San Francisco Opera to launch 'The Barber of Seville' for drive-in audiences

Live opera is returning, in an unlikely way and on a former rock and roll stage.

Beginning April 23, San Francisco Opera will present The Barber of Seville for drive-in audiences.

Eleven performances are scheduled for the Marin County fairgrounds in San Rafael. 

"It's the perfect piece to come back to live music with," said opera General Director Matthew Shilvock, "because it's a piece that will sparkle in so many ways."

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Like other performing arts, the highly-regarded opera company has substituted streaming and seminars during the pandemic.

"The audience will look straight ahead toward our incredible stage," enthused Shilvock, in front of a huge platform once used at the Coachella Music Festival.

The site is bustling with heavy equipment and construction crews, as the hulking black structure rises from the fairgrounds.

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The audience will be capped at 200 cars, at $250 per car, regardless of the number of passengers.

Another site nearby will accommodate 200 more vehicles at $50 each, with those fans watching a big screen.

The size doesn't compare to the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, which holds more than 3000 people.  

But the drive-in is a milestone after a year without live performance.

"To feel that sense of community, to be knowing you're watching art with other people is an incredible experience," said Shilvock.

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The opera will be an abbreviated 90 minutes in length, without the full chorus and an orchestra of 18 instead of the usual 70, to reduce risk.

"Each person has their own distance, we have special masks, and they have special barriers for the wind players," said Shilvock, "and we're doing everything to make sure we're following the very safest health protocols."

That includes a specially designed singing mask the cast wears in rehearsal, but not onstage during outdoor performances.

"The stage is so huge I'm not worried about social distance, " said Marin County Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis.

The fairgrounds has previously hosted drive-in movies and school graduations during Covid-19, so opera seemed like a natural segue.

"As our case rates drop and we get more people vaccinated, we're certainly ready for this," said Willis, "because public health is about emotional well-being and social well-being."

Singing in group settings has been a coronavirus concern because of the spread of aerosols and infection.

But Willis is confident the opera has proper precautions in place.

"It's been a tough year and we're so hungry as a community for experiences like this, deprived of the arts, this is part of public health."

The Civic Center complex is also the site of Marin County's largest Covid-19 vaccination site, which will continue to operate alongside the opera production.

The venue is decidedly informal, and drive-in audiences will have to bring their own refreshments and rely on porta-potties.

"Are people going to dress to the nines to get in their car?" wondered Gabriella Calicchio, director of Marin County Cultural Services.

Like so many pre-pandemic assumptions, drive-in opera up-ends tradition.  

"The thing I love about that is, you can be in your jeans and your tee shirt and it makes opera accessible not intimidating when you think about it that way," smiled Calicchio.  

For the opera, the Marin performances mark the first step toward a return to home performances, perhaps in the fall.

"I'm just ecstatic that we're beginning that journey and that live music is coming back," said Shilvock.

Non-profit agencies will be distributing some free tickets to first-responders, educators and health care workers, especially those who have not experienced opera before.