November 2, 2007


(L) View of the stage from the boxes. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
(R) Light cast against the I-beam structure projects shadows extending to infinity. 

Stark sets and old-school lighting link the past to the present

    Although new chamber pieces and small-scale operas are frequently performed, new large-scale opera premieres are rare. First, there is the expense. In addition to the words and music, grand opera demands enormous resources, both onstage and in the wings. The company needs principal and secondary singers, a chorus, stagehands, dancers, choreographers, an orchestra, conductors, the stage directors, and the technicians and artists responsible for lighting, scenery, props and costumes. Repertory companies also have large administrative staff requirements. For the year 2005–2006, salaries for all San Francisco Opera totaled in excess of $40 million. Picture a big Broadway musical on steroids.
    Therefore, premieres of major new works are scheduled far in advance so that the artistic vision and the financial structure can coalesce at the required moment. For the 2007–2008 season, while other major U.S. opera companies are contenting themselves with new productions of familiar works, San Francisco Opera drew the long straw — a brand new work by one of the 20th century’s top composers.
    Appomattox, the new opera by American composer Philip Glass, had its premiere at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House on Oct. 5. The work is a look back at the end of the Civil War, a key moment in our nation’s history, and the social and political issues at its core and how they reverberate today. After four years of war, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to his Union counterpart Ulysses S. Grant in the town of Appomattox Court House, Va., bringing the Civil War to a close. The opera is a look at the end of the conflict.
    To tackle this enormous subject, director Robert Woodruff went to the Broadway stage for two key members of his creative team. He chose Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind and Set Designer Riccardo Hernandez as collaborators; Appomattox was both their San Francisco Opera debuts, carrying on the tradition of opera companies poaching talent from Broadway and film.