Bob Ryan’s love of opera began under the most unusual circumstances — while working at a garment factory! “It was my sophomore year of college. Everyone else worked there during the week, and I would come in on Saturdays to pack garments. I found myself all alone in this big empty warehouse, so I brought in a radio to listen to while I worked.” He tuned into an opera broadcast and was immediately hooked — he listened to 25 operas on the radio that year! Fast forward to 2020, and Bob and Terri Ryan have been attending countless opera performances every year at San Francisco Opera and all over the world for decades.
Photo: Bob and Terri Ryan
A native San Franciscan, Bob was a percussionist before entering Occidental College as a physics major. It was there that he met Terri, a Lake Michigan transplant and geology major, as her physics tutor. Soon after attending graduate school at Case Western Reserve University together, the pair returned to settle down in the Bay Area. Terri quickly took after Bob’s love of opera, and the pair began subscribing to San Francisco Opera in 1974.
Hearing Bob and Terri talk about opera is like a cross between standing in awe upon setting foot in a magnificent library, and hearing a youngster giddily enumerate all of their favorite birthday presents. Their recollection of details from specific performances of decades past is vivid and crystal clear, and the excitement with which they describe them is visceral. They reminisce about the 1985 Ring Cycle (one of their all-time favorites) as if they just saw it last night. "It was James Morris's first Wotan." Terri's eyes light up as she describes a performance of Die Walküre from 35 years ago. "The way Helga Dernesch [Fricka] threw her eight-foot cape over her shoulder and imperiously boomed to Gwyneth Jones [Brünnhilde] 'your father has something to tell you' was bone-chilling!"
Also among the all-time greats is last fall’s magnificent Rusalka, conducted by Music Director Designate Eun Sun Kim. "That Rusalka was simply one of the best performances we have ever heard. Bloody amazing."
Bob and Terri are good friends of the Orchestra, and are always waiting at the stage door to greet and congratulate the musicians after a performance. They even share a secret hand signal with the orchestra! Bob recounts that “years ago, during the sixth consecutive Madama Butterfly in one week, [SFOO percussionist] Patti Niemi looked up at us in the balcony with this wistful expression as if to say ‘Bob, come down and play my part for me, please!’” The secret gesture soon spread around the rest of the orchestra. Principal Bassoonist Rufus Olivier says, “When I exit the stage door and the Ryans are there, the first thing we do is our secret hand signal, which means a number of things, from ‘hello’ to ‘you guys played great tonight.’ They always make the performers feel special and appreciated, as if we were rock stars! They are a gift to all of us at San Francisco Opera.”
We greatly miss Bob and Terri, and we can’t wait to see them again. As for what they look forward to the most about returning to performances at San Francisco Opera? Bob replies unflinchingly. “Two words: live music.”