In ways both broad and subtle, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to alter the art that gets made in Philadelphia and the ways in which it finds an audience.
Opera Philadelphia on Wednesday announced that it has canceled O20, this year’s iteration of its annual fall opera festival. The company will postpone or move online all but one of the live productions it originally planned for the 2020-21 season, delaying a new Jennifer Higdon chamber opera and a role debut by beloved soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth.
Instead of presenting the previously announced lineup, the troupe has responded to the pandemic by assembling a series of online performances — most created anew — to be shown on a new Opera Philadelphia Channel available through a number of platforms.
Opera Philadelphia is still holding out hopes for a May production of Tosca given the old-fashioned way: in the Academy of Music before a live audience. The production would mark a company and title debut for soprano Ana María Martínez.
“The postponing of in-real-life, live performance was largely about safety,” said Opera Philadelphia general director and president David B. Devan. “The challenges of safely producing opera are significant, so being able to gather artists was not possible. We know that droplets and duration so far are emerging as the leading factors for contagion, and opera, well, we have a lot of droplets and we do it in close proximity for durations of time.”
Instead of simply filming straight staged performances of opera, the company has come up with a slate of productions this season conceived from the start as operatic film projects. Offerings will be available online for a $99-per-year annual fee, or individually on a pay-per-view basis.
The new season opens in October with Opera Philadelphia artistic adviser Lawrence Brownlee curating a program of guest singers in arias, songs, and spirituals; and an encore presentation of La traviata from 2015 with soprano Lisette Oropesa.
In November, Brownlee reprises Cycles of My Being, the six-movement work premiered in 2018 by composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes examining the Black male experience in America.
December brings a new production of Soldier Songs, a 2011 work by David T. Little that draws on interviews with veterans of five wars and mixes elements of theater, opera, rock-infused concert music, and animation. Johnathan McCullough is the baritone in the work, which uses an instrumental septet and tape.
In a piece of programming originally part of the O20 festival, bass-baritone Sir Willard White is featured in El Cimarrón by Hans Werner Henze, but now in a film adaptation to be shown in March. The work, scored for baritone, flute, guitar, and percussion, tells the story of Esteban Montejo, an enslaved Cuban born in 1860.
Four as-yet unannounced operatic film projects are expected to premiere in December, January, February, and April. The opera company is in talks with Sorey to write one of the pieces.
The opera company expects to announce additional programming, perhaps in partnership with other opera companies.
The channel will be available on computers and mobile devices, and on TV screens via Chromecast and the Opera Philadelphia Channel app on Apple TV, Android TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV.
Postponed until future seasons are Verdi’s Macbeth with Radvanovsky, which was to have been a new production of the classic; the world premiere of Woman With Eyes Closed by composer Higdon and librettist Jerre Dye; and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex led by conductor Robert Spano.
The restructuring of the 2020-21 season means a reduction in the size of the company’s budget — $8.6 million as opposed to last year’s $11.5 million. The company’s high dependence on philanthropy, which covers about 90% of the budget, is expected to remain unchanged from last season.
“We are hoping our donor family stays with us this year, and if they do, this whole thing balances,” Devan said.
The company’s leader says he sees the Opera Philadelphia Channel continuing to bring new audiences to opera both from within and beyond the region regardless of the future of live performance.
“The channel grew out of the pandemic,” Devan said, “but it also became clear that the channel is likely to evolve and grow to meet a new world on the other side of the lockdown and perhaps live side-by-side with live performances as a way to reach new people.”