Within a very few hours this past February 9, the San Francisco Opera, second in America only to the Metropolitan in New York, suffered two shocks. The first affected the present. The second affected the past—and our memory of it.

The first shock was the retirement, caused by what the official announcement described as diabetes, of Terence McEwen, the company’s general director since 1982. Mr. McEwen, a former executive for Decca Records (known as London in this country), seemed at the beginning of his reign a proponent of what might be called a “singers first” policy. The effect of this approach to running an opera company was an emphasis on safety, and upon the programming of widely attractive works featuring distinguished artists. In McEwen’s hands, performance standards—very much including conducting—were often high. I remember in particular an...


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