Romance, a ball, intrigue, feuds, and a scheming priest—an insider’s look at San Francisco Opera’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet.
Over centuries, Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet has inspired music, theater, opera, musicals, ballet, and films, including Franco Zeffirelli’s film, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, a tone poem by Tchaikovsky, a ballet by Prokofiev, and countless scores alluding to the tragic duo.
SFOPERA is presenting Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, a standout not only for the story of the ill-fated lovers, but also in the history of opera. Gounod stays close to Shakespeare’s plot, while allowing for a beautiful death-duet, “Console toi, pauvre ame” (Console thyself, sad heart), at the end.
Set in Renaissance Verona, this amorous musical experience is full of romantic duets and soaring melodies. The production is staged by Monte Carlo director Jean-Louis Grinda with French-Canadian Conductor Yves Abel conducting. The cast includes highly in demand tenor Bryan Hymel and soprano Nadine Sierra as Romeo and Juliet, respectively. The Balcony scene in Act II with the interchange of pledges of love features breathtaking music with tender exchanges of promises. Look for the exquisite, heavy, and dramatic aria, “Amour raneme mon courage” (often cut due to the complexity and difficulty), in Act IV, before Juliet takes the make-believe poison. This aria is one of the all-time great dramatic soprano roles in the history of opera.
San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock offers, “We are thrilled to have two spectacular, world-renowned artists taking on these roles for the first time. These are singers who will move and enthrall us with soaring, romantic lyricism..”
He adds, “This is a season that explores so many facets of human relationships. There is plenty of achingly beautiful romantic love—the emotions that opera depicts so perfectly—in Romeo and Juliet and also The Marriage of Figaro. But we also have fraternal love in Billy Budd, a searing opera on the Melville story; sibling love in the heartfelt fairytale Hansel and Gretel; a much more erotic love in Manon Lescaut and Partenope; and then all of these loves colliding in thrilling ways in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs and Ernani. It’s a season in which we’re delving deep into what it means to love, to relate, to connect.”
Since the program’s inception, over 300,000 people of all ages have experienced free simulcast opera.
The Opera Ball, themed this year as the “The Capulets’ Masked Ball,” will again be created and designed by genie Riccardo Benavides of Ideas-Events. A cocktail reception in the Beaux Arts-designed War Memorial Opera House will be followed by a sumptuous dinner in the gala pavilion.
Work on the pavilion begins 10 days before opening night. To produce an atmosphere that will transport guests into the world of the Renaissance, Benavides and his creative team have worked tirelessly for months creating the sensibility and visuals of a setting reminiscent of gardens outside a palazzo in Verona. After dinner, everyone will feel right at home in Romeo and Juliet’s Act I, which opens with a Masked Ball in Verona. But no fighting, please! Following the performance, the party will continue in the pavilion with cocktails, sweet and savory bites, and, of course, dancing.
“Opera Ball has always been the jewel in the city’s crown. Of all the Gala openings in the city, this is an event in the classic old-world European style; this is what makes it so incredibly special.”
Dinner will be catered by McCalls Catering and Events. Executive Chef-President Lucas Schoemaker perfects every detail in person, even the delectable hors d’oeuvres at the cocktail reception. This year, 660 patrons will dine on fresh Main Lobster with heirloom tomatoes and Yosemite Melon, Filetto Mignon ai Funghi with truffle potato puree and porcini juice, and Limoncello meringue tart—what’s a more Italian dessert than that! Delicious bubbly is provided by Roederer Champagne and generous wines are courtesy of J. Lohr.
Opera Ball co-chairs Elizabeth Birka-White and Jane Mudge have been working diligently all year to organize this event. Honorary Chairs for the Ball are John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn and Diane B. Wilsey. Mudge notes, “Elizabeth and I talked at great length about the story; it is the Capulets’ Masked Ball that launches the entire love story. Without the intrigue and mystery of the masks, Romeo and his friends would not have been able to sneak into the Capulets’ home, and it is unlikely that he and Juliet would have met without prejudice. We wanted to make certain to add that masquerade to the Opening.”
As Opera Guild chair Mary Poland reminds us, “In 1939—80 years ago—the San Francisco Opera Guild was formed by 12 women who set into motion an organization committed to bringing the experience of opera to everyone. Our education programs today influence the lives of 50,000 children in Northern California.”
As for the Opera Ball itself, Poland could not be more enthusiastic, noting, “Opera Ball has always been the jewel in the city’s crown. Of all the Gala openings in the city, this is an event in the classic old-world European style; this is what makes it so incredibly special.”
The stunning visuals won’t be limited to the décor and sets; designer Karen Caldwell has been working with several Gala attendees in designing their special gowns for the Opening. She comments, “Oh what fun to not only create something beautiful, but have it reminiscent of the Renaissance, with sumptuous fabrics and details—it’s hard to get more luxurious than that era. And then, we add a few antique golden masks—pure magic.”