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SFO names new general director

The San Francisco Opera today announced the name of its new general director: Matthew Shilvock, 39, will take over on August 1, 2016 — after working for ten years in other capacities with the company.

He will replace David Gockley, who announced in 2014 that after a ten-year run in San Francisco, capping an illustrious career in American opera that included more than 30 years at the head of the Houston Grand Opera, he will retire at the end of the 2015-16 season.

Coming after a ten-month international search that was reported to have touched on some of the big names in the opera world, the announcement of Shilvock was a surprise to many. But he is a familiar face at the San Francisco Opera, where he has been serving as Gockley’s second-in-command as Associate General Director for the last five years. He came to San Francisco in 2005, with Gockley, after working for him in Houston for the last two years of his tenure there.

“The notion of running an opera company was very much in my ambitions early on in life, from my late teens,” Shilvock said by phone from San Francisco on Monday afternoon. But, he added, “I don’t think I could ever have envisioned having this amazing opportunity when I came on board.”

Shilvock, an alumnus of OPERA America’s fellowship program, has had the opportunity to get a lot of hands-on experience during his previous San Francisco tenure. He oversaw the development of live opera simulcasts in the ballpark; negotiated a media rights agreement, and served as the lead negotiator with the labor unions — a key skill, particularly in light of some other administrators’ struggles in this particular area in recent seasons.

“Not having the steep learning curve that someone coming in new would have,” he said, “I think we can engage very quickly and do what we need to do.”

Shilvock was born in 1976 in the English town of Kidderminster, and studied piano, organ and cello before going to Oxford to read musicology. His thesis was on the French composer Lully, and the French Baroque, in particular, remains “a personal love of mine,” he says. “The harmonic intensity of Rameau, in particular, is exceptional. I do hope that can find a place on our stage in future.” He speaks with excitement of the positive reaction to the San Francisco Opera’s “Partenope” in 2014.

His first opera experience, however, was seeing a production of Graham Vick’s company then known as the City of Birmingham Touring Opera, “Beauty and the Beast” by the composer Stephen Oliver, performed in a TV studio in which the audience followed the action of the piece from one space to another. “That was a formative experience for a 13-year-old,” he says, adding, “That has stayed with me as a great guide to how interactive opera can be.”

Shilvock lives in Marin County with his wife, Kate, and two young children.

By choosing Shilvock, the San Francisco Opera has gotten to have it both ways: opting for the status quo by continuing Gockley’s tradition, while coming down on the side of youth and freshness.

“I am confident that promoting a young leader with great skills and passion for opera from within our company is the right decision,” said Keith Geeslin, president of the San Francisco Opera Association.

“I’m just very excited that the board has gone in this direction,” says Shilvock, “and not just for personal reasons. It’s a wonderful affirmation of their belief in the company and the men and women who work here.”