San Francisco Opera

Unfinished History


Luiza Tetrazzini

Photo: Museum of Performance + Design


A few years after the earthquake and fire 1906, Luiza Tetrazzini performed before tens of thousands of admirers at 3rd/Kearny and Market next to Lotta's Fountain on Dec. 24, 1910.

Photo: provenance unknown, via Facebook

Tetrazzini 1910 at Lottas Fountain img1003888.jpg

Luiza Tetrazinni singing, Dec. 24, 1910.

Photo: San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum

San Francisco's love affair with opera is legendary. From the first performance by the Pellegrini Opera Company (Bellini's "La Somnambula" on February 12, 1851) until today, the city has demanded and supported opera to an amazing degree.

Between 1851 and 1932, more than 90 different opera companies visited San Francisco, and in the late 1800s one could choose from four or five different performances on a given evening. San Francisco became a regular stop for great singers and touring companies.

San Francisco Opera, now in its 71st season, began at the Civic Auditorium on September 26, 1923, with "La Boheme." The top price was $4 and 5,000 patrons were in attendance. Maestro Merola, founder of the company, was the conductor.

1932--War Memorial Opera House opens with a performance of Puccini's Tosca.

View East above Gough, War Memorial Building and Opera House, City Hall 1970 wnp27.5286.jpg

View East above Gough, War Memorial Building (left) and Opera House (right), City Hall behind across Van Ness, c. 1970.

Photo: wnp27.5286

1935--First San Francisco production of Wagner's monumental Ring of the Nibelung cycle.

1940--San Francisco Opera debuts of German soprano Lotte Lehman, and Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling. First San Francisco performance of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss.

1940--San Francisco Opera Ballet presents the first full-length American production of Swan Lake.

1944--America's first full-length production of The Nutcracker is performed by the San Francisco Ballet.

1945--World leaders gather to sign the United Nations charter, and celebrate the event at the Opera House.

1949--The great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad was scheduled to sing in San Francisco at the Opera House. Her husband had been reputed to be a collaborator with the Nazis in Norway during the war, and Flagstad's appearance on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House "would desecrate the War Memorial and the ideas it stands for. It would be better for the Opera Association to go out of business than hire a traitor from Norway," said a lawyer for the Veteran's Legion. Flagstad performed as scheduled without incident.

1953--Gaetano Merola, founder of the San Francisco Opera, dies while conducting a concert at Stern Grove.

1957--American soprano Leontyne Price performs in her American debut season, singing in Tosca and Aida.

1957--Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) receives its American stage premiere.

1963--Lofti Mansouri makes his San Francisco Opera debut directing six of the season's productions.

1969--Placido Domingo makes his SFO debut in La Boheme.

1977--Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballe perform together in Turandot.

1983--When the scheduled tenor for the San Francisco Opera's opening night performance of Verdi's Otello becomes ill, Placido Domingo flies cross-country to serve as replacement. The delayed performance ends at 2:30 am.

1989--Loma Prieta earthquake leaves the War Memorial Opera House in need of major repairs.

1995--War Memorial Opera House closes for repairs.

1996--Performances for this season are given in Civic Center Auditorium and Orpheum Theater.

1997--Refurbished War Memorial Opera House opens with gala celebration featuring Frederica von Stade, Jerry Hadley, Placido Domingo and many others.

by Daniel Steven Crafts

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