Assuming all goes as planned, the War Memorial Opera House will once again reopen for live performances on Saturday, August 21. For the first time since the initial COVID-related lockdown in March 2020, music will emerge from the orchestra pit, as the San Francisco Opera opens its season with a cover of Puccini’s “Tosca.”
And as if that weren’t good news, everyone should feel a little more comfortable in their seat.
Throughout the shutdown, work has continued on the long-awaited upgrade to the Opera House seats, which number just over 3,000. It is a project that has been underway for many years. many years, and now – after a handful of setbacks and opportunities presented by the pandemic – is finally over.
“My folder on the project is called ‘Seating 2010,’ which tells you how long we’ve been working on it,” said Jennifer Norris, assistant general manager of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, which owns and operates the performance halls of the Civic Center. “It has been a labor of love over 10 years.”
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Among the improvements are better sightlines, increased legroom and seat width, and new options for disabled and semi-ambulatory customers. The project is a joint venture between the War Memorial, San Francisco Opera and Ballet, which shares the venue; the nearly $4 million price tag is covered by a $1-$3 fee that companies have been adding to tickets since 2013.
Will customers notice the difference? Hard to say. New carpeting and seat covers certainly look bright, and the seats – higher off the ground and roomier on all sides – are more comfortable. But Norris actually hopes some of the improvements will go unnoticed.
“What I love is when I say to someone, ‘What do you think of the new railing?’ and they say, ‘That railing has always been there.’ I think, “Well, it wasn’t, but I like that you think it was,” she said with a laugh.
“As a site manager, you want your updates to be fresh and new without drawing too much attention to themselves. When something looks so good it feels like it’s always been there, for me it’s a huge victory.
The benefits extend not only to customers but also to Opera staff and crew. At a recent afternoon rehearsal for “Tosca,” the technical tables in the audience section were more spacious than ever, allowing everyone to step in.
And for artists eager to make a comeback after more than a year of inactivity, the timing couldn’t be better.
The opera’s musical director, Eun Sun Kim, said she had conducted a few orchestral concerts in Europe, as regulations permitted, but “Tosca” – which features soprano Ailyn Pérez in the role – title, alongside tenor Michael Fabiano and bass-baritone Alfred Walker – is his first opera. production since shutdown.
“Everyone was excited but also a little worried about what it was going to be like,” she said. “But as soon as the first note arrived, everything seemed normal – like we were on vacation and now we were back.”
Director Shawna Lucey, who rehearsed with her 7-week-old daughter, JJ, alternately strapped to her or resting in a nearby car seat, said relief at returning to work permeated company spirits.
“We’ve always enjoyed being together at an opera rehearsal,” Lucey said, “but now there’s this feeling of camaraderie, of the magic of being able to make music together. I won’t take it anymore never for granted.”
Paradoxically perhaps, the pandemic has helped keep the schedule for the renovation project on track. Even though the closure robbed a few weeks of work at first, the fact that neither the Ballet nor the Opera could perform in the house allowed plenty of time to wrap things up.
The renovation took place in several phases, beginning in 2013 with new seating in the Box section and continuing two years later with improvements to the Balcony and Circle Balcony. In the final phase, the Orchestra, Grand Tier and Dress Circle seats — in place since the Opera opened in 1932 — were replaced with newly designed seats made by Montreal firm Ducharme Seating.
The new seats sit at least 17 inches off the ground, compared to the old seats which were up to 3 inches lower. The armrests are narrower, which spares the rib cage even if it increases the possibility of skirmishes between neighbors for elbow room.
And Norris points out with particular pride the new arrangement which shifts the seats slightly.
“The biggest challenge was the middle sections, where the heads lined up one behind the other,” she said. “So if you had a tall person in front of you, you just had to suffer.”
The innovation, a brainstorm of Berkeley consulting firm the Shalleck Collaborative, was to indent every other row like a zipper. The result is that customers can watch the scene between the two people in front of them.
Norris has also devoted a great deal of energy and attention to accessibility issues. There are two new wheelchair platforms, closer to the stage than the existing ones, which will remain in place. There are also select seats designed with more legroom and 12 new bariatric seats for customers requiring the extra width.
“The goal of all of these improvements is to make people of all abilities and sizes feel welcome and feel like we anticipated their arrival,” Norris said. “If you’re a taller person and I take your bariatric seat up 15 steps and then you climb six people to get in, that’s probably not the kind of gift we want to give.
“The message we want to get across is, ‘Here’s a nice, wide seat that’s easy to get to and that you’ll feel comfortable in throughout the show.’ ”
This is the goal in general, according to Norris – for patrons of the Opera and Ballet to enjoy their new surroundings without being distracted from the performance.
“We hope that when they sit down and realize they can see the stage, and they’re comfortable, and their seat is supportive, and the art on stage is beautiful and transporting, that the setup of the driveway is nothing more than a delicious improvement.
Puccini’s Tosca: San Francisco Opera Opening Night at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 21. Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. on August 27 and September 3; 2 p.m. Aug. 29 and Sept. 5. $26 to $398. War Memorial House, 301 Van Ness Ave, SF 415-864-3330. sfopera.com