The San Francisco Opera was founded by Gaetano Merola (1881-1953) and incorporated in 1923. The company's debut took place on September 26, 1923, in Civic Auditorium, with a performance of La Boheme, including soloists Queena Mario and Giovanni Martinelli, Maestro Merola conducting.
On October 15, 1932, the company moved into the newly built War Memorial Opera House, and performed Tosca with Claudia Muzio, Dino Borgioli, and Alfredo Gandolfi, Maestro Merola conducting.
Following Merola's death in 1953, Kurt Herbert Adler led the company through 1981. From 1982 to 1988, the company was led by Terence A. McEwen, and by Lotfi Mansouri, from 1988 through 2001.
Under current conductor Pamela Rosenberg's baton, the San Francisco Opera is now the second-largest opera company in North America. Since its inception, the company has presented debut performances of numerous artists, including Vladimir Atlantov, Inge Borkh, and Boris Christoff, to name a few.
Since 1971, the San Francisco Opera has presented an annual free concert in Golden Gate Park on the Sunday following opening night of the Fall season. It traditionally features artists from the opening weekend, in full concert with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. The event is open to the public and draws some 20,000 listeners.
In 1982, the opera’s third general director, Terence A. McEwen, created the San Francisco Opera Center to coordinate the opera company's numerous affiliate training programs. Providing a coordinated sequence of performance and study opportunities for young artists, the San Francisco Opera Center includes the Merola Opera Program, Adler Fellowship Program, Showcase Series, Brown Bag Opera, Opera Center Singers, Schwabacher Recitals and Education Programs.
During the 1983 Fall season, the student/family matinee performances of La Traviata were presented with supertitles: English translations of the libretto, projected over the proscenium simultaneous with the action on stage. A favorable response prompted the company to introduce the practice in increasing numbers of subsequent performances. Supertitles, an innovation of the Canadian Opera Company, are now used for all San Francisco Opera productions.
In November 1992, General Director Lotfi Mansouri introduced Pacific Visions, a program designed to maintain the opera repertoire's vitality through new commissions and the presentation of unusual works. It was launched with the commissioning of the following operas: Dangerous Liaisons, composed by Conrad Susa; Harvey Milk, a new opera by composer Stewart Wallace; A Streetcar Named Desire, composed by André Previn; and Dead Man Walking, composed by Jake Heggie.
In January 2001, General Director Pamela Rosenberg announced her first artistic initiative for the San Francisco Opera, a multi-year plan of interwoven themes and series.
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