Opera Philadelphia upended classical music expectations three years ago by introducing Festival O, simultaneously presenting new works, innovative events, and reimagined classics in venues across the city. By moving away from the standard repertory model of programming in favor of something more wide-ranging and experiential, the company garnered international media attention and redefined its reputation as a major purveyor of important contemporary opera.
A critical loss
Now that live performance has been halted indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 45-year-old institution hopes once again to revitalize the art form. As of May 1, the company has reached into its archives to present Digital Festival O, making five recent productions available for streaming. A new opera is made available each weekend, free of charge, on the organization’s website and on YouTube.
Digital Festival O comes at the crossroads of a bittersweet present and an uncertain future for Opera Philadelphia. Had all gone as planned in the world over the past few weeks, the company would be celebrating the conclusion of its season at the Academy of Music with a new production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Instead, that staging has been shelved until 2022, creating a critical loss of revenue. According to a press release, the company must raise $4 million by the end of May in order to have any hope of proceeding with its 2020-2021 season.
A creative explosion
Despite the dire financial crunch, the online migration also speaks to an explosion of creativity and ingenuity seen throughout the performing arts sector in recent weeks. “Digital Festival O...celebrates the joy so many singers, musicians, composers, librettists, conductors, directors, and designers have brought into our lives through these new operas and productions, giving us an opportunity to share in the power of music and theater while reminding us that we will all gather together again in the future,” said David B. Devan, Opera Philadelphia’s general director and president, in a press release. “It is our hope to see everyone in September at Festival O20, but until that time, Festival O stands for Online.”
The lineup for Digital Festival O reflects the eclectic programming that has come to characterize Opera Philadelphia in recent years. The first offering will be Philip Venables and Ted Huffman’s chamber opera Denis & Katya, a chilling parable about teenage alienation and contemporary social-media culture. It will be followed on May 10 by We Shall Not Be Moved, a searing exploration of the 1985 MOVE bombing; a slapstick interpretation of The Barber of Seville on May 15; Sky on Swings, which movingly considers the realities of living with Alzheimer’s disease, on May 22; and the extraordinary Breaking the Waves on May 29. Rossini’s warhorse excepted, the other four operas received their world premieres in Philadelphia over the past half-decade.
Pushing boundaries onscreen
Like many performing arts venues, Opera Philadelphia began sharing streaming content on social media last month as a stopgap measure, dipping into b-roll and archival footage from past productions. “Opera on the Couch”—a riff on the company’s popular Opera on the Mall series, which offers free transmissions at Independence National Historic Park each September—was born. The short clips piqued public interest, particularly as it became evident that live performances would not be returning any time soon, according to Frank Luzi, Opera Philadelphia’s vice president of marketing and communications.
“The public response was great, and many people asked if we’d be able to stream full productions,” Luzi told me by email. “We started exploring the idea with a number of composers, librettists and directors we’ve worked with in recent seasons and with our local artists and their representatives through the American Guild of Musical Artists and the American Federation of Musicians, and everyone has been tremendously supportive of the idea.”
The company had access to eight productions recorded for past Opera on the Mall events, as well as footage of recent world premieres filmed by local Philadelphia companies such as ReelBlack, Active Image Media, and Dave Tavani. After securing approval, the idea quickly took shape of a digital festival that largely reflects Opera Philadelphia’s boundary-pushing commitment to contemporary music.
“The operas are not afraid to explore difficult subject matter. They take risks, and they celebrate opera as a 21st-century art form,” Luzi said. “And pairing them with the fun 2014 production of The Barber of Seville just made great sense, because we all need a laugh and a visit to the barber right now.”
If we have to wait…
In addition to online availability, We Shall Not Be Moved will air twice, on May 10 and May 15, on WHYY-12. These broadcasts coincide with the 35th anniversary of the events depicted in the opera. After its television debut, the video will remain streamable through August 31.
In a perfect world, that date would dovetail with the beginning of Festival O20. In reality, the launch of a live event remains uncertain. “We are following the lead of our public health experts and our local and state governments to determine if and when that will be possible,” Luzi said. “We’ll make that decision in close consultation with our artists and audience, with everyone’s safety as our top priority. If all of us have to wait even longer to gather for live performances, we will continue to explore creative alternatives.”
In the meantime, from the safety and comfort of your couch, you can explore why Opera Philadelphia has become one of the notable purveyors in the classical music arena. To that, I say bravo.
What, When, Where
Opera Philadelphia is offering free streaming of five recent productions via YouTube and the company’s website beginning May 1, 2020. Access to individual productions will remain available for various lengths of time through August 31, 2020. Additional information can be found here.