Digital Transformation at the San Francisco Opera

The San Francisco Opera is one of world’s leading performing arts organizations. How did this renowned company use digital technology to adapt its business models and performances during the last year? Matthew Shilvock, General Director of the SF Opera, explains.


Jun 25, 2021

The San Francisco Opera is one of the world’s leading performing arts organizations, with an annual operating budget of $30 million. How did this renowned company use digital technology to adapt its business models and performances during the last year? Matthew Shilvock, General Director of the San Francisco Opera, describes the digital transformation strategy and technologies the company has used during this last year of rapid change.

We discussed these topics during the conversation:

Matthew Shilvock is the Tad and Dianne Taube General Director of San Francisco Opera. Now in his fifth season as general director, Shilvock is responsible for all artistic and business aspects of the organization, overseeing a repertory season of mainstage opera productions and concerts, education and community programming, new digital initiatives, and young artist training programs.


Matthew Shilvock: I think authenticity, to me, is the key. That's the element on stage that takes you from a good performance to a great performance. You're seeing that artist taking their own talents, their own expertise to the edge.

About the San Francisco Opera

Michael Krigsman: That's Matthew Shilvock, General Director of the San Francisco Opera, discussing digital transformation during this period of very rapid change. Matthew, tell us about the San Francisco Opera.

Matthew Shilvock: Well, we are one of the great and historic opera companies of the world. We're about to turn 100 in about a year's time.

We're a company that brings together all of the art forms: music, poetry, visual arts, symphony. Everything comes together in these one singular moments of emotional expression on the stage, these life-affirming experiences.

People remember their opera-going from 60 years ago as though it were yesterday. That kind of emotional intensity is what we deliver on the stage.

We're a company that employs around 1,000 people a year in various capacities. We have relationships with eight different unions. We do around eight productions of different operas a year, as well as media work, education work, diversity work. It's a lot of different elements coming together.

Particularly exciting at the moment – and maybe we can talk about this later – we're about to bring on our new music director, Eun-sun Kim. She is the first female music director of a major opera company, and she'll be joining us as a fourth-only ever music director coming on in just a few weeks.

Digital transformation and the SF Opera

Michael Krigsman: Matthew, during this past year, you have an opera company and you have a performance space, an auditorium. How did you manage when we couldn't go out?

Matthew Shilvock: It was as though a switch had flipped for the arts. It was March 16th of last year when San Francisco went into shutdown. Admittedly, we were not in performance at the time. We were about to begin chorus rehearsals. Our colleague company the ballet was, however, and it was just as though someone flipped the switch and immediately these venues shut down.

We were some of the first venues to shut down. We are high aerosol-generating venues and large gathering places, and so we were the first to shut down. And we'll be some of the last to come back.

It really was this kind of punch to the gut, I think, in terms of how we continue as organizations to do what we do, which is to connect to people. We're a very collective enterprise, whether that collectivity is on stage in terms of the hundreds of people who do what we do or the thousands of people who are watching what we do. It's really been quite an experience to try and figure out how we move that forward and not just stay dark for this whole time.

But it's amazing. San Francisco, in particular, has been very, very conservative, very, very health-conscious during this time period. It's only literally in the last few weeks where we could even have a singer and pianist in the same room together, so the threshold for trying to figure out how to move through this (in San Francisco) I think has been particularly acute.

Michael Krigsman: I have to assume that this dramatically changed the way you think about performance, the way you think about relating to the audience, the way you think about managing the organization.

Matthew Shilvock: Absolutely, I think, both on the internal and the external basis. I think in terms of the audience relationship, we had to think about how you sustain the passion. Our audience is driven by so much passion for what we put on stage, and they come back decade after decade with these amazing relationships.

We define the cultural landscape so much for our core audience and we want to bring in new audiences, too. How do you do that when you cannot gather anymore?

As we went through the year, it was really a learning process beginning with delivering archival content – and we have a lot of good archival content we can deliver – and then moving into, how do you create content? It's amazing how quickly that journey happened from the layering of content with people doing things on Zoom to some of the more innovative work we've done with a company like Elk, which has allowed us to be much more symbiotic (and we can maybe dig into that a little bit), and then moving back into the live and getting to a place where we can actually deliver a live experience to people.

We had to bring in all of the creativity, all of the ingenuity of the company and find a new way to tell the stories that we want to tell.

Michael Krigsman: That's very interesting. How did you find new ways? Let me ask it this way. What kinds of new ways to tell the story did you uncover and develop?

Matthew Shilvock: There was a very interesting chapter that we began of innovation for the company I'd say around the summer of last year. We were struggling with the traditional video-sharing platforms because the usual video-sharing platforms have two challenges for what we do:

●First of all, there's a latency involved. It's imperceptible if we're just having a conversation, but it's very perceptible if you're trying to make music together.

●Then the second thing is that a lot of video platforms only allow one person to be speaking at a time, so it kind of trades off between the people engaged.

And so, we had tried working with Zoom and other platforms for things like chorus rehearsals. In the moment, that was very valuable because our chorus director could keep teaching the choristers, but it was very much a one-way situation.

We were trying to figure out, how do we get to be symbiotic? How do we get to have an engagement of real music-making where two people or more are riffing off each other?

It's amazing, actually. This has happened so much through history where opera has been one of the great testing grounds for technology. I think it's true of radio. It's true of television (going back into the early part of the 20th Century).

I think opera pushes everything to the extremes. You think about the power at which an opera singer in singing. We've all heard singing crackle on radios where an opera singer gets distorted because the speaker can't handle the extremes of range of a certain opera singer.

Opera has often been used as this way of testing new technologies, and that's what we were doing here with Elk. We were really putting this through the paces to say, "How does it work when you get incredibly trained musicians and singers trying to make music together?"

Michael Krigsman: When you talk about the symbiotic nature of music-making, can you elaborate on that?

Matthew Shilvock: This is one of the real things that the pandemic highlighted (in a way), which is just how important the collective aspect of what we do is.

In those early days of the pandemic, we and other companies were layering things down, so the pianists would record a track first. They'd send it off to the singer in their home. They would play it through earphones and then sing to that. You can do that and it's a version of karaoke, essentially, but there is no responsiveness in it.

Music-making is inherently responsive and it's inherently unpredictable in that way, and that's the beauty of it. That's the magic of it where you have a person who is playing the piano. They're hearing a singer do something, and they do it slightly differently every time. The pianist reacts, and they do something differently.

Then, of course, you bring the audience into that equation and the whole thing becomes even more symbiotic because there's actually this real energy transfer that happens between musicians and audience members. You feel it in the opera house. You feel it in the symphony hall.

If you have a great performance, the audience is reacting and that reaction gives energy back to the performers. They up their game and the audience ups their game. It kind of goes like this. That's where you have these life-changing moments in the theater.

That's been one of the real challenges of this whole period (until we can get back to the live) is that you miss out on all of that energy transfer happening. It sounds a little fuzzy, but it really is true. That's what creates these moments of great memory in the theater.

Impact of the pandemic on performing artists

Michael Krigsman: What was the impact on performers during this period of time of great upheaval where they're in separate locations, where you're not being able to give live performances, where it's all over video? What was the impact on the singers and the musicians?

Matthew Shilvock: It was huge, Michael. I mean it's financial. Many singers lost their entire year worth of income in a matter of days if not weeks, as companies just canceled.

Then, of course, you try and cling onto the possibility that you can do something, but then you have to accept that, no, you have to cancel this part of the season, you have to cancel that part of the season. There were just waves of cancellation because so many of the opera singers themselves are independent people. They go from company to company across the world, and so they're not tied to a particular company.

I'm very proud. In San Francisco, we were one of the very few companies to actually keep payments going not only to our own company members but to principal artists as well because they are part of the family of our companies. They are the people who are singing the incredible arias that pull us into the opera house, and so we wanted to make sure we kept them connected.

That was quite a unique thing over the course of the last year. Financially, the bottom just fell out of people's lives.

Artistically, this is how people express themselves. This is how people share themselves with the world, and it's a very public sharing. They're putting their own body, their own vocal cords out there in front of the public every night. It's a very raw and vulnerable thing. To lose that, to lose that connection, and to be able to share with audiences was really tough.

Now, many artists became incredible media producers over the course of this time period, and there were some amazing outcomes from that in terms of singers who have developed their own production capabilities, singers who have developed their own shows and chat shows. Hopefully, a lot of that will continue because I think it's allowed the singers to find new ways to engage with the public.

Just to give you an example of how impactful this was (in April and May just gone) we came back with an amazing outdoor experience. We did the live drive-in opera up in Marin County. We converted a parking lot into this amazing outdoor multimedia stage.

It was the stage from the Coachella Music Festival. We had 26-foot high video walls and an orchestra. We were able to do that 20 minutes north of the city, even if we couldn't do it in the city.

One of our lead singers that told me on the last night. We did 11 performances. He said, "I was never able to fully relax into the experience because I always thought that tonight was going to get canceled. I could not believe that every show was actually happening because I'm now so conditioned that everything is going to get canceled."

It was joyful to see, first of all, that wasn't the case. But then also to just see all of that energy coming back and surging into these performances.

I think it really hit performers very hard because, again, that's their lifeforce. That's how they make their way through the world.

Michael Krigsman: What were you able to do or what did you try to do in order to make it easier for those performers during that difficult time for them?

Matthew Shilvock: We wanted to, as I say, keep payments being made, compensation benefits. That was very important to us philosophically as a company, and we spent a lot of time last year renegotiating union contracts and so forth to make that possible, as hard as it still was. I don't want to belittle the sacrifices that people still made through that but making sure there was some compensation going.

Bringing people in and making music wherever we could, including digitally. We had a couple of concerts last year where we brought in artists, who would have been with us on the stage, and celebrated them.

Also, through sharing our archive, that was very impactful for people just to see their own work, even if it was in prior seasons going out. Then just some of the digital pieces we have been doing in the last six months or so, which have really got to a deeper level of storytelling and engagement with singers as well. It's been trying to keep the creative energy of the company alive.

I will say, that's happened on a technical level as well because we have this amazing group of technicians and craftspeople, too. One of the things we were able to do through pretty much the whole pandemic (with exception of those first few months) was to keep our scene shop open. We kept our costume shop open. We built an entire new set over the course of last fall, which we'll use now (in a few months).

Our costume shop stayed open. We were building costumes. We had a great costume sale for the public, so they could come and buy costumes.

Again, just keeping the creative elements of the opera moving forward at all times and just saying, "We are still here. We're still being creative wherever we can be," trying to give that hope to both the company and the community that we're not losing that connection to creativity.

Customer experience and audience expectations at the San Francisco Opera

Michael Krigsman: Obviously, the audience, as you described earlier, is a very big part of this. What does the audience expect from you, how did those expectations evolve over the last year, and what did you do in response to meet those expectations in what was essentially an impossible situation?

Matthew Shilvock: I think, in some ways, there's a certain level of perfection that audiences expect from us. They expect that when that curtain goes up – all of the elements. I don't think it's a conscious expectation but as a world-class arts company, you are delivering these experiences that need to be absolutely on point from every single element: the artistry, the music, the technical elements.

Then all of that becomes then manifest into these life-changing experiences. So, audiences come into our space and they want to be swept away into these magical times and places. They want to be taken away from themselves or, conversely, find themselves in these stories that we're telling on stage.

There's a huge amount of kind of reflection of yourself that I think we find in the opera house. We tell these stories on stage like "La Traviata," which is all about, ultimately, a woman dying from consumption. But we find resonance in it not because she's dying from consumption but because we understand our own lost loves, things that never came to be that could have been. We find ourselves in these stories, and so I think that's what audiences expect from us is that at an incredibly high level.

As we worked through the last year in trying to find that, there was a certain amount of growth for us (and other arts companies) because now you're suddenly having to try and recreate that in a digital sense. Then when we get into our drive-in – "The Barber of Seville" – that I mentioned in Marin, trying to create that now in a live sense. But all of it is very new and you're doing it on the fly.

I think the lessons around how we innovate as companies, how we try new products, being a little more willing to take risks because I think that can be one of the barriers in large arts companies trying to innovate is because we have this perfectionist mindset. When that curtain goes up, it's not a place to be innovating because everything has to happen to the split second with everything else.

That's actually been some of the liberating elements of the last year is that we've never done a drive-in opera before, so there's no expectation of how to do it. We bring all of the skills and the creativity to bear and it was phenomenal, but we had license to try it differently and to experiment. The same with the digital as well.

I think audiences were excited to go with us on that journey. Some just craved the live experience and they want to get back to that. But I think others have been very curious about how we can find those new modes of expression.

What does innovation mean to the SF Opera?

Michael Krigsman: It's interesting to hear you talk about innovation because, when one thinks of an arts organization, it's all about the creativity. Obviously, there's such a tight link between creativity and innovation.

Matthew Shilvock: There really is. As a company (as I say) that has up to 1,000 people coming through the doors each year, there's a huge amount of complexity involved. But at the core of it, it is a creative enterprise. It is a creative endeavor.

We're telling these stories (that can be hundreds of years old in their origin) in new and fresh ways. Every night is different and has a different energy to it.

The entirety of what we do is that creativity but it's in a big box. We have 3,000 seats in the house in San Francisco Opera. There's not a lot of room for margin for error.

But even within that, a singer is doing something completely different every night. They're expressing something in a live way and live is never the same from one moment to the next.

I think what we've learned is that those skills for innovation are very much present within us as a company. It's just coming up with the structures that allow us to unlock those in new ways and to be willing to fail sometimes. Again, that word is not in our lexicon, usually, because that can be a disaster, but if we give ourselves license to try new things in a smaller context, in a different context.

We've done some great work with the Stanford D School, Stanford Design School, over the last few years. That's been liberating because it just allowed us to remember that there can be a process of creation and discovery – some things work, some things don't.

By the time they get to the main stage, they have to work. But we can develop different channels that give us the license to be more playful in how we think about our own creativity.

Michael Krigsman: Does the audience give you that license to experiment and take those risks?

Matthew Shilvock: There's a variety, and I think it comes back to where we experiment. I think we saw that in Marin with the drive-in. We could be very playful with that production.

We took apart "Barber of Seville," this great, classic opera by Rossini, and we reordered it. We kind of got rid of a lot of the dramatic narrative in it and replaced it with a different kind of narrative. It was all about coming back to life in rehearsal rooms and things.

We used much more street clothes than we would typically use (as part of the storytelling). We used a lot more video than we would typically use.

Audiences loved it. It was incredible just the energy and the vitality of it.

Would that have worked in the same way in the opera house? I'm not sure. It may have done. Again, I think these things may give us license to try things in different ways.

There's also something interesting about the opera house, which I have come to feel. I've been in this company now for 15, 16 years. We have one of the most beautiful Beaux-Arts theaters in America. It's a 1932 building, and it has this glorious gold proscenium (so the frame around the stage). It's beautiful. It's sumptuous.

I've just come to think a lot about the role that that frame plays in our storytelling because you can't divorce yourself from a big gold proscenium. That is there whether you like it or not. You can't hide it, and so it's always there around the stage picture.

Some theaters have a completely black surround and it's like the opera house disappears into it. For us, the opera house is always very present in it, so I think we have to be careful about exactly what we tell on stage because it's like putting a Jackson Pollock painting in a gilded rococo frame or something. It doesn't quite work.

That's why we're thinking a lot about the venues we use. Can we go to new venues? Can we try things in different, smaller venues? There's a different expectation of experience if you come to the opera house.

If your viewers remember that scene in Pretty Woman where she goes to the opera, she's actually going to the San Francisco Opera. They filmed it in a sound stage because it was just after the '89 earthquake, so they couldn't do it in the opera house. But it's supposed to be San Francisco Opera, and we know the specific box that she's sitting in.

She's having this glamorous, fairytale experience in that opera house. I think, for many people, that's a big part of when they come to the opera. They're being swept away into this magical moment of just beauty and sensuality. That's so important as well for us to acknowledge and hold space for that, too.

How do you find the way to tell different kinds of stories in that same environment? That's one of the things that we increasingly need to look at as a company is understanding how we use that frame and acknowledging that people want different kinds of experiences as they come into the theater.

Michael Krigsman: We have a very interesting question from Arsalan Khan on Twitter. Arsalan asks, "Going forward, are digital tools," and I'm going to broaden this to be a digital presentation, "going to be a permanent part of your work, or is this just temporary until things open up?

Matthew Shilvock: It's becoming an existential question now for arts companies who did a lot of digital work last year and now are moving back into the live. What kind of space do they make for both and what's the balance between both?

I will say that's true from both an artistic perspective, also a financial perspective. We were not producing last year, and we were not spending the kind of money that we would typically on performances. And so, we and other companies had more resources available for that kind of digital work.

Now it comes back. Do you keep space for both to happen at the same time?

I think the big question for so many of us now is what will audience behavior look like and how quickly will audiences want to come back into the live, collective experience? How many will have health concerns that keep them from doing that straightaway but eventually will get there? For how many will the traditional bonds of going into the city and seeing a live performance now been kind of irreparably broken and they want a different kind of engagement?

We'll have to see how that goes. We just went on sale, actually, for our season coming up this week. I'm pleased to say – knock on wood – the sales are going very well, so there seems to be an energy to get back into the live.

I think, to the artistic part of that question, the key is going to be, how can we deliver ongoing digital projects that actually convey the same kind of a mode of energy that the opera house conveys? Certainly, we can share streams from the stage. We're going to be doing that this fall. We'll have live streams from some of our performances so if people can't get to the opera house for whatever reason, they can watch that on their screen and have a connection.

I think what we're finding is that there is a huge emotional depth if you can unlock storytelling in a different way. The way that people engage with digital – whether it be through social, whether it be through Web – is just inherently different.

All of that electricity (that I mentioned before) that symbiosis between artists and audiences is so hard to find on digital because you're not in the moment with that person. Even if you're live, you're not breathing in the same air that they're breathing in. You're not watching every minute move they're making.

There's something about time shift as well. If you're in a dark theater, you could be watching a huge, long Wagnerian opera for five hours, and literally, the day has gone into night by the time you come out. You have no conception of time. You've kind of just been taken on this journey where time stands still.

That's much harder if you're watching that on your computer screen. The world is going on around you and you can see out the window and so forth.

What we have tried to do – and, I think, to try and find a sustainable way forward – is to try and find that more authentic core of storytelling and sharing that you couldn't do in the opera house. We have a series out called "In Song." We have a couple of episodes and it tries to get into the emotional connection between a singer and what they do – their artform.

They're short things. They're about 12 minutes long. They try and bring you, the audience, into their world in a way they couldn't do live on the stage because there's narrative in it. There's family connections, cultural connection.

I think there are ways to do it, but I think the key is to get to that emotional energy because that vibrational connection is ultimately what drives people insane and makes them these passionate opera fans for life. I think it can't just be a copy and paste. It's got to be something where we're very intentional about the kind of activity that we put out on digital and really understand the relationship we want the audience to have with it.

I think, if we can do that, there can be (and I think there needs to be) an ongoing relationship with digital because we can just have such a bigger connection than we could ever within the four walls of the opera house. I'd say absolutely it needs to continue, but it needs to continue in a very intentional and thoughtful way.

Michael Krigsman: Have you figured out how to create that emotional electricity over digital? I think lots of people want to know that, whether they're in opera or in the corporate world making presentations. Everybody wants to tell that story and establish that emotional connection.

Matthew Shilvock: Yeah.

Michael Krigsman: Let's face it. Most people do it really poorly.

Matthew Shilvock: It's so hard. Again, you're taking not even a 3D experience, but a multidimensional experience, which is involving elements of emotion, and you're replicating it on a small screen.

I think authenticity, to me, is the key. That's the element on stage that takes you from a good performance to a great performance. You're seeing that artist taking their own talents, their own expertise to the edge.

They are giving you 100% of what they have to give you. If they gave you a percentage more, then the whole thing might not work. It's like a great sports analogy in the sense of an athlete taking you to the very edge of what they're capable of doing when they're performing at their peak.

I think it's getting to that same level of rawness, that same level of vulnerability, that same level of, again, authenticity about what an artist is doing, what it means to them, and if it's manufactured in some way that would just show 100%. I think about that with – again, this is not unique to the opera world, certainly – how artists use social media, for example. The artists, the opera singers who have been really successful in social media are the ones who are being very vulnerable with the world.

I was just interviewing a great Finnish soprano, Karita Mattila the other day. She has developed a great following on Twitter, but she's doing it herself. It's not a PR person who is doing it for her who is just describing what she's doing.

She's talking about her life, and she's letting people into her life. That's what an artist does on stage. I think that's what we're trying to capture in the digital world is there has to be that element of vulnerability, unexpectedness, sort of surprise, like, "Wow! I can't believe they actually went there," or "I could never have imagined that person would have done that."

We're doing our next "In Song" video, which I think will be great. It's coming out in July. It's with a fabulous mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and the banjo player extraordinaire Bela Fleck. We paired them together.

Jamie grew up in deep, rural Georgia. We had a film crew go out and interview her with her father talking about how she learned to sing in harmony at the back of the church. We see her in the church there.

We see her kind of engaging with one of her idols, Bela Fleck, and then making music together. Again, there's spontaneity about it. It's real.

She's just consumed with an amazing sense of energy for what's happening. He is too. They're opening new, artistic doors together, and you feel that coming through the screen. Again, that sort of authenticity, finding something in the moment, it can't feel manufactured in any way.

Creating authenticity and spontaneity at the SF Opera

Michael Krigsman: I find very interesting that this idea of authenticity and spontaneity. Yet, when you are putting on a full-blown production, as you said earlier, things are timed down to the split second. Yet, you have to have it imbued with that spontaneity throughout in order for it to work.

Matthew Shilvock: You do and, as you talk about that, Michael, it makes me think. What we're doing, I talked about the frame earlier. The entire production is the frame for that spontaneity to happen.

You're creating through music, through technology, through the scenic arts. You're creating that frame on stage so that a singer can feel comfortable to be completely spontaneous, and that they can do it night after night and just feel supported in doing that.

I was thinking about an artist Pene Pati that we had doing Romeo and Juliet (a French opera version of the Shakespeare) back in 2019. At the end of the third act, he does this unbelievable high C, and it lasts for about 18, 19 seconds. Literally, people were timing him every night to see how long he could hold it for.

That's the kind of raw energy where we create the space that he can do that and feel comfortable doing that even though that is completely on the edge. It's funny. He said, "I really should have done that on the last night, not the first night because, after I did it on the first night, then I had to do it every night afterward."

That's the kind of thought process that artists are going through. They are staying spontaneous.

We are the frame that makes everything click so that when they walk out on stage, they know that the light cue is hitting in the right place. They know the curtain is going up at the right time. They know that the desk that they're about to sit down on is at exactly the same place every night. That's where there's no room for error. But then the art-making that happens within that is incredibly spontaneous.

To me, that's one of the really magical things about our new music director, Eun-sun Kim is that she really fosters that sense of collective exploration not just, interestingly, in the musicians and the singers but the entire company. When she did her first production with us (after which we hired her as music director) there was just an incredible sense of openness to everybody in the company being involved in that sort of spontaneous moment and an appreciation for that. I'm really excited for how that will come.

Yeah, as you ask that question, Michael, it makes me just think about that connection between the perfection, but then we still keep that spontaneity because that's what drives audiences wild because they know that they are the only people who have seen that in that moment and it will never happen again in quite the same way.

How does digital transformation impact performance?

Michael Krigsman: Well, it sounds like this whole period of time over the last 15 months is now shaping the way you think about the types of performances and the way that you relate to the audience going forward.

Matthew Shilvock: It really is, and I think we're now in this process of determining how we create the structures to allow that to happen on different layers. We want to come back with great and grand opera and all of the energy that the opera house brings and has brought for hundreds of years. That we want to make sure that we keep and we protect because there's an incredible, huge value. Again, that's where the passion comes from and that's where the passion gets directed to.

Finding the ways in which we can develop different products, whether digital or live, being experimental about it, and creating funds. Actually, we have established a new fund – thanks to some very generous donors, which we're calling the Creative Edge Fund – which is intended to allow us to take risks and not always to be driven to the performative endpoint. I think that's really important for us because so often if we think about taking an artistic risk, the manifestation of that is a new production.

You say, okay, we're going to hire this new visual artist and we're going to ask them to do a new production of an opera by Wagner or something. Suddenly, everything gets channeled into the rules of the road and this idea of an outcome that the curtain is going to rise on that new production in three years' time or something.

We're trying to develop much more of an iterative environment where we welcome artists into the company without saying, "You've got to produce something and it has to fit into this box, and it has to be done by a certain date." Rather, create a much more flexible environment with artists who can move the artform forward but if it doesn't work out so well the first time, it's okay because we can regear and try something different.

That's a very different way of us thinking as a company because so oftentimes we're driven towards what's that end goal and it has to happen and you have to have a design presentation on a certain date. After that, it goes into the shop and it gets built. It's big and expensive, et cetera.

I am excited for where that can lead us because, again, we are all creative people. We want that spontaneity. If we can open the door in a different way to it, amazing things will happen.

Musician’s perspective on digital transformation

Michael Krigsman: Matthew, I had a conversation with two of your musicians, two young people who are just absolutely extraordinary. We have that video to play. Shall we play that right now?

Matthew Shilvock: Please! Let's do that.

Michael Krigsman: Let's do it. All right.

Anne-Marie, as a performing artist, what has the last year been like (not being able to perform)?

Anne-Marie MacIntosh:

As performing artists, we're stage animals. We love to be performing. To have all of that taken away from us has been a huge shock.

Honestly, it has been really hard for the industry. I have many colleagues who have lost an entire year-plus of work, and that's huge.

I think that we are super lucky as Adler Fellows that San Francisco Opera has continued to support us, has continued to train us, and keep us employed during this time. That's pretty incredible.

I would say, initially, yes, there was this deep sense of loss, this fear for the future. But I would say that, as performers, we're also very much of, "The show must go on." We're adaptable, and I think that that's been a huge thing for us as individuals and a company that we've really tried to figure out how can we still develop our art, how can we still bring the art that I think is necessary for people, for humanity, forward.

For us, it's been a lot of taking a step back and developing our craft in other ways. We've worked a lot on languages and delving more into that. We've worked on our acting skills over Zoom. I've really been trying to take advantage of this time to set myself ahead for when things open up again.

Michael Krigsman: I know that video conferencing tools like Zoom and the others are not ideal for sharing a performance because of the latency.

Anne-Marie MacIntosh:


Michael Krigsman: You've been working with Aloha. Tell us about that.

Stefan Egerstrom:

It's a huge challenge for a lot of us. We are some of the luckiest people, I'd say, because the low latency systems that we've worked with have allowed us to at least sing most of this music with someone else playing. You have a meeting of two artistic minds.

Anne-Marie MacIntosh:

I think that most people can have some grasp of the latency issues just based on meetings they have, if someone freezes or just that slight delay where it feels kind of awkward and you're waiting for an answer. You can imagine that in a world where things need to be precisely together that that makes an even huger difference for music.

Really true music-making with another person is not possible over Zoom. Yeah, we had the luck to work with the Aloha system by Elk, and it was honestly pretty life-changing. I did not comprehend that technology could have gotten this far because, basically, when you plug the system into your computer and you connect with the other person—

[Video over Aloha by Elk being played]

Anne-Marie MacIntosh:

How is your volume there? Can I hear what you sound like?

Andrew King:

Oh, yes. [Playing the piano]

Anne-Marie MacIntosh:

That sounds like that'll be good.

[Video over Aloha by Elk ends]

Anne-Marie MacIntosh:

It's like they're in the same room. There's really no perceptible lag, and that was pretty incredible, especially after, at that point, 11 months of not being in the same room as someone else, not being able to perform with someone else.

I know, for me, yeah, there was a really emotional experience with one of those first early experiences. I had prepared a role throughout the pandemic.

[Anne-Marie MacIntosh singing while Andrew King playing piano over Aloha by Elk – playing in the background]

I hadn't had the opportunity to ever perform it with piano. Stefan is my roommate. He was there when I was able to go through it with John Churchwell, the head of music staff at the opera, and it was incredible.

[Anne-Marie MacIntosh singing while Andrew King playing piano over Aloha by Elk – playing stops]

When I finished, Stefan turned to me and said that it was the best he'd ever heard me sing it. And I felt it. I felt so much more supported. I felt like I was able to exchange ideas with John. The phrasing, all of that, it was just incredible.

Michael Krigsman: Stefan, when you're using the Aloha system, can you feel that energy in the same way?

Stefan Egerstrom:

I think so. For me, I felt that.

There's something so wonderful about singing with an orchestra, but there's something so intimate about having one singer and then having a pianist and then those two minds coming together. It's really that fact that it's one person breathing and then the other person responding and how close the connection can be in that way.

It gives it meaning. It's all language because we are signing on words.

[Stefan Egerstrom singing while the pianist is playing piano over Aloha by Elk – playing in the background]

But sometimes it can be just that little nudge you need where you're thinking this might be harder for you to say, so it's a little slower. Then you ramp up and it takes off on you.

You don't necessarily feel all of those inclinations when you're singing it by yourself acapella in your room.

[Stefan Egerstrom singing while the pianist is playing piano over Aloha by Elk – playing stops]

But when you have someone else there with you kind of prodding the conversation.

[Anne-Marie MacIntosh singing while Andrew King playing piano over Aloha by Elk – playing in the background]

Really, it's a musical conversation, a meeting of all of the minds. And so, yeah.

Anne-Marie MacIntosh:


Stefan Egerstrom:

I'd say that energy is palpable.

[Anne-Marie MacIntosh singing while Andrew King playing piano over Aloha by Elk – playing stops]

Michael Krigsman: Well, for those of us who enjoy and respect the performing arts, we are grateful for all that work that you've put in. Stefan Egerstrom and Anne-Marie MacIntosh, thank you both for speaking with us today.

Stefan Egerstrom:

Thank you.

Anne-Marie MacIntosh:

My pleasure.

Michael Krigsman: You know what amazes me about that is you have these two ordinary civilians who somehow transform themselves into the singing Olympians. I find it absolutely extraordinary.

Matthew Shilvock: Isn't that amazing, Michael? It reminds us that when you walk by someone on a street, you have no idea what their talents are, what their skills are, what their story is.

You're right. You see that unlock in opera singers in a particularly amazing way because it's just suddenly this amazing sound comes out of somebody and you're like, "Wow! Where did that come from?"

Michael Krigsman: As we finish up, what's next for the San Francisco Opera?

Matthew Shilvock: Getting back to do what we do. We're at this amazing moment, Michael, where we just announced our season a couple of days ago. By a season, I mean the period going from August, so just in two months' time, through to next summer.

It's this moment of just reawakening, of transforming everything we've been in back into the opera house. Although California (as a state) has opened up fully, we still have huge amounts of details to work through and protocols to work with and so forth – both for us and for our audience – because want to make sure this is absolutely safe. So, it's not a simple return.

Again, we're bringing back this entire complex, collaborative enterprise that hasn't been together in the opera house. Again, we did the experience in Marin, but getting back into the opera house and doing all of this for the first time in a year and a half. It's this amazing moment of reawakening for us, for the audience.

If there's one thing which I think I've really taken away from this last year, it's the value of the collective experience. I think we always felt this deep down. We are in the theater with other people. We're watching. We're having these amazingly cathartic moments.

You watch the end of "Boheme" and you see the soprano Mimi dying, and you're in tears. You're balling your eyes out at what's going on stage, and you're doing this sitting next to a complete stranger.

I can't think of anywhere else where that happens where you can be sitting next to a stranger and having such an emotional reaction to something, but that happens in the opera house. The richness of that collective experience and the fact that we see these stories of humanity told collectively and experience them collectively is something, I think, that we will cherish in a very different way.

I had my first sample of that coming back out of the pandemic. We did just a regular cinema drive-in back in November/December last year in San Francisco before we did the full live drive-in.

We were all sitting in our cars watching a rebroadcast of something we'd done at the opera house years before. I was a little skeptical about how that would be (going into it). But my goodness, just to know you were watching something in the same moment as somebody else and you were all focused on this one thing, that collective energy, I think, is so important in life, in general.

Our board chairman has a wonderful phrase he's often used during the last year. He says, "We're not a species of social distancers. We're a species of social gatherers." I think the opera house and all the attendant ways in which we can deliver it are ways of gathering people together around these moments.

One of the first moments we'll actually be back, we're also simulcasting to the home of the San Francisco Giants at Oracle Park where, in the past, we've had up to 30,000 people there as well. We just wanted to get the entire community back as we flip this page, we turn to this new chapter, the new music director, a centennial around the corner, this whole spirit of innovation ahead of us, all of that building on the century-old tradition of the company. I'm thrilled for the kind of bold return that we can make as a company.

Advice on how to listen to opera

Michael Krigsman: For folks who are watching who find opera inaccessible – they're not sure how to approach it, but yet they're interested or intrigued by it – what advice do you have to us ordinary people who are not opera buffs, so that we can learn and enjoy and find it engaging?

Matthew Shilvock: Don't be intimidated by the essential core of what we do because the essential core of what we do is telling very emotional, very human stories. The fact that it's in a different language sometimes, it's all translated above the stage so you can follow it in English as well.

But even the narrative of opera, that's not the important part of it. Oftentimes, people say, "Well, these opera stories are so crazy and they have all of these people whose names I don't know and so forth." That's not the point of opera. The point of opera is to tell stories of love, of hatred, of revenge; these things that you can identify with immediately. I think that's why opera works so well in films and adverts and so forth because it has that emotional immediacy to it.

It's so interesting. I mention the Giants, and we've done a number of these simulcasts with them. There's no expectation at all. You go in. you can get up whenever you want. You can go and drink beer while you're watching it. you can eat garlic fries while you're watching it. You can leave whenever you want.

Everybody stays focused on this thing on stage. You take away all of the barriers that people are worried about, and they are still engaged in this storytelling on stage. That's just always been something which I have cherished because I think it just shows me that the power of opera ultimately is something that can connect with us all.

I would say just go and appreciate it on its own terms. Don't worry about whether it's a soprano or a mezzo-soprano; all these artifices that we build up around it.

It's kind of like wine. You can take wine to the highest level of expertise and knowledge or you can just drink a damn good glass of wine. And so, I would say just go and see a damn good aria and enjoy being in the moment with it.

Michael Krigsman: Matthew Shilvock, General Manager of San Francisco Opera, thank you so much for taking time to be here with us. I really appreciate it today.

Matthew Shilvock: Thank you, Michael.

Michael Krigsman: Everybody, thank you for watching. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel. Hit the subscribe button at the top of our website, and we will send you our great newsletter. We have great shows coming up. Check out, and we'll see you next time. Have a great day.

Published Date: Jun 25, 2021

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 713