Why are the great opera companies silent?

By Patti Niemi

By Patti Niemi

Leading a major opera company like the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, or the San Francisco Opera, is challenging during the best of times. And for an art form in the business of crowds, a global pandemic is not the best of times. This crisis is forcing opera companies to innovate. Some management teams are doing it well. Some aren’t doing it.

Yes, but — I imagine the General Directors of these companies replying — What about safety? When singers expel great clouds of air from their considerable lungs, it’s easy to share more than just art.

Last Sunday, Deutsche Oper Berlin began performing Die Walküre. They implemented frequent, rapid turn-around testing for their cast, and are performing live to a reduced, socially distanced audience. Earlier in the summer, they performed a semi-staged adaptation of Rheingold on the roof of a parking deck. London’s English National Opera is offering screenings of La Boheme at a drive-in movie theater. Their solutions are as untraditional as they are magical. Opera Europa has published shared, continuously updated guidelines as a resource for organizations to safely prepare their facilities.

Yes, but those companies are in Europe. Europe’s response to the pandemic was faster and more comprehensive.

Atlanta Opera has put together a new Health and Safety Advisory Council — a team of epidemiologists, public health specialists and doctors. Their Molly Blank Big Tent Series will present 18 performances of Pagliacci in a custom-made tent without walls, allowing fresh air to move through the venue at all times. The tent will have capacity for up to 240 audience members, with socially distanced seating and required masks.

Moving outdoors has been working for other companies, too. Washington National Opera has a pop-up opera truck which will drive their Cafritz Young Artists around the city on demand. The General Director of Michigan Opera Theater, despite only joining the company in August 2020, has inaugurated his tenure with a chamber-music reduction of Götterdämmerung—performed in a parking garage.

Yes, but finding money for these innovations is difficult.

Among the reinvented fall season offerings are Houston Grand Opera’s Live from The Cullen Recital Series, which kicked off on September 11 with a performance by international star soprano Tamara Wilson. The series is being underwritten by two long-time supporters, who made an extraordinarily generous gift specifically for HGO Digital programming.

Other companies are turning to subscription models. Opera Philadelphia is presenting David T. Little’s Soldier Songs and Hans Werner Henze’s El Cimarrón on their new streaming app, The Opera Philadelphia Channel. Los Angeles Opera is selling digital tickets for the company premiere of The Anonymous Lover, which will be streamed online while the opera is performed live at the Colburn School.

Yes, but our traditional repertoire was created by white men from centuries past. A changing world wants to include works created by the BiPoC community.

Francesca Zambello, the artistic and general director of Glimmerglass, commissioned “Blue,” an opera about an African-American family whose son is killed by a police officer. Washington National Opera, which Zambello also leads, will perform it in July 2021. In June 2019, The Opera Theater of St. Louis, premiered “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the story of a Black boy growing up in a segregated rural Louisiana town. “The Central Park Five,” an opera about a 1989 incident in which five Black and Hispanic teenagers were wrongly convicted of assault, premiered in June 2019 at the Long Beach Opera in California.

Yes, but those companies are small; it’s easier for them to change course.

Steering a big ship is hard and it takes big money. According to the New York Times, despite the MET’s furloughing their musicians without pay since March, they were able to pay $2.6 million to James Levine to settle a lawsuit. San Francisco Opera’s endowment is worth approximately a quarter of a billion dollars. If there was ever a time to release funds, a global pandemic is it. Coming back from the pandemic to a full endowment and an empty theater would be devastating.

There is a great truth, one that we sense on a nightly basis: there is no art form more beautiful than opera. What other creation combines music, words, drama, and stagecraft? With our audience, we share stories of life, death, love, loss, passion, joy, anger, regret, and pain. Opera tends to be—as the chorus in Turandot sings—“Grave, enormous, and imposing.”

We want to collaborate. We, the musicians of these grand opera companies, have experience, passion, history, and ideas. It’s heartbreaking that our managers are presiding over ghost lights.

The leaders of these companies are focusing on the “but.” We musicians, as well as our opera-loving communities, want to focus on the “yes.”

Patti Niemi is a percussionist with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and author of Sticking It Out—From Juilliard to the Orchestra Pit.

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