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Plight of the Valkyries: The San Francisco Opera, Like So Many Others, Fights to Keep the Fat Lady Quiet 

Wednesday, Mar 26 2014

It's early Saturday morning, and the gathered throng patiently waits, five abreast, in a line snaking around three lengthy blocks of a neighborhood that hasn't quite figured out what costume to wear. Body and fender shops and storage facilities abut bustling CrossFit gyms and sleek cafes. A Kermit-green Amazon Fresh delivery van patrols this sector of the Dogpatch, once exclusively the domain of smoke-belching Muni yards and gently rusting corrugated iron warehouses.

The thousands of people in the queue haven't quite figured out what costume to wear, either. There's a healthy smattering of frilly shirts and waistcoats; top hats, goggles, and parasols; and, as in any San Francisco gathering, legions of hoodies obscuring uncombed hair and unwashed bodies. At 10 a.m., Cook's Champagne seems to be the drink of choice; a trove of empty green bottles stacked, neatly, in Trader Joe's bags by the garbage bin indicates this was also the case many hours ago.

The couple standing at the very front of the line to gain entrance to the San Francisco Opera's massive costume sale say they've been planted at this spot since 6 p.m. the day before. Your humble narrator, at first, finds this difficult to believe. But it grows far easier after timing the lags between asking the bleary-eyed pair questions and, occasionally, receiving answers.

By midnight, 23 fellow campers had arrived. There were 50 here by 3 a.m. A guy from San Diego drove through the night and arrived at 5:30. A woman in a Renaissance Faire outfit exclaims, to no one in particular, "This was totally worth leaving Hayward at 6 a.m."

The gate, at long last, creaks open, and the line surges toward a particularly hulking and graffiti-strewn storehouse. This is the opera's set-making facility and costume repository; it is 155,000 square feet — almost three times the size of the Ferry Building — and its unadorned walls rise high enough to accommodate a circus tent. A circus of a different sort unfolds within as weary Wagnerians find their second wind, rapaciously descending upon low-bodiced gowns and frock coats priced lower than balcony seats at La Traviata.

It's a delightful scene ripped from so many nostalgic tales of what San Francisco used to be: eccentric, artsy types enjoying the best of life in this city for not much money at all. But, to an alarming degree, it's a scene cruelly typical of what San Francisco is. Because this is never going to happen again. The site of today's whimsy will soon be the ground floor of tomorrow's block of yet more luxury condos. This festival of fantasy is no match for San Francisco's burgeoning reality.

Or, more accurately, its burgeoning realty.

To begin to understand the amazing scenes witnessed within this doomed warehouse, let's start at the top: with hats. Shoppers hoping to contribute to the opera — and their own wardrobes — had their pick of captain's hats from Gaul, Rome, Napoleonic France, Italy, Spain, and even the Vatican; all you need to differentiate the captain is a well-placed plume. There are helmets for Charlie Company in Vietnam in the same box as the Hershey's Kiss numbers of the sort donned by Alexander Nevsky's forces when they defeated the Teutonic Knights atop a frozen lake in 1242. As you'd expect, there's no shortage of Teutonic headgear here.

A massive Russian chapeau resembling a black pencil eraser is a companion for the aptly named "Red Boyar" greatcoat from the 2008 performance of Boris Gudunov — a facsimile of the rouge robes of the Wicked Witch of the West's palace guards, and yours for $35. The wonder of the day is watching attendees mixing and matching all of the above as they shuffle past; the same man or woman brushes by at intervals, wearing a Day-Glo waistcoat, then a gleaming pewter breastplate, and, finally, a deep emerald ballgown. It's the sort of anything-can-happen experience you might have on a Hollywood backlot or the Playa of Burning Man — where, inevitably, much of this stuff is going to end up.

Especially the breastplates.

Greg Weber, the opera's director of production, takes all of this in with a wan smile. He confirms that the weekend's sale, the opera's first since 2009, will also be its last. One of the most efficient ways for opera companies to "streamline," he says, is to cull inventory. Accoutrements from perhaps 80 shows stretching back to 1979 or earlier are on sale this weekend; the company no longer wishes to spend the money to maintain them and, with the looming transformation of its warehouse into condominiums, will have nowhere to put them.

A quick glance through the opera's financials reveals it lost nearly $900,000 in its most recent season — its fourth consecutive year in the red. This town is, increasingly, being run by and for the benefit of rich guys in hoodies and flip-flops. But it remains to be seen if these ascendant schlubs — and their fellow young future old rich people — care to drop their dollars on the arts.

The company must vacate the warehouse by December, and it hasn't yet landed a new place to store its affects. But, when it does, it'll be a far smaller spot containing far fewer things — and it may be far, far away. This city's staggering costs and seismic pricing shifts mean the opera has become yet another San Francisco resident eying space in Alameda, Berkeley, Oakland, or suburbs farther east.

"I'm an optimist," says Weber. "But my team is scared."

That sums up how a lot of people feel in this city. After all, it's a place where even the opera is being priced out of town.

A beefy guy wearing a Captain America shirt and a wide-brimmed hat of the sort favored by the Three Musketeers emerges, blinking, from the dark warehouse. His goal upon entering, he said, was to find a hat so big he couldn't get out the door. Alas, success would require a bigger hat or a smaller door. Still, it's a pretty big hat. So, exit he did, along with all the rest.

Everyone's got to go sometime.

He and his companions wandered off through the Dogpatch, a part of the city changing its appearance as rapidly and definitively as the eclectically attired shoppers now lining its streets.

For the San Francisco Opera — and San Francisco writ large — there always figures to be a next act. But we don't know what it'll look like. We don't know who it will star. And, most importantly, we have no idea who'll be here to see it.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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