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Opera companies’ options in a time of crisis

Opera companies’ options in a time of crisis
January 10, 2021

With the COVID-19 crisis having creating unsettling questions for performing arts around the world, a new publication explores what opera companies need to do so survive the pandemic.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Associate Professor, Emily Richmond Pollock is a music historian who studies how opera has evolved while keeping its links to the past intact.

Her second book, now in progress, focuses on contemporary opera festivals in the USA and the artistic choices they confront.

With the Coronavirus pandemic upending daily life, Pollock states “it’s a disaster for the performing arts sector (and) companies are going to have decisions to make about how to move forward.”

As Pollock’s work emphasises, even when opera moves forward it tends to conserve its heritage more than other forms of music do. This is opera’s essential tension: How does it balance innovation and tradition? The pandemic reopens such questions for opera companies today. Does social crisis generate an impulse toward experiencing new works, or intensify people’s desire to see the familiar again?

Pollock explains “in the immediate post war period, the first production in a German opera house would be ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ or ‘Fidelio,’ something standard in their repertoire, for which they already had costumes and could cobble together sets.

“It wasn’t the most innovative thing, but it was comfortable and materially possible. In COVID times, a lot of opera companies are looking for new work that is native to Zoom or tailored for alternative performance ideas.

“It’s a contrast - but I wonder if innovative works and new modalities will become the norm, or if companies will revert to the known quantities when they come back to life.”

Studying opera in troubled times can yield subtle insights beyond that. For instance, even when audiences seek out familiar classics, new meanings may be found.

Pollock adds “opera is both an escape and a way of processing things.

“Stories from a long time ago can be surprisingly relevant with a new set of circumstances. Think of all the people in operas with horrible diseases - it’s almost a cliché that the soprano is dying of consumption and her friends are devastated.

“We had, pre-COVID, (more) distance from that. But now (many people) know someone who has died gasping for breath. That makes it quite difficult to watch, and quite moving. Some (canonical) operas might help us get in touch with our very human, present feelings.”

Drawing these parallels, from her first book (a study of opera in post war Germany) to her second project, isn’t something Pollock anticipated doing a year ago. But her scholarship always aims to illuminate the political and social context of music.

For her research and teaching, Pollock was awarded tenure at MIT earlier this year.

Click here for more information.

Images: Milan's La Scala Opera House (top, credit: VivaTicket) and  Emily Pollock (below, credit: MIT).

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