Before Covid-19 struck, it was difficult to imagine an art form that suffered more opprobrium, misreporting or endless self-reflection about its own shortcomings – real or perceived – than opera. The cataclysmic events of recent months have overwhelmed even that bonfire of angst.
After 31 years at the heart of the business (I retire from Opera Holland Park in September) I have seen just about every movement, trend, fashion, world event, disaster and scandal, yet I have to confess that a worldwide pandemic is a first.
The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the standard opera company model. So those in management need to focus on the live audience experience and remodel so it is possible with reduced audiences. Remodelling doesn’t have to mean conservative programming: this pandemic is giving people pause for thought because of their health and lives, not their tastes.
But it should mean a rethink of fees, expenditure, the well-worn path of excessive spending that opera is famed for. A focus on music for the time being – with an understanding, flexibly minded audience – may give opera companies the breathing space they need.
Hard conversations between houses, artists, orchestras and audience members will be be essential – marketing and fluff will be as useful as a chocolate teapot
This is a harsh reality that extends to management and staff across opera companies. If the classical and opera world wants a business to speak of in two years, these sacrifices and adaptations will need to be embraced until things return to normal.
Beware the ‘innovator’. There are many ideas around about the format of performances, recorded orchestras and the rest. The movement to use Covid-19 as an excuse for a radical jumping-off point for an entirely new world of theatrical performance should be resisted – or at the very least approached with great scrutiny. Don’t panic.
Don’t expect a great deal of the audience either. Patrons were very generous when it all shut down but their largesse clearly has limits and if you attempt to plunge your hands into their pockets, they’ll start to take a renewed transactional view of the deal.
Manage their expectations and cut the cloth accordingly. Then it will be easier to get audiences to accept that they might not have such lavish productions, they may have to enjoy more emerging singers (and that is no bad thing at all) fewer grand operas and fewer performances of even fewer productions.
It’s all about staying in the game for many companies and very hard conversations between houses, artists, orchestras and audience members are going to be essential. Marketing and fluff will be as useful as a chocolate teapot.
As for the bailout possibilities? My fear is that the loudest voices, most glittering names, will snaffle most of anything that materialises, and they’ll provide the government with an easy out: digital.
If the government does come up with some cash, it will be making very harsh demands
On that, as well as the benefits of digital in lockdown, we have seen the limitations. Few have been willing to pay, so it won’t make up the shortfall. Though voices speaking for us are pushing digital, the narrative needs to be exclusively about the live-performance realm.
And if the government does come up with some cash, and you manage to get some of it, it will be making very harsh demands of you when it comes to how you will survive the next two years. Don’t expect them to underwrite your empty seats. If you have to run at 40% houses, make the changes that will render that more feasible.
There is something quite brutal about the pandemic’s realignment of how we view audiences, too. It is a disease of the elderly we are told, but it is the older person who keeps the arts afloat and many in that audience are feeling terribly vulnerable.
How many board meetings in recent months have featured trustees imploring management to get hold of the younger audience? This pandemic isn’t going to change the reality that opera finds it difficult to attract younger audiences and they will not fill the gap. Find a way to survive until this is all over. Make some hard choices.
While things are bad now, I do believe there will be a significant bounce over the next 18 months to two years. People are missing their theatre visits a lot.