The announcement last week that David Gockley would be taking over the reins of San Francisco Opera surprised those who thought the premier poster boy for the city's performing arts community would never leave. He was the preeminent head of Houston Grand Opera.
After more than 30 years of building HGO into a nationally recognized force, Gockley obviously had his career in mind when he made the choice. He'll be leading one of the oldest and most revered companies in America. San Francisco Opera has run up deficits the last several years, but its annual budget is more than twice that of HGO. Gockley will be directing what is considered one of the top three U.S. companies, one well established in the international opera spotlight.
"I think it's a good time in his life to do this," says Lynn Guggolz, longtime Houston board member and opera donor. "I was surprised when the story broke, but I wasn't surprised when he took the job."
However, personal considerations may have been as influential as professional ones in Gockley's move.
In 2000, his 23-year marriage to Adair Gockley, the mother of his three children, ended with an amicable divorce. By mid-2001, Gockley had started a courtship with Libby Weathers that climaxed with their gala wedding in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in late 2002. The couple was a regular in the party-pics pages and gossip columns with bold-faced names; she worked with the Downtown Entertainment District Alliance to produce "The Main Event," a series of sidewalk spectacles.
By last summer, the couple's names had dropped off the society pages. Weathers had left him; their divorce became final in October. The couple had been such a part of HGO and the split was so sudden that Gockley felt compelled to write a letter to his board of directors informing them of the breakup. It was shortly after that, associates say, that he began to think of expanding his horizons.
San Francisco Opera contacted him in January. Only Gockley knows for sure if his decision was based on heartache or the result of a great offer -- or both -- and he isn't talking to the Houston Press.
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HGO officials say they will hire headhunters to begin the replacement search, and -- if necessary to attract the best applicants -- they may split Gockley's duties into separate artistic and administrative positions. "But we hope to have someone in place before David leaves in July," says John S. Arnoldy, president of the board.
One prime candidate is likely to be Lyric Opera of Chicago artistic director Matthew Epstein. He is scheduled to leave that post in April and he had been rumored to be in the running at SFO.
Cecil C. Conner Jr., managing director of Houston Ballet, says it will be a challenge for HGO to replace Gockley before he formally departs. It took almost nine months for the ballet to select Australian Stanton Welch as the successor to Ben Stevenson. Conner says, however, that the HGO helm would be a coveted position in the opera world.
"I don't think they'll have trouble finding someone," notes Barry Mandel, president and CEO of the downtown alliance. "And it will be interesting to see where these new leaders of the ballet and opera will take the arts community in the future."