For the second time this month, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) has presented its Medal for Artistic Excellence. Last night the Medal was awarded to Principal Guest Conductor Patrick Summers following the performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This means that each of the first two operas of this season has provided the occasion for this award, the first having been given to stage director Francesca Zambello on opening night after the final curtain call for Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller.
The presentation of Summers’ medal marked the 25th anniversary of his SFO debut. However, his relationship with both San Francisco and SFO goes back before that debut. He received his bachelor’s degree in music from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in 1986 and immediately headed to San Francisco to spend the summer in the Merola Opera Program as an apprentice coach. At the end of the summer he received the Otto Guth Memorial Award for excellence in vocal coaching. He returned to Merola the following summer and won that same award for a second time. Between those two summers he had his first professional engagement, conducting Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème for Western Opera Theater, for which he then became musical director, traveling with the company to China in 1987, the first time a Western opera company had visited that country.
His conducting duties with SFO have covered a broad range of repertoire, extending from George Frideric Handel to the “immediate present.” In that latter respect he has conducted three SFO world premieres, André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire in 1998, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in 2000, and Christopher Theofanidis’ Heart of a Soldier in 2011. He also conducted the West Coast premieres of two other Heggie operas, Three Decembers in 2008 and Moby-Dick in 2012.
In 1998 David Gockley appointed Summers to the post of Music Director for the Houston Grand Opera. That was also the year in which Summers made his conducting debut at the Metropolitan Opera for their production of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. The following year he was named Principal Guest Conductor of SFO by Lotfi Mansouri.
Sadly, in the wake of last night’s ceremony, Summers’ has been obliged to return to Houston earlier than had originally been planned, due to an urgent professional obligation. This means that he will not be conducting the next performance of Sweeney Todd this Saturday evening, September 26. That performance will be conducted by James Lowe, who will also conduct the final performance on Tuesday, September 29, as previously scheduled. Ticket are still available for these performances from the opera’s event page on the SFO Web site.