Lessons from the Crisis
It’s been a fall like no other, around the country and around the world. Across the United States and Canada, almost every indoor performance has been canceled. In Europe, some countries that permitted limited-audience performances have re-shuttered theaters to protect citizens, notably across France and Britain. Not even during World War II were performances canceled so widely.
At the same time, recent months have been characterized by heightened levels of creative productivity. We never would have imagined at this time last year that our calendars would be filled with performances in drive-in movie theaters, tents, and sports facilities and on mobile stages. Options abound for viewing streamed operas, recitals, and interviews — and even virtual reality experiences. Companies are co-creating new digital operas and sharing content. Podcasts and learning materials for children enrich the educational opportunities available to audiences of all ages. Conversations with artists and company leaders confirm that this range of activity will continue to expand the definition of opera even after the public is able to return to theaters safely.
Despite these accomplishments, important questions are on the horizon. Research shows that people miss seeing family members and friends above all. When they are able to convene again in groups, will an evening in the theater be a top priority? When we’re able to welcome audiences back in person, will they be ready for full-length performances at full price? Almost every program currently offered — outdoors or online — lasts no more than 90 minutes. (Intermissions don’t lend themselves to social distancing, and are particularly challenging when the audience is sitting in cars!) Digital content has been free, and even as companies experiment with monetizing this content, the price for admission is rarely more than $25 per person. Will sticker shock be a reaction to normalcy, whenever it returns? Virtual life has its virtues, along with unintended consequences that will be revealed in future seasons.
Virtual convening has proved revelatory for OPERA America, too. Workshops for opera company boards and professional development programs for artists and administrators that were previously conducted in person have been transferred successfully to Zoom. Beyond the usual array of fall forum meetings (all of which are being conducted remotely), plans are being laid for online versions of the New Works Forum (starting in January), National Trustee Forum (February), and Opera Conference (May). While we miss the in-person contact that reinforces friendship and collaboration across the field, the opportunity to reach thousands (rather than hundreds) of members is a distinct advantage.
Our virtual road trips have proved most rewarding. The idea was hatched this summer as we noted with regret that we couldn’t make our usual casual visits to any of our members. Like high school seniors, we decided to use our “gap year” to drive cross-country — virtually — and visit as many companies as possible. Each visit includes an informal conversation with company staff in the afternoon and an early evening multimedia presentation for board members, donors, and other stakeholders that traces the history of opera in = America and emphasizes the contribution of each opera company to the progress of opera over the last half-century. We began the trip in the Northeast and have visited about 20 companies so far. We will move to the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states before heading up the Mississippi, with stops on both sides of the river (in a virtual road trip, the location of bridges doesn’t really matter!).
It is toward the end of our road trip presentation that we talk about OPERA America’s role as a thought leader, authoritative source of data and research, champion for opera in front of the media and government agencies, funder of new work, agent for the discovery and development of rising artistic and administrative talent, advocate for racial justice and gender parity, and, finally, promoter of community across a field that is widely disbursed, but highly collaborative. Our commitment to these priorities has grown even more intense over the last eight months and will continue to be demonstrated in new ways through the months ahead.