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‘It was a bittersweet moment’: How Boston Early Music Festival landed online for 2021

Boston Early Music Festival's 2021 digital lineup includes its 2017 production of Campra’s “Le carnaval de Venise.”Courtesy Boston Early Music Festival

Boston Early Music Festival executive director Kathleen Fay is accustomed to planning extremely far in advance. One must in order to book the international array of musicians and ensembles that BEMF draws to Boston every other summer. “We’re working on a four- to five-year advance schedule at any given time,” explained Fay, who has run the festival for over three decades. “They’re just so darn busy!”

Already at 2019′s biennial, the festival was hyping plans for 2021: a celebration of women in early music, with the North American premiere of Henri Desmaret’s 1694 opera “Circé” as centerpiece. But as the pandemic dragged on, Fay had to turn on a dime and rethink these plans.


“If I count the number of times we’ve changed our minds and changed our plans, unraveled and deconstructed and reconstructed, I would run out of toes and fingers on both hands,” she said. “It’s just been an unbelievable year in that regard. But I think we’ve landed in a really good place.”

Boston Early Music Festival 2021 will be entirely virtual from June 6 through 13 with a lineup that includes two operas from the vaults (2017′s mainstage production of Campra’s “Le carnaval de Venise” and Pergolesi’s comic chamber double-bill “La Serva Padrona & Livietta e Tracollo,” filmed in 2014), a virtual exhibition with instrument makers presenting from their own workshops, and 14 concerts by featured artists and ensembles — many made especially for BEMF just as vaccinations at last allowed ensembles to safely gather in person. An online fringe festival will follow from June 14 through 20.

A scene from BEMF's 2014 production of Pergolesi’s comic chamber double-bill “La Serva Padrona & Livietta e Tracollo."Courtesy Boston Early Music Festival

Reached at home via phone, Fay talked out the twists, turns, and unexpected upsides of organizing a festival at a time when any and all plans can change.

Q. Tell me about some of the big unravelings and changes of plans. When the quarantine hit, I imagine you were pretty far along in the planning process.


A. We were! We constructed this absolutely beautiful celebration of women, which was to be the centerpiece theme of the June 2021 festival. This was something we’d been working on since 2018. We’d hired Lucile Richardot, the mezzo-soprano from Ensemble Correspondances who I’ve completely fallen in love with over the last couple years. She was going to be the leading lady in “Circé.” And then we were going to add a revival of [Francesca] Caccini’s “Alcina” — that was, of course, the first opera written by a woman.

When the pandemic hit, we thought, holy cow, do we dismantle this beautiful celebration we’ve worked so hard to construct? Or do we postpone the whole thing two years? That’s what I decided to do. I didn’t want to start picking it apart — it belongs together as originally conceived. So let’s just come up with a hybrid reduced June festival in 2021, we decided. Let’s do a chamber opera with two singers on stage and an ensemble of six to eight people in the Cutler Majestic.

But the virus just kept raging out of control. Finally, in late December, I said to the board, “I think we should go all virtual in June of 2021.” So here we are. They completely agreed. Nobody has had any feeling whatsoever that we made the wrong decision. It requires such planning that it would have been impossible to secure visa applications, travel, housing, all that stuff. In fact, as I think about the fall season ahead, presenting as many groups as we do from abroad ... I think it’s gonna be a hybrid.


Q. When did it look like you’d be able to gather musicians to film festival concerts at Fraser Performance Studio? I see some BEMF regulars on the schedule — you got the band back together!

A. That was pretty recent. Once we decided to do this virtual festival, we thought, we need to get a foot in that door and have our own beautiful ensembles represented. What can we do on a smaller scale with many local artists that would be safe and healthy?’ And our good friends at GBH said, pretty-please come over to Fraser! It’s a glorious space.

Even then we weren’t sure how things were going but it was looking more promising. We came up with a plan to keep distanced: At least six feet between all instrumentalists and 12 feet between singers. Masked for rehearsals. The singers would not be masked during the recording, but the caveat there was no more than two singers in the room at one time. The program is a combination of Monteverdi solos and duos, which worked for that kind of ensemble [Streaming June 10-11].

The day after we gathered in Boston, the CDC announced no more masks as long as you’re fully vaccinated. So it was a bittersweet moment, because that meant, hooray, there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. But given that the entire company was still not fully vaccinated, I absolutely insisted that we keep to the masks and distancing.


Q. Do you think there are lessons that BEMF will take forward from this virtual season?

A. For sure. The spectacular reaction that we had this past fall and winter with our annual concert series, and the multiplying of our audiences both here and abroad, has been palpable. I think we’ve entered a new phase. I don’t know how we’re going to do all this, but there’s no question in my mind that [online concerts] is the way of the future. We’ve opened up our audience to people from six continents. There’s nothing like a live, in-person concert, all of us agree with that. But for myriad people who can’t come to Boston, this is the way to expose our beautiful music to them and to increase awareness of what we do. So why not?


June 6-13, $10-$25 per concert, $150 for the whole festival.

Interview was edited and condensed. A.Z. Madonna can be reached at 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.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at Follow her @knitandlisten.