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Article Published: 22 Jan 2022

Pandemic Pivots

A Snowy Day workshop with librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney, foreground
A Snowy Day workshop with librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney, foreground (photo: Matthew Fried)

Composer Joel Thompson, who adapted the children’s book The Snowy Day with librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney, was expecting to see the work premiere during the 2020 holiday season at Houston Grand Opera. Then COVID-19 began sweeping the country, leading to venue closures and a gut punch to the entire live performance industry.

Opera kept moving forward, even if it meant delaying productions or finding new ways to produce new work. Houston Grand Opera, like many others, pivoted to presenting shows online. Among other projects, it tapped San Francisco filmmaker Annalise Ophelian to direct The Making of The Snowy Day, which streamed for free on the company’s site.

The opera finally received its live premiere on December 9, 2021. “The silver lining has been that the cast has had a little bit longer to live with the music,” says Thompson, who recovered from his own bout of COVID in March 2020. “I’m just grateful that everyone’s alive and able to make art.”

Composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Kelley Rourke were set to premiere The Jungle Book at The Glimmerglass Festival until COVID caused the festival to cancel its 2020 in-person season. It was important to Sankaram that they wait until a live production could be mounted because it is written to be performed by children.

The duo took a different approach to keeping the piece alive during COVID times. Rourke had previously turned Fidelio into a musical graphic novel with illustrator Erik Teague. Drawing on that example, The Jungle Book’s creators engaged Sri Lankan soprano and artist Tharanga Goonetilleke to illustrate their version.

Sankaram recorded selections from the opera with Cooperstown schoolchildren, and the book and recording became available in December 2021. “It ended up being a wonderful way to excite audiences about the eventual stage premiere, which will happen this summer,” says Rourke.

Beth Morrison Projects Executive Director Jecca Barry found herself reexamining the trajectory of every project. The easier premiere to alter was Black Lodge by composer David T. Little and librettist Anne Waldman. The team changed course and turned it into a film.

Book of Mountains and Seas by Huang Ruo presented the bigger challenge. It was a huge international collaboration between production designer Basil Twist in New York, Danish choir Ars Nova Copenhagen, and a group of percussionists from Toronto.

“We were not only challenged by when and how could we do the premiere but also how we could develop the piece when there were international travel bans in place,” says Barry. “Between March 2020 and June 2021, I think we rescheduled and restructured the premiere at least six times.” The initial performance finally took place in Copenhagen in November.

These pandemic pivots held many lessons for creatives. For Thompson, a confirmed introvert, the isolation of the pandemic was ultimately problematic. “I’m very used to the solitude and the introspection, but I found that I still needed that human-to-human connection,” he notes. “The ironic part is that The Snowy Day is basically a hymn to connection with each other. The whole thing is really about recognizing the impermanence of life, and, as a result, choosing to then share it with the people around us. Because as much as I like solitude, we can’t live in these silos. It’s not really healthy mentally, physically, or emotionally.”

For Barry, the crisis reinforced the power of working in partnership. “It wasn’t just on us to figure everything out,” she says. “We had all these partners that were going through the same thing, and there was such a supportive and collegial network of checking in and reassessing the situation and feeling like we were all in it together. It gave me this sense that we really are a community.”

This article was published in the Winter 2022 issue of Opera America Magazine.