Friday, August 19, 2022

Pandemic Pivots: How Opera Creators Moved Past Letdowns to Lessons     


The Snowy Day Team - Stage director Omer Ben Seadia, librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney, and composer Joel Thompson
The ‘Snowy Day’ Team – Stage director Omer Ben Seadia, librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney, and composer Joel Thompson

*When Covid-19 began to sweep the country in February 2020, closures were a gut punch to the entire live performance industry.

Opera companies looked for ways to keep afloat, engaged, and relevant until it was safe to stage live events once more. The waiting game frayed nerves and played havoc with schedules and incomes. How did the industry cope?

“We were in the same sort of bizarre kind of mourning that all of our colleagues were all over the world, because we’re a live performing art company. And to lose that connection to our audience was devastating,” says Patrick Summers, Artistic and Music Director of Houston Grand Opera. “And all of us not knowing what the long-term effects on the art would be. We still don’t know that.”

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Joel Thompson
Composer and pianist Joel Thompson, who composed “The Snowy Day” opera.

Composer and pianist Joel Thompson (composer of the stunning choral work “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed”) had expected to premiere his adaptation of the 1963 Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book The Snowy Day during the 2020 holiday season at HGO. It eventually premiered on December 9th, 2021.  “It did sort of derail our plan, but I guess 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-19 in March 2020. “I’m just grateful that everyone’s alive and able to make art.”

HGO pivoted to presenting works online. “The staff at HGO went from producing nine things to producing 30 things digitally in a way that we don’t normally produce,” says Summers. “I joked many times that HGO was turning into MGM, because we were filming so many things. But [that] … meant that those company members who remained with us were working harder than they’ve ever worked in their lives.”  One of its projects was tapping San Francisco filmmaker Annalise Ophelian to direct “The Making of The Snowy Day” that was streamed for free on the HGO site. Of the nine canceled stage productions, seven were rescheduled over four years.

Composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Kelley Rourke have waited more than a year to see The Jungle Book premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY. The festival canceled its 2020 event entirely and programmed a limited schedule in 2021. Sankaram says it made more sense to wait until a live production could be mounted. Written to be performed by children, the opera incorporates Indian culture and Indian classical music to tell Rudyard Kipling’s beloved story.

“Two weeks before everything shut down, I had gone up to Glimmerglass for the audition, and it was just so great because some of those kids have been doing opera since they were 8 or 9. It was something they did every summer. So it becomes part of their experience, and they get interested in opera and that stays with them. It didn’t make sense to do it [with adults] as a digital piece,” says Sankaram.

Kamala Sankaram
Composer and vocalist Kamala Sankaram

Rourke had previously turned Fidelio into a musical graphic novel with illustrator Erik Teague when Washington National Opera canceled its 2020 production. So the creators engaged Sri Lankan soprano and artist Tharanga Goonetilleke to illustrate their vision of The Jungle Book, and Sankaram recorded opera selections with Cooperstown schoolchildren. The book and recording became available in December 2021.  “It ends up being a wonderful way to excite audiences about the eventual stage premiere, which will happen this summer [2022],” says Rourke.

The pandemic held lessons about connectedness and the significance of art. Composer Damien Sneed, whose The Tongue And The Lash premiered at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June 2021, gambled by taking four unmasked singers into a studio to record in March 2021. “We were all amazed at how well it sounded. And you know why? Because none of us had done any performing. My tour ended on March 11th and then the world shut down Friday, March 13th, 2020. We were just so overdue to make music and create art.”

For Thompson, a confirmed introvert, the isolation 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. I ended up longing for it way earlier than I expected,” 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, emotionally.”

“We saw how individual companies and individual artists responded, and you could really see who was being community-minded and who wasn’t,” says Sankaram, who was gratified to see how many companies worked to keep creatives on payrolls. And while social and political changes inspired theater creatives to re-evaluate their librettos, not so for The Jungle Book. “It was a story about community already,” says Sankaram, whose Picking Up Serpents will also premiere at Glimmerglass in 2022. “Our take on it is that Mowgli is a refugee and the wolf pack has to decide whether to take her in or not. And sadly, that is still a conversation that we’re having here in the United States and globally.”

“It’s been a complete reassessment of why we love this art so much, what we give voice to and how important live art is,” says Summers. “And that is wonderful.”

Janine Coveney
Janine Coveney

Janine Coveney is a freelance writer and editor who covers entertainment, film, travel and lifestyle. She previously reviewed 2021’s “Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” the first opera written by African Americans to premiere at The Metropolitan Opera. Originally from the Bronx, NY, she resides in Virginia Beach, VA. Follow her on Twitter at @Jazzanine




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