Considered a risk-taking innovator in American opera, David Gockley served as general director of San Francisco Opera from January 2006 until his retirement in July 2016. Under Gockley’s leadership, San Francisco Opera commissioned or co-commissioned 11 new works, presented 9 world premieres and co-produced a new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle which premiered in 2011 and revived this season.
In an onstage presentation following the July 1 performance of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock presented former general director David Gockley with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the Company’s highest honor. An industry pioneer who helped shape the operatic repertory and build new audiences for the artform, Gockley served ten years at the helm of San Francisco Opera and is currently the Company’s General Director Emeritus.
Bay Crossings’ readers may best remember Gockley as the man who ushered in San Francisco Opera’s 15 free simulcasts to date throughout the Bay Area…including 11 at San Francisco’s AT&T Park served by ferry.
The commemoration of Gockley’s historic career coincided with a sold-out performance of the culminating work in Wagner’s four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which achieved 98% ticket sales during its 2018 Summer Season run in San Francisco and attracted domestic audiences from 49 states and international Ring-goers hailing from 27 countries. Three complete cycles were presented in addition to a RingFestival of lectures, symposia, concerts, film screenings and exhibitions. Conductor Donald Runnicles led an international cast featuring Iréne Theorin, Greer Grimsley, Daniel Brenna, Karita Mattila, Brandon Jovanovich, Falk Struckmann and Jamie Barton in a production staged by Francesca Zambello.
Standing on a crowded stage amid the Götterdämmerung cast and members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Chorus and stage crew, Shilvock honored David Gockley, his predecessor as general director and personal mentor: “Legions of singers, composers, conductors, directors and designers have been given ground-breaking opportunities by you, David. You have championed successive generations of artists. You believe so fundamentally in the power of opera that you have, time and time again, made the seemingly impossible a reality. You have pioneered new ways of engaging with the artform. You have made it accessible, compelling, and vital in our lives. And you have given us a legacy of artistic experiences—like this Ring—that will remain in our souls for all time.”
Gockley said: “I dedicate this medal to the people who are on stage with me today, who have given their lives to create beauty and drama in a way that is really indescribable.”
Gockley’s achievements at San Francisco Opera encompass the appointment of Nicola Luisotti as Company music director and subsequent rejuvenation of San Francisco Opera’s legacy as a leading presenter of Italian repertory; the creation of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, which opened in February 2016; formal establishment of San Francisco Opera’s Education Department, a program that provides annual educational activities, performances and workshops for students, teachers, families and adults; establishment of the San Francisco Opera Archives; reestablished key partnerships with radio and television broadcasters; and collaborating with the Company’s more than 900 employees, including nine labor union partners, to produce outstanding opera. One of the two photo galleries celebrating the Company’s history in the Wilsey Center for Opera was named for David Gockley in 2016.
Gockley’s tenure with San Francisco Opera was the culmination of a 45-year career as one of opera’s most innovative and bold impresarios that began with Houston Grand Opera (HGO), where he was general director for more than three decades. Under his leadership, HGO received a Tony, two Emmys and two Grammy Awards and became America’s leading commissioner and producer of new works. By 2006, HGO had 35 world premieres and six American premieres to its credit. Highlights of his time with Houston Grand Opera include restoring Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in its original full score form to the operatic repertory; commissioning and presenting the world premiere of John Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China, in 1987; overseeing the creation of the Wortham Theater Center, HGO’s home built entirely with private funds; and pioneered the co-production model, a now standard practice of building operatic productions with partner companies to defray costs.
David Gockley was born in Philadelphia in 1943 and pursued vocal studies at the New England Conservatory. He then studied conducting and composition at Brown University, where he received a bachelor’s degree. He holds a master’s degree from Columbia University Business School. His life and career are the subject of American Impresario: David Gockley’s Life in Opera (Chronicle Books, 2016).