Opera in a pandemic

When the Traction project was conceived, its broad aim of exploring how digital technology might reconnect opera with contemporary European societies seemed straightforward enough. The planned trials offered a good range of situations and technologies, while the plans were thorough and realistic. The partners first met in February 2020 it was reasonable then to think that we understood what lay ahead, even if we knew that it would present challenges and discoveries.  Then Covid-19 derailed the world. I have written extensively about its immediate and continuing effects on culture and that doesn’t need repeating here. But the impact on opera houses, and how they have responded, cuts to the heart of what Traction is about. It presents complex problems whose solutions are not within our control. But it might also present opportunities to support the opera world through an existential crisis. 

The problems are clear. Opera houses – including Traction partners, Liceu in Barcelona and Irish National Opera – are closed. When they will be able to reopen, and in what conditions is not yet known, but there is every reason to believe that social distancing rules will remain in place for some time to come. A theatre that can only sell, on the best calculation, a third of its seats, cannot survive financially – and research suggests that it will take time for audiences to regain the confidence to sit in such crowded spaces with the comfort they previously did. How do you stage Madama Butterfly or Tosca while protecting the health of the performers? If one member of the orchestra falls ill, must all the others self-isolate for 14 days? Opera, in such conditions, seems impossible in the foreseeable future. Indeed the producer Cameron Mackintosh has said that he does not expect theatres in London’s West End to reopen before 2021.

Berliner Ensemble auditorium reorganised to secure social distancing © moritz haase

The immediate response from opera houses, orchestras and theatres was to move online, making archive recordings of productions available via YouTube, and creating mosaic performances with their locked-down artists. Now, they are beginning to create new content, such as INO’s Friday Opera Sessions, which successfully combine homemade warmth with high art.  It was an understandable reaction, but a dead end. Keeping in touch with your audience is one thing in a brief hiatus, but putting your work freely online is not a viable strategy for at least three reasons:

  • You are competing for attention with all of recorded art;
  • It raises little or no revenue and risks devaluing the product;
  • It is, at best, a facsimile – a document that points to something better, something real: the live performance. 

Is there a way out of this crisis? Among those with some answers to that question is Douglas McLennan, editor of Arts Journal, who gave an hopeful talk about opera and new technology to Opera America’s recent conference, which of course was held online. He’s clear-sighted about the difficulties, but he also observes that the crisis creates space for new ideas:

“We’ve struggled with change in in the arts in recent years, partly because our legacies are so strong and so compelling. And so difficult to loosen our grasp on. Now that everything is up in the air and no one knows yet how it’s going to work, it’s easier to try new things, to fix things that weren’t working, to create new rules and make experiments. Some of our most intractable fights and debates have now been broken apart, making room potentially for new ideas. It’s at times like these that there is high tolerance for experimentation and innovation.”

Douglas McLennan, Opera America conference 2020

And among his most intriguing ideas is the possibility of creating hybrid-performances that accommodate the smaller size of live audiences by responding creatively to how we now use technology to interact with art. 

“We need a hybrid livestage/virtual strategy. Streaming tends not to cannibalize the live audience – it allows those who already have a relationship with you to participate. They will still want the stage experience when they can do it. […]. So what does an “enhanced” webcast of an opera look like? How about when I mouse over a singer it tells me their name and gives me details? How about the ability to look up plot points or history as the performance goes on? And while we’re at it, I want to see the rest of the virtual audience on the side so I can feel like I’m part of the community and feel like this is an “event.” Maybe an offer for a ticket to the theatre comes up while I’m watching? Or a quiz that lets me test myself against other viewers? An online guide I can turn on or off? The point is – enhance the experience and give me ways in and I might like it more and I’d definitely be willing to pay for it.” 

Douglas McLennan, Opera America conference 2020

This is just the beginning of something, but it is an intriguing and hopeful response that deserves careful thought. Why? Because it recognises the digital world not just as a new form of technology but as a new form of culture. We are still discovering how it is changing us through our own exploration of its potential. We don’t need to rush, though lockdown has greatly accelerated our learning, with tens of millions of people now familiar with Zoom’s online conferencing. Opera, theatre, music – none of these arts can go back to ‘before’ because our societies and our culture have been changed by and during this crisis. The wiser path is to go forward, understanding the essential qualities of live performance and using technology to amplify and expand its reach to those who were outside, for whatever reason. And that is also a challenge to the Traction project, to help in creating the new technologies that can lead opera out of its current difficulties. 

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