How One Madison Arts Company is Pivoting During COVID-19

Madison Opera

By Shelby Rowe Moyer | Image by James Gill, courtesy of Madison Opera

Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park is a thrilling sight and sound for thousands of arts lovers each summer in late July. Garner Park’s grounds morph into an al fresco performance area, where families and friends picnic on blankets and chairs and enjoy the sultry summer air and sweet operatic songs. Unsurprisingly, Madison Opera had to change their plans for this year’s performance on July 25.

This immediate and fast-paced pivoting from live to virtual performances would have seemed unimaginable a year ago, says Kathryn Smith, general director of the Madison Opera.

But in the midst of COVID-19, Smith says she never once considered shutting down operations to wait out the pandemic, even though staying open meant the company would have to reimagine their programming for the summer — if not the rest of the 2020.

The opera company cancelled its spring showcase, but their team started brainstorming how they could continue to support their artists and the community.

“[Our thinking was] how can we continue to share music and art with our community, rather than just go away and be quiet?” she says. “We still need to have what we offer.”

The opera staff has never organized a major, digital-only performance before, so the 19th annual Opera in the Park on July 25 will be a first for the group. Nimble decision-making prompted by COVID-19 is an unprecedented acrobatic feat in creativity but, in some ways, Opera in the Park actually prepared Madison Opera staff for this very moment.

“The last few summers, Madison and Wisconsin [in general) has had some very severe storms, and I’ve had to call off the park rehearsals and postpone the concert by a day,” Smith says. “I’ve had to make decisions on storms that are six hours out. And you just go, ‘OK, this is crystal clear. A major storm is going to hit the park, and if I don’t call it off, I’ll have workers in the park, if not the audience, and it’s just not safe.’ … That’s sort of what this felt like.”

The company already had contracts with artists for Opera in the Park, so they asked their performers to video record their arias with an accompanist. Duets are being recorded separately and being stitched together, with the help of Audio for the Arts and Painted Post Multimedia. A prelude carry-out dinner option has been arranged between the Opera and restaurants Cento, Fresco, Craftsman Table and Tap and Bar Corallini. A film featuring local artists responding to the digital Opera in the Park with their own visual art is being shown, and a post-show Q&A with Smith and the performers is also on the docket for July 25.

“Everyone can still be under the same night sky, but just not in the same location,” Smith says.

In-person performances are unlikely to occur for the rest of 2020, which is why Smith said they’ve already decided to create a virtual fall show. “II Trovatore is being replaced by a digital fall season that begins in September and ends in December — the details of which are still being worked out — and they are cautiously anticipating a staged show in late January 2021. Smith says they’re tapping performers for ideas and passion projects that are of interest to the singers, a unique scenario, considering the company’s productions are usually major, highly-detailed performances.

“We’re all in this together,” she says. “The community is interconnected, and we’re doing our part.” 

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