Opera: The Distant Memory of Performing Live

Brett Polegato in Gounod's "Faust" with the Canadian Opera Company (2007). He was among the opera participants who exchanged in an online conversation on opera Thursday. (Courtesy photo)

Opera directors, faculty and performers discuss opera in COVID

In a roundtable discussion on Thursday, Jan. 14, hosted by UC Davis, a panel of music and opera experts discussed that while there were some opportunities in the shutdown, and clear support for the art, everyone missed the symbiosis of live performance in front of an audience. They remained positive, they said, that opera can spring back from COVID-19 shutdowns once live performances resume.

Pierpaolo Polzonetti, professor of music at UC Davis, mentioned the excitement people felt when live-streamed Opera events first began — however that feeling was short-lived. Polzonetti posed an important question, “What is it that makes opera a form that can happen at best, only in person?”

The panel event was co-sponsored by the UC Davis Jan and Beta Popper endowed professorship in opera.

“Opera really is the most collaborative art form of any,” Francesca Zambello, internationally recognized director of opera, said. She describes the connection among all people involved in the opera as vital: “Not having a live audience is a killer because they feed you and they feed this art form. Opera was written to be performed live.”

Christian Baldini, orchestra conductor and UC Davis professor, agreed. He explained that whether it be the cast or the way lines are delivered within the performance, the opera is naturally ever-changing. Baldini believed these unexpected characteristics of opera to be the most beautiful aspects but with recordings of a performance, these idiosyncrasies are lost in translation. 

As the conversation continued, Brett Polegato, baritone stage performer, said: “The thing about the performing arts is there is no purpose to perform without the receiver...For an opera to be sung to an empty hall, there is nothing gained by that.” This was similar to the way Zambello described the relationship between performer and the audience, as a “symbiotic, once in a lifetime experience.”

Lessons from COVID-19

The panelists brought up opportunities that COVID-19 has introduced to their individual lives and the art form of opera. On a personal level, Zambello has delved deep into her director positions at Glimmerglass and the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center. Her projects include bringing people opera on a truck, through couch shows, and a high-tech virtual reality show that she is currently working on. Brett Polegato has been home with his family in Canada and has gone back to his roots as he has focused on taking singing lessons. Other panelists such as Malcolm MacKenzie, a bariton performer, and Baldini have dedicated their time to teaching at the university and guiding their students during this difficult time. MacKenzie said that this has been the longest he has gone without performing in 29 years. He said he chose to spend his time investing in the artistic outlet of his students rather than his own. 

In a broader sense, COVID-19 has introduced virtual collaboration, accessibility to audiences that normally would not be reached, and new ways of performing as a result of needing to produce online content. 

COVID-19 and the industry: lost talent

“I fear that we have lost an immense amount of potential talent. A lot of people are going to retire...a lot of young people are not going to be able to afford to pursue this career.” — MacKenzie

Zambello said that there was financial devastation in the arts during these times. She said how with virtual events, organizations are putting effectively putting out free content, the costs of which would normally be offset by ticket sales and attendance. In addition, although companies such as Glimmerglass are giving artists 25 percent pay for canceled shows, this is not the case for the majority of other artists. 

Access and financial barriers

Many of the hopes for the future focused on the accessibility of opera. Zambello dreams of “a level of generosity from people who can afford the arts, who can share it.”

Responding to audience questions, Baldini said he understands the concerns of the financial barrier for some audiences. He shared his experiences of cheaper opera houses across South America and Europe and hopes that the United States will soon follow. 

When asked about making opera accessible for all people, Baldini responded, “I think all one has to do is expose people to it because they will realize that it can directly talk to anybody. It’s about humans, it’s about relationships, it’s usually about love, about conflict, and who will not fall in love with these stories?”

See video of the conversation below.

By Michelle Villagomez, UC Davis Media Relations Intern

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