Remembering Willene Gunn


It is with profound sadness that we share the news that Willene Gunn, Brava! Opera's Artistic Director passed away on August 10, 2022, due to complications following open heart surgery. Her loss creates a huge void for her family, friends, opera patrons, singers and colleagues. 


Brava! Opera General Director Lorrie Hall said, “We are heartbroken and devastated to have lost Willene. Those of us lucky enough to have known her or worked with her will remember her as a once-in-a-generation musician, director and educator of the highest caliber. Her opera productions were clever, creative, inspired and above all a delight to audience members. She was a singers' director and beloved by countless former students, colleagues, singers and technical staff. She was a treasure to work with and had a wonderful sense of humor and infectious laugh that drew everyone in who met her.” Heather Matthews, Chair of Opera and Musical Theatre at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music said “She was a legend in her own time and her immortality now lives on in all those who carry her with us in our hearts and in our own art.”

Willene Gunn served as a member of the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for 30 years as Director of the Conservatory Opera Program. Upon her retirement in the spring of 2005, the Conservatory conferred upon her the honorary degree of Doctor of Music. Ms. Gunn taught voice at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and staged operas in workshops at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Nevada. She directed over 100 major works by Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Bernstein and other major composers for Nevada, Sacramento, Arizona Operas, Rogue Opera, Brava! Opera Theater and the San Francisco Opera Center and other companies in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A graduate of the San Francisco Opera Merola Program, Ms. Gunn performed extensively on the West Coast as a dramatic mezzo-soprano with the San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Oakland and Nevada Opera companies in Aida, Falstaff, Peter Grimes, The Medium, The Consul and numerous others. Her symphonic repertoire included Verdi's Requiem and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. She performed in operetta, musical comedy and legitimate theater, in roles ranging from most of the mezzo-soprano roles in Gilbert and Sullivan, the alto leads in The Sound of Music, Carousel, and South Pacific, and as Hecuba in The Trojan Women. She produced and directed over 35 productions at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and in 2000 the Conservatory awarded her the Sarlo Award for Excellence in Teaching. While at the Conservatory, she directed over 100 scenes a year in the opera workshops. Ms. Gunn's textbook, Teaching Opera, The Role of the Opera Workshop …With Scene Catalogue, written in partnership with Kathryn Cathcart, was published by Leyerle Press in 2008.

In southern Oregon, Ms. Gunn served as Artistic Director of Rogue Opera from 2006-2009, directing the highly-acclaimed Merry Wives of Windsor, The Magic Flute and La bohème. She co-created Rogue Opera's Opera in the Schools program, OperAntics!, and created, directed, and produced three Opera Workshops with Scenes Concerts during her tenure. 

In 2010, Ms. Gunn co-founded and served as Artistic Director for Brava! Opera Theater and James Collier Young Artist Program in Ashland until her passing. There she created, directed, and produced seven opera workshops and scenes concerts. In addition, she produced and directed eight operas, with Hansel and Gretel as her final opera in 2019. This was a deliberate choice as it was one of her favorite operas, and she performed the role of the witch in San Francisco more times than she could count. She also served as head judge of Brava! Opera's 10 prestigious national vocal competition whose winners are singing in major opera houses around the world. 

Our heartfelt condolences go out to her husband, Tom, and daughter, Vicki, and her family during this difficult time.

Services will be held August 18, 2022 at 11:00am at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Medford, Oregon with burial to follow at Eagle Point National Cemetery. Donations in her memory may be made to St. Jude Research Hospital for Children or Doctors Without Borders.