Back in business: SF Opera, Symphony return with live and drive-in concerts

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Tuesday May 4, 2021
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San Francisco Opera's innovatively-staged 'The Adlers: Live at the Drive In' concert at the Marin Center.
San Francisco Opera's innovatively-staged 'The Adlers: Live at the Drive In' concert at the Marin Center.

After more than a year of waiting and worry, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) and San Francisco Symphony (SFS) are back to live, in-person performances. It only feels sudden because the pandemic has destroyed our sense of time.

Both organizations have been planning cautiously for the resumption of live concerts for months. SFO predicted live opera for spring back in February and, with customary ingenuity and ambition, is making good on the huge promise with big drive-in performances and outdoor simulcasts.

No carhops or window speakers, an FM signal mix is broadcast to each car, but no one will stop you from bringing your own popcorn. Whether you drive or have friends with a vehicle, a new production in English of Rossini's perennial favorite The Barber of Seville seems a fine choice for a happy return to business.

Social distancing is built-in, and masking remains in common areas, but the Marin Center Drive-In and Fairgrounds create a big open-air venue following safety protocols developed along state, local and industry guidelines.

Daniela Mack as Rosina and Alek Shrader as Count Almaviva in Rossini's 'The Barber of Seville.'  (Source: Stefan Cohen/San Francisco Opera)

A new 90-minute adaptation by Director Matthew Ozawa is romping its way intermission-free. Presented without chorus for health reasons, conductor Roderick Cox makes his Company debut leading an 18-piece SFO ensemble, performing in an 80' by 40' orchestra tent. The pandemic isn't over yet and opera is a respiratory art, but specially designed singers' masks will be removed onstage.

Streamlined to fewer characters, the exciting cast ensures fast-paced action. Baritone Lucas Meachem is Figaro, the titular barber. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack is Rosina, with Laura Krumm singing the final three performances. Alek Shrader, reprises the role of the Count that he last performed at the War Memorial Opera House in 2013. Performances continue May 1, 4, 7, 8, 11, 14, 15.

Adler Fellows
SFO's return to live performances includes a welcome chance to witness eleven Adler Fellows in open-air concerts at the Marin Center. A 70-minute program of operatic favorites, The Adlers: Live At the Drive-In, spotlights the 2021 resident artists, including sopranos Anne-Marie MacIntosh, Elisa Sunshine and Esther Tonea; mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh; tenors Zhengyi Bai, Christopher Colmenero and Christopher Oglesby; baritone Timothy Murray; bass Stefan Egerstrom and pianists Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad and Andrew King. Performances are May 6 and May 13.

Conductor James Gaffigan  (Source: Vera Hartmann/SF Symphony)

Symphony seating
For months, the San Francisco Symphony has been streaming a rich selection of digital performances. Surprisingly satisfying, and a fine and intimate way to keep in touch and be better acquainted, the free content will remain and continue to evolve. Beautifully presented and tech-flawless, watching has brought light to dark times.

I didn't think going back to Davies Symphony Hall was likely for some time yet, so the recent announcement of a return to live performances May 6 to June 25, 2021 came as something of a shock.

The concerts each Thursday and Friday begin with Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, leading live indoor performances for invited medical professionals and community partners. 75-minute sets without intermission follow with seven additional concerts led by Jeremy Denk, James Gaffigan, Ken-David Masur, Joseph Young, Joshua Weilerstein, and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The long freeze of the pandemic is melting a little, but I confess to initially wondering what effect drastically reduced hall occupancy and social distancing would have on the live concert experience. How comfortable should potential attendees feel?

Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" at the Marin Center drive-in.  (Source: Drew Altizer Photography/San Francisco Opera)

With intelligence and common sense, the SFS has put some reassuring (and remarkably strict) rules in place. Proof of vaccination and/or a recent negative test result; mandatory face coverings that completely cover nose and mouth; 6-foot distancing, etc., should help alleviate nervous concerns.

The guidelines will ease with time- especially as San Francisco moves to the more lenient yellow level, but hall capacity will only increase to 50%. Taking baby steps is not too cautious.

Tickets go on sale May 6. Repertoire is on the website. The first three weeks include shorter compositions with a lyrical feel. Future content will be announced.

The SFS box office has a tradition of patient understanding and professionalism. Don't hesitate to ask questions or seek guidance.

San Francisco Symphony Box Office: 415-864-6000.

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