Last August, I bought a crystal ball.
I began telling our Board and staff that all future planning would be done through an analysis of my extensive series of Excel spreadsheets—which plotted out a seemingly infinite number of scenarios for our upcoming 60th-anniversary season—and my crystal ball, which would show us all the things we hadn’t thought of yet.
I was only half joking.
Running an organization as complex as an opera company requires considering multiple contingencies and having plans in place for the unexpected. (Everyone knows the saying “The show must go on” but maybe not that there’s a Plan B, C or D to ensure that that’s possible.) But a worldwide pandemic that would completely shut down the live performing arts industry for over a year, quite frankly, went beyond what I—or any of my colleagues—had contemplated as we first became acquainted with COVID-19. As challenging as it was, we knew that we needed to cancel the 2020 Summer Festival, and we did so with a heavy heart. But as the future became increasingly nebulous in the late summer, our previous playbooks provided little guidance. In retrospect, it was a much-needed jolt for all of us in the performing arts to look long and hard at industry norms that were antiquated and out of touch with contemporary life, and figure out how to address them. Though catalyzed by something as awful as a pandemic, our reality check was long overdue. Of course, we also couldn’t ignore the social justice awakening that was happening around the country as well. Though Opera Saratoga has always embraced diversity, there is no denying that we needed to do more to bridge the equity gap.
As we began to consider how and when we would return to live performances, I kept going back to, “How do we make sure we continue serving our community?” This, of course, begged a second, more critical question: Who is our community? It was time to look at who we already served, and who we could and should be serving better.
All of this was unfolding as arts organizations were increasing their digital presence in a new virtual world, which admittedly, had previously been underutilized in the classical arts. We couldn’t perform on stage, but we knew we had to stay connected to our audiences. Over the summer, we presented daily performances by our Emerging Artists online, and behind the scenes, we got to work adapting our education program, Opera-to-Go, into a series of video lessons for elementary school children to teach them about music, opera, theater and the visual arts. We not only wanted to help teachers who were so taxed by remote and hybrid teaching, but also provide their students with a multidisciplinary approach to the arts, which felt even more important than usual due to the isolation we were all feeling. These programs were complemented by a new initiative, America Sings, created in partnership with Caffè Lena. This new series of online concerts by BIPOC singers was created to amplify the voices of artists who come from a range of backgrounds that have been historically underrepresented on the opera stage. These virtual concerts have been a beacon of light over the past year, and we are excited to continue working with Caffè Lena to bring America Sings to live, in-person audiences in the coming year.
Over the past year, we have also been carefully watching how other arts organizations have chosen to enter the digital space. While some companies have opted to showcase productions online that were originally intended for the stage, I strongly feel that simply digitizing the live performance experience creates a pale imitation of being in the theater in person. It is a stop-gap. So rather than making films of our productions available, we commissioned a new, made-for-digital, interactive opera. This two-year project, commissioned in collaboration with American Lyric Theater in New York City, will bring Opera Saratoga into uncharted territory, and we look forward to sharing more news about this special project with everyone in the fall.
In the meantime, even as we have been exploring new ways of bringing opera and theater to you digitally, we also really wanted to make sure that we could get back to live performances as soon as it was safe to do so. Nothing is quite like the experience of going to the theater—or sharing a live performance with friends, family and other members of the community. We have been committed to figuring out a way to make sure that our 60th Anniversary Summer Festival could be brought to you, live and in person.
When we set out to achieve that goal, I never imagined that meeting it would involve my becoming so well versed in the airborne transmission of infectious diseases or the intricacies of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, but the past year has greatly expanded the job descriptions of everyone who produces performing arts events. Because COVID is spread so easily, indoors, by the very thing we do—singing, playing instruments, acting and dancing, often in older theaters with antiquated HVAC systems and audience members seated in close proximity to one another for extended periods of time—the performing arts sector was among the first to close down in early 2020, and is only just now beginning to reopen. But returning to the stage isn’t just a matter of turning on the spotlight and getting back out there.
First, it’s worth remembering that most performers have not been working for more than a year. Though artists have made valiant efforts to stay connected to their craft—many creating their own online and social media content over the past year—performing live on stage is as physical as any sport, and it takes time to get back into shape. Also, keep in mind that even with vaccinations, there are many additional safety protocols that need to be put in place to ensure that artists and audience members alike not only remain safe, but also feel comfortable returning to the theater. After a year at home, it could feel equally strange to a patron to be seated right next to strangers in a crowded theater, as it would for artists to make quick costume changes in close proximity backstage.
During a typical Summer Festival, Opera Saratoga produces three fully staged productions at The Spa Little Theater, along with concerts throughout the region. The size of our home theater simply is not conducive to presenting fully staged productions during a pandemic. Air filtration has been improved, but the theater’s limited backstage space doesn’t allow us to put all of the new safety protocols in place, and the required social distancing in the audience would mean that so few people would fit that performing in the theater would not be financially viable. We knew that we would need to perform outdoors, and fortunately, Saratoga Springs is an incredible place to be outdoors in the summer. Thanks to the willingness and enthusiasm of our partners at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), the Saratoga Spa State Park and Pitney Meadows Community Farm, we would be able to come back together as a community to safely enjoy some incredible music and theater together this summer.
But what would we produce? As I considered programming options, I found myself repeatedly drawn to works inspired by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’ iconic novel, Don Quixote. Over the past year, we’ve all needed to channel some of the famous knight-errant’s idealism and extreme optimism—and to dream impossible dreams in the face of unprecedented challenges. The enormous size of the SPAC amphitheater will allow us to welcome socially distanced audiences, as well as stage the Tony-winning Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha, with all necessary safety protocols in place, incorporating vivid projection design to enhance the production. Conversely, the more intimate spaces in Spa State Park for the opera Don Quichotte at Camacho’s Wedding and at Pitney Meadows Community Farm for our special concert, Quixotic Opera, will allow us to host smaller audiences in safe, covered, open-air venues. All of these unique spaces offer audiences the added bonus of being surrounded by natural beauty.
So we figured out where we would perform, and what we would perform. But how? Every year, more than 100 artists and artisans come together from around the country to take up residence in Saratoga Springs to make our Festival possible. This year, we knew we would have to reduce our Festival’s staff size, because the cost and logistics of implementing all of the required safety protocols would be overwhelming at our usual scale. The programming was chosen with this in mind, to ensure we could create a season that would still entertain audiences and that could be produced with fewer artists without sacrificing quality.
So how will your experience be different this summer? First and foremost, you will once again be able to see incredible, live, in-person performances! The way we are staging the productions prioritizes safety. You might notice that the performers maintain a bit more distance from one another than in previous productions, but we promise that won’t take away from the theatrical experience. We have also made adjustments to our operations to ensure your safety, based on CDC and New York State health protocols, and the guidance of expert medical advisors and our dedicated COVID Safety Officer, who will monitor compliance throughout the Festival. This includes seating all audience members in socially distanced “pods”; requiring advance ticket purchases to facilitate contactless ticketing and reduce lines when checking in; requiring proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID test within three days of the performance you are attending; and a mandatory temperature check at the ticket gate. Full details of our safety protocols are available here.
What you won’t see is actually the complicated part. Unfortunately, this summer we cannot take advantage of the incredible generosity of our housing hosts. When artists and technicians arrive in Saratoga, they will be housed individually in quarantine until receiving two negative COVID tests, after which, they will move into our “bubble” or community housing with strictly controlled access and additional regular testing through a partnership with Saratoga Hospital. Groceries will be delivered to the artists, and a dedicated housing liaison will ensure that all transportation between housing and our rehearsal facilities is taken care of. Extra rehearsal precautions are in place as well: Rehearsals will be masked when indoors; rehearsal halls have increased air filtration systems installed; additional breaks are scheduled during the day to allow for air turnover in the rehearsal rooms; costume and makeup personnel must follow extensive new safety protocols; and every artist and technician must pass a daily health screening and temperature check prior to each rehearsal call. Even though the entire performing company is vaccinated, these extra precautions are in place to ensure that artists return to the stage in the safest environment this summer.
When I first looked into my crystal ball last summer, the future was undeniably hazy. But thanks to the support of the community—and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, vital support from the federal government—Opera Saratoga’s future is bright, indeed. Sixty years ago, our founders, Fred Patrick and Jeanette Scovotti, took a leap of faith and founded a scrappy little opera company on the shores of Lake George, performing with two pianos to an audience of 230 people. I know they would be proud that, while we now call Saratoga Springs home, we serve more than 25,000 patrons annually through a wide array of programs that both entertain and inspire.
After a year of great tragedy and loss, it has never been clearer to me that the arts can bring us together like nothing else, drawing us out of our daily lives by not only entertaining us, but also fostering understanding and empathy within us. It is my great pleasure and honor to serve our community—you!—in this way.
I look forward to seeing you at the opera this summer!
Opera Saratoga Artistic and General Director