“To be honest, if I were you, I’d cancel the train ticket and buy a plane ticket. This might last for a while.” The voice belonged to the Production Coordinator at Glyndebourne. The date was 16 March, 2020. In common with colleagues around the artistic world, the next few weeks saw a reasonably full diary transform into a vast expanse of empty notepaper marked by crossings-out and their associated hits on my ability to pay rent. The following 12 months, of course, is the subject of much more analysis that this little column can hope to summarise; there has, however, been evidence of the form that the artistic phoenix might take as it rises from its viral ashes . . .
It was, for many of us, the dichotomous reactions from the major opera houses that carried the first whispers of the changes that the COVID Times could usher in. While the two mightiest theatres in the opera firmament shuttered – Covent Garden was forced to ask artists already in wigs and makeup to divest and flee, while in March this year The Metropolitan Opera finally agreed to pay its orchestra after a year without work – other theatres like the Teatro Real in Madrid and the Wiener Staatsoper pivoted amid ever-changing conditions to ensure that the show would go on (in whatever form the regulations determined “going on” to be). Inevitably, this involved productions being completely redesigned, socially-distanced singers declaring love to one another through special masks, and greatly reduced audience numbers watching them doing it. These were brave attempts to keep the theatre “as we know it” going – although one can’t forget the audience members halting Madrid’s Un Ballo in Maschera by booing at the lack of social distancing (a case of Un Ballo Senza Maschera, perhaps?).
While “traditionalist” companies struggled on with existing programming – or shut the doors altogether – several theatres took advantage of their more agile artistic turning circles to set new courses, carrying more than a hint of the post-COVID operatic landscape.
Within weeks of lockdown measures across the world hinting at the long road ahead, the Australian artistic community had begun to collaborate on ways to provide support to its members. The Melbourne Digital Concert Hall was launched in March 2020, and within nine months had generated $1 million for musicians and arts sector workers impacted by the pandemic. The swift adaptation to a digital format not only allowed musicians an opportunity to earn as the world reeled from the virus, but also raised important questions about alternative performance methods.
Director Bruce Beresford with performers Eleanor Greenwood and Simon Meadows. Photo © Robin Halls for Melbourne Opera
In May 2020, German pianist Alexander Krichel gave the world’s first drive-in piano recital, matching his repertoire to the lakeside sunset in Iserlohn and leading opera companies to investigate how they could adopt a similar format which would allow social bubbles to enjoy performances in the relative comfort of their cars rather than squashed together in the stalls. After several attempts thwarted by last-minute changes to public gathering laws, English National Opera presented Europe’s first drive-in opera, a production of La Bohème in the grounds of Alexandra Palace. This production embraced its unusual setting – performers ventured car-to-car, and remixed Puccini played over loudspeakers during (COVID-necessary) interludes between scenes, lending proceedings the air of the music festival . . . or, as OperaWire put it in its rave review, a “bizzarro Coachella”.
This all contributed to a sense that while theatre-bound companies were at a loss about how to continue, theatre-starved audiences would reward risk-taking by flocking to new performances, even if the carnival-like atmosphere was a million miles from the plush seats pointed toward the proscenium.
For companies without the budgetary wherewithal to rent Alexandra Palace for a month, however, video technology has been the primary vehicle for escaping the restrictions imposed because of the virus. While at the start of the pandemic there was an ill-advised rush for companies to smother YouTube with hastily-released ‘vintage’ performances reclaimed from VHS archive recordings (Welsh baritone Paul Carey Jones provides a detailed critique of this practice in his excellent book Giving It Away: Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales), some companies took a more measured approach to opening their vaults.
Here in Australia, the national company launched its own version of the OperaVision and Medici platforms that have existed in Europe for some time. With OA | TV, Opera Australia provided subscribers with free access not just to vintage recordings but also to interviews and behind the scenes features that explored more deeply the processes behind creating big productions. Opera Queensland joined the digital experiment too with the launch of its An Aria A Day program, which ran for a staggering 167 episodes and featured a host of Australian artists singing repertoire spanning 400 years of music.
As the pandemic progressed, though, the digital space came to be occupied by more than just filmed versions of stage productions; instead of single-camera recitals or archive recordings, fully-produced and storyboarded films that sought to enmesh visual storytelling and live music began to appear in ever-greater numbers. Credit for this movement in Europe must, to some degree, go to Opera Harmony and its partnership with OperaVision for directly funding the collaboration of opera artists and film crews. The (criminally under-known) Polish Opera Now group continued this trend which, with its projects having won Best Music Video awards in several countries, has signalled the first steps towards a truly integrated opera-digital creative space.
In Australia as well, there was a move towards redefining the filmed opera experience as a unique product in its own right that could embrace the mutual benefits of both artforms. Ever-enterprising, Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera created a film homage to the works of Barbara Strozzi – one of the most prolific composers of seconda practica music of the 17th century. Combining the best elements of music-making and film technique, A Delicate Fire presented a series of hauntingly beautiful visuals to accompany, reinforce, and make accessible music that is woefully under-known by most opera-goers. As well as being one of the breakout productions of theatre’s Year of Lockdown, this film will also be remembered as one of the last performances of the glorious Taryn Fiebig, taken from us far too young, and whose connection to Pinchgut is being memorialised with the establishment of the Taryn Fiebig Scholar program.
English National Opera’s Drive & Live La Bohème at Alexandra Palace. Photo © Lloyd Winters
In April, The Royal Opera in London announced 8bit, a series of eight free, newly commissioned, digital operatic experiences featuring experimental works by innovative contemporary artists. With American houses like Houston Grand Opera announcing a “Digital Season” featuring productions utilising film technology and animation to augment live performances, and ENO committing to further productions in its “Drive & Live” format, these enterprising companies are offering a glimpse of what post-COVID opera could be – programming “in addition to” and not “instead of” the traditional theatrical experience.
To see the first steps towards this brave new world, Australian audiences need only look to last month’s Melbourne Opera production of Macbeth, directed by Bruce Beresford, which was billed by the company as the world’s first live broadcast of a professional opera production in virtual reality. Building on the success of endeavours like the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, this new venture into blending augmented reality with traditional live theatre will allow audience members at home and in possession of a VR headset to immerse themselves in the 3D world of the theatre, looking around at the set, at the audience, and able to change the viewpoint from the stalls to the wings at will.
The creative ingenuity of companies throughout the world to adapt to circumstances like those seen over the past year has been nothing short of extraordinary, and with Australia leading the way in experimentation with new approaches, new ideas and new technologies, it seems that once again the arts community here is showing its ability to not just weather storms but to emerge the stronger from them.
Maybe I won’t have to book a plane ticket back to Glyndebourne for my next production after all.