Arts & Events

Where to Find Great Opera Around the Bay

By Jaime Robles
Tuesday August 21, 2007

The Bay Area seems to be teeming with singers. That may be a reflection of the presence of the San Francisco Opera, one of the largest houses in North America, and its cultivation of both singers and opera lovers, or it may be just a quirky feature of a population that loves stories, accepts artifice and applauds the wildly dramatic. Whatever the reason, in the Bay Area, Opera Rules. 

Given the number of truly wonderful singers at all levels of talent and expertise, it’s no mystery that there are lots of opera companies—small, medium and large—that provide heart-zapping, eardrum-blistering opera experiences.  


Berkeley Opera 

Founded in 1979 by a singing engineering professor, baritone Richard Goodman, the Berkeley Opera strives to present “opera as lively, compelling musical theater … while remaining accessible, affordable and engaging.” The productions are in English or with English supertitles, and include classics of the opera stage often updated for a contemporary audience. Amusing adaptations by David Scott Marley transformed Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers into The Riot Grrrl on Mars and translated Strauss’ Die Fledermaus into Bat Out of Hell. In 2004, Berkeley Opera commissioned an engaging new opera, Chrysalis, from composer Clark Suprynowicz with a libretto by playwright John O’Keefe.  

Artistic/Music Director Jonathan Khuner is a Berkeley boy who graduated from UC and also works on the musical staffs of the San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. A meticulous musician who is willing to take risks in staging and interpretation, he always keeps a firm hand on the musical quality of the company.  

Berkeley Opera performs four operas a year at the Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Avenue. For information and tickets, call (925) 798-1300 or visit Tickets are $40, $16 on the sides, $20/10, seniors, student rush. 


Oakland Opera Theater 

Oakland Opera Theater specializes in 20th- and 21st-century operas performed in its black box space located one block from Jack London Square at 201 Broadway.  

More experimental in outlook and edgier in taste, Director Tom Dean often reconfigures an earlier opera to fit a more contemporary milieu. Frequently he commissions new work. Among the operas produced in the last few years have been Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles; Phillip Glass’ Akhnaten; X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X, music by Anthony Davis, libretto by poet/playwright Thulani Davis; and Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s charmingly incomprehensible Four Saints in Three Acts. 

This October Oakland Opera presents Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, reset on a plantation in the Deep South. The production features aerial performance artists The Starlings Trapeze Duo. 

For information and tickets, go to or call 763-1146. Tickets are $25 in advance, $32 at the door. 


Trinity Lyric Opera 

A two-year-old company founded by Alan Thayer, Trinity Lyric Opera seeks to present works “neglected in our area by other companies.” Their debut performance of Vaughan Williams’ opera The Pilgrim’s Progress was a West Coast premiere. This summer they presented Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land in an exceptional production at the new Center for the Arts, a 516-seat facility with outstanding sightlines and acoustics on Redwood Drive in Castro Valley. Although performing only once a year, the company is one to watch. 


Philharmonia Baroque 

At least once a year San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra puts on a concert version of a baroque opera, and Berkeley’s First Congo (more formally known as the First Congregational Church) is among the venues. You have a chance to hear Handel and Mozart, those most formidable opera composers, played on baroque instruments. That alone would be reason enough to attend, but PBO, under the leadership of Nicholas McGegan, is one of the premier early music ensembles playing anywhere in the world today.  

This fall’s fare is Mozart’s Il re pastore (The Shepherd King) with silver-toned sopranos Heidi Grant Murphy and Lisa Saffer, mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore, and tenors Iain Paton and Michael Slattery. Performances are slated for the weekend of September 22. For information and tickets, call 415-392-4400 or visit Tickets are $32-$70. 


Hey! Seven miles is not that far to go to hear good opera, so check out the following: 


San Francisco Opera 

She’s the Great Mother, but she doesn’t come cheap and, except for a brief (and shocking to some) fling under Pamela Rosenberg, she seems to be married for life to opera’s top twenty. But even if you can’t bear to see Madama Butterfly yet again, stay attentive because startling things do happen.  

This year it’s Appomattox, a new opera by Philip Glass, with libretto by Academy Award winner Christopher Hampton. Commissioned by San Francisco Opera, Appomattox is about the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to his Union counterpart, Ulysses S. Grant, in the Courthouse of Appomattox, Virginia. Dennis Russell Davies conducts. 

Six performances of this new opera begin Friday, Oct. 5. 

Others productions that look tantalizing are The Magic Flute with designs by Maurice Sendak and the adorable and hunky Christopher Maltman as Papapapageno; plus, a new production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.  

For tickets and information, call 415-864-3330 or visit $45-$175. Rush tickets: Full-time students only, $25; Seniors or military, $30. Standing room, $10. 


San Franciscy Lyric Opera 

San Francisco Lyric Opera’s excellent singers performs out of one of the city’s most appealing and eccentric venues: the Florence Gould Theater at the Legion of Honor. Designed in the style of Louis XVI, the 320 red-velvet seat theater boasts a painted ceiling of cavorting cherubs and is perfect for the company’s “tradition of presenting classical opera in an intimate and comfortable setting.” Lyric Opera presents four operas per year, and begins this season with Tales of Hoffman by Jacques Offenbach (sung in French with English supertitles). Four performances are held on two weekends of Sept. 21 and 29. Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus (sung in German with English supertitles) is scheduled for the weekends of Dec. 7 and 15. For tickets and information, call (415) 392-4400 or visit General, $32; students, $18. 


Goat Hall Productions 

Now in its tenth season, this cabaret-theater community of musicians, actors, designers, and technicians is dedicated to the collaborative creative process. They present musical theater and opera in English, and focus on 20th- and 21st-century repertoire. They are always entertaining, lively and provocative. Usually located on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, this fall they are performing at Oakland Metro while their building is being renovated. For tickets and information, call (415) 289-6877 or visit Cabaret table: $25 per seat; single tickets, $20. 


Cal Performances 

Longing for the voice uncluttered by staging and opulent orchestration? Cal Performances presents top-notch recitals that showcase up-and-coming opera stars as well as established greats, especially those whose musical taste matches Berkeley’s lust for the unusual. Among the singers this year are Mariusz Kwiecien, the young Polish baritone who rocked Opera House goers with his unrelentingly dark portrayal of Don Giovanni in SFO’s July production; countertenor David Daniel, whom you must hear if you haven’t; and soprano Dawn Upshaw with eighth blackbird and guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla in Ayre, a song cycle by Osvaldo Golijov. For information and tickets, call 642-9988, or visit Tickets: $38-$68. 


Harvest of Song 

Less expensive and more rad is the Harvest of Song, sponsored by Live Oak Concerts at the Berkeley Art Center. An annual concert of music composed for voice organized by composers Allen Shearer and Peter Josheff, Harvest of Song brings some of the Bay Area’s best chamber instrumentalist in support of new compositions and arrangements written for voice. For information and tickets, call 654-8651.