The future of opera in the time of pandemic: A Q&A with Adam Turner

"The digital world is a nice placeholder until we can gather safely again," says the Virginia Opera Artistic Director, "but it will never be enough."

I spoke with Adam Turner, Artistic Director of the Virginia Opera, on Tuesday, September 15, about how a regional opera company weathers COVID and the shutdown of most live performance. Virginia Opera is running a program of digital and live events this fall. The following transcript has been edited for length.

Bob: Your fall program is titled Stayin’ Alive. I assume that doesn’t mean you’re getting into disco…

Adam: Well, you never know…

But the very words raise the question, for Virginia Opera and many other arts organizations — are you dealing with an existential threat?

That’s a tough question. I have to say the whole reason that the program was created, post-March, in this apocalyptic world, is that we just started realizing we still want to be of service. We want to stay alive so that when we come out on the other side of this pandemic, there’s still a company for artists and artisans and audiences that are affected by this crisis. What the goal of any activity would be is just to keep us alive, keep us out and about and relevant, present in our communities, enriching lives, and to ensure that we can provide for all those that have been affected by this. There’s so many people — set designers, lighting designers, costume builders, all these people that are without a job right now because there’s no work. That’s really the genesis of this project.

Virginia Opera Artistic Director Adam Turner

I recently read that Dr. Anthony Fauci said that it might well be mid-late 2021 before a vaccine would be widely distributed. What does that imply for you in terms of sustainability?

You know, he further went on to clarify his thoughts and said he meant unmasked. I was a little relieved to read that, but it’s still alarming to fathom that there’s a possibility there we could be in this for an entire year or longer, before we’re back to somewhat of a semblance of normalcy. We’re looking at how we can perform responsibly and safely and see if there’s a possibility for in-person performances that are actually in our theaters, that have socially distanced audiences. There’s a hunger for communal performing, this sense of gathering and being able to participate in this art form collectively. It may not involve 40 voices on stage, because that would be considered a super-spreader event, and it may not involve the grandest of grand opera. We might not be doing Parsifal anytime soon. So we just start taking a look at all of the options to provide work for artists and artisans, but also provide a sense of comfort and relief and soul nourishment for so many audience members that are desperate for art.

For someone like me, who’s been involved in theater all my life, and suddenly it just stops…

It’s been a terrible and unsettling time. I heard a podcast recently where a woman was speaking about the word apocalypse, the origin of the word; it means a revealing or uncovering. Maybe it’s nice to know that maybe it’s revealing something to us, uncovering what the true possibilities in our lives are, and that’s been a source of positive reflection for me. This moment’s revealed to me so much more the importance of live performance and witnessing the power of theater, the power of unamplified operatic voices. I miss it so much. I hunger for it. The digital world is a nice placeholder until we can gather safely again, but it will never be enough.

READ Bob Ashby’s review of Virginia Opera’s new virtual showcase, “Virginia Opera is all about Stayin’ Alive”

Singing has become such a problematic activity, going back to the Washington State choir super-spreader event. Before we can gather safely without masks, what steps can protect the safety of singers, not only in choruses, but in the many ensemble pieces in opera?

One of the things that we’re doing is a mandatory quarantine for our artists, a two-week quarantine where they create a kind of safe pod. And a part of accountability and responsibility that they aren’t engaging in reckless behavior, being out and about in the community, hanging out in bars and whatnot. I see the orchestra being its own pod, the stage crew being their own pod, and the audience entering, almost like you’re getting on an airline, with staggered entrances. There’s probably no intermission so that you’re minimizing contact in the lobby. Shortened performances, probably nothing more than two hours, so that people are in and out, without sharing the same air for too long.

Given the lack of work, how are your artists and artisans doing?

Many folks have kind of reinvented or repurposed their talents. They’re taking this time to further their education. I’ve seen a lot of friends go into management, trying to broaden their skill set. For opera performers, that’s their only paycheck; they’re not on a stable income. So when an artist has been silenced for well over six months, it just doesn’t seem that we can see the light of the tunnel as far as when they’re going to be able to sing again. I feel that in some ways we’re going to lose a generation of talent. There are so many young people that are just on the cusp reaching that pedestal at the Metropolitan Opera or the international houses, and that’s all been cut short or put in a holding pattern. So what are they to do for the next 12 months, two years even, before they can perform again? How will they regain that momentum? And that’s really why Virginia Opera created this program, this staying alive initiative, to get involved for young singers. They’re members of our emerging artist program, and they’re here to learn and train, and they’re here to sustain.

I know that opera productions are often cast well in advance. How does one deal with that in a climate of such uncertainty?

I wish I knew the answer to that. Every day I’m learning a new way to deal with that. It’s very difficult to plan ahead right now. It became very clear by June that there was no end in sight and so many people were going to be affected. We had artists arriving at the end of August to begin rehearsals for what would have been Rigoletto, and so the responsible thing was to get out in front and say, okay, were postponing or cancelling that production, putting a down payment on the artists that are affected, guaranteeing that we’ll feature those artists in a future season, but giving them at least a portion of their payment so they don’t go unpaid for a year or more. As far as planning ahead, we still have to get back on the radar. We shifted a lot of our rep to the winter and spring. We were to have produced Cold Mountain by Jenifer Eagan in January, but that would not be responsible to do now because of its large, or extra-large, cast. It’s just really hard to wrap your mind around when it’ll be safe to produce some of those things. In the meantime, we’re just trying to honor as many commitments to the artists that have been affected by these cancellations and postponements.

Opera being an expensive art form, how are donations holding up?

We kicked off a campaign in June or July that began to fund this initiative. It’s been very successful. We met our goals and are exceeding them. Modest goals, for sure. But the donations are continuing to come in, and people are still buying subscriptions to our season, hoping for the best that we’ll be able to produce on the main stage in the winter and spring.

With schools mostly closed, what is Virginia Opera doing in terms of its educational programming?

We’re certainly exploring the digital realm, trying to be of service to schools and students who are finding opera for the first time. We’ve been looking at producing “brain breaks,” sound bites where we talk about singing or the background of an opera, giving them a window into our world. We’re actively exploring filming of our tours in a more creative, cinematic style, so that we might have something to go by January, or earlier if we can.

How have the “curbside concerts” (pop-up events in public space or in front of residences) been going?

So far, we’ve done three. It just started last week, and it’s been wonderful. For the four singers, it’s been wonderful to be back, in these outdoor spaces even, sharing what we’ve trained to do all our lives and to have a connection with a person live right in front of you. Even if its 20, 40 feet away, you can see the eyes, you can see the reaction, you can see how much they’ve longed for this. Two of the three events have been free and open to the public, and we’ve seen a lot of new faces, folks that may never have seen an opera before who happened to be passing by on a jog or walking their dog. And they stopped by and sat down in a socially distanced circle and watched the performance, mesmerized. So if we can be of service, if we can continue enriching lives and reaching new people and broadening our audience, I think it’s a win-win situation.

I’ve read about various groups that are trying innovative presentations, like the Michigan Opera doing an adaptation of Gotterdammerung in a parking garage. Are you thinking about some things that are different from before, not just to get through the pandemic, but to interact with audiences in a new way?

Actually, I think so. This moment is teaching us that we have so many alternative routes of communication and connection with audiences. In some ways opera can have this stereotype of elitism and exclusivity. But I really feel when someone hears the power of that voice where they are, in the park, on a curbside, if they hear it in a parking garage, these are perfectly fine places to hear beauty in the power. I do feel that sometimes it’s good to bring opera down to earth. It’s not just for people in tuxedos and formal gowns. That’s a thing in the past.


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