At first, it was only in case of a “worst-case scenario.”
Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Bellini’s “Norma” was to run for five performances at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater, with Russian rising star Elena Stikhina in the title role. It was to be the company’s largest-scale show all season, with a total cast and crew of more than 200. The sets were constructed, the lighting cues programmed, the costumes finished, the singers and orchestra prepared. The house was on track to sell out.
But as public health warnings about coronavirus became more dire, and universities and colleges across Massachusetts began to close dorms and migrate instruction online, BLO general and artistic director Esther Nelson began to wonder about the opera’s fate. On Tuesday, March 10, she reached out to Anthony Rudel, station manager of WCRB-FM, and inquired: could they make a recording of the opera, just in case one or two performances had to be canceled near the end of the run?
By the morning of March 12, Nelson had met with leadership from Emerson College, and the decision was made: “Norma” was canceled. BLO hurried to book singers on flights home.
But the opera had been recorded, with the help of a team headed up by Antonio Oliart Ros, the WGBH engineer who helped record two Grammy Award-winning albums this past year. They hauled their gear into the Colonial, set up, and with the cooperation of several arts professionals’ unions, they captured audio of the final dress rehearsal.
It was unlike most dress rehearsals, where the cast and crew know they’ve got a few chances to improve, Rudel said. “We got a strange sense that this may be our only shot at this. There was a great excitement in recording.”
The whole endeavor came together in less than 24 hours. “Everybody dropped everything to say ‘yes, this is what we must do,’” Nelson said in a phone interview. “Everybody put themselves on the line here. It’s so beautiful under these circumstances, when all elements come together.”
It’s not certain yet how or when the “Norma” recording will be made available to the public, but looking forward, Rudel hoped that even though audiences may be hunkering down and staying home, WGBH’s Fraser Performance Studio could remain a nexus for live-streamed concerts — albeit at a much reduced capacity from its usual 140 seats, to protect the artists and the skeleton crew that now staffs the station.
“I just feel so bad for the musicians who have prepared. That’s why we stepped up,” he said. “Doing this with BLO ... and many others going down the road is a way for us to say ‘We are part of this community, and doing what we can to keep you in front of your audiences.’”
Rudel planned to stream concerts from Fraser by Boston Baroque’s new X-tet chamber ensemble and the Boston Chamber Music Society, but the Chamber Music Society decided to cancel to protect its traveling musicians, while the X-tet date (initially planned for Friday) has been postponed as WGBH has closed the building to all but essential staff. And as local governments and public health authorities implement stricter social distancing guidelines to check the spread of the virus, smaller local ensembles are feeling squeezed.
At the Slosberg Music Center at Brandeis University on Saturday night, local artist-run company Guerilla Opera stripped down to the bare essentials to live-stream its Emergence Composer Fellowship Showcase of five new short operas. A grand total of 20 people were allowed into the building’s recital hall, which seats roughly 200: a six-person ensemble, some of the featured composers, and a small tech team. Co-artistic directors Aliana de la Guardia and Julia Noulin-Mérat jumped into action as stage crew and managers, and did their best to keep the company’s spirits up.
“As you all know, we will not hear applause, but everybody is rooting for us online,” Noulin-Mérat encouraged as the ensemble gathered onstage shortly before showtime, with everyone standing a healthy few feet apart.
The company, which is not affiliated with the university, had just a few days’ notice to adapt the show to their new reality. Stage director Brenda Huggins reblocked the operas to eliminate all physical contact between ensemble members. Donor events surrounding the performance were canceled, and board members were informed that they couldn’t be present in the hall.
With access to artists driving so much of Guerilla’s support, Noulin-Mérat pondered how best to weather the storm. “How do you sustain your art community if you can’t meet?” she said. “I think [live-streaming] is a great first step, but we have to find other ways.”
Introducing the show and handling props, Noulin-Mérat and de la Guardia wore black surgical gloves; at any other performance by the contemporary opera company, it’d be logical to assume that it was an immersive aesthetic shtick. In this case, it was a sober reminder of the realities outside. The atmosphere was heavy with raw emotion; no one could predict the next time the company would reunite.
Just the next day, the CDC called for Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 50 people until mid-May; shortly afterward, President Trump reduced that number to 10. On Wednesday, Guerilla Opera canceled the remainder of its season.
“We have a moral obligation to care for our ensemble,” the artistic directors wrote in a statement, encouraging fans to help the company recover their losses with a donation. “This decision is in the interest of our ensemble’s safety, public safety, as well as our collective ability as a company to launch our next season with a bang.”
The abandoned “Norma” represents a significant financial blow to Boston Lyric Opera, which typically mounts four productions per season. “Everybody wants to — and should — be paid,” Nelson said.
For the arts community in Boston at large, the loss is unprecedented, Nelson said. There’s lost revenue in ticket sales, sunk costs, and ticket buyers who could have become donors. “Our hope is that the community realizes that our financial obligations remain high," she said. “I hope that the community might be generous, and say ‘I’m going to donate my ticket, to mitigate some of the damage’... and help on some of the compensation that we want to honor.”
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.