Last November, Edmonton Opera hired me as its new Artistic Director. December brought optimism and cautious hope that the city’s first post-pandemic production, La bohème, would happen. As December wore on, the temperature plummeted to -30 for weeks, Omicron surged and whatever hope we had was dashed. As local, provincial and national cancellations poured back in, there was pressure on us to cancel, delay or postpone. We had all become accustomed to this outcome. But what would happen if we followed all the measures in place to move forward safely? As I had been telling everyone: we can mitigate COVID, but we cannot eliminate it.
As the cast arrived for the first day of rehearsals, I promised that we would do our best to get to opening night, though I couldn’t promise that we would. The first week went well. We decided that cast, crew and team would always wear KN95 masks. They’re not the most fun to sing in, but we were thankful to be rehearsing at all. We had a pre-screening app for entrance into rehearsals and daily rapid tests for soloists. Our conductor zoomed in for the first week since he was caught in COVID travel protocols. At the end of Week 1, a principal had close contact with someone who had tested positive. We paused rehearsals, paid for a private PCR test to ensure that we could resume safely, then we did.
Our production lived in a constant state of being grateful for another day of rehearsal while weighing whether we should postpone. I sat in Zoom meetings with opera colleagues across Canada hearing how difficult the situations were in other provinces. Almost daily calls, Zoom meetings and texts with staff and our board chair to discuss whether to postpone or carry on left a heaviness I had not felt before. The pressure was intense because government left many of the decisions up to us.
We made it to Tech Week (arrival of sets, lights and costumes), but then our lead tenor tested positive. What to do? We jumped on measures set up in case something like this happened. We had time to fly in a new tenor to take us through the important final rehearsals. Opening Night finally arrived and, almost two years to the day after the last public opera performance in Edmonton, our Bohème played to a sold out, 50% government-restricted capacity crowd.
I thought I would feel excitement, and I did; I wanted to scream as loud as I could, “We made it!” But it all took a toll on the team, the performers and the audience. Living in a state of uncertainty is difficult. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of support and a lot of being OK with the unknown.
I now know more about COVID, close contacts, masking, PCR tests, antigen tests than I ever thought I would. This experience has taught me that we must be patient and give our artists the best support we can. We must remind our audience that we’re still working for them.
Let’s hope our new COVID reality will allow us to move forward cautiously, optimistically and supporting one another as we build this industry back to where we know it can be.