Celebrations and Challenges
This issue of Opera America Magazine focuses on the challenges posed by our return to public performances at festivals this summer and in theaters in the fall. While it certainly is a moment for celebration, coming seasons are filled with uncertainties. These will call on the nimbleness and improvisation that has been discovered by our members over the last 16 months. Among the greatest unknowns is the readiness of audiences to return to live performances, their programming preferences, and their changed expectations of performances.
At press time, I was among those avid concertgoers to venture to my first live performances since early March 2020. Over two weeks, I attended a number of operas and chamber music concerts, indoors and outdoors, and realized how much I have changed through the pandemic. I was stirred deeply by excitement and anticipation I hadn’t felt for a long time. Any sense of routine around performances was replaced by delight that I was getting dressed to go out for the evening, that I would see colleagues in person after convening with them via Zoom at regular intervals, and that I would hear music and meet artists who were new to me. Entering an empty theater is like walking from a noisy street into a quiet church in New York City — a protected space in which I am ready to be uplifted by words, music, art, and architecture. A sense of awe that was part of my youth returned with great pleasure this month.
Seeing friends was wonderful. I stopped waiting awkwardly and simply responded warmly to colleagues who wanted to hug. This summer, though, the hugs were longer, stronger, and more sincere. It was a joy to feel the emotion of reconnecting. I was surprised, though, by my desire to be deeply engaged by serious art and my impatience with performances that offered little more than superficial entertainment. I realized I am processing deeply all that has happened to us as individuals and as a nation, and that I’m not fully ready to be distracted from my reflection. I’ve developed new habits and new ways to spend my time. Each performance I attended had to prove to me it was worth breaking away from new priorities — gardening, cooking, reading. The bar has been raised in terms of what will draw me out.
I paid attention to new aspects of the performance experience — to the lack of diversity on stage and in the audience, and to the storylines, especially the terrible treatment of women in opera. Sixteen months of living and working remotely intensified my focus on long-standing values and new priorities. I watched carefully to see how audiences re-entered the public space, like neighbors venturing outdoors after a terrible storm — gently, quizzically, and with relief to be alive. I appreciated that our performances could be an important part of the healing process.
In all sectors, our society is living with myriad questions about the future. An article in my local Rutland Herald reported on the concern of church leaders that congregations that were already shrinking will never return to pre-COVID levels of participation. The uncertainty our own field faces may be uncomfortable, but it is an essential step along the way to finding new answers. We don’t have a chance to reassess the fundamental precepts of our work very often, so let’s make the most of this moment to learn about ourselves, our communities, and our art form.