"Knight" at the opera? More like Otis P. Driftwood.

Janos Gereben's puff piece on San Francisco Opera's General Director David Gockley in Sunday's San Francisco Examiner has raised my ire so allow me to vent my spleen once again.

Gereben writes:

When posed the ethereal question of “What plans do you have for your next
life?” David Gockley pauses, considering an alternate existence as an
architect or professional basketball coach. Then he stops. “No,” he says, “I
would do this again."

“Managing the financial end is more difficult now, with the numbers
and what the numbers will buy,” Gockley said. “But every financial decision is an
artistic decision. I must create a balance to maintain a critical mass of
quality, attractiveness, attendance, funding ... to keep the whole thing moving

Earlier this month I wrote post criticizing SFO's cutbacks that in my opinion fell too heavily on the backs of the administrative staff (see "Smell the dirty laundry"). Gereben's fawning has prompted me to look for more stuff that stinks in SFO's numbers and it wasn't hard to find.

Gockley's mantra since his arrival has been something about bringing "the world's best singers" and "grand opera" back to San Francisco, often in comments that contained thinly-veiled snipes at the previous administration and insults directed at singers who appeared onstage during it (most egregious were his comments regarding Catherine Naglestad's Norma).

During the current economic crisis cutbacks have been made in many areas, as is warranted, but are the cutbacks being made at SFO coming from the necessary places? Are they saving the "quality" of what ends up on the stage? In my opinion the answer is a firm "no."

So far, during his administration, there have been few genuine total triumphs, and the two that come immediately to mind, "Der Rosenkavalier" and "Iphigenie en Tauride," originated under his predecessor. There have been successes, sure- last year's "Lucia" and "Appomattox" are obvious, but I would argue there has been little so far that rivals the best stuff that Rosenberg gave us and I see little on the horizon that promises to change that outlook.

Are these cuts taking place because Gockley wants to save the money ear-marked to bring us all these "great singers"? Are we seeing more money spent on the stage itself? Is that why the administrative staff is taking a beating, the programs for families have been cut, rehearsals cut and there will be no Peter Grimes this year?


It appears that's not the case at all. In fact, it seems less money is being spent on what ends up onstage under Gockley that it was under Rosenberg. That's rather hard to believe, with all his crowing to the contrary and the sky-rocketing price of tickets during his tenure, but it's all there in the numbers I'm afraid, which I've pulled directly from SFO's own financial audits.

Here's the breakdown on production and artistic costs over the past six years (in millions) with the corresponding percentage of these costs in the overall Artistic Budget- this is the money actually spent that ends up on the stage (we are now in Gockley's 4th year, so the first three of these years are from Rosenberg's era):

2003/ 2004 /2005 /2006 /2007/2008

Singers, Conductors, Directors & Designers:
2003: $8.761-19%, 2004: 9.060-22%, 2005: 7.282-18%, 2006: 8.559-20%, 2007: 7.716-18%,
2008: 8.548-17%

Orchestra :
2003: 9.438-21%, 2004: 8.438 -20%, 2005: 8.865-22%, 2006: 8.620-20%, 2007: 9.195-22%
2008: 9.510-19%

Chorus and Ballet:
2003: 5.142-11%, 2004: 4.332-10% , 2005: 4.572-12% , 2006: 4.788-11%, 2007: 4.969-12%,
2008: 5.560-11%

Scenery, Properties Stage Hands, Technical staff
2003: 14.855-32% , 2004: 13.317-32%, 2005: 11.397-29%, 2006: 13.943-32%, 2007: 12.275-29%,
2008: 16.463-33%

Costumes, Wardrobes, Wigs, Make-up:
2003: 4.911-11%, 2004: 3.960-10%, 2005: 3.512-9%, 2006: 3.865-9%, 2007: 3.264-8%, 2008: 4.372-9%

Artistic and Music Administration:
2003: 2.880- 6% , 2004: 2.337- 6%, 2005: 3.793-10% , 2006: 3.579- 8%, 2007: 4.557- 11%,
2008: 5.656-11%

Notice anything unusual?

Well, I do. It appears the money being spent on singers has actually decreased during Gockley's tenure. So has the money spent on making those singers look good onstage.


Orchestra and scenery costs appear static, no doubt due to union stipulations and the like, same for the chorus and ballet costs.

But what is with the 83% increase in "Artistic and Music Administration" costs that have occurred under Gockley?

I would speculate the large spike in Rosenberg's last year was related to bringing Doctor Atomic into the world, but after that, what can account for this huge, ongoing increase? Where the hell is that money going? Appomattox and The Bonesetter's Daughter? I can see the justification for putting the money into Doctor Atomic, but I can't see the justification for the other two. Adams' opera is on its way into the repertoire. As a Glass composition, Appomattox may have some legs, but Daughter is unlikely to ever again see the stage of a major house.

Will the percentage of this spending be down this year since there are no premieres on the schedule? It should be and I think this will be worth looking at when the next set of numbers come out. If these costs remain at their high percentage, then where is this money being spent? And how is it the budget on singers is no higher than it was during Rosenberg's tenure, even though that was what was used as justification for higher ticket prices? So where is that money going?

Can someone please explain this? I'd also like an explanation as to why Gockley is getting such a free ride in the press when I for one can't see anything that merits such a pass as the one Gereben just gave him.

In the meantime, I think the "Knight at the Opera" is making SFO's board and audience look more and more like Margaret Dumont. No wonder next season opens with Il Trovatore.