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Master of the House

MATTHEW SHILVOCK, San Francisco Opera’s new general director, shares his hopes for the company. by F. Paul Driscoll. 

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Shilvock in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House
© Cory Weaver
“We have begun to find a way to reach outside of our building.”  

MATTHEW SHILVOCK, currently San Francisco Opera’s associate general director, succeeds outgoing general director David Gockley on August 1. Born in England in 1976, Shilvock joined SFO in 2005 and now manages and leads the company’s music operations, electronic media, education and rehearsal departments, as well as the professional artist-training programs of the San Francisco Opera Center. Shilvock spoke with OPERA NEWS in September, three days before his appointment was made public. 

OPERA NEWS: When did you realize you were being considered for the job of general director?

MATTHEW SHILVOCK: In January of this year, I began to have some preliminary conversations with the head of the search committee.

ON: Were you surprised? 

MS: I was very flattered. It was a wonderful affirmation of the board’s trust in me that they would even begin to consider that.

ON: Clearly, you’re very well prepared for this, given the initiatives that you’ve handled for SFO in the past decade.

MS: I do feel prepared. I feel very lucky to have remained in the relatively unique position of being a generalist for the last ten years. I’ve had the opportunity to delve deep into many aspects of the producing side, and seeing the integration of the artistic, the production and the music elements into the budget. In a company like this, where we are running such a tight repertory season, that is one of the most critical things. It’s not just the selection of what you put onstage; it’s how it all fits together.

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SFO music director Nicola Luisotti, Shilvock and board president Keith Geeslin
© Scott Wall

ON: Have you always loved opera?

MS: I’d grown up a musician; it was in my DNA from the beginning. At age four, I was learning the piano, and it had always been a very important thing to me. My first opera was at age thirteen, I think. It was one of Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera productions, which was a contemporary Beauty and the Beast opera, but it was done in a very immersive way, as Graham does so well.

I grew up with Welsh National Opera, which they would tour to Birmingham, in that wonderful system that England has. By the time I got to Oxford, I had developed a real passion for opera. And while I was at Oxford, I developed a passion for arts administration—I felt that was a very noble pursuit to be going into, and one that energized me. It was an almost masochistic desire to solve the most complicated jigsaw puzzle possible—all of these pieces that have to come together perfectly for the curtain to go up and the show to go on. I found that fascinating.

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seats will provide an intimate experience in the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera.
Opens in 2016
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ON: Do you have any particular ambitions for this company, now that you know that you’ll be at the head of it?

MS: We have to get to a point—and this is not going to be easy—where we can inspire an audience to come almost regardless of what’s on the stage. As repertoire awareness diminishes and diminishes—and it’s amazing, just over the last ten years, how that has happened even here in San Francisco—we can either keep programming more and more popular works, or we can find ways to position those works in a way that creates a convincing case to come to everything we do, whether it’s a Butterfly or a Jenůfa or a Partenope. A Butterfly is always going to sell better than a Jenůfa, but the power of those lesser-known works is so significant that we have to find the way to unlock audience awareness. First we need to remove some of the logistical barriers that are becoming more and more acute for the industry. 

ON: Can you give me an example of a “logistical barrier”?

MS: The issue of transportation here [in San Francisco] is one. Price is another. And it’s not necessarily price—it’s the value for price. What is the quality of the concessions? What is the overall experience? Is it an experience worth the price that we’re charging for it? Those are big issues to grapple with.

We can work with our colleague organizations here—the ballet and the symphony, jazz, the conservatory—to really activate this part of San Francisco as a premiere arts district. We have all of the components—we’ve got the restaurants, the arts institutions and the public appeal. But what’s lacking is the infrastructure that this part of town has never really had.

ON: What is the single biggest positive that you’ve seen happen since you’ve been in San Francisco? 

MS: The company has really found its place in the community—there is an excitement for what we do. There is a sense of inclusivity—not only because of the simulcasts but also because of our work with KQED and KDFC, the reach-out that has happened in the media, the development of an education program that has gone deep into the San Francisco Unified School District and created some strong partnerships with teachers and school administrators and principals, as well as, of course, students.

The company has found a public-facing role that it has not necessarily had in quite as fundamental a way before. We have begun to find a way to reach outside of our building. That is exciting. The Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera that we’re opening next door [in the Veterans Building] will be a big part of that, because it will give us a very different set of possibilities. There is a public excitement for the company that we now need to develop into a sense of trust that whatever we’re putting onstage is worthy of the public’s attention.

ON: Do you have a favorite opera?

MS: Probably Così. I love the symmetry of it. spacer

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