The sole constant of art is that it brings people together. Music is a collective activity in an age when so much can be conjured with a click. The amount of information available in an instant to anyone in 2020 is infinitely larger than what a scholar could access in the 19th Century even after a lifetime of study. We are a world of everything-all-the-time.
But the constant connection couldn’t stop an aggressive pathogen until it was too late. Everything about life in the United States took a critical turn the week of March 9 and within 10 days that spanned both sides of Julius Caesar’s famous Ides of March, the world had changed. For many days following the dawn of March 9, along with the rest of the world, the performing arts community felt a slow-motion earthquake. But earthquakes and hurricanes, however destructive, don’t happen to the entire world at once and more importantly, they end. Even at this writing, it is unknown when this crisis will cease or what the world will look like when it does.
Everyone working in the arts has instinctively known what a delicate fabric holds our companies together, but rarely has every vulnerability of our fragile industry been so exposed in so short a time. The unwelcome and dangerous strain of virus has a contorted equality; it knows no national, racial, economic, or celebrity boundaries.
Houston Grand Opera weathered Hurricane Harvey, thanks to extraordinary support from our community and the tenacious crisis-management of Perryn Leech, who encouraged everyone to build the Resilience Theater in record time for our season opening in 2017-18; not a single rehearsal or performance was postponed or cancelled. The imperative after the hurricane was to use the arts to bring our community together; the coronavirus forces us to stay apart, an unbearably isolating feeling for anyone involved in the theater.
Everyone at HGO has more than simple ego invested in the works we perform. On the surface, it is no heroic feat for professionals to do what they have trained all of their lives to do. But where the miracles large and small begin to take place is in the sharing of those gifts, the bringing together of all the arts – music, theater, dance, drama – that is what opera is. The two operas we should be rehearsing right now, Salome and The Magic Flute, could not be more different from each other, and each has some formidable challenges for everyone who performs them. It is the years of dreaming and planning and expertise that one wants to see realized, not just the few hundred minutes of the operas themselves.
Prior to March 9, several thousand artists all over the world, professionals and students, were having typical days: preparing, rehearsing, singing, studying, playing, conducting, directing, building, sewing, combing, mending, raising money, managing staffs, answering phones, opening mail. All of that came to a halt as almost every professional freelancer in the world was unemployed by March 16 and company after company, including Houston Grand Opera, had to shut their doors. Many singers, all but the top few dozen, live from gig to gig and their health insurance is spotty depending on where they are in their careers. Panic was only slightly offset by the knowledge that this was happening to everyone. We are an art that requires many specialized hands, years of expertise in multiple areas, tons of energy, and a lot of goodwill and generosity. Within just a few days, the normal show-must-go-on spirit around the world was shattered, and we were all staring at the same set of slowly closing doors.
The mission statements of opera companies, outlining their individual visions for the art, all have a comforting similarity, and each carefully tries with little success to avoid being like the other. Like a politician who runs on poetry and governs in prose, the mission of a company is as much about civic pride as it is about art, or the various ambitions would be markedly different from each other.
As important as the mission and vision exercises are, and they are, there is no pretending that opera isn’t what it is: musical and theatrical storytelling led by the great life force of singing, and it is most often at its greatest when at its grandest. The transcendent moments in opera, the spiritual catharses that the greatest works magnify and sing back to us, represent a great deal of what is loved about opera.
Vision isn’t the voicing of a few orotund words; it is an attempt to make clear and precise decisions on what the art can become beyond our lifetimes, and to perform it at the highest level now to ensure that its transformative power remains. Handel’s magnificent Saul, for example, which we’ve just performed in Barrie Kosky’s knock-out production, doesn’t overtly prove anything about spirituality or vision, but the quest of human spirituality and the need for vision is proved by the presence of Saul in the world at all. So it is with our entire art.
When we are forced to stop, as we are now, we feel rudderless and empty because the gathering is the entire purpose.
One person’s spending is always another person’s income, but in the arts our lifeline is overwhelmingly from donations. We can only produce opera because of the generosity of individuals, corporations, and foundations who believe in the company’s work and believe that the presence of art is vital. In opera, ticket sales pay for comparatively little, varying slightly from company to company between 20 and 35% of the cost of raising the curtain on any single performance. We all love a sold-out theater, but it must always be remembered that a full theater does not make money for any company, it simply lessens the amount of money lost.
The arts do have an enormous ancillary economic impact on communities, but a defense of the arts using numbers is like trying to look at the Grand Canyon at midnight with a flashlight.
During the week of March 9, we faced the agonizing decision of canceling performances that were at that time still 6 weeks in the future. Plans made on Tuesday had to be scrapped by Wednesday because the news had worsened. Rehearsals were shortly to begin, and because every glacial nugget of information about COVID-19 deteriorated by the hour, we had to make the assumption that closures and quarantines were still to come. Because guest artists are paid solely for performances and not rehearsals, and they have responsibility for their own housing and expenses during that time, it seemed disingenuous to allow them all to fly to Houston and incur costs when it was a near certainty we wouldn’t be able to perform. Every arts company quickly came to same conclusion, and within a few short days the arts were shut down and singers already in rehearsals around the world scrambled to find their way to a safe haven in which to quarantine and to not be burdened with more expenses at the same time they were losing their income.
With the support of our board, we made a decision to pay our performing artists 50% of what they would have made, but the sudden closures left some companies unable to pay artists anything, as very few companies have a security blanket for emergencies of this magnitude. Counterintuitive though it may be, the largest companies are often the least poised to deal with an emergency, usually because their fixed costs are so much greater.
Force majeure is a double-edged sword: it allows companies to react to natural disasters or wars in order to preserve their longer term survival, but it also leaves artists unprotected and, as of the week of March 9, often defenseless. Companies will always be vulnerable to precisely what happened following March 9 until endowments are at least 5 times the annual operating budget, but endowments are now weakened too, as they are invested in the stock market, albeit conservatively. Endowments will recover but there is an immediate crisis with artists worldwide that will affect the future of the industry in ways we don’t yet know. From almost every vantage point, the arts are under-resourced in our country.
I’ve been asked how it feels to have to cancel the two operas of our spring opera season. To moan about the loss of Mozart when your own family, friends, and professional colleagues are in danger of contracting a mortal illness seems churlish and childish; no performance is worth more than a person’s health. But there is a specific kind of mourning as well, in our sudden silence, because we are forced out of a cocoon, and the opportunity to be an artist is a profound and unforgettable privilege. There is also a deep feeling of helplessness that one can’t offer anything more tangible to help people. What artists do can’t be measured in ways that most things are weighed, and very few artists make enough money to have much economic impact on a need of this size. We can only renew our private relationship with the art itself, and vow again to believe in it as we have for all of our lives.
I find comfort in an unlikely non-artistic place: the influential anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978), not known for her levity. She was once asked what she felt was the first clear sign of human civilization in the fossil record. Some students tried to preempt her by listing the normal tangible signs: tools, weapons, or cooking utensils. No, she said, the first sign she recognized was a broken bone that had been mended.
“A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken the time to stay with one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone through difficulty is where civilization starts.”
There is a bit of beautiful irony thinking of Mozart’s glorious Magic Flute. The two leading characters, Pamina and Tamino, pass from the unknown dangers of nature into a world of learning and culture. They are required to endure trials of fire and water to prove their worthiness to each other. In the end, it is music that saves them. Music, the central element of opera, says something unsayable about us, and words can never describe what it says best on its own. It is the spiritual power of music that reaches across time and connects us.
The arts will overcome these times because the arts are loved, and it is a love we share not only with each other, but with an army of artisans who came before us to whom we all owe everything. Our communities are going to need the healing power of the arts more than ever, and I hope we will all be there together.
March 20, 2020