It’s been a quiet old time here at OperaWatch HQ. The furniture is dust-covered, the trainee opera critics have all been furloughed and I sit here like Miss Havisham dripping in cobwebs and waiting for news, any news.
My inbox pings with the announcement that Opera North’s Autumn 2020 and Winter 2021 seasons have been postponed. I will have to wait a little more for live opera as my in-house spider continues to weave around me.
But it’s not all been doom and gloom. Companies have found new ways to deliver innovative content to their lockdowned audiences. While unable to put on the lavish productions that we at OperaWatch love so much, Opera North is working with the BBC and Arts Council England’s Culture in Quarantine Programme and commissioning a diverse range of musicians to compose a series called Walking Home: Sound Journeys for Lockdown.
Offering ‘a vibrant cross-section of music-making in Britain today’, the commission includes cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe, qanun virtuoso Maya Youssef, oud player and composer Khyam Allami, violinist and songwriter Alice Zawadski and Martin Green of the folk trio Lau. It is an exciting challenge to provide new music in the age of COVID-19 and during the tragic closure of so many venues. Keep an eye out for broadcast details across a variety of platforms via the BBC.
Not standing still, Opera North has also announced a lockdown edition of its Resonance programme for BAME music-makers. From a nationwide call-out, Opera North commissioned Northern artist DJ Nicole Raymond (NikNak) to collaborate with poet Khadijah Ibrahim, both of whom are based in Leeds. From Manchester, DJ Balraj Samrai and Central African singer songwriter Emmanuela Yogolelo will work with other artists to examine rituals and community in the age of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Electro Dub producer Dirty Freud from Sheffield will work with ethnomusicologist and Chinese zither virtuoso, Dr Shu Jiang.
A further ping in my inbox alerts me to another innovative virtual music endeavour. The York Early Music Festival Online is available from July 9-11 and is a National Centre for Early Music production. NCEM was one of the first organisations to stream performances during the pandemic reaching audiences of more than 70,000. In amongst the wide programme, the festival opens with headline countertenor Iestyn Davies in the Art of Melancholy and is accompanied by acclaimed lutenist Elizabeth Kenny.
If ever there was an age of melancholy, this is it. It is, nevertheless, encouraging to see artists, performers, music companies and broadcasters respond with adventurous and relevant projects to give us hope in the absence of live performances or, at least, live audiences. I fear it will be a while before audiences return to the opera given that our demographic tends to be from the most vulnerable to the virus, myself included. I loved the recent photo of the reopening of Barcelona’s Liceu playing to a house full of plants. Copyright prevents me from showing the photo, but here is one of me socially distancing at the Palau de la Música Catalana (see photo below).
Despite the hope and humour, the cultural tragedy of COVID-19 is the threat of permanent closure of a huge number of theatres, live venues and opera houses as well as the thousands of redundancies that will go with it. We have now received an announcement of a £1.57 billion support package from the Minister for Culture, Oliver Dowden. I sincerely hope he stands by our creative industries with this pledge. But don’t hold your breath, the man has less culture than a petri dish.
Whatever the future holds and whatever the new normal is, I can’t wait for the theatres to open and the curtains to raise on the opera I know and love. The furlough of the trainee opera critics at OperaWatch is coming to an end and they need the work.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent