Canadian Critics Respond Live Performances

In this Q&A series, we’ve asked performing arts writers across the country to weigh in on how the Canadian opera industry is handling the prolonged pandemic environment. Next up…Holly Harris.

What are your feelings on the types of programming being offered, mostly in lieu of live performances, by Canadian opera companies? Do you think it will successfully engage opera audiences…why/why not?

Now that COVID-19 has ravaged the world including its resolutely plucky arts communities, Canadian opera companies have been forced to dream up new opportunities and innovate ways to keep audiences engaged–a Herculean task when so many are just worried about keeping those proverbial wolves from howling at the door.

I applaud these initiatives, so in-tune with these difficult times, including ubiquitous live streamed recitals, pre-recorded concerts, artist interviews, podcasts, parking lot operas, pop up operas, or (at-minimum) cyber-journeys deep into the “vaults” of archived productions as with the Met and Canadian Opera Company. However, I also fear audiences are becoming increasingly clotted by the steady (live) stream of digital content that further stokes (blunts?) their hunger for the real thing. 

We’re all walking on the razor’s edge of seismic change in our local, national and international arts communities. No one really knows what “opera,” an industry already struggling to remain relevant in the 21st century, will look like post-pandemic. On a more positive note however, I have been buoyed by artistic directors and general managers’ determination to create “possibilities” from “constraints” during these unprecedented times. A strong example is Manitoba Opera’s Larry Desrochers, who successfully launched Canada’s first Digital Emerging Artists training program this summer. No doubt this is just the tip of the iceberg.

What are your opinions on live versus digital content in the current circumstances?

This is a difficult question. It touches on timely issues as well as challenging paradigms opera lovers have held near for years, if not centuries. We have simply never lived during a paradoxical time of widespread lockdowns–in Winnipeg, we’re tilting closer to nightly curfews–juxtaposed with the unbounded freedom and ease of the Internet. 

Some companies offer live streamed performances in real time, such as Manitoba Opera’s season-opener, “The Sopranos of Winnipeg” concert recital featuring seven of the city’s most celebrated singers including soprano Tracy Dahl. Other groups take different approaches, like Manitoba Underground Opera’s offering of daily pre-recorded excerpts of Brenna Corner’s “Green Envelopes”  this summer, subsequently uploaded to their website. Typically, these bits and bytes are given a time-sensitive “shelf life” to avoid that slippery slope of opera going “vlog,” and/or charge admission either by virtual tickets or by voluntary, consumer-driven donations.  

In truth, there are many sides to this coin, including the danger of creating a false narrative based on perceived “value,” and at worst, an unconscious and troubling hierarchy in which a digital performance that “costs” is somehow regarded as superior, whereas a “free” viewing is seen as inferior art-making. Timelines must also work for the chaotic and changing times we live in; it’s far too easy to let an opera “get away” before it disappears from a company’s website. There must be a balanced approach with the larger, more critical question looming over us–how we value (or not) art, artists, live performance, alternative media sources and even opera itself–that I find fascinating and chilling. 

Should companies be doing more to produce some type of live performances?

Ideally yes, however I write this on the eve of Winnipeg–now regarded a COVID-19 hotspot with the highest per capita rate of infection in the country–entering “code red” status. Live performance, at least for now, isn’t going to happen for quite some time although the prospect of holding shows al fresco once our frigid winter melts away tantalizes with possibility. 

I’m not wholly convinced we will ever see large-scale productions again, with one of the pandemic’s many silver linings being a growing appetite for intimate chamber works including opera, music, theatre and dance–the unwitting war children of COVID-19. 

What are your observations on how Canada is supporting its opera artists, and implications how this could change post-pandemic?

Artists, particularly singers, have been hard-hit by the pandemic. International engagements have been cancelled, or at best euphemistically “postponed,” which has not just been disheartening for their artistic souls but also perilous to their livelihood. Government relief programs, including the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), now morphed into the Canadian Recovery Benefit (CRB), have been lifesavers for artists across the country. 

But what comes after that? And how will the growth of “cyber opera” impact singers used to travelling the world for their art? The digital genie will never be stuffed back into the bottle, and how we eventually enjoy and appreciate art in future is one of many imponderables right now.   

Do you perceive there to be national differences in the ‘will’ to produce opera during these pandemic times? 

Yes, although I still avow that everyone is just doing the best that they can during these inordinately difficult times to varying levels and degrees of success! Certainly the arts, and those that make it are not valued nearly as much as they should be in Canada, paling by comparison to Europe.

There’s a real risk that artists will simply give up or choose to focus on more lucrative, concurrent jobs they might already hold. There have always been these discrepancies, and COVID-19 has widened these chasms even more. This important dialogue must continue in earnest once we have pushed through this chapter and regained our footing.   

I find it helpful to remember Eli Broad’s famous adage: “Civilizations aren’t remembered by their business people, bankers, or lawyers. They’re remembered by their arts.” It’s my fervent hope we will someday lump “pandemic” into that first category, with our phoenix-like artists still showing us what it is to be alive. 

Holly Harris
Holly Harris

Holly Harris has served as opera/classical music/dance critic and columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press since 2004, and is a regular contributor to Opera Canada, Ludwig van Toronto, Musicworks, Dance International, and The Dance Current. Her work has also appeared in The Strad and Symphony. Harris is currently co-writing a book about the “singing province,” Manitoba’s rich choral legacy with colleague Rory Runnells.

1 COMMENT

  1. Opera forever has been and forever will be an art before a “genre.” I feel strongly that we should take the blame away from the digitization of opera and place it solely on the fact that we have largely stopped telling relevant stories. Yes – the greatest and most unique strength of opera is its acoustic power, but the story is what carries the audience.

    If the story doesn’t speak to the generation, it won’t survive – acoustically or digitally. We need to stop trying to teach “opera” as a genre, and start inspiring opera as a storytelling art-form again. That will mean giving up on a lot of conventions – but isn’t that part of the COVID game?

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