It was Friday, the 13th of March, 2020, when Lyric Opera general director Anthony Freud had to cancel the company’s decade-in-the-making, mega-bucks project—a three-week run of Richard Wagner’s four-opera opus, the Ring Cycle.
The perfect date for what Freud calls “about as nightmarish a scenario as is possible to contemplate” for an opera company: pulling the plug on this internationally promoted project three-quarters of the way into rehearsal. He remembers thinking, “Well, it’s not going to get worse than having to cancel the Ring.”
“Of course, I was wrong about that,” Freud says.
Well, yes: according to a nifty (if sobering) interactive dashboard run by Americans for the Arts, 99 percent of nonprofit arts organizations have had to cancel events, at a total estimated loss to them so far of $15 billion and nearly a million jobs.
Friday the 13th was also the last day that the full Lyric staff worked in the opera house. Freud says he couldn’t have imagined that a year later he’d still be working from home, having weathered the cancellation of the entire next season.
But it was clear, immediately, that the cost would be steep. For fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, and included the cancellation of Lyric’s annual musical theater production (42nd Street), he was staring down a “worst-case scenario” operating deficit of $27.5 million.
That would have been the loss if every ticket had to be refunded, and all budgeted expenses, including “the full cost of all our collective bargaining agreements,” were paid, he says.
The actual deficit turned out to be $13 million. Freud says this was thanks to production sponsors, “all of whom agreed to allow us to repurpose their sponsorships”; audience members who donated their tickets back to Lyric; and cost cutting that included staff cuts and furloughs, and agreements with the various unions for pay reductions.
Freud says Lyric was one of only six performing arts organizations in the U.S. (CSO and the Met were among the others) ineligible for PPP because their employee count exceeded the maximum of 500. (He notes that what the six have in common is ownership of their own buildings.) They may yet qualify for a federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant; they’re waiting for the SBA to finalize the details of eligibility.
Meanwhile, in just three months, the curtain comes down on fiscal 2021—a full year in which the opera house was shuttered. Freud declines to comment on how painful that’ll be financially, but says they’re regarding it as a “reimagined” season in which they’ve learned “a huge amount,” and have been busy developing virtual programming, available free on the Lyric’s YouTube and Facebook channels. Coming up on video this spring: Lyric’s always terrific Ryan Opera Center showcase, a concert celebrating the tenure of music director Andrew Davis, and a cabaret featuring Broadway classics. What you won’t see there is Met-in-HD-style video of past Lyric opera productions. “The only video we have is a single fixed-camera archive recording, which we do not have the right to use publicly,” Freud says.
One much-anticipated feature of last fall’s cancelled opening was new seating. It would finally correct the problem that had main floor audiences craning their necks to see around the (inevitably giant) noggin of whoever was sitting in front of them. The new seats are in, all 3,276 of them. And, “we can’t be 100 percent certain,” Freud says, but (Ta-da!) he expects to have derrieres in those seats as soon as September, when “the plan is to open our season with a new production of Verdi’s Macbeth.”
Other operas set for the upcoming season are Barrie Kosky‘s production of The Magic Flute; Lyric’s first main stage Spanish opera, Daniel Catán‘s Florencia en el Amazonas; and Terence Blanchard‘s Fire Shut Up In My Bones.
Exactly when? That’s still up in the air: the season announcement, usually made in January, has been pushed to May. “Our thinking is that hopefully by then things will be a little clearer,” Freud says.
Lyric is about to present a live-performance opera, however—just not in the opera house. In programming reminiscent of the kind of thing Chicago Opera Theater‘s former general director, Andreas Mitisek, has been doing for years (and still does at his base, Long Beach Opera), Lyric will present Twilight: Gods, a “radical reimagining” of Götterdämmerung, the last work of the Ring cycle, in the Millennium Park garage, April 28, 30, and May 2.
Dreamed up and directed by Naperville native Yuval Sharon (and co-commissioned by Michigan Opera Theatre, where Sharon is artistic director), it’ll be staged as a 70-minute “drive thru,” and will feature, in addition to Wagner’s music, poetic narration by Chicago’s avery r. young. At $125 per car, with a total 300-car limit, it’ll be a hot ticket. The plan is to stream it for the rest of us who, at least, won’t have exhaust fumes as a potential issue. Freud says it’s an example of “how COVID has forced us to think of new creative opportunities.”
There’s another example of opportunity seized over at the website of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Like Lyric, the symphony took a hit in fiscal 2020, though a considerably smaller one. Facing a potential loss of as much as $9 million, president Jeff Alexander says they reduced staff (all part-time employees were furloughed) and compensation (including salary cuts worked out with the musicians union), and managed to whittle the actual operating deficit down to $4 million.
The CSO is also holding off on a 2021/2022 season announcement. Given continuing questions about things like social distancing on stage and limits on audience capacity, they probably won’t announce until June. But Alexander says he expects a season of live performances in Orchestra Hall that will open in September with three weeks of concerts conducted by Maestro Muti.
“We’re not anticipating that restrictions will necessarily be fully lifted in the September to November period,” Alexander says, “so we’re working on programs [for that period] that will use a smaller orchestra. Instead of 90 or 100 musicians onstage, there might be 50.”
In the meantime, CSO has been honing an aurally vibrant online presence. It started shortly after the shutdown last spring, Alexander says, “with members of the orchestra making videos from home that we put up on our social media,” several of which attracted millions of views. “Then, when it became clear that we wouldn’t be presenting any concerts for awhile, we created CSOtv [accessible on the CSO website], filming chamber music concerts and streaming them behind a paywall.” Alexander says, “People are watching from 23 countries around the world and all 50 states.” The website also features free videos (including, for example, a PBS broadcast of Georg Solti conducting Beethoven’s 7th).
Also, pack your picnic basket: as announced by Ravinia Festival this week (and barring another Friday the 13th kind of episode), the CSO will have a six-week season there this summer. v