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Article Published: 31 Jan 2021

2021: New Hope, New Responsibilities

It’s difficult to write a letter for a quarterly magazine when the world around us changes so quickly. The first draft of this letter celebrated the helpful provisions contained in the relief bill that was passed by Congress and signed by President Trump over the holidays. And then came the January 6 violent attack on the U.S. Capitol and our democratic process by a de­luded mob that was misled into thinking it was doing good by doing harm to the founding principles of our country. We were deeply moved by Inauguration Day two weeks later, when past presidents assembled to affirm the smooth transition of power from one administration to another — and when Amanda Gorman, youth poet laureate of the United States, delivered her spectacular poem.

If that weren’t challenging enough to our sense of security, COVID infections and deaths continued to climb across the country, while the distribution of vac­cines progressed slower than anticipated due to poor planning for their rapid production, distribution, and administration across the country.

It takes tremendous resolve to keep focused on our safety and that of our friends, families, and colleagues, and on our work. As we heard from eloquent speakers in our webinar “Reopening and Recovery” on January 13, opera and opera companies must play an important part in the civic recovery that lies ahead of us. We have to under­stand what we need personally for returning to the town square with confidence and listen to what others need so we can provide them with the means to reflect, grieve, and prepare for re-engagement with their neighbors.

Picking up where I left off earlier this month, the most recent relief bill reflects a compromise but still con­tains provisions that are important to our opera companies and the artists who bring opera to life on our stages. OPERA America has worked extremely hard to ensure the provisions of the legislation are as accessible as possible to the opera community. Tony Shivers, OPERA America’s government affairs director, deserves special apprecia­tion for his relentless representation of our field as negotiations progressed. He continues to convey our concerns and suggestions to Congress and all federal agencies as the programs are implemented.

The extension of the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) will permit some opera companies to receive a second, largely forgivable loan, helping them retain employees and cover other essential expenses. When the CARES Act was passed last spring, legislators did not anticipate this extended crisis; the most recent relief bill helps under­pin the work of our companies for another few months.

The Save Our Stages (SOS) Act is a $15 billion program designed to provide substantial assistance to commercial and nonprofit producers, presenters, museums, and performance and cinema venue operators. Detailed guidance is being formulated by the Small Business Administration and will be monitored closely.

Unemployment coverage has been extended into March, with a supplemental payment of $300 per week (down from $600 per week last spring) to employees and contract workers, extending basic benefits to many artists who have not been eligible in previous years for unemployment payments. While this weekly supplemental payment may be increased slightly by the Biden administration, artists continue to be especially hard hit by the cancella­tion of most productions and loss of income.

Taken together, these provisions represent the largest intervention of the federal government in support of the arts in our history. Combining the first and second draws of PPP loans and the potential benefit of the SOS Act, the support of the nonprofit performing arts sector will reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars. These are unusual times that warrant unprecedented action, but we must work together to ensure that we do not simply fall back to pre-crisis levels of support. The arts have been recognized with other industries as essential to the phys­ical, mental, and social health of our citizens, and to the strength of our economy. Our performances and related activities will be central to the recovery of our country. We will work with you and on your behalf to ensure that this centrality to national well-being remains present in the minds of government leaders into the future.

This article was published in the Winter 2021 issue of Opera America Magazine.