This year’s summer season at the San Francisco Opera is particularly glossy, with a Calixto Bieito “Carmen,” a lavishly cast “Don Carlo” with Michael Fabiano in the title role, and a new “Jenufa” that is, according to Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle, a triumph for Karita Mattila. There’s a reason the season has extra moxie: it’s the swan song of David Gockley, the company’s outgoing general director. Gockley has led San Francisco since 2006. But he made his name as a champion of American opera during his 33 years as general director of the Houston Grand Opera, where he became known for commissioning new work — he was responsible for more than 30 world premieres in Houston, and seven in San Francisco, with an eighth on the horizon, after his official departure, with “Dream of the Red Chamber” by Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang, which will have its premiere in September.

Gockley’s tenure has been long enough that he’s presided over an effective shift in the perception of new opera. At Houston, he was seen as something of a pioneer; his commissions included Meredith Monk’s “Atlas,” Philip Glass’s “The Making of the Representative for Planet 8” (with Doris Lessing), and, most famously, John Adams’s and Peter Sellars’s “Nixon in China.” They also included more tonal, mainstream work, including Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” and Daniel Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas.” His new works in San Francisco haven’t seemed to have as much impact on the field (although at least one, “Appomattox,” was extensively revised and came to Washington for what I still feel was a dynamite run last fall). And as more and more opera houses present new work, Gockley drew heat (or hit a nerve) last summer on a WQXR podcast when he called opera “a bourgeois art form.”

I interviewed Gockley last summer when I was in San Francisco, and decided to save the interview until now, as he prepares to ride off into the sunset.

Anne Midgette: [In a public panel earlier today,] you spoke of optimism. Michael Kaiser just wrote a book called “Curtains,” [in which he presents a bleak vision of the future of the performing arts].

David Gockley: I read it. I think it’s true, what he says. There will be a lot of natural selection of classical institutions, mostly in the middle range. The big ones, like AIG, are too big to fail, and the small ones will scrape by and reinvent themselves. The ones in the biggest, richest communities who are energetic, industrious, go out on a limb, are considered to be “excellent,” will go into the next era.

ALM And yet you say you’re optimistic.

DG Well, I said I was optimistic about new opera. And everywhere I look there’s new opera. Minnesota and Santa Fe and Philly and obviously the little works that are coming out of Beth Morrison [Projects, such as David T. Little’s] “Dog Days” going to the Red Cat under the auspices of the LA Opera: It’s all over the place. Composers are not held in straitjackets stylistically. They can let flow what comes from their heart. I think that will help make better works, and also, as they write their third, fourth, fifth, sixth piece, they’ll get more skillful.

ALM That’s interesting about the straitjacket, because at some institutions the conventional wisdom now is that you get the libretto hammered into shape [and the composer then deals with what you come up with]. There is a sort of rigidity growing up to the system. Would you agree with that?

DG I think the best thing is when a librettist and a composer develop the kind of chemistry that I see [with Jake] Heggie and Gene Scheer, or Heggie and Terrence [McNally]: They come to a kind of working plan, a process, and the communication with them is automatic. And you know, when it happens, it really is great. And in general it means that the music comes to the fore.

ALM What accounts for all of this new opera?

DG Well, I put a little piece in the program [book] this season talking about why I think there’s been a resurgence of opera in America specifically. I think it is that there is the feeling that composers don’t have to be embarrassed to write for the audience. I have encouraged people to write tunes — I don’t mean jingles or anything like that, but lyrical music, with shape, and with a beginning and an end. And either they literally can’t do it or they almost are embarrassed to do it, because they know they’re going to get whacked [by the critics]. I point out in this article that a composer at one point admitted to me that he punctuated his music with wrong notes. And I think they don’t have to do that. I credit Philip Glass for having the fortitude and the wherewithal to go with his own language, his own style. Whatever we think of it, at least it led the way to other minimalists.

ALM You haven’t had a smaller house [in San Francisco]; all of your world premieres here, and it’ll be eight by the time you’re done, have been on the main stage.

DG That’s all we’ve had. “The Secret Garden” [by Nolan Gasser] was in the theater in Berkeley. It was in spring of the year when the ballet is in here, so we had to go across the Bay. [Note: The opera season in San Francisco runs from September to December, with an additional month in June.]

ALM How has that affected what you’ve been been able to do here? Being able to premiere that many mainstage premieres is remarkable. A lot of your premieres in Houston were for the smaller stage.

DG [Meredith Monk’s] “Atlas” was smaller, [Jake Heggie’s] “End of the Affair” was smaller, [Glass’s] “Akhnaten” was in the larger, [Leonard Bernstein’s] “A Quiet Place” was in the larger, “Nixon [in China]”, the two [Daniel] Catán pieces [“Salsipuedes” and “Florencia en el Amazonas,”], were in the larger. The Michael Tippett [opera, “New Year”] was the smaller. Francesca’s taking advantage of this at the Kennedy Center using the different spaces. I think that’s a great thing to have at your disposal.

ALM It must be slightly frustrating to be leaving just as [your new, smaller theater, the 300-seat hall in the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera] has opened [in January, 2016]. How far out is it programmed?

DG Only the first year. But it’s a short-term programming, shorter term. We probably can get away with programming it 12, 14 months ahead of time. We do not yet have a new work over there. But we’re doing pieces like “Svadba,” [Thomas Ades’s] “Powder her Face,” that kind of thing. We have a series of song cycles that are going to be staged, chamber music. We are going to do a film with vocal accompaniment, “Triplets [of Belleville"]. We [did] from Aix-en-Provence the Matthias Goerne – William Kentridge “Winterreise.” But they have to be really, really small. We figured out, if you count orchestra and count cast, it can’t be any more than 14 people.

ALM To fit?

DG To afford. You want to do a variety of work. And here is where you can do it with less financial risk, and you can be successful filling 300 seats, where in a big theater it would look like nobody was there, and what a downer that is.

ALM How has the landscape changed in general since you came in? You were fighting an uphill battle with American work, but there was a lot more money when you started.

DG There was the National Opera Institute, there was the NEA, there was Opera America, all of which were seeding new American works. Now, really, the Mellon Foundation seems to be the one that is kind of taking that on. They’re doing an amazingly significant job. But I would say there are more private individuals that are willing to back new work. Whereas before, we said, “Well, new work is for the government or for foundations that are willing to get behind artistically significant work that the private donors, individual donors might not want to do.” And our being, in Houston, able to launch that many new works came from that environment. We could often get as much as $150,000; back in the ’80s, that was not insignificant.

ALM Does that mean even more of your time is spent doing fundraising now?

DG Yeah, sure. There’s no alternative but to continue to raise more and more and more money.

ALM When you installed the video suite it was at a time when the HD broadcasts from the Met were the new thing and you tried movie theater broadcasts — now you have all of these DVDs. … How much is that a revenue steam as opposed to simply a bookmark?

DG [Pause] There’s no money in it. The way I characterize it to the board is, it’s in our mission statement and principles of the company that we are an international opera company operating at a world-class level. And there are many ways to do that, but having a media presence is part of that. And maybe it helps us attract artists. Certainly I think the HD gets people to focus on the Met, appearing at the Met. But it’s expensive, and it doesn’t make its money back. It makes some of it back. And I think we agree that DVDs, their days are numbered, and even HD, the days may be numbered, and that streaming into the home onto devices is the way it’ll go. And a lot of streaming is free. And there’s a lot of operas on YouTube now.

ALM But since you installed the suite, isn’t it less expensive to do it?

DG It allows us, for very low six figures, to be able to issue DVD after DVD after DVD.

ALM But six figures for each one.

DG Yeah, still. It’s production, post production, rights of certain people. Our core orchestra and chorus, we’ve built rights into their basic compensation. But there’s extra chorus, there’s extra orchestra, there are directors and designers.

ALM When you do a co-production with DC, do you specify that you get the rights? Or a co-production with London, “Les Troyens” — they have the DVD out already.

DG If you are in a co-production and do it first and are the organizer of the co-production and you have media capabilities, it pretty much is assumed that you will do it first. What we did with Barcelona on our “Norma” co-production, which we premiered, we agreed that they could do international cinema and we’d do DVD.

ALM Where would you like to see the company going?

DG I would like to see the company do increasingly more interesting productions. And to develop a greater theatricality. And I don’t mean necessarily Eurotrash. But you read our brochure: We’re bringing Calixto Bielto [for “Carmen”], we’re bringing Damiano Michielotto and Davide Livermore, the latter two being surprisingly very, very imaginative Italian directors. I would love to think that the company would attract the very best people, [but] try as I may, I’ve not been able to get Jonas Kaufman or Anya Harteros here. I got René Pape, thank heaven, to do King Philip II [in “Don Carlo” this month]. And we do pretty well, but I would hope that my successor can find the basis, as was [true] during the time of Kurt Herbert Adler, the feeling that you had to be in San Francisco every year.

ALM I wasn’t fully aware that it stopped.

DG I think under Lotfi [Mansouri, who ran the company from 1988-2001], it kind of declined. And Pamela [Rosenberg, 2001-2005], that wasn’t important to her. Production was the whole thing. She did some wonderful productions, some of which I got to see, and some not so good. She couldn’t make a case for them. She was not a spokesperson for her philosophy. Couldn’t justify it. But brilliant.

ALM Finally, when we talk about the works you did in Houston there are all of these [familiar titles we trot] out; you’ve already mentioned a lot of them.

DG A lot of what I was able to do in Houston was helped by co-production. And back then not many people were doing it, and they were willing to come in with us. Now, most of the companies you go to, they say, “Well, we’re developing our own project.” I’ve been disappointed, I’ll tell you, that we have not attracted more partners in these works, and therefore they will have to wait until somebody rediscovers them. And the composers, we have Tobias Picker, Stewart Wallace, Chris Theofanidis — they’re so eager to address the work again and do the work that they saw could make it better.

ALM I remember Picker complaining bitterly that even when you do make changes [for an opera’s second production], the critics have already signed off on it, so they won’t come back to look at the revision. Is there an opera you think should get more attention?

DG I think “Heart of a Soldier” [by Theofanidis] should. And that’s one Francesca has thought of bringing [to D.C.]. And it’s obvious what needs to be done there. And I hope she can find a basis to do that. “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” [by Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan]. “Dolores Claiborne” is a strong work with a good libretto that could be better but some of the graphic aspect about that makes it not attractive to other companies. There was a child molestation scene that was pretty… People came up to me and said how painful it was because they were, they had experienced it.

ALM Do you have any final thoughts about the opera, your time here, your plans?

DG I’m totally convinced this is the right move for me. [There are so many things I’ll have time for.] I would write on various subjects, if it would help academia or whatever. I’m not a terrible writer. I’m a decent writer. I would teach. I’ve been already invited to go up to the Yale School of Music for a week and talk to various groups, audition singers, and counsel with them about the trade. I would mentor, I would consult, short periods.
I want to travel, I want to go sailing. A friend of mine and I just bought a 30-foot sloop, which we keep very near where I live in Sausalito. Linda and I are going to stay here. I have a home in Santa Fe, which we will go to, at various times of the year. I’ve got two grandchildren and two children in Houston, and one who has just moved to Colorado to get into the edible marijuana chocolate business. And I’m an investor [in that]. I’m becoming an entrepreneur.
I’m proud of my final [summer season]. “Jenufa,” with Karita Mattila doing her first Kostelnica; a great five-act “Don Carlo”; and the Calixto [Bieito] “Carmen.” So it’s kind of what I believe in, you know. The core of what I believe in.

The San Francisco Opera season continues through July 3, including a gala concert “Celebrating David!” on June 16th.

The opera recently announced a new work by John Adams and Peter Sellars called “Girls of the Golden West,” set during the California gold rush. It will premiere in the fall of 2017.