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The New Jewel

War Memorial Opera House
Terence McCarthy

Retrofit Charm: The new, quake-proofed Opera House reopens this season.

After years of renovation, the refurbished War Memorial Opera House sparkles with pride

By Kathryn Roszak

On October 17, 1989, at 5:04pm, Loma Prieta, one of the century's strongest Bay Area earthquakes, jolted San Francisco. As flames shot up into the sky over the Marina District, many San Franciscans thought that most of the destruction occurred there. But later it was discovered that many of the city's cultural treasures, including the Geary Theatre, the Main Library and the War Memorial Opera House, received serious blows as well.

For a year and a half following the quake, the Opera and Ballet were left homeless. The city and its art patrons rallied to the cause while the Opera House underwent a seismic retrofit. The city supplied $56.5 million, and the specially organized Committee to Restore the Opera House raised more than $30 million in private funds. After hard work, some patience and of course lots 'o money, the Opera House eventually recovered from the quake's destruction and today stands exquisitely and stunningly refurbished like a polished, shiny stone.

On a recent tour with Jim Killoran, a retired Pacific Telesis real estate consultant who led the Committee to Restore the Opera House campaign, we pass by several workers who are busy fauxing the stone walls, in which the quake left serious cracks and chips. "Some cracks will remain because they are historic," explains Killoran, who's been on the job for three years now and greets all the workers by name.

He says that after theater research and consultation with patrons, the plaster with marble dust was replaced by stone and made to look old, recovering its 1932 sheen. The auditorium today is in mint condition, plush, opulent and gilded. The netting around the chandelier is finally gone, and the ceiling has been painted its original azure blue.

On the tour, it's apparent that the refurbishment of the Opera House is an international affair as well: The carpeting is from England, the marble comes from Belgium and Italy, the glorious new silk organza house drapery is from the East Coast and the refurbished seats in the orchestra are from Canada. The lighting has improved in the house, too. Killoran said, "It's believed that possibly Adler [an earlier Opera director] removed the uplighting of the chandelier because of the snap-crackle-pop it caused during the overture." But with improvements in ventilation, audiences are assured of no pops.

Theatrical lights in the auditorium are now neatly positioned behind the organ bays, and lights that were dangerously jury-rigged in front of the dress circle have been repositioned so that "crews can step out onto the light-rail instead of some guy holding another guy's legs!" Killoran says, laughing.

Other renovation highlights include additional restroom facilities and a basement expansion with a new music library and physical therapy rooms for dancers. There are state-of-the-art musician warm-up rooms where the acoustics of a cathedral or an opera house can be simulated in a small room. General Director Lotfi Mansouri is especially pleased about the new ability to raise and lower the orchestra pit on a new system of Slinky-like springs.

But much to the dismay of some patrons, the 100 standing-room positions in the dress circle no longer exist, owing to a seismic retrofit alteration. But there will be additional seating for the physically challenged. This year's lowest ticket price is $20 for balcony sides, and the best sound is apparently at the top of the house.

After all the renovations, the San Francisco Opera is expecting new and diversified audiences, partly because of the Opera's foray into different venues over the past year. "We had new audiences at the Civic Auditorium and at the Orpheum," Mansouri explains; "45,000 people went to see La Bohème at the Orpheum and 62 percent were new opera-goers."

Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet's artistic director, also expresses his enthusiasm about the new audiences garnered while out of the house, particularly in Berkeley. "But it was very difficult being out for two seasons," he admits. "We had to tailor our repertoire to the various venues. The Opera House is one of the most beautiful houses in the country, so well suited for the audience to view dance." After the new production of Lar Lubovitch's Othello, co-commissioned with the American Ballet Theatre, the Ballet returns to the Opera House with the perennial favorite The Nutcracker in December; a mere $7 is the bottom ticket price for both.

Like Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet ballerina Evelyn Cisneros also hopes that the Berkeley audience will follow them home to the new Opera House. Cisneros hauled a variety of pointe shoes, makeup and warm-up suits to all the venues the Ballet performed in over the past year and witnessed the different audiences who attended. Mostly, though, she missed the Opera House. "It was like being out of your home and going back to it," Cisneros explains. "But now the Opera House is sparkling like a precious stone that's been cleaned, and we can now enjoy every corner and aspect of it."


The San Francisco Opera '97-'98 season, from Sep. 6 to Jan. 18, includes Death in Venice, Rigoletto, Pelleas and Melisande and a re-creation of the company's 1932 production of Tosca. Single tickets range from $20 to $145; call the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 199 Grove St. (at Van Ness), Mon.-Fri. 10am-6pm; 415/864-3330.

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From the September 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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