S.F. Opera fans so devoted they’ve become ‘part of our family’

S.F. Opera fans so devoted they've become 'part of our family'

Opera “superfans” Terri and Bob Ryan are photographed by cast member Jonathan Tetelman outside the stage door after a performance of “La Traviata” at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco on Nov. 16. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Terri and Bob Ryan aren’t just opera fans. The couple’s devotion to the art form is so strong you could say they live an operatic lifestyle.

Before you jump to any conclusions (insert “Tosca” joke here), they don’t sing conversations or make dramatic gestures as if onstage. Instead, the Ryans, both 73, have organized their lives in support of the music they love. In 1995, they even moved from their home near the City College of San Francisco campus to an apartment seven blocks away from the War Memorial Opera House so they could walk to the many performances they see each season. That proximity has also made it easy for them to host singers during their San Francisco Opera fellowships, or while performing in the company’s season.

“Some would call it obsessive,” Bob told The Chronicle. “But we tend to think it’s just the way things should be.”

The Ryans have been married for 50 years and have subscribed to the San Francisco Opera since 1974. They not only attend every production the company mounts, but also see multiple performances, sometimes bringing their own musical scores to follow along. Because of their annual and planned giving, they are also longtime members of the Opera’s Medallion Society and Bel Canto Society for donors. They also regularly attend Opera Parallele in San Francisco, West Edge Opera in Berkeley, West Bay Opera in Palo Alto and Opera San Jose.

Opera “superfans” Bob and Terri Ryan settle into their seats Nov. 16 as they attend “La Traviata” at the War Memorial Opera House. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

“We’ve seen operas in Australia, we’ve seen operas in Canada, we’ve seen operas all around Europe,” Terri said. “San Francisco is certainly up there in the top tier of opera cities.”

If you were to run into them at a performance, the couple might not immediately seem like the archetypal opera patron. Far from the super-wealthy donors often seated in the boxes, Bob is a retired accountant for Pacific Bell (now AT&T) and Terri worked in data processing at Wells Fargo. They are generally casually dressed, and not usually interested in attending galas; although for the first time ever, they attended the Opera Ball in 2022 (in formal wear) for the company’s centenary.

The couple met at Occidental College in Los Angeles and married in 1972: Terri was raised in San Rafael, Bob grew up “all over the Midwest.” Bob’s love for classical music grew after playing violin in his high school orchestra. Early in their marriage, Bob took Terri to see a touring production of “Carmen” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but it wasn’t the instant love you might imagine.

Opera “superfans” Terri and Bob Ryan greet cast member Edward Graves outside the stage door after a performance of “La Traviata” at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

“At intermission I said to Bob, ‘Is this any good?’ ” Terri remembered. “He said, ‘No! It’s a terrible performance.’ I said, ‘Oh good. I thought I didn’t like opera; it’s just this one I don’t like!’ ”

After moving to the Bay Area in 1973, they began attending the San Francisco Opera, whose performances Terri found much better. In the decades since, the couple have become so enmeshed with the company that in an email, general director Matthew Shilvock called them “exemplars of the community that is keeping great opera on our stage.”

“Terri and Bob define operatic passion,” said Shilvock, who frequently sees them greeting performers at the stage door. “They are part of the rhythm of San Francisco Opera and are there by our side in everything we do. They don’t just enjoy opera; they are a part of our family in making it come to life.”

Soprano Maria Valdes first met Bob and Terri during her time in the Merola program in 2013 and recalled them “introducing themselves to everyone on the program, and taking us to lunches and dinners after the performance.”

The Ryans kept in touch, and when Valdes returned to San Francisco for her Adler Fellowship in 2015, she stayed in one of the couple’s guest rooms.

“After a performance at 10, 11 at night, Bob would come to the stage door and walk me home,” Valdes recalled. She described the couple, who do not have children, as surrogate parents to many singers. (She plans to invite the Ryans to her upcoming wedding.)

Opera “superfans” Bob and Terri Ryan walk through the War Memorial Opera House as they arrive for a November performance of “La Traviata.” Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Tenor Edward Graves lived with the Ryans in 2022. “When I found out I was accepted into the Adlers, it was quite late last year,” Graves said. “They gave me a room, we took all our meals together, and they would never accept a payment.”

Beyond offering housing, the Ryans also shared their vast knowledge of opera, the singers said, but did so without any of the elitism often endemic to classical music fandom.

That’s one of the things that struck me the most about the Ryans: In an art form that can sometimes feel ultra-exclusive, Terri and Bob are friendly, approachable and eager to share what they love. That’s how it should be, they said, for opera to continue to find new audiences.

“There’s visual art, there’s symphonic art, there’s vocal art, there’s stagecraft, there’s drama — there’s every art form represented on that stage,” Terri said. “There’s something for everyone.”

“Opera is about good, basic human emotions: love, hate, revenge, loyalty,” said Bob. “You don’t need to speak the language to figure out a lot of what’s going on onstage.”