SAN FRANCISCO — Heading south on Sunday afternoon, 26,000 feet over San Luis Obispo and listening to Brahms trickling out of the airline headphones, I decided there is only one requirement for building a weekend trip around the San Francisco Opera: You have to be certifiably nuts about classical music.
You can't get away from it, not if you spend your time hovering in the neighborhood around the opera house. It floats out of windows, seeps out of elevator ceilings, appears in live form suddenly in restaurants and stores, and on street corners.
It animates conversation in neighborhood bars and restaurants, where the guy at the next table may be carrying a violin case and the majestic-looking woman in the lounge might be a diva. It crowds everything else off the calendar.
And, at this time of year particularly, when the opera season is still fairly fresh, it's a way of life in what is often called the Civic Center district of the city. There, within a radius of about four blocks, is contained not only the War Memorial Opera House but Davies Symphony Hall, the Herbst Theater, the Civic Auditorium and the headquarters of the San Francisco Ballet.
First, though, the absolute imperative: Get a ticket. The opera season in San Francisco this year runs through Dec. 11, and several of the performances are already sold out. The good news is that tickets now can be charged by phone (call 415-864-3330).
There can be bad news too. I wrote early and asked for a $45 seat for the Saturday night opening performance of Verdi's "Il Trovatore." A letter came back a few days later: Sorry, sold out. I called and asked for a similarly priced seat for the Friday performance of Verdi's "Macbeth." Sorry, said the friendly ticket person on the other end. The cheapest ticket was a side orchestra seat at $100. I took it, a little disappointed and a few bucks poorer.
Imperative No. 2: Book a room at the Inn at the Opera. This is not the only place to stay within walking distance of the opera house by any means, but if you want to feel thoroughly plugged in to the local musical universe, it is a quietly elegant clearinghouse. The staff has played host to such lights as Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and many other operatic, symphonic and jazz heavyweights, and they can tell you exactly what's on and who's where on any particular night. They know music.
I arrived at the Inn at the Opera late Friday morning after a 9 a.m. flight from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, and was struck once again at the near perfection of the location. The Inn is a small (48 rooms, seven stories) European-style hotel on the south side of Fulton Street just west of Franklin, which means it is almost directly behind the opera house. The walk to the opera house lobby takes all of two minutes. The canned music in the inn's lobby is chamber music--Mozart, when I arrived--and my single room was beautifully decorated in light colors, with a white tile bathroom, a spacious armoire and a little basket filled with Braeburn apples. The clock radio on the end table was on when I walked in--tuned to the local classical station.
I went out and headed south for Hayes Street, two blocks away. In 1983 and '84, when I lived in the city and sang with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, I spent part of nearly every Tuesday evening at Zellerbach rehearsal hall (it's attached to Davies Symphony Hall) at the corner of Hayes and Franklin streets, and I often stopped after rehearsal for a glass of wine at the adjacent Hayes Street Grill. But I hadn't known that Hayes Street, and a couple of the streets off it, are filled with little art galleries, bookstores and, mostly, small restaurants of all stripes, from Caribbean (one served a curried goat dish) to Russian (Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room) to New York deli-style (Moishe's Pippic).
For lunch I settled in at a cozy place on Gough Street called the Blue Muse and ordered the first of a series of wonderful meals: the somewhat fiery pasta jambalaya.
A hike seemed in order, but I didn't get far. Just around the corner on Hayes is the Star Classics record, tape and compact disc store, and still more chamber music was wafting out of the door. At first I thought it was just a very good stereo system, but a sign outside indicated that it was one in a series of weekly Friday noontime recitals in one of the store's side rooms. A pair of local violists were playing duets and trios with a pianist. All were dressed in formal concert wear.
After a short nap, it was dinner time, and I had reservations at the Inn at the Opera's Act IV restaurant, a small, serene, deep-green-carpeted and dark-wood-paneled room that fills with before-and-after-opera diners. I was seated next to a couple who were going to the symphony that night and the opera the next, and we happily talked music, opera and good food. I ordered the chicken breast in Dijon sauce, which was nearly perfect.