Opening Night for the San Francisco Opera

Celebrating the 101st anniversary with the Elixir of Opera Ball



Sue Graham Johnston, Francesca Gutierrez Amann, and Maryam Muduroglu. PHOTO: Drew Altizer Photography.


How does an internationally renowned cultural institution follow its centennial anniversary? By running head-on to embrace its second century of exquisite artistry. The San Francisco Opera nailed its 101st opening-night mark on Sept. 8 at City Hall during its glamorous Elixir of Opera Ball and post-party.

Led by cochairs Francesca Gutierrez Amann and Sue Graham Johnston, with Opera Guild President Maryam Muduroglu (also the City’s Chief of Protocol), 600 patrons and 370 Bravo! Club members signed on to celebrate in the grand marble rotunda of the Beaux-Arts beauty. Their sold-out support also raised crucial funds for the Guild’s free music and education programs that enrich the lives of some 65,000 Bay Area students.

“Tonight feels like we’re still on a roll from the energy and joy of last year’s centennial,” enthused SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock, “Only three U.S. companies have achieved that longevity: The Met, Cincinnati Opera, and us. So our 101st season is both humbling and a source of great pride. And with continued support from the community, it feels like the party is continuing.”

The soirée was also the first official outing of new opera board president Jack Calhoun, decked out in a bespoke black-and-gold brocade vest created by Hackett of London.


Maria Manetti Shrem and Alex Chases. PHOTO: Drew Altizer Photography.


“The opera has been around for 100 years, so I think it will survive me,” he joked. “Even pre-COVID, the model of experiencing opera has changed. We have a lot of initiative in expanding our audience, thanks to major support from the Dolby Family, which subsidizes single $10 tickets, and the Bernard Osher Foundation.”

Calhoun and his husband, Trent Norris, are devoted opera fans — first attending single matinee performances. Over the past 20 years, they’ve graduated to the A-List Tuesday night subscribers series in Box O.

“I’m excited for the Sept. 22 premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Bay Area composer Mason Bates,” notes Norris. “It’s not a story about a prince or duke. It’s a love triangle among Steve Jobs, his wife (philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs), and his work. That’s a very 21st-century libretto for today’s younger audience.”

Across the street at the gloriously ornate War Memorial Opera House, Music Director Eun Sun Kim and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus performed an amuse-bouche of greatest hits sung by husband-and-wife star soloists tenor Roberto Alagna and soprano Aleksandra Kurzak.

But patrons first dined in the rotunda on a masterful McCalls Catering meal set amid the elegant designs of J. Riccardo Benavides. His rich fuchsia and hunter green palette — accented by floral sculptures and dynamic light installations — echoed the opera’s 2023–24 season art posters created by illustrator Brian Stauffer.

The fete drew such civic luminaries and devoted patrons as Opera board chairman John Gunn and his wife, Cynthia Fry Gunn. For the past 17 years, longtime opera board trustee Dede Wilsey has served as major underwriter for the opera’s opening weekend. This year, however, because of the opera’s season-opening event expansion, she was upgraded to sponsor of the grand opening week.

“I’m not sure I’ll make it to 200,” teased Wilsey, vibrant in a Valentino gown. “But the opera is a wonderful institution that can inspire everyone, including little children, from all walks of life. That opportunity is vital.”

As a graduate MBA student at UC Berkeley, Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis fondly recalled attending operas with her girlfriends. Her husband, political scribe Markos Kounalakis, used to buy last-minute $8 tickets, which allowed him to stand behind the orchestra.

And for Representative Nancy Pelosi, who earlier that day announced her intent to run for reelection, the opera’s opening night holds special meaning. Not only is the art form a celebration of her family’s Italian American heritage, it is also often a date night for her and her husband, Paul Pelosi, who recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

Even though San Francisco is mired in numerous loops of societal failures, evidenced in the human sidewalk suffering on nearby blocks surrounding City Hall, this storied political leader keenly believes in supporting the arts.

“During COVID we injected government resources to help sustain the San Francisco Opera, Ballet and Symphony,” shared Pelosi. “When people of divergent political beliefs experience these cultural events, they forget their differences and are lifted up, together. On that common ground, I believe the arts will unify us.” sfopera.com.


LEFT: John and Cyntha Gunn with Matthew Shilvock. PHOTO: Drew Altizer Photography. RIGHT: Jamie Geier Bates and Mason Bates. PHOTO: Cory Weaver.


Nancy Pelosi, Jack Calhoun, and Dede Wilsey. PHOTO: Drew Altizer Photography.


LEFT: Farah Makras and Carolyn Chang. RIGHT: Mary Beth Shimmon. PHOTOS: Cory Weaver.


Markos and Eleni Kounalakis. PHOTO: Drew Altizer Photography.


Feature image: Aleksandra Kurzak, Roberto Alagna, and Olivia Smith. PHOTO: Cory Weaver.


September 20, 2023.

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