• Greek theatre in black and white

About: History


Cal Performances is the performing arts presenting, commissioning and producing organization based at the University of California, Berkeley. The origins of Cal Performances date from 1906, when stage actress Sarah Bernhardt appeared at the William Randolph Hearst Greek Theater to help rebuild public morale after the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire in April of that year.

Over the subsequent century, Cal Performances grew to become the largest, multi-discipline performing arts presenter in Northern California, and one of the largest university-based arts presenters in the United States. Traditional and non-traditional artists regularly appear on or near the UC Berkeley campus in the theaters and concert halls managed by Cal Performances, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, Wynton Marsalis, Cecilia Bartoli, Bryn Terfel, Mark Morris, Yo-Yo Ma, Philip Glass, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch, Bill T. Jones, Peter Sellars, and Robert Lepage; as well as artists based in the San Francisco Bay Area like John Adams, Lou Harrison, Margaret Jenkins, Paul Dresher, Kronos Quartet, Joe Goode, Kaila Flexer, Jon Jang, and Sarah Cahill. Cal Performances is also instrumental in facilitating the touring of large ensembles from abroad, and has hosted such companies as the Grand Kabuki Theater of Japan, the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballet companies, Lyon Opera Ballet and Orchestra, the Kirov Orchestra, the Russian National Orchestra, the Berliner Ensemble, the Beijing People’s Art Theater, the Gate Theater of Dublin, Les Arts Florissants, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and Nederland Dans Theater, among others.

Cal Performances presents over 100 performances annually in five venues—Zellerbach Hall, Zellerbach Playhouse, Hertz Hall, and Wheeler Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, and First Congregational Church of Berkeley—and in site-specific locations and other spaces. The performances range among Modern and Classical Dance, Theater, Instrumental and Vocal Recital, Early Music, Opera, Chamber Music, Jazz, New Music, World Music, Dance & Theater, and a speaking series. Cal Performances serves some 150,000 patrons annually through performances and arts education, residency and community programs.

Founding and Early Expansion

The San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906 proved momentous to the rise of this arts institution in Berkeley. Sarah Bernhardt’s landmark performance in Racine’s Phèdre on May 17, 1906, was a testament to the restorative powers of the performing arts for the thousands of citizens who had been impacted by the earthquake, and the atmosphere of expectancy surrounding the appearance of “The Divine Sarah” was rewarded by her decision to donate the proceeds of her performance to the Emergency Relief Fund. Bernhardt’s wild popularity combined with the Greek Theatre’s spectacular design and atmosphere, set in motion the tradition of performing arts presentation in Berkeley. In the words of theater director Samuel Hume, it was the event that “placed the Greek Theatre definitely in the field of the commercial theatre.”

William Dallam Armes, Chair of the Musical and Dramatic Committee, realized that the Theatre’s large seating area (of about 6,500) made it economically feasible to invite big-name artists of national and international standing such as Bernhardt. Major stars of the time such as Margaret Anglin and Maude Adams brought notoriety to the campus through the Hearst Greek Theatre, in conjunction; the theatre also burnished their reputations as well.

Soon after the Greek Theatre opened, University faculty and administration realized the need for a smaller stage suited to productions requiring an intimate setting. In 1917, the campus gained a 1,050-seat (now reduced to 700) auditorium with the opening of Wheeler Hall, in the heart of the university campus. Wheeler Hall’s auditorium immediately became a vital performance venue overseen by the Musical and Dramatic Committee, where it was possible to increase the variety of chamber music and recital programs offered, as well as drama, lectures and other entertainments.

Though members of the Drama, Music and Dance departments realized that Wheeler Auditorium was not the ideal venue for the performing arts on all occasions, several uncompleted projects and, later, the financial strains of The Great Depression delayed the completion of a venue designed for such performances. The opening of Alfred Hertz Memorial Hall in 1958, with its formidable collection of organs and superior acoustics, was marked by the May T. Morrison Music Festival, a presentation of 11 programs between April 15 and May 22, 1958, presented by the Committee on Drama, Lectures and Music. Music critic Alfred Frankenstein claimed Hertz Hall to be the finest auditorium in California.

Seeing that Wheeler Auditorium and Hertz Hall were not suited for presenting drama and dance, Zellerbach Hall was built in 1968. Zellerbach Hall consists of two main theaters: the 2,015-seat Auditorium (today known as Zellerbach Hall) and the 500-seat, multiform Playhouse. The Playhouse was conceived as a laboratory in which students can learn all aspects of the dramatic arts. Movable seating allows for numerous formations of the stage. The stage of the Auditorium is equipped for all major forms of theater, opera, music and dance productions, and, with the aid of a movable acoustic shell, the magnitude of the stage can be scaled back to suit chamber or recital music programs. Zellerbach has become Cal Performances’ main venue for presenting various genres of the performing arts as well as lecture events, and is one of the most well-appointed theaters in the United States.

Leadership History

Cal Performances traces its history at UC Berkeley to Phoebe Apperson Hearst and her son, William Randolph Hearst, who first supported to the university’s ambitions through financial gifts that enabled the construction of the Hearst Greek Theatre. For many years thereafter, the presentation of the live performing arts was overseen by a variously named committee comprised of faculty members and other campus leaders.

A History of Chairs and Directors, (listed by date of leadership)

William Dallam Armes (1903-18), Associate Professor of American Literature, Director of the Greek Theatre, and Chair of the Musical and Dramatic Committee. Armes was responsible for repositioning the Hearst Greek Theatre from a site used solely for campus functions to a nationally known stage for celebrated artists. After the success of the internationally renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt’s first campus visit, Armes rallied to bring more top artists to the Greek Theatre.

Samuel J. Hume (1918-24), Director of the Greek Theatre and Chair of the Musical and Dramatic Committee. As a student at UC Berkeley, Hume developed a strong background in theater. Succeeding Armes after his death, Hume established year-round programming for the Greek Theatre, Wheeler Hall, and Harmon Gymnasium, as well as various off-campus sites. He created fall and spring seasons featuring modern and classic drama productions at Wheeler Hall, as well as the Prize Play Contest to stimulate new work among California playwrights, enlisting Eugene O’Neill, George Jean Nathan, and Susan Glaspell to judge the entries. Hume also organized the Western Association of Art Museum Directors to route touring exhibits to UC Berkeley and other locations on the West Coast.

William Popper (1924-45), Chair, Committee on Music and Drama. Following Hume’s departure, the university combined the Greek Theatre management and the Musical and Dramatic Committee, forming the Committee on Music and Drama. The eight-person group of faculty members selected Popper as chair and director. During Popper’s tenure and due mainly to the rise of campus art clubs, there was an increase in the number of artists visiting campus and the expanded use of university venues for performances. The new committee established basic ideals and procedures, with priority given to events supporting the university’s educational mandate. Popper’s assiduous record-keeping kept the program on budget, even throughout the Depression and World War II. And he was the first director to suggest that an endowment be established to supplement the budget, in order to reduce the pressure for financial success.

Betty Connors (1945-79), Director, Committee for Arts and Lectures. Following suggestions that the campus create a distinct concert-presenting unit, the university approved the position of Director (initially Secretary)—the first salaried position devoted exclusively to the management of performances on campus. The first person to fill the position was Betty Connors, a recent UC Berkeley graduate of the Department of Music. Throughout her tenure, Connors sought to prioritize the educational aspects of the performing arts while also steadily increasing the scope of presentations. Lectures by poets and other writers—including Thomas Mann, Dylan Thomas, and W.H. Auden—came to the fore, and the campus saw a broadening of musical tastes as represented by folk, jazz, and early-music concerts. Connors was also able to facilitate the expansion of the performing arts program thanks to the opening of Hertz Hall in 1958 and Zellerbach Hall ten years later. Artists Connors brought to campus included harpsichordists Ralph Kirkpatrick and Gustav Leonhardt, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, pianists Glenn Gould and Rudolf Serkin, soprano Birgit Nilsson, mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, mime Marcel Marceau, theater artists Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud, Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Theatre Lab, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century, the Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and jazz artists Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong. During Connors’ tenure, in 1959, the organization was renamed the Committee for Arts and Lectures—or CAL.

Susan Farr (1980-86), Director. Following on the successes of Connors’ 35-year tenure, Farr believed her priority was to sustain the existing presenting program. She sought out resources to meet the increasing costs of presenting, and negotiated contracts with Bill Graham Presents and other promoters of popular music for the use of the Hearst Greek Theatre. Farr also supported the touring of contemporary dance ensembles and brought to Berkeley acclaimed troupes including the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, and Pilobolus Dance Theater, in addition to classical dance ensembles. Cal Performances, as the program was renamed, introduced Bay Area audiences to numerous folk dance and music ensembles. Additionally, Farr founded the Student Committee for the Arts to encourage campus participation at Cal Performances.

Robert Cole (1986-2009), Director. For Cole, a musician and conductor, one of the chief attractions of the position was the organization’s proximity to the UC Berkeley Department of Music. Cole made it a priority to seek the music faculty’s advice in expanding the presenting program and, in particular, enlisted their ideas to develop a festival of early music. In 1990, Cole founded the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition of early music. By establishing long-term relationships with important artists and commissioning new works, Cole positioned Berkeley to become a major international arts center. Beginning in 1987, he built an enduring relationship with choreographer Mark Morris, bringing many premieres to Berkeley (including Morris’ Four Saints in Three Acts and King Arthur [American premieres 2000 and 2006 respectively], Dido and AeneasMozart Dances, and Romeo & JulietOn Motifs of Shakespeare (West Coast premieres 1995, 2007, and 2008). Cal Performances co-commissioned the American premiere of John Adams’ song-play I Was Looking at the Ceiling, and Then I Saw the Sky (1995), with libretto by UC Berkeley poet June Jordan, directed by Peter Sellars; the following year Cole brought Nur Du (Only You) by German expressionist choreographer Pina Bausch. In 2002, Cal Performances hosted the first west coast performances of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble in a 10-day festival held on the UC Berkeley campus. Cole also expanded Cal Performances’ education and community programs and in 1989 oversaw the program’s assumption of responsibility for managing Student Musical Activities (SMA), the university department that includes the UC Marching Band, the UC Choral Ensembles, and the UC Jazz Band. University faculty often partnered with Cal Performances to conceive in-depth cultural, historical, and political investigations built around the performing arts program. To carry out these ambitions Cole formed a board of trustees to increase fundraising capacity and to provide long-term stability. In 1997, UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien awarded Cole the Berkeley Citation, the university’s highest administrative award. In 1995, Cole was made Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by France’s Minister of Culture. He also received the William Dawson Award for Programmatic Excellence from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters in 1998.

Robert Cole’s complete Oral History [PDF]

Matías Tarnopolsky (2009–18), Executive and Artistic Director. Tarnopolsky came to Cal Performances in August 2009 after holding senior leadership positions with the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony orchestras and working at London’s BBC Radio 3, BBC Symphony, and BBC Proms. At the beginning of his tenure, he articulated three major artistic values around which Cal Performances was to be organized—artistic excellence, advocacy, and accessibility—and which informed the extensive performing arts and education programming he implemented.

Tarnopolsky’s tenure on campus was distinguished by annual orchestral residencies rich with engagement opportunities for Berkeley students and the greater community. Campus residencies included the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in March 2014; the Philharmonia Orchestra of London and its principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen for two residencies in fall 2012 and fall 2016 and a return visit in spring 2019; and Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in October 2017.

In 2011, Tarnopolsky launched Ojai North, later renamed Ojai at Berkeley, an artistic partnership with the Ojai Music Festival, which brought to Cal Performances curatorial and performance residencies with artists Dawn Upshaw, Peter Sellars, Leif Ove Andsnes, Mark Morris, Vijay Iyer, and Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Also under Tarnopolsky’s leadership, Cal Performances launched Berkeley RADICAL (Research and Development Initiative in Creativity Arts and Learning) in 2015 to cultivate the artistic literacy of future audiences and connect the most innovative artists in the world with the intellectual capital of UC Berkeley.

Tarnopolsky directed the organization’s many artistic commissions during this period, including underwriting Robert Battle’s Awakening, the choreographer’s first piece for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since becoming its Artistic Director in 2011; the revival of Available Light by John Adams, Lucinda Childs, and Frank O. Gehry, in honor of Adams’ 70th birthday in February 2017; and Mark Morris’ Layla and Majnun, which received its world premiere in Zellerbach Hall in September 2016. Tarnopolsky also spearheaded Cal Performances’ legacy partnership of Kronos Quartet’s Fifty for the Future commissioning project, as well as the commissioning of a new oratorio, Dreamers, inspired by the personal stories of Berkeley-based undocumented immigrants, from composer Jimmy López and librettist Nilo Cruz, which received its world premiere in Zellerbach Hall in March 2019.

Also under Tarnopolsky’s directorship Cal Performances presented an exclusive engagement of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach in October 2012, and staged the world premiere of The Secret Garden by composer Nolan Gasser and librettist Carey Harrison based on the children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett in collaboration with the San Francisco Opera in March 2013.

While at Cal Performances, Tarnopolsky was named one of Musical America’s international Movers & Shakers: 30 Key Influencers in the Performing Arts; was selected as Classical Music MVP by the San Francisco Chronicle; and was awarded the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by France’s Minister of Culture. In 2018, he was recognized with a Cal Performances Award of Distinction, a UC Berkeley honor given to an individual or ensemble whose contributions demonstrate exceptional achievement in the performing arts, at Cal Performances and throughout the world.

S. Shariq Yosufzai (2018–19) Interim Executive Director. Following Matías Tarnopolsky’s departure, S. Shariq Yosufzai, an active member of Cal Performances’ board of trustees since July 2014 and vice chair of the board since July 2016, served as Interim Executive Director from June 2018 to April 2019. During this period, the organization’s Associate Director Rob Bailis served as the Interim Artistic Director, a senior member of Yosufzai’s team. Together the two were responsible for overseeing the 2018–19 season planned by Tarnopolsky and for programming the 2019–20 season in advance of Jeremy Geffen’s arrival as Executive and Artistic Director. Simultaneously, Yosufzai also served as the President of the board of directors of the Berkeley Symphony and as an executive committee member of the San Francisco Opera’s board of directors. Previous to that he was on the board of directors and was chair of the corporate council of the Houston Grand Opera. Yosufzai retired from the Chevron Corporation in 2018, where he served as Vice President of Global Diversity in which he was responsible, in part, for Chevron’s relationship with UC Berkeley. Over the course of his distinguished 43-year career at Chevron, Yosufzai had significant experience in board membership and leadership, and in senior executive roles at publicly traded companies. He is the recipient of numerous business and nonprofit awards, including the 2017 Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business Award from the Asian American Business Development Center, and recognition as outstanding foreign-born leader by the World Affairs Council.

Current Leadership

Jeremy N. Geffen (2019–), Executive and Artistic Director. Jeremy Geffen came to Berkeley in April 2019 from Carnegie Hall, where he held the position of Senior Director and Artistic Adviser. During his 12 years there, Geffen was instrumental in designing and directing visionary artistic projects, built deep and meaningful connections with artists and collaborators, cultivated community partnerships, and aided in the expansion of the organization’s rich educational offerings. As part of Carnegie Hall’s artistic planning team he led program planning and thematic development for the approximately 160 performances each season at Carnegie Hall, as well as the creation of a wide range of audience engagement programs. Geffen oversaw the expansion of Carnegie Hall festivals including a series of concerts dedicated to the impact of large-scale migrations on American culture. Prior to his appointment at Carnegie Hall, Geffen was Vice President of Artistic Administration for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (2005–07) and Artistic Administrator of the New York Philharmonic (2000–05). Geffen serves on numerous advisory boards and frequently adjudicates international competitions. He chaired the nominating jury for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music, awarding the honor to Caroline Shaw, then the youngest recipient in the prize’s history. In June 2015, he received Bang on a Can’s Visionary Award at the organization’s annual gala, and in April 2019, he was honored at Sō Percussion’s annual benefit.

Geffen provides the overall artistic vision and executive leadership for Cal Performances, with direct decision-making authority and responsibility for planning all programs, functions, and activities of Cal Performances and Student Musical Activities. This encompasses initiating and commissioning new artistic and educational ventures, including those in association with national and international performing arts centers and festivals, and supporting the educational and research mission of the university through the performing arts program. He also works closely with Cal Performances’ board of trustees.

Notable Artists and Performances

Cal Performances has forged lasting relationships with numerous artists and organizations, discovering new talent, presenting premieres, and commissioning new works. In recent years it has featured such renowned artists as the Vienna Philharmonic (under Semyon Bychkov, Andris Nelsons, and Lorin Maazel), London’s Philharmonia Orchestra (Esa-Pekka Salonen), the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Riccardo Muti), the Síómon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra (Gustavo Dudamel), Yo-Yo Ma, Audra MacDonald, Renée Fleming, Julia Bullock, Jordi Savall, Kronos Quartet, Takács Quartet, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Dorrance Dance, Hubbard Street Dance, Joffrey Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra, Youssou N’Dour, Lila Downs, Silkroad Ensemble, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Laurie Anderson, Claire Chase, Théâtre de la Ville, Robert LePage and Ex Machina, David Sedaris, Ira Glass, and Matt Groening, among many others. Cal Performances has also forged decades-long relationships with several of the world’s most important dance companies, including the Mark Morris Dance Group, which has premiered a number of its works on the Zellerbach stage since its first Berkeley performance in 1987 and has returned to campus annually since 1994; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which first performed at UC Berkeley in 1968 and has returned for more than 50 years of the company’s 60-year history (the company has been presented in Zellerbach Hall more than at any other venue outside New York); and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, with whom Cal Performances presented Craneway Event, a site-specific work held at the former Ford assembly plant in Richmond, CA.

Cal Performances’ tradition of presenting landmark performances began with Sarah Bernhardt in 1906. In addition to the above-mentioned premieres, Cal Performances has presented groundbreaking performances such as the American premiere of Alessandro Striggio’s long-lost Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno in 40 and 60 parts, the largest known contrapuntal choral work in Western music, rediscovered in France by UC Berkeley musicologist Davitt Moroney. Kate van Orden, also a professor of music at UC Berkeley, discovered the score and drawings for Le Carrousel du Roi, an equestrian ballet originally created by cavalry master Antoine de Plyuvinet for the King Louis XIII in 1612. The pageantry, including 21 horses and riders, was presented in 2000 and 2002. In 2017, Cal Performances presented Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in a fully staged world-premiere production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s original 1745 version of the opera-ballet Le Temple de la Gloire (The Temple of Glory), featuring a libretto by Voltaire, utilizing the original source manuscript score and libretto in the collection of UC Berkeley’s Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library. The Ming Dynasty opera The Peony Pavilion has been presented on two separate occasions in different productions—the first, in 1999, was an avant-garde production by Peter Sellars co-commissioned by Cal Performances; and the 2006 production was a nine-hour, 27-scene spectacle performed by the Suzhou Kun Opera Theatre of Jiangsu Province.

Other significant presentations include Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach in 2012; the world premiere of The Secret Garden by composer Nolan Gasser and librettist Carey Harrison in 2013; Mark Morris’ Layla and Majnun in 2016; the revival of Available Light by John Adams, Lucinda Childs, and Frank O. Gehry in 2017; the commissioning and world premiere of Dreamers, from composer Jimmy López and librettist Nilo Cruz in 2019.