On Nov. 19, 2022, San Francisco Opera’s “The Traviata Encounter,” an experiment in which Act 1 of Verdi’s “La Traviata” was followed by a sexy immersive event in the War Memorial Opera House lobby, was a rousing success.

Hoping for a repeat, the company is applying a similar formula for Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” on Dec. 1.

“The Traviata Encounter’s” casino games, custom cocktails and staged burlesque will again be a part of “The Elixir of Love Encounter,” which will be set in the famous Italian Riviera resort hotel seen in the opera’s first act.

Tenor Pene Pati as Nemorino, center, and members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus appear in Act 1 from “The Elixir of Love,” which will kick off the “The Elixir of Love Encounter” on Dec. 1 at the War Memorial Opera House. (Courtesy Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

The audience will be guests at the resort, according to Lee Helms, the opera’s director of innovation programs, who says, “The experience in the lobbies will be full of surprises: aerialists, balloon artists, portraitists, living statues, live reptiles, sexy sailors, a tarot reader and a roller-mermaid, just to name a few.” 

Other features that hotel guests would find include a sunny piazza, casino, country villa getaway (with a garden, art gallery, apothecary and mermaid grotto), beach club, and wine cellar (with a dance floor featuring drag artist Juanita More!).

Keeping the event to a manageable capacity is among the lessons learned from the Verdi “Encounter” that will be reflected in the Donizetti event. Even though the opera house seats at least 3,000, the lobbies can’t support that many without overcrowding, so a lower capacity was set to accommodate easier flow and shorter lines at concessions for “The Traviata Encounter,” which sold out.

“There will be some logistical iterations: for example, additional way-finding (signs, printed guides, digital guides), Helms adds. “And popular activities that are spaced further apart to pull people further into the nooks and crannies of our lobby and prevent crowding.”

Another key change from last year’s full-house “Encounter” reflects the fact that, as the pandemic has subsided, performers will play a larger role at the party this year.

“Principal singers from the production will be available for autographs and selfies, and other personnel will be present as San Francisco Opera ambassadors,” says Helms, who was behind “Bohème Out of the Box” free outdoor performances of a shortened version of “La Bohème” earlier this year.

In addition to lessons from the 2022 “Encounter” that officials found useful from a practical standpoint, there were revelations about demographics that may prove to have a long-lasting impact for the company.

Helms says, “Of last year’s ‘Encounter’ attendees, two-thirds set foot in the opera house for the first time. And many went on to become subscribers and single-ticket buyers.”

The War Memorial Opera House lobby became the site of a party during “The Traviata Encounter” on Nov. 19, 2022. (Courtesy Stefan Cohen/San Francisco Opera)

Also notable is the fact that the average age of the “Encounter” patron is between 33 and 44, as opposed to the 55-75 range of the general opera patron. Indeed, the younger group is the target of the company’s “recommended for 21-plus audiences” designation for “Encounter.”

“(The designation) simply allows us to create an experience in the opera house that contrasts with other programming such that more people are drawn to us,” Helms explains. “Although we do great work to reach young audiences and have a strong base of patrons who come to us much later in life, there is a ‘doughnut hole’ in the middle — when people’s careers take off, they get married, move to the suburbs and have kids — where engaging with us is a more challenging commitment due to other factors in our lives.”

But the big picture, from Helms’ perspective, is that producing opera essentially means constantly doing new things, such as the “Encounter” programming.

“By presenting only the first act, we’re giving a chef’s tasting menu of opera with full integrity, and then we introduce a subversively irreverent, highly social, social media-friendly, interactive experience in the lobby, casting those spaces in an entirely new light,” Helms says. “I want younger members of our community to know that our space is not just their grandparents’ opera house.”

San Francisco Opera's “The Elixir of Love Encounter” is at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $39-$189 at sfopera.com.