The Bronx Opera rehearsed two to three days a week in March, for its performance of “The Bartered Bride,” then scheduled for May. The singers were cast in January, 75% of the music was already prepared, and the company was in early discussions with set designers and production managers to begin staging. But then New York City shut down.
“We basically just froze everything,” said Benjamin Spierman, general director of the Bronx Opera.
Since the pandemic, opera companies in New York City have had to cancel performances and programs indefinitely. But the empty theaters represent more than economic hardship. Small, independent opera companies play an important role in their local communities, and their survival is essential to young, aspiring opera singers who need roles and diverse audiences who, otherwise, are excluded from the art form.
While Bronx Opera is not at risk of closing, the effects of the pandemic will be felt by the next generation of performers, said Spierman. The company, along with others, have to figure out ways to revitalize and diversify an historically exclusive art form during a time when group gatherings and outreach are even more challenging. Considering that early COVID-19 health studies indicated that indoor singing is highly contagious and is considered a coronavirus super spreader event, many of these programs have been put on hold.
In order to engage its community, in August, Bronx Opera hosted a virtual preview of “The Bartered Bride,” whose live performance has been postponed until 2021. The preview featured recorded performances from singers and a discussion about the production. While the company is planning more virtual performances, Bronx Opera struggles to find ways to reimagine its community teaching programs, which include free tickets to students, Q&A sessions at schools and senior citizen choruses.
At the heart of the issue is that “virtual programming isn’t the same and doesn’t provide the same level of satisfaction” to the performer or the audience, said Spierman.
When live performances were canceled, an opportunity to bring new audiences into the theater—a goal for many opera companies—was canceled as well. Offering free tickets to students is an effort to combat the narrative that opera is for the rich and the elite, said Spierman. “We want people to have access to what we do,” he said. “Opera, emphatically is for everybody.”
Indie opera companies have become especially important in recent years as opera has struggled with declining audiences and has been criticized for a lack of diversity.
“Historically, opera is behind,” said Kathleen Spencer, president of the New York Opera Alliance, a consortium of small independent opera companies. For perspective, the Metropolitan Opera, founded in 1883, will stage its first opera written by a Black composer, Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” in the 2021-22 season, as reported last year by The New York Times.
Building new audiences and increasing diversity are common goals for New York Opera Alliance members, which include Harlem Opera Theater, Bronx Opera and the Regina Opera in Brooklyn. In order to appeal to a broader audience, performers, directors and managers themselves must be more diverse and have shared experiences with an audience who can relate to them artistically, said Spencer. “If we’re going to survive as an art form, we’ve got to start investing in our audiences,” she said.
Harlem Opera Theater offers discounted tickets and an educational program to attract younger, diverse audiences. It also has a competition that provides underserved artists with opportunities to perform.
“In many cases, their journey started late,” said Gregory Hopkins, artistic director at Harlem Opera Theater. Oftentimes, when African American singers enter the competition, they have gaps in their training, because many weren’t exposed to opera at a young age, said Hopkins. “We just want to keep the momentum going for developing our audiences and for giving artists platforms to grow,” he said.
Those platforms are also vital for young opera singers who just graduated from music school and are hoping to join regional companies, said Spierman. “Companies like ours exist to give the singers the chance to work, be seen, and hone their skills, so that when those opportunities come to them, they’re ready.” Many singers aren’t hired by larger companies until their 30s, which leaves a professional void that indie opera companies fill, said Spencer.
Jonathan Green is one of those singers, who moved to New York City in 2016, to join a company to build his résumé. Having heard about Regina Opera from his friends, Green applied for a role. “They’re the first company that gave me a chance and gave me validation that this is where I’m supposed to be,” he said.
Green, who is Black, said that indie companies tend to have diverse casts. “Representation is important,” he said, adding that diversity is a “hot button” topic in the opera industry.
Indie opera companies also curate performances that ordinarily might not be heard at larger companies and that has to do with their size, said Megan Steigerwald Ille, a faculty member of the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. Indie companies often have more artistic flexibility to perform compositions that go beyond the traditional operatic canon, she said.
“Because they’re lighter in their feet, they’re smaller, they offer more opportunities for experimentation with the art form,” said Steigerwald Ille.
For Harlem Opera Theater, an emphasis is placed on “looking at the music of African American composers that are underserved,” said Hopkins. By performing works by Black composers, they are performing “music that is about our stories,” he said.
(Photo provided by Harlem Opera Theater)