BWW INTERVIEW Part 1: Matthew Shilvock Ponders Priorities, the Ring, and Steve Jobs
Since his appointment as San Francisco Opera's seventh General Director, Matthew Shilvock has become known throughout the opera world for his leadership and passion in guiding the company into a well-deserved media spotlight.
Originally a part of former General Director David Gockley's transition team, Shilvock assisted Gockley closely in every facet of the company's management. Now, as newly minted General Director, Shilvock is hands-on, continuing that role: overseeing repertoire, producing community events, administering the company's Artists Program; and, according to the company's mission statement, "poised to lead the company into a bold new era."
Two exciting projects are slated for the near future: a return of the company's 2011 Ring of the Nibelungen (legendary Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad sang her first complete Ring with the company in 1935), and a co-production with Santa Fe Opera and Seattle Opera of local composer Mason Bates's boldly creative new opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.
Erica Miner: You've been deeply committed to the cause of the performing arts during your entire career. What led you to the field of executive management in arts administration?
Matthew Shilvock: I've always been a musician. I began piano at age 4, then took on cello and organ. Playing and studying music were always part of my childhood, very much my drive. I began my opera journey at about age 12, seeing a production of what was then the Birmingham Touring Opera, I think, now just Birmingham Opera, Graham Vick's company, which he established some decades ago as a way to engage the community. It was a really innovative, participatory exploration of the art form for me at that point. The first opera I saw was a contemporary Beauty and the Beast, done in television studios in Birmingham. The audience was part of the action. I loved that sense of participation, my first sense of how engaging opera can be. Then I went on to university in Oxford, reading music. I think that's where I developed a passion for arts administration. It was both a drive from the perspective of repertoire; and also from the administrative side the complexity of opera really appealed to me, the jigsaw puzzle-like interlocking nature of all these different art forms coming together. So that's where the real seeds came from, artistic and administrative.
EM: So that love of opera was first engendered when you were an adolescent, an impressionable time.
MS: Right. The Welsh National Opera played in a number of cities, including Birmingham - the closest to me - and Oxford. It was a great way to learn the repertoire. I saw a good amount of it through the years.
EM: Was there any particular repertoire that made the most impression on you when you were first starting out?
MS: Probably Mozart and Wagner. And Strauss as well.
EM: Strauss and Wagner go hand in hand.
MS: Indeed. I remember immersing myself in those Colin Davis Mozart recordings, and really getting to know the Ring and seeing it for the first time in a concert performance in Birmingham Symphony Hall when the Opera was on hiatus. I never got to Götterdämmerung because I came down with mono. So I didn't make it to the destruction of the world [Laughs].
EM: Eventually you did.
EM: Since the announcement of your appointment as General Director, you've overseen a plethora of opera activities: simulcasts, commissioning new projects, the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, the professional Artists Training Program, not to mention the company's ambitious season. Plus you have an active young family. How do you manage it all?
MS: [Laughs] When we first had young children I realized sleep is a luxury in life, so I was well prepared on that front. Having been here for almost 12 years, I knew what the rhythm of the company was, what the demands of the company were, these many layers of things we're engaging in, so that wasn't really a surprise. I don't think my hours have changed that much. David Gockley had been wonderful in letting me into so many parts of the company. I was used to prioritizing things across different departments. I think what is changed is the amount of public-facing activity that one has; you really have to prioritize the limited amount of time you have sitting at a desk actually getting work done, having to be really thoughtful about that. So I'm learning my lesson.
EM: It's only been a year and a half.
MS: [Laughs] But I have to say I love that part of the job. Getting to know the audience, the community, having that interaction with people who come into this building because they just love it so passionately and deeply. It's quite an infectious energy to pick up on. We have hundreds of people who've been subscribing for 40, 50 years or more. There's a great legacy of dedication to this company. I knew about that but I really experience it now in an even greater way.
EM: People who are passionate about opera to begin with, who are as devoted to opera as they are in this city - it must be incredible for you to be so immersed into every aspect of it day to day.
MS: You walk down the corridors of the Wilsey Center - the top floor is publicly accessible - there are two galleries showing the company's history. It really gives you something to think about in terms of the legacy, the important work that's happened on this stage. It's incumbent upon us to create the next generation of that legacy.
EM: It's this kind of work that you're doing that's so important in order for it to continue.
MS: Yes. The Rigoletto we just closed, for example, even though individual singers may not have the name recognition they used to, the compelling power of what they do on stage is still every bit as impactful. So to hear Quinn Kelsey doing Rigoletto and this new tenor from our program, Pene Pati, doing the Duke, you felt the energy in the house. When you get artistry on the stage that is that powerful the audience knows and reacts to it regardless of name recognition.
EM: As these names become more familiar, people will identify them with Verdi, Mozart, Puccini. That's what lives forever. You're carrying this legacy forward. If anything deserves to live forever, it's opera. I'm not biased of course.
EM: One of your missions with the company is to "connect audiences with opera's emotional core." Could you comment on the connection between the season that just ended - the three love-oriented operas La Bohème, Don Giovanni and Rigoletto - and the legendary San Francisco "Summer of Love" of the 1960s?
MS: I think opera over the last century has sometimes painted itself into too intellectual a corner. It can be seen as this art form that requires too much knowledge to experience, appreciate and understand. That's so far from the truth. Opera is one of the most emotional art forms. It renders so many people blubbering messes at the end of La Bohème or Traviata because it speaks to that inner core of who we are as human beings. You don't need to understand the dramatic details about what disease consumption was, or living conditions in Paris of the 19th century. You need to understand how they relate to us as human beings now. Those relationships in terms of how we experience tensions, love, tragedy in our own families. That's why we cry at the end of Bohème - because we feel something personal. It's the most powerful, visceral thing imaginable. You don't need a PhD in musicology to understand what's on the stage. Even if you didn't have the titles above the stage you'd probably still understand the tragedy at the end of Bohème. For me it's encouraging the audience, trying to break down that barrier and return opera to its real emotional core. That's where it's most successful, what's kept people coming back time and time again. Opera has sustained itself on a relatively small repertoire for 400 years, what has survived as a canon and regularly played today. Our ability to go back to some of these great pieces is because of their universality, timelessness and emotional core. That's what we should be playing off as a company.
EM: Timeless is a key phrase. It goes back to the catharsis of the Greeks, then the Florentine Camerata.
MS: It's so hard to find now, that ability to go into a place and experience something emotionally deep like that. To give oneself the freedom to do that for a few hours is a very special thing.
EM: Which brings us to the Ring. Everyone I know in the opera world is hugely excited over the return of your 2011 production of Wagner's Ring (https://sfopera.com/ring/) next summer. Would you say this overall excitement is matched within the company?
MS: I do think there's a huge excitement for the Ring. I think people see it as the epitome of what a company can do. There's a relatively small number of companies that do it, and with the kind of dramatic sweep that we had here in 2011 - to bring that back with a different cast but with the same foundational guidance of Donald Runnicles and Francesca Zambello, I think we're in for something very special. The audience is responding very well. Ticket sales are above this time last spring. People seem passionately connected to this interpretation. It's strong storytelling that resonates with an American aesthetic without being a difficult overlay of narrative on top of Wagner. It really exists to unlock Wagner's narrative. The little things like the Citizen Kane-inspired Valhalla, or Brünnhilde's rock being modeled on the Marin headlands - you don't need to know those things, the opera exists successfully without knowing those things, but they're little glimpses of comfort and connection. I think this particular conception of the Ring is one of the most successful pieces of dramatic storytelling, where you really feel at the end of 16 hours like you've gone on a deep and profound journey. I think the company, the audience, are really excited for it.
EM: Everybody's rallying around. You say the word and it's like a magical key to opening a door.
EM: How would you describe Zambello's "visionary" concept in this production?
MS: There's two particular things I really admire in what she's doing and has talked about in terms of framing this. One, is that it's a family drama. Though it's a story of gods, monsters, heroes, creatures, it ultimately comes down to a family story of about 20 people. That sustains itself through the course of the Ring. Again it comes back to that emotion of universality and connection to us as individuals. I think Francesca really makes those characters approachable on a more human scale. Wotan's angst around his disappearing power is very much identified with one generation passing knowledge and leadership to the next generation. There's anguish, tension of both letting go and also being proud of their taking the world forward. There's a great immediacy in how she portrays these characters, even the lofty gods. The second is the critical role she gives Brünnhilde. Francesca's conception that's fundamental in Wagner's conception is that Brünnhilde is the hero of the Ring. Wotan spends the first couple of operas looking for the hero that's going to save the gods without realizing the hero is his own daughter. The way Brünnhilde emerges at the end is a very redemptive role. Francesca has said that she's tried a number of different endings. Probably she'll still keep refining the ending as we go into this cycle, to make sure it's as powerfully stated as possible.
EM: To make something even more powerful than it is, that's something not to be missed. And that continuity - you become invested in the characters at the beginning, then develop your own relationship with them.
MS: Exactly. To find those elements of the Ring that draw out your own life experiences. We have a young daughter now, so I think I will see the end of Walküre very differently than I did in 2011. That's something I love about the Ring, it's so multidimensional. Whatever stage of life you're at you're going to find a different point of reference.
EM: That's one of the reasons people follow the Ring all over the world. It's the same for me, playing it. I found something new and different every time that I didn't realize was there.
MS: Motifs you didn't notice before.
EM: Or connecting one motif to another. So as a performer you develop a relationship with it.
MS: It's a great adventure, a great journey. Our hope is that people will make the journey in an engaging space, coming out of it feeling a great sense of having accomplished something as a listener.
Next, Part 2: Leadership, Creating a New Canon and Collective Sustainability
Photo credits: SF Opera