With theater doors closed for coronavirus, diversity in opera finds new paths
Opera companies are keeping up the momentum for new pieces and conversations.
Lincoln Center announced the lineup for its summer Mostly Mozart Festival, featuring a timely opera, "Blue," on March 12. Within hours, the organization made another announcement: it would be closing its doors, at least until the end of March, due to coronavirus.
The end of March stretched on to April, May, June, and it soon became obvious that Mostly Mozart -- an annual festival in the spirit of Mozart, albeit featuring less of his works over the years -- would not be happening as scheduled in July.
"I'm thinking of the audiences who are missing out on an opportunity of an opera that is extraordinarily relevant for our times," Tazewell Thompson told ABC News about his feelings at the time.
Thompson wrote the libretto (script) for "Blue," which premiered in 2019, and was composed by Jeanine Tesori, a white woman. It tells the story of the teenage son of a Black police officer who is killed by police at a protest.
There has been a push for American opera companies to perform more relevant works that also showcase the actual makeup of the United States, as most operas performed are still those written by dead white men. So when coronavirus shuttered theaters this spring, it closed the doors on many of these newer works.
But as spring turned to summer, music companies began pivoting -- to streaming platforms, YouTube channels, podcasts and radio -- and gave new opportunities both for these works and for conversations and efforts on diversifying the industry, particularly as the nation at large faced a cultural reckoning after the police killing of George Floyd.
For "Blue," this meant a reimagining for a different medium, bringing more immediacy to an audience that stretches far beyond the New York City theater's doors.
"Now that there is no live performance, it's almost like we can dictate what we're allowed to talk about -- what we want listeners and readers to listen to and think on," James Bennett, staff writer at New York's classical radio station WQXR, said in a panel last week, a sentiment echoed across the industry.
"Rather than canceling things, we're trying to postpone everything and trying to think long-term," Sarah Williams, new works administrator at Opera Philadelphia, known for more inventive programming, told ABC News.
So the world premiere of a work by composer Jennifer Higdon, which Opera Philadelphia commissioned, was rescheduled from this September to next.
In the meantime, Opera Philadelphia is going digital, launching the Opera Philadelphia Channel, a subscription opera Netflix of sorts, this fall. While other companies are re-airing past performances, Opera Philadelphia is creating new material.
"Cycles of My Being," a song cycle performed by Lawrence Brownlee, the company's artistic adviser, and composed by Tyshawn Sorey, the composer in residence, about being a Black man in America will have a broadcast premiere in November, which Williams said the company is putting together after discussions with both artists, who feel "very strongly" about presenting it this year.
The company is also creating opportunities with digital commissions for short pieces that can be performed without a full orchestra that will be paired with filmmakers and visual artists for the channel. It's a rare opportunity for an opera company to be responsive to ongoing conversations, as most live performances are scheduled years in advance.
"In this pandemic we can only do so much, and so I think one of the many reasons that we've had the response that we've had to George Floyd's murder, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery ... I think there's an attention span you can't deny," Williams said. "We have people's attention, and I think using that and walking into that in any way possible, it's absolutely necessary."
Making room for transparency
This spring, The Dallas Opera launched the TDO Network, broadcasting original video series across social media, with everything from comedy sketches and cake-making videos to voice classes and filmed conversations.
The ideas sprung from necessity; Dallas Opera doesn't have substantial archives to re-air and it costs a lot to record a full opera, so they figured out what they could do while still paying participants, explained David Lomeli, the company's director of artistic administration. They were also thinking about how to attract younger viewers with content more similar to Instagram Live, podcasts or TikTok.
One of their first shows was "Taking the Stage," with two Dallas Opera staff members, Kristian Roberts and Quo Johnson, discussing race, inequality and inclusion in the industry, among other topics.
These discussions are particularly important to Lomeli, one of the only nonwhite people in a leadership position among the nation's top opera companies. From the start, he said, the aim was to have a diverse group represented on the TDO Network.
Lomeli also wants the network to help make the industry more inclusive. Episodes feature musicians and administrators opening up about the business, providing lessons and insights you might only otherwise get from an expensive conservatory or consultant.
"It's a business that doesn't have a lot of clues on how to do this," Lomeli said. "We debunk myths, and a lot of people that are following us also are around the globe singers or people that are starting."
Since March, the network's content has had 11 million viewers, Lomeli said.
'Blue' takes on new life
"When we originally programmed Blue for the 2020 Festival, we knew it was a phenomenal work of art with beautiful music, a stunning libretto, and moving, immediate performances," Jon Nakagawa, Lincoln Center's director of contemporary programming, said in a statement to ABC News. "We also knew that the questions of racism and police brutality it explores were timely -- we did not know, of course, that the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and others would make it ever more urgent."
"'Blue' unfortunately is about a subject matter that has no shelf life," Thompson said.
With doors closed, Lincoln Center turned "Blue" into an hourlong radio documentary on WQXR, with excerpts from the 2019 premiere interspersed with creators Tesori and Thompson, along with musicologist Naomi André, discussing the opera.
"It's sort of a trust-fall," Tesori told ABC News of handing the piece over to be converted into this medium.
"The power of music, I think, is stronger, in a way, when you close your eyes and you listen. And I think people -- maybe they don't know it -- would welcome that more than watching another video," said Hanako Yamaguchi, director of music programming at Lincoln Center.
People turn to the arts as a way to understand the times, Tesori said, and as a composer, "I think staying silent is me not being of service to the time."
Thompson hopes audiences walk away from "Blue" recognizing that "the work is not over" as the United States still has a "canyon of racial divide."
"When the curtain is over, when the radio is turned off, when the computer is shut down, and you've experienced 'Blue,'" Thompson said, "it's a reminder that we are all brothers and sisters, all together on this earth, and some of us really need to go a little extra and to prove, to show by your actions that you are not racist, that you do not hate Black people, that you do not wish Black people to be swept away from the earth or lynched publicly."
The "Blue" radio program is available on demand for about three more weeks here.