SAN FRANCISCO OPERA Director General dishes out tough love


DAVID GOCKLEY, San Francisco Opera General Director. Photo by Michael Winokur

By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel

San Francisco Opera is now under the aegis of David Gockley. With this production of Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI, General Director Gockley proves himself “The Man”. In the world of Opera, nothing gets bigger than Opening Night. Saturday’s premiere of DON GIOVANNI arrived with the kind of First Night trappings that become the stuff of legend. New Commander (Gockley previously led Houston Grand Opera for 33 years) assumes leadership of a company struggling to reclaim and maintain its key position in the Major Leagues, along with universally acclaimed Music Director (Conductor Donald Runnicles) leading a world class orchestra, while heavily endowed Corporations, Foundations and private Benefactors keep looking and listening to the persuasive and potent Mr. Gockley pitch and produce State-of-the-Art Technology, unparalleled Community Outreach and Participation, and a delectable dose of what corner newsies might have shouted from the yesteryear headlines of VARIETY — “Briggs Bagged! Van Den Heever WONDERBAAR!!!”


Elza van den Heever and Kristinn Sigmundsson

Sunday afternoon, May 27th was a more than chilly for the second annual gathering in Dolores Park for SF Opera’s Summer “Opera In The Park”. Following the Overture, Soprano Hope Briggs (engaged sometime ago by the Company’s previous administration to sing the role of “Donna Anna” in this current production of DON GIOVANNI) was joined by leading man Charles Castronovo (the “Don Ottavio”) for one of the opera’s duets. Uh … no. And some of us start ruminating, “David, David, David.”


However, Mr. Castronovo’s lyrical tenor and exquisite phrasing would later set the crowd on fire with his heart-wrenching rendition of Neapolitan favorite, “Core ‘ngrato” (“Ungrateful Heart”). By contrast, the pedestrian quality of Ms. Briggs’ contribution began hanging heavy in the imagining of a torturous marathon that can be Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI. “And then,” as Salieri observes [see AMADEUS] regarding another of his rival’s works, “a miracle! His Majesty yawned.”

Four days later, an historic Press Release:
“After the final dress rehearsal for DON GIOVANNI San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, in consultation with Music Director Donald Runnicles and members of the artistic staff, made the decision that soprano Hope Briggs was not ultimately suited for the role of “Donna Anna” in this production.”

Pushed through the proscenium arch of the War Memorial Opera House, this Don Giovanni emerges as the Ideal – the truest center ring attraction any veteran or new-comer might ever experience. Given the work’s 3 ½ hour spectacle-length, its 200+ year reputation as the “Greatest Opera On Earth”, and the fact that it ranks among the Top Ten operas in continuous play at any time/somewhere in the world – then every other point of appeal must be directed to the passerby’s bucks, backs and butts. If Grand Opera – perhaps one by Mozart – is a Must-Do on your Summer Budget, then click here to reach the OPERA BOX OFFICE and order those tickets now – this is the DON GIOVANNI of your lifetime. On a tight budget? Get thee to the Balcony! Backed-up by OperaVision – a multi-camera system capturing and projecting a movie-style view of the stage action onto twin 5½’ x 9½’ retractable screens suspended in the back of the house – ticket holders high in “the heavens” get a larger-than-life perspective on DON GIOVANNI than viewers seated in the Orchestra section way-below.

DON GIOVANNI – San Francisco Opera, 2007

Claudia Mahnke (Zerlina) and Luca Pisaroni (Masetto). Production photos by John Lee

The facts are simple. The story of Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI (libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte) makes no sense. None of the characters get a High C. Every major and not so major opera company in the world produces it. Right now it’s on the boards of some non-Equity musical theater, music conservatory, university, junior college, and church basement. “Tradition” allows for all manner of consonant and vowel adjustments, breathing patterns, the occasional key change to accommodate the “Don Ottavio’s” falsetto, “Zerlina” being sung by every variety of lyric mezzo or ambitious coloratura soprano, etc. Every variety of baritone (timbre, shape, age and height) in SF Opera’s 2006 production of CARMEN (another adventure with a last-minute replacement) boasted in his bio the role of “Don Giovanni”. In other words, it’s a cash cow for the publisher.

DON Gs – EZIO PINZA (Bass), Mariusz Kwiecien (Baritone), Cesare Siepi (Bass-Baritone)

What finally matters in the Dramatis Personae is the blending. At the end of Act One the seven major characters must create Glory in “Trema, trema, scellerato!” (“Tremble as your end approaches!”) or we will not be back for the downbeat of Act Two. At the end of Act Two (it’s one-half hour until tomorrow!), six of them are left standing and “Don Giovanni” is burning in hell. “So do all deceivers end!”

DON GIOVANNI – San Francisco Opera, Summer 2007

Where did we all end? In Heaven. A glittering new star was launched. Elza van den Heever is already Immortal. As Mozart’s “Donna Anna” she is regal, sophisticated, and ultimately desirable. The purity and strength of her entire range trumpets easily over the orchestra and the assemblage of cast and chorus. Her voice resonates warmth and love throughout the 3300+ capacity of San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. She is at home with the Masters of Music and in her glory in the midst of Artistic challenge.

In the Ballet world the Choreographer gets their name above the title if they have invented the dance or made a significant contribution to an already-established work. In that spirit, David Gockley’s DON GIOVANNI is a masterful new beginning for San Francisco Opera and a magnificent gift to The City and its People.

To purchase tickets on-line:
Tue. June 5, 8 pm
Sun. June 10, 2 pm
Wed. June 13, 7:30 pm
Sat. June 16, 8 pm
Fri. June 22, 8 pm
Thu. June 28, 7:30 pm

See Seán’s recent articles and interviews:
JOAN of ARC – Dolora Zajick, A Simmering Success!
SAMSON vs DELILAH at AT&T Park – Can Stadium Survive Biblical Shearing?
$55 MILLION – This Pacific Heights Mansion Is YOURS!
LE PETIT TRIANON – San Francisco Artists Exhibit at Her Majesty’s Pleasure
LA VIE EN ROSE (La Môme) – Biography of Edith Piaf – A Sensation at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival
JERSEY BOYS – Earth Angels invade Curran Theatre! Cast #2: Their Eyes Adore You!
TAKE ME OUT – At The New Conservatory Theater

San Francisco Sentinel’s Fine Arts Critic Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Ask him a question on . If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at:

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