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Opera In The Time of COVID

How artists are keeping the music alive in a year like no other

“The show must go on.” We have all heard this saying at one time or another. And it has never been more relevant than right now, as arts organizations and opera companies around the world have been faced with a year like no other. Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced theatres and concert venues to shutter in the first quarter of 2020, the opera world has seen artists innovate and evolve in new and exciting ways, keeping the art form alive and vibrant at a time when we need music more than ever.

Screengrab from one of Los Angeles Opera’s “Living Room Recitals,” featuring soprano Sarah Vautour

Probably the most prevalent and important way that artists have continued performing over the past year has been through digital media. 2020 saw the rise of the “living room recital,” as singers turned their homes into video recording studios, often performing to accompaniment tracks recorded by a pianist on the opposite side of the country. Companies such as Los Angeles Opera, Tulsa Opera, and Opera Theatre of St. Louis all presented these “at home” performances, featuring artists at different points of their career—from emerging artist to seasoned professional.

Here at Pensacola Opera, we launched our series called The Mezzanine, which features a varied series of performances and interviews with our 2020-21 Artists in Residence alongside several company favorites. This newly popular digital stage has allowed for more experimentation and innovation than ever before. It has become clear over the past year that video and digital media will continue to be a vital part of the operatic landscape, even once live performances have fully returned.

With mounting evidence that outdoor gatherings are far safer than being inside theatres, opera companies and orchestras have taken note, staging a plethora of safely distanced concerts and performances for audiences to enjoy. Here in Pensacola, we staged a series of “Al Fresco” concerts, held in local parks and featuring some of our favorite performers. Audiences gathered (safely distanced, of course) under the late afternoon sky and took in the sounds of Mozart, Puccini, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Other companies such as Opera Santa Barbara, Austin Opera, and San Diego Opera staged “drive-in” style performances, where audience members remained in or around their vehicles to enjoy the show.

San Diego Opera’s “drive-in” production of Puccini’s La bohème, presented in October 2020

One of the first live operas to be performed since the beginning of the pandemic was in Europe, when the Deutsche Oper Berlin staged a reduced version of Wagner’s epic Tannhäuser outside on their parking deck last June. With audiences enthusiastically turning out for these one-of-a-kind performances, it is clear that opera lovers are eager to continue experiencing the magic of live theatre—wherever it may take place.

While alternative media and venues have been vital to opera’s survival through the pandemic, we have also seen companies begin to return to theatres with safely distanced, alternatively staged productions. One of the first indoor performances took place in Madrid at Teatro Real, where a production of Verdi’s La traviata was staged especially with current restrictions in mind.

Teatro Real Madrid’s July 2020 production of Verdi’s La traviata

Singers maintained at least nine feet between each other for the entire opera, each highlighted by their own square of light. A full chorus also appeared behind the principal cast, spaced out in boxed segments of the stage. And in the audience, patrons were seated in a socially distanced configuration, with a limited seating capacity and large gaps between each group of masked attendees. This concept is what inspired our own performances of Carmen this season at Pensacola Opera, as we remain determined to present live opera in a way that is safe and exciting for all.

Whatever the manner of consumption, audiences all over have continued to express their excitement and passion for opera performances over the past year. Now more than ever, our community craves the artistic fulfillment that music brings, which is essential as we continue to heal and bounce back from a devastating year for the arts industry.

Impact Opera: In Perfect Harmony

On October 11, 2020, Pensacola Opera was named one of the recipients of an Impact 100 grant for our project IMPACT Opera: In Perfect Harmony.

IMPACT Opera: In Perfect Harmony will provide an array of experiential options for our community, allowing them to decide how they will enjoy a Pensacola Opera performance, whether that means a publicly attended open-air event in their neighborhood, an event at the opera center, or a professional-quality live and pre-recorded online streaming event.

In 2021, you will have many opportunities to see our talented Artists in Residence performing free Al Fresco performances in one of our city’s 90+parks presented on our new Wenger StageMobile. The addition of the StageMobile is transformative for the company, allowing us to travel with our own stage, lighting, and sound, unencumbered by the necessity to arrange (and pay) for equipment rental and transportation.

We want to take a moment to say THANK YOU from the very bottom of our hearts to the members of IMPACT 100 Pensacola Bay Area for selecting Pensacola Opera as a recipient of a $106,000 grant this year. We’re thrilled to use these funds to bring the magic of opera to our community (and beyond) in new, innovative, and exciting ways. We can’t wait for you to be a part of it all!

In Memoriam: Frank Cutrone

Written by Kyle & Jane Marrero and Jerome Shannon

Frank Cutrone and Philomena Madden with former Pensacola Opera Artists in Residence John and Gillian Riesen

The history and legacy of Pensacola Opera has been built on the generosity and service of so many community members. Frank and Trudy Cutrone loved opera! For over 25 years they gave of their time, talent and treasures to ensure Pensacola Opera’s tremendous success. A power couple who served the opera in many creative ways.

Frank faithfully served on the board and production committee for years. In the early days, when the opera was operating on a very small budget, he would assist in day trips to New Orleans Opera to pick up props and furniture. On load-in day for the production, he would arrive at the Saenger Theater early in the morning to help build the sets and there to assist in the “strike” on Sunday evenings. Our artists always enjoyed the VIP tours of the Naval Aviation Museum given by Frank and avid opera supporter, Frank Brophy.

Trudy, an author and gourmet chef, gave of her creative talents by assembling Pensacola Opera League’s cookbook, Banquet at the Opera, which included recipes of league members, some area chefs and peppered with interesting and amusing tidbits about opera and various composers. Trudy and Frank hosted many dinner parties for the opera and artists. They also opened their home to house and host main stage artists as well as our artists-in-residence.
Long time season ticket holders, donors and sponsors- we could always count on the Cutrone’s presence and financial support. They never missed an event, unless they were travelling the world! We are profoundly grateful for Frank and Trudy’s friendship and commitment to Pensacola Opera. Auf Wiedersehen! (Goodbye, until we see each other again)

– Kyle & Jane Marrero

BUT WAIT …. There’s more!

I had the immense pleasure of meeting Frank and Trudy when I began conducting for our company in 2000. Their love and support was ebullient, and I was grateful to be included in their opera family. As I witnessed the decline of Trudy’s health, I couldn’t help but be concerned for dear Frank. After her death, we all were hurting along with this wonderful man who was so important to our company. Little did I know that our fears were unfounded. Opera works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform. When Frank arrived to enjoy our annual Jukebox Gala event, he was seated with his friends and introduced to one person he had not yet had the pleasure of meeting. Philomena Madden. And whether he knew it or not, Frank was entering his “Encore Season”, finding love and giving love for a second time. A new member of the opera’s Board of Trustees, Philomena and Frank began a courtship that included excursions, performances, social events, and even a year-long cruise of the world. Married this past summer during the pandemic, we joined them via zoom as they formalized their love and commitment. They were our company’s “dream couple”, proving that you could indeed find love at the opera, and we rejoiced in their happiness. We were devastated when Philomena shared news of Frank’s cancer, and were shocked by how quickly he was taken from us. While we continue to mourn his loss, we take comfort in knowing that Frank and Philomena were able to enjoy one of life’s “encores” with each other. Something incredibly rare, yet so meaningful. And it all began with a night at the opera.

– Jerry Shanon