Opera during the Pandemic

Nina Penner, author of Storytelling in Opera and Musical Theater

One of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic is the performing arts, particularly genres like opera and musical theater, which have traditionally involved dozens of performers and artisans presenting shows for hundreds of people per night. Last month, my “home” opera house, the Canadian Opera Company, made the tragic but necessary decision to postpone the Canadian premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal for two years. In the meantime, companies need to offer their subscribers something to stay financially viable until they can return to the stage. Large houses, such as the COC and Metropolitan Opera, have focused on unearthing selections from their vaults of previously recorded performances (e.g., the COC’s upcoming “watch party” of Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian on August 10). Smaller, more nimble companies, such as Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre, have successfully transferred their intimate, site-specific shows, such as their “opera pubs” to “virtual salons” (their “Quarantunes” series is streamable from their YouTube channel). Emerging technologies, such as the Acapella app, are providing new opportunities for audience participation in an art form that has traditionally upheld a strict separation between performers and spectators. In lieu of the COC’s annual live singalong event, they organized a “virtual choir” performance of Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” from Il trovatore, involving over 200 people from 22 countries.

Although I finished writing Storytelling in Opera and Musical Theater well before the pandemic, the book speaks to this period of radical experimentation with what it means to tell stories through song. I ask what differentiates operas and musicals from other forms of storytelling that involve singing (e.g., oratorios and cantatas) as well as the opportunities and challenges these art forms present, in comparison to others that have been given more attention by narrative theorists, such as literature and cinema.

One of the unique features of this book is its focus on the contributions of performers. My love affair with opera began when I was playing clarinet in pit orchestras as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. My husband likes to relate that he could always pick me out as the one whose face was turned toward the stage whenever I was not required to play. Given my performance background, I was puzzled by scholarly discussions, which, at the time, were focused on scores and libretti and hardly even mentioned the fact that most people engage with opera through performances. Since my student days, there has been something of a performative turn in the discipline. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was to showcase the outstanding work that is being done in Canada. I also wanted to address what is possibly the most pressing concern for the art form today: how to attract new, more diverse audiences.

Most scholarly discussions of opera staging have focused on Regieoper or “director’s opera,” which originated in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century with the aim of “shaking up” the visual presentation of canonical repertoire. Although Regieoper is often touted as a means of expanding opera’s audience base, in my experience, newbies are more likely to find these productions alienating because they assume prior knowledge not only of the work being performed but also of other Regieoper productions. I wanted to highlight the work of companies, such as Against the Grain Theatre and Deaf West Theatre (in LA), that feature diverse talent and have succeeded in expanding the audience for opera and musical theater.

Until a vaccine is developed and the most vulnerable members of our communities are inoculated, I do not see a return of opera as it has traditionally been understood. However, as the international success of the COC’s “virtual choir” illustrates, people are craving outlets for artistic expression as well as the communities these opportunities create. In its over 400-year history, opera has proven to be an eminently adaptable art form. I can’t wait to see what new forms arise in this extraordinary time.

Storytelling in Opera and Musical Theater

by Nina Penner

Published by: Indiana University Press