San Francisco Opera is the second largest opera company in North America. Gaetano Merola and Kurt Herbert Adler were the Company’s first two general directors. Merola led the Company from its founding in 1923 until his death in 1953; Adler was in charge from 1953 through 1981. Legendary for both their conducting and managerial skills, the two leaders established a formidable institution that is internationally recognized as one of the top opera companies in the world—heralded for its first-rate productions and roster of international opera stars. Following Adler’s tenure, the Company was headed by three visionary leaders: Terence A. McEwen (1982–1988), Lotfi Mansouri (1988–2001), and Pamela Rosenberg (2001–2005). Originally presented over two weeks, the Company’s season now contains approximately seventy-five performances of ten operas between September and July. San Francisco Opera celebrated the 75th anniversary of its performing home, the War Memorial Opera House, in 2007 . The venerable beaux arts building was inaugurated on October 15, 1932 and holds the distinction of being the first American opera house that was not built by and for a small group of wealthy patrons; the funding came thanks to a group of private citizens who encouraged thousands of San Franciscans to subscribe. The War Memorial currently welcomes some 500,000 patrons annually.

David Gockley became San Francisco Opera’s sixth general director in January of 2006 after more than three decades at the helm of Houston Grand Opera. During his first months as general director, Gockley took opera to the center of the community with a free outdoor simulcast—the first in the Company’s history—of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in May 2006. Subsequent simulcasts included Rigoletto in October 2006, reaching 15,000 people in San Francisco and Stanford University's Frost Amphitheater; Don Giovanni in June 2007, which was broadcast to 7,000 people in four theaters across Northern California; Samson and Delilah for an audience of 15,000 at AT&T Park in September 2007; Lucia di Lammermoor at AT&T Park for an crowd of 23,000; and Tosca, also at AT&T Park, for a record-breaking audience of 27,000 in June 2009. In September 2009, the Company and the San Francisco Giants baseball team partner with Webcor Builders to bring a simulcast of Il Trovatore to AT&T Park. In 2007, Gockley led the Company to take these innovations even further and created the Koret-Taube Media Suite. The first permanent high-definition broadcast-standard video production facility installed in any American opera house, the Koret-Taube Media Suite gives San Francisco Opera the permanent capability to produce simulcasts and other projects including OperaVision, where retractable screens provide full stage, close-up, and mid-range ensemble shots in high-definition video for patrons in balcony seats. Gockley ushered in another first for San Francisco Opera in December 2007 when the Company announced an agreement for distribution of six operas per year to movie theaters across the globe. This agreement with The Bigger Picture, a subsidiary of Access Integrated Technologies, Inc., marks the first time that any opera company will utilize the feature film quality digital cinema format and underscores how the era of digital cinema is transforming how and where great entertainment reaches new audiences. In 2007 Gockley also launched radio partnerships with San Francisco’s Classical 102.1 KDFC and the WFMT Radio Network in Chicago, returning regular San Francisco Opera broadcasts to the national and international radio airwaves for the first time in 25 years. Under Gockley’s leadership, San Francisco Opera has announced plans for three world premieres and two Bay Area premieres in upcoming seasons by composers Christopher Theofanidis, Mark Adamo, Jennifer Higdon, Jake Heggie, and John Adams.

David Gockley’s partner in artistic programming and musical issues is Music Director Nicola Luisotti, who recently began his tenure in August 2009. Maestro Luisotti made his San Francisco Opera debut in 2005 conducting La Forza del Destino and, following the announcement of his appointment as music director in 2007, he returned to the Company in November 2008 for critically acclaimed performances of La Bohème. In his inaugural season as music director, Luisotti conducts Il Trovatore, Salome, Otello, and La Fanciulla del West. Patrick Summers, a longtime veteran of numerous San Francisco Opera productions, former music director of the San Francisco Opera Center, and current music director of Houston Grand Opera, is the Company's principal guest conductor. Giuseppe Finzi, assistant conductor, coach and pianist at Milan’s La Scala, was named as the Company’s assistant music director, in 2009.

San Francisco Opera offers a comprehensive array of acclaimed training programs and performance opportunities for young artists under the auspices of the San Francisco Opera Center and the Merola Opera Program (each a separate institution). Both are led by renowned soprano Sheri Greenawald.