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Article Published: 21 Jan 2022

The Need for Improvisation

Who could have imagined, in March 2020, that we would still be rushing to adjust to the changing course of COVID-19 almost two years later? We were tempted in the fall to think that normalcy was returning. Many companies offered at least some performances in their home theaters. It was wonderful to see full houses for both a recent American work at the Met — Fire Shut Up in My Bones by composer Terence Blanchard, featured in this issue’s “My First Opera,” and librettist Kasi Lemmons — and a time-tested masterpiece, like Carmen (Bizet/Halévy) at Houston Grand Opera. Other titles were less consistent at the box office, but companies aiming to achieve revenue goals of about 50 percent of normal were happy to exceed these reduced targets by a slim margin.

Even before the sudden rise of Omicron, routines were far from typical, though, as companies faced staffing shortages, demanding and expensive testing protocols, and unrelenting concern that a positive COVID test would bring operations to a halt. On average, ticket purchases took place closer than ever to the day of the performance, as audience members hedged their bets around the safety of live performance — exacerbating a troubling trend established even before the onset of COVID.

It remains a difficult time for all of us but, thankfully, we continue to see bright spots. Donors have continued to remain supportive. Members have shared positive reports about new and increased contributions in response to digital programming — not necessarily because of the specific program content, but in appreciation for company efforts to remain connected to the public. We explore the future of such content in one of our feature articles.

Our other feature looks at the value of public service, which is more important than ever in light of the unprecedented federal support received across the field through various relief programs. OPERA America has documented the flow of more than $221 million to opera companies to sustain employment as well as public performances that inspire audiences and affirm the importance of community. Company cash positions have improved and provide some level of buffer against the uncertainties ahead.

The widespread staffing changes across our industry have brought about both sad departures and opportunities to welcome fresh talent. I extend my profound thanks to Fred Cohn for shepherding this magazine to new heights over the past five years. With this first issue of 2022, it is my great pleasure to welcome a new Opera America Magazine editor. Sophia Bennett joins us with extensive writing and editorial experience, a deep background in association work, and a fundamental love for the arts. We also have expanded the flow of ideas with a group of professionals from the field to serve on a new Editorial Advisory Committee to help guide us in telling the stories that matter most.

With both Fire Shut Up in My Bones and Champion, Terence Blanchard brought the sounds of jazz into the opera house, a place where improvisation has never been part of the lexicon. Indeed, producing opera is notoriously inflexible, requiring advance planning and long periods of preparation. COVID developed the field’s capacity to improvise — to bring jazz-line inventiveness to the most complicated of the performance arts. The need for improvisation will continue into 2022. We can be comforted with the knowledge that opera has found new life in new ways through the pandemic. Whenever we are able to return to normal, we know it will be a “new normal” that benefits from the lessons we have learned since March 2020. It can’t come fast enough. In the meantime, we at OPERA America remain committed to providing platforms for sharing information and expertise and strengthening the collaborative spirit across our field. Please remain alert, safe, and in touch.

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