, nothing was done with it, and it became an image of the environmental movement, John Muir. So there’s so many layers of local resonance tied up in that, just as there will be in the Steve Jobs opera. 

EM: Different times, different periods, yet it all comes together as part of this part of the world. 

MS: A depiction of the energy of this part of the world and that quest for the next thing of that frontier spirit, which is still very pervasive. 

EM: Tell us about your “Opera for All Voices: Stories of Our Time” project. 

MS: We have been talking with Santa Fe Opera for a couple of years now about trying to improve the amount of really good quality family operas that can be done by companies large and small. Really focus on the importance of building a canon. Over the years we’ve refined this program - again, Santa Fe has been a tremendous lead and partner - to try and come up with a framework that will allow our company to not only create those new pieces but also help mentor and guide composers in the creation of those pieces. So we’re actually feeding the field as opposed to just creating works. The idea is that there will be a number of pieces commissioned through the process, the first of which we have invited a composer and librettist to undertake that journey. Then they will become mentors as part of a competition that will find some exciting new voices. To create a sustainable platform by producing works of unshakable quality that will stand the test of time, also help encourage new composers to write for the family genre. 

EM: Lay a foundation for the future. 

MS: Exactly. There’s attributes that make for a successful family opera. We collectively, along with a consortium of 5 or 6 other companies, want on a national basis to set the importance of that as a priority for the field. I’m excited to see what comes out of that. 

EM: As am I. It seems entirely different from anything anyone else has done. 

MS: I think we have to start thinking more collectively in many different areas of the arts. There’s such an exciting swirl of commissioning happening, just unbelievable the pace in this country, and that’s tremendous. But I think if we can focus that a little bit around a certain number of companies and say, “Let’s collectively try and put our resources into something that will be of sustainable benefit for the whole field.” Hopefully we’ll come out of it with works that really can speak to different communities. 

EM: I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen. 

MS: [Laughs.] 

EM: I’m excited by what your company is doing, Matthew, and this has been wonderful. Thank you so much. 

MS: Erica, thank you. Such a pleasure to spend time with you.

Simon Pauly, SF Opera


Photo credits: SF Opera
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

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