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San Francisco Opera Presents New Production of Beethoven's FIDELIO

Performances run October 14–30.

San Francisco Opera Presents New Production of Beethoven's FIDELIO

San Francisco Opera's return to live performances in the War Memorial Opera House continues October 14-30 with a bold, new production of Ludwig van Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. Caroline H. Hume Music Director Eun Sun Kim conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Chorus and cast in this monumental work in which love and courage overcome tyranny. Director Matthew Ozawa's interpretation of the work updates its original eighteenth-century prison setting to a modern government detention center. Soprano Elza van den Heever stars as the opera's heroine, Leonore, heading an all-star cast that includes tenor Russell Thomas, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley and basses James Creswell and Soloman Howard. Chorus Director Ian Robertson, who retires this year after 35 seasons, prepares the acclaimed San Francisco Opera Chorus for two exhilarating choral highlights of the operatic repertory: the famous Act I Prisoners' Chorus and Fidelio's exuberant finale.

For the first time in its history, San Francisco Opera will livestream select performances of the new production. Several virtual and in-person events and exhibitions will be presented to foster deeper discovery.

First presented in 1805 to a near-empty Viennese theater due to Napoleon's recent occupation of the city, Fidelio underwent two major revisions (and four overtures) before the composer's ode to freedom was realized as the enduring opera it is today. The story follows Leonore who, disguised as a man, Fidelio, infiltrates a prison to find her wrongfully imprisoned husband, Florestan. Facing a powerful adversary, she discovers the courage to stand against injustice. The contest in Fidelio between good and evil, darkness and light inspired Beethoven to create many charged musical episodes, including Leonore's pivotal aria ("Abscheulicher!"), Florestan's anguished solo ("Gott! Welch Dunkel hier"), a quartet of unequivocal grace and beauty ("Mir ist so wunderbar") and rousing choral episodes that compare with the ecstatic energy of the composer's Symphony No. 9.

Known for bringing insight and emotionally resonant experiences to cross-cultural interdisciplinary works, especially through his Chicago-based MOZAWA incubator for arts collaborations, American director Matthew Ozawa is firmly grounded in the world of opera as a stage director, musician and educator. Ozawa made his directorial debut with the Company last spring with the drive-in production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville at the Marin Center, presented under strict COVID safety protocols. That staging utilized a reconfigured version of Alexander V. Nichols' set originally created for Fidelio, which was completed even after its 2020 opening was canceled by the pandemic. Originally planned to coincide with the global celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the composer's birthday in 2020, Ozawa's contemporary vision for Fidelio remains a celebration of shared humanity amid the trials of political incarceration.

Ozawa, whose father was born in a Japanese American internment camp in Wyoming during World War II, said: "At the heart of Fidelio is the heroism of a woman, a vision for the modern age, whose personal sacrifice to free her husband from wrongful incarceration results in the liberation of all those imprisoned. Beethoven's revolutionary opera remains as relevant today as the numerous times it has served as a symbol of hope for generations of people afflicted by forms of oppression. Our new production embraces Beethoven's emotionally profound music while viewing the opera through a modern lens. My hope is that experiencing this opera not only helps us shine a light on injustice but reminds us that we too have the power to be agents of change."

Nichols' setting for the production features a rotating cube of cells, interrogation rooms and offices with projected video surveillance feeds that show the activities of detainees in all areas of the holding facility. The creative team also features the work of costume designer Jessica Jahn and co-lighting designers JAX Messenger and Justin A. Partier.

Eun Sun Kim, who opened her inaugural season as music director last month with Puccini's Tosca-"a performance of heaving intensity, subtle mood shifts and piquant details" (San Francisco Chronicle)-leads the Company's artistic forces. As Beethoven's sole opera, Fidelio offers a rare opportunity for operatic and symphonic conductors to bring the composer's music into the opera house. For Kim, the work is a "dream project" with which to launch her music directorship in San Francisco and bring audiences into the Opera House for a shared cathartic experience.

Soprano Elza van den Heever makes her long-awaited return to San Francisco Opera in the formidable role of Leonore. Since her 2007 Company debut as Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni while still a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, van den Heever has emerged as "one of the most important dramatic sopranos in the opera world" (Opera News). Her first Leonore at the 2016 Caramoor Festival was greeted with rapturous praise, including Operavore's Fred Plotkin who said: "Arias such as 'Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?', with some of the most treacherous passages in opera, have challenged the likes of Birgit Nilsson and Hildegard Behrens. And yet van den Heever sang it at Caramoor with seeming ease, making beautiful sounds where even the most accomplished singers have sounded labored." Parterre Box's Christopher Corwin said, "it was exceptionally gratifying to witness deeper, more complex aspects of her artistry" and observed that van den Heever's upcoming appearances would immediately become "must-see" events.

Following acclaimed performances in Bel Canto works by Bellini and Donizetti with San Francisco Opera, tenor Russell Thomas portrays Florestan, the detained political dissident and Leonore's husband. Possessing "a tenor of gorgeously burnished power" (New York Times), Thomas has won extensive acclaim for his portrayals of opera's leading heroes. The Wall Street Journal said of his Florestan: "the superb Russell Thomas held nothing back in his big aria, his clarion tenor rising inexorably to the desperate cry of 'Freiheit,' truly a man in extremis."

Taking on the low-voiced roles in Beethoven's opera are three stalwart artists well known to San Francisco Opera audiences. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, who triumphed on the War Memorial Opera House stage in 2018 as Wotan in Wagner's Ring cycle, is Pizarro, the corrupt tyrant and enemy of Florestan. Bass James Creswell portrays Rocco, the facility's manager who hires Fidelio, unaware that "he" is, in fact, Leonore, searching for her missing husband. Bass Soloman Howard, who appeared earlier this season as Angelotti in the Company's season-opening production of Puccini's Tosca and is scheduled to sing the Commendatore in next summer's new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni and a concert tribute to the music of Giuseppe Verdi, is the government leader Don Fernando. San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows Anne-Marie MacIntosh (Marzelline), Christopher Oglesby (Jaquino), Zhengyi Bai (First Prisoner) and Stefan Egerstrom (Second Prisoner) complete the cast.

Beethoven's Fidelio was first presented by San Francisco Opera in 1937 with celebrated Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad as Leonore who reprised the role in 1939 with the Florestan of Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior. Renowned for singing Wagner's operas together during the 1930s and 40s, the famous vocal duo shared the stage in Beethoven's opera only once, in San Francisco. Subsequent Leonores for San Francisco Opera included Regina Resnik, Inge Borkh, Birgit Nilsson, Gwyneth Jones, Hildegard Behrens and Christine Brewer. Great conductors have always been drawn to Fidelio and the Company has featured many leading maestros on its podium for the work in previous seasons, including Fritz Reiner, Erich Leinsdorf, Pierre Monteux and former Company music directors Sir John Pritchard and Sir Donald Runnicles. Fidelio was last staged by San Francisco Opera in 2005.

Sung in German with English supertitles, the six performances of Fidelio are scheduled for October 14 (7:30 pm), October 17 (2 pm), October 20 (7:30 pm), October 22 (7:30 pm), October 26 (7:30 pm) and October 30 (7:30 pm).

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