Blocks away from ‘worst part of the city,’ Opera Ball guests ponder if the arts can save S.F.

Speaker of the House Emerita Nancy Pelosi, top right, and her husband Paul Pelosi, center, speak with a group while attending the San Francisco Opera Ball at City Hall on Friday, Sept. 8.

Photo: Benjamin Fanjoy/Special to The Chronicle

“The Elixir of Opera,” the Donizetti-referencing motif of the 101st San Francisco Opera season-opening ball, brought all the expected pageantry and glamor the occasion is internationally known for. 

From the sumptuous decor at San Francisco City Hall by J. Riccardo Benavides and dinner by McCalls Catering & Events at the gala dinner to the gowns, jewels, white ties and tuxedos that filled the seats for the concert at the War Memorial Opera House, formality and tradition were on full display on Friday, Sept. 8. 

But the reality is that steps from the celebration, the city is facing serious problems. Within the Civic Center, home to the San Francisco Opera, Symphony, Ballet and other leading arts organizations, people lay on sidewalks amid open drug dealing and empty buildings on Market Street, many showing signs of varying degrees of blight. 

“Don’t you remember when you loved coming to San Francisco and couldn’t wait to get dressed up for the trip?” said Sheniece Smith of Napa, who attended the ball with a group of friends.

Indeed, San Franciscan J. Rene Harper said that while she loves the fashion and sense of occasion during a night of attending performing arts, she is very aware that “the worst part of the city is two blocks away. That doesn’t make people feel safe.” 

Light projects in the Rotunda of City Hall as guests attend the San Francisco Opera Ball’s after-party at City Hall on Friday, Sept. 8.

Photo: Benjamin Fanjoy/Special to The Chronicle

But both believe that the arts will be key to San Francisco’s ongoing recovery. 

“The opera — all the arts — are the road to the future,” Smith said.

As the city rebounds from issues exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, I contemplated that sentiment and the Opera’s place in our community. 

Following a blockbuster centenary season, the company is creatively thriving. First-time attendees poured in for operas like last season’s “Frida y Diego” and for programs like its Encounter series, which creates immersive experiences throughout the Opera House aimed at audiences new to the art form. The Dolby Family’s Opera for the Bay program, which subsidizes $10 admission to performances for Bay Area residents who haven’t purchased a ticket in the past three years, also invigorated the season. 

San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock pointed out that many of these programs are supported by the Opera Ball, which is the company’s largest fundraising event of the year. So, what role do the organization’s leadership and guests at the Opera Ball and concert play in the city’s continued revival?

“I think our role is to provide thrilling content that inspires people,” Shilvock told me ahead of the ball. “There was an economic impact study done just before the pandemic that showed there was a $1.7 billion impact that the nonprofit arts had on the San Francisco economy. What’s imperative for us as arts organizations as we come out of the pandemic is that we meet a much higher bar of creativity.”

An illuminated poster for the opera “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” glows behind a group dining at the San Francisco Opera Ball at City Hall on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023

Photo: Benjamin Fanjoy/Special to The Chronicle

Opera Board Chairman John Gunn called the company “a very energetic, creative force” that he believes “will be a major part of the recovery of San Francisco.” But he added that donors need to do their part for the survival of the city and the arts.

“I said at a meeting once that there’s no IPO for opera productions,” said Gunn. “In Mozart’s time, he had the Emperor of Austria. I told the donors, ‘Now, you are all Emperor of Austria if you want to see new productions.’ ”

San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Tamara Rojo stressed that studies have shown that the arts play a vital role in the post-pandemic recovery of cities. She also hopes that efforts by organizations like hers and the Opera will help people understand that classical arts have something for everyone.

“It’s far more expensive to see a basketball game and no one thinks that’s elitism,” said Rojo. “There’s a difference between the excellence of our art and the perception of elitism that we have to work to separate.”

Dancer, director and writer Larissa Archer said that as a working artist, she has witnessed San Francisco through various challenges, including tech booms that led to the arts “dying, in a way, from the displacement of artists.” Now, she said “in this alleged ‘down time,’ I can’t clear my schedule enough to attend all the arts and cultural events.”

Speaker of the House Emerita Nancy Pelosi, who had announced earlier in the day her plans to run for reelection, attended the ball with her husband Paul and said that “the arts are the most unifying element in our society.” 

From left, the San Francisco Opera’s General Director Mathew Shilvock, Co-Chair Sue Graham Johnston, Co-Chair Francesca Gutierrez Amann and President Jack Calhoun at the San Francisco Opera Ball at City Hall on Friday, Sept. 8.

Photo: Benjamin Fanjoy/Special to The Chronicle

“We have different views on many subjects, but when we laugh together, we cry together, we’re inspired together by music, theater — that’s common ground,” said Pelosi. “As you make the arts available to children especially, they’re a positive force.”

To that end, concert benefactor and philanthropist Maria Manetti Shrem said she will continue to invest in San Francisco.

Everyone is pointing to San Francisco, but there are problems with homelessness and crime all over America,” said Manetti Shrem. “I believe it’s going to get better. I’ve seen many new people at the opera last year, but I want more young people. That’s the future of opera and cities.”

Reach Tony Bravo: [email protected]

  • Tony Bravo

    Tony Bravo is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Arts and Culture writer. Bravo joined The Chronicle staff in 2015 as a reporter for the former Style section, where he covered New York Fashion Week for the Hearst newspapers and served as the section’s editorial stylist, in addition to writing the relationship column “Connectivity.” He primarily covers visual arts and the LGBTQ community as well as specializing in stories about the intersections between arts, culture and lifestyle. His column appears in print every Monday in Datebook. Bravo is also an adjunct instructor at the City College of San Francisco Fashion Department and is the fourth generation of his family born in San Francisco, where he lives with his husband.

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