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Musician Profile: Janet Archibald, English Horn/Third Oboe

Updated: Jan 19, 2021

“As I started to play, I heard quiet swearing behind me — a piece of scenery had gotten hung up and was dangling at an angle, refusing to go into place. I kept playing as a stagehand grabbed a ladder and climbed up right over my head, reached out and frantically tugged at the piece of scenery until it swung into place just barely in time before the curtain rose.”

It was the fall of 2007, a performance of Tannhäuser, and Janet Popesco Archibald was in the wings at the War Memorial Opera House, playing a demanding English Horn solo, setting a sublime soundscape that had her colleagues in the pit holding their collective breath, unaware of the weight literally hanging over this particular performance. Never, as she had worked on that solo in practice rooms at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, had Janet considered the possibility of a stagehand dangling above her, keeping his cool under intense pressure while Ji Young Yang made her company debut as the Shepherd.

This was just another day at work for this San Francisco native, who for thirty years has played the role of English Horn/Third Oboe in the Opera Orchestra. As a child, Janet reveled in the rich San Francisco folk and rock music world, and benefited from the public school system that put a clarinet in her hands at the age of ten and introduced her to her lifelong voice on the oboe, courtesy of Mr. Grijalva’s band at Portola Junior High.

As a student at Lowell, Janet began learning the exacting process of gouging, shaping, and tying small bits of cane into precise shapes, uncovering that sweet spot that gives voice to the instrument. The satisfaction of a good reed is elusive and short-lived, as they lose their resonance very quickly, and like all oboists and bassoonists, Janet spends hours each week at her reed desk.

Photos: Tony Striplen

After attending the University of Cincinnati and the San Francisco Conservatory, where she earned both Bachelor and Master of Music degrees, Janet was determined to settle in the Bay Area. While teaching oboe students, making reeds, and performing as a freelance musician, she worked in a San Francisco law firm. Having spent so much time in practice rooms, this “real-world experience” — including a project dealing with the aftermath of the Jim Jones’ People’s Temple Church tragedy in Guyana — was informative.

Janet traveled for five national tours with the Merola Program’s Western Opera Theater, which provided training for young singers, supporting the rise of such artists as Deborah Voigt and Mark Delavan. In a production of Madama Butterfly conducted by a young Patrick Summers, Janet witnessed an unforgettable performance by Patricia Racette at the Beacon Theater in New York City “that left many of us in the orchestra as well as the audience in tears — we knew then that she was on the cusp of becoming a big star.”

Janet was herself on the cusp of an enviable career as a tenured member of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Audiences have marveled at Janet’s rich warm sound emerging from the pit or backstage in over 322 full productions — more than three thousand performances, and miles of spent cane. Like that intrepid stagehand, Janet keeps her cool and performs admirably under intense pressure, and continues to bring joy to her Bay Area home. A founding member of the Lowell Trio, she brings her lifelong love of opera and the Beatles into an intimate setting at Armando’s in Martinez. We salute this treasured member of our San Francisco Opera community.

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