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Pandemic Profile: San Diego Opera

 December 22, 2020 at 10:14 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 Arts organizations have been hit hard by the pandemic, but San Diego opera discovered that some of the lessons it learned from an earlier financial crisis have proven useful during these current challenging times KPBS arts reporter, Beth Amando speaks with the operas general director, David Bennett, about adapting to ever-changing guidelines for operations Speaker 2: 00:21 David, when you stepped in to help out the opera at the time when it was facing closure, I went to one of your town hall meetings. And one of the concepts that came up way back then was the idea of being nimble. So how has that played into this whole pandemic? Speaker 3: 00:41 I mean, we have a core value at the opera as a result of the near closure. We wrote new core value, mission, vision statements. And one of the core values that came about at that point was through nimble adaptation to the changing marketplace. We preserved the future of San Diego opera. That was one of our core values. Now that was really in response to, I think, a financial changing marketplace, right? The fact that we almost closed, but boy, there is not truer words that could be spoken about where we're living right now as a company, right? We were the first opera company in the United States to have to postpone or cancel performances due to COVID. So we, it hit us very early in March and then we had to postpone the rest of our season. And so since then, all we have done is think about being nimble and pivoting and trying to find ways and explore ways to produce opera that can guarantee safety. So that's paramount, artistic success is important and engaging with our community is important. Those are all wonderful things, but making sure that we can have an activity where the safety of our audience and all of our employees are, are guaranteed is really the most important. Speaker 2: 01:56 Well in opera too, you have singers who their voice is, their instrument and the idea of getting a virus that, you know, in part in attacks, you know, your ability to breathe and use your lungs seems like a particularly intense concern for you. And when you did finally get to do a staged performance, what were some of the restrictions and kind of adaptations that you had to do? Speaker 3: 02:23 Well, as you mentioned, singers are sort of singing is kind of a unique activity that you have to have concerns of COVID right, because of aspirin nature and sort of the volume of activity that happens with opera singing. So space was a very important consideration and we had a lot of going back and forth with the union that represents singers, American Guild of musical artists. And one of the protocols that they established was for an outdoor performance, which we did each singer had to have 120 square feet of their own space. And you couldn't encroach in this space of another. So that was a challenge and that was defined by 15 feet in front of your mouth and the next singer, and then four feet on the side. So of course at the same returned, then you had to increase that base of 15 feet. Speaker 3: 03:11 That was a challenge. And as you know, a lot of the storytelling of opera is with actors, singers being very close to each other. [inaudible] is in lava wham when Rodolfo feels the hand of a muni for the first time and says, your hand is cold. Your tiny hand is cold, which is a foreshadowing of course, knowing that we need will die at the end, but it's sort of hard to have Rodolfo Mimi hold hands when they need to be 120 square feet apart. So we had to come up with some creative solutions to make sure we told the story of love of whim within the constraints of safety. Speaker 2: 03:48 And talk a little bit about how you've adapted. Um, you guys have come up with a couple of different kind of solutions. So what have you learned through this pandemic and what kind of opportunities are you seeing for having some sort of opera performance and community for that? Speaker 3: 04:07 Well, clearly San Diego, we have some advantages in San Diego that other places don't have and it's our climate, right? So outdoor activity is much safer than indoor activity. We know that, I mean, that's been proven everywhere and our climate here allows us to have outdoor activity for a longer period of time than other cities. So that's our first sort of big learning experiment, I would say. And it's taught us that we need to be producing outdoors more than we have in our past. So I think that will be something we'll continue to look at post COVID right now, in terms of safety are audiences confined to their cars. That's really the only kind of performance with a live audience that is permitted. I think the next step will be once we have some vaccine in making its way through our community will be outdoor performances with a live audience outside of cars and spaced, and then we would get back into the theaters. So there's still more learning to do with what kinds of activities that we'll be able to be outdoors outside of cars. And I think that's going to be our next step. Speaker 2: 05:12 Now, I also remember from that town hall meeting, that one of the things you were exploring at that point were some really interesting outdoor venues. Speaker 3: 05:21 Do you remember? I threw up a picture of Mount helix because, you know, and that was just something that I was fascinated by, by seeing that gorgeous, then you that's sitting on top of Mount helix and I thought, wouldn't that be a great place to do a performance? Well, maybe it's time for us to start thinking about that again. And of course the proximity we have to the ocean of finding some way to get an audience and performers near the ocean for a performance would be magical. So, so challenges can give you a lot of opportunities. Let's put it that way. Speaker 2: 05:50 Now, another thing that's very challenging for a company during the pandemic is that the rules are constantly changing based on how many COVID cases we have. And how do you kind of plan for the fact that you can't really plan all that securely for what you want to do? Speaker 3: 06:10 Time horizon for planning is much shorter. And that means our commitments to contracting artists and, you know, just making the sort of finality is also much closer to the performance date, but that's the world that we live in. I will say most organizations are not actually hiring artists right now. So it's a little bit of an ongoing conversation with the people that we intend to engage, to say, it's going to be a tighter timeline of whether we're able to make a commitment or not. Right. As a matter of fact, with LABA wham, we didn't actually know where we were going to be able to do LABA lamb until about a month before we started doing rehearsals. Again, we typically hire contract singers 24 to 36 months in advance. It's a whole nother world right now. Speaker 2: 06:54 How is it for an arts organization financially in these times because you obviously can't generate the same kind of income you had when you were charging for live performances. Speaker 3: 07:04 Correct. So I'll use Bowen as an example. My goal, which I shared with the staff is that we reduce the production expenses to virtually the same level as we did revenue. So the impact on us as a company and particularly on our cashflow would be almost the same as had we done it at the civic theater. Now we didn't quite make that because it needed to be within the realm of that. But what we did find was that we had some new sponsorship opportunities that came to us because we were doing something outdoors that really reached the whole community in a way that it didn't, if we did it at the civic theater. So some of that was offset by new sources of contributions. Funnily enough, you may know, as a nonprofit, every time we open our doors and we put on a production, we lose money because we never raised enough in ticket revenue to cover all the costs. That's why we're a nonprofit, right? So if you're getting rid of the production expenses and you're getting rid of the revenue, you can exist for a little while, but how long you can be an opera company that's not producing opera and still stay in business is the big challenge. So luckily we're staying very close with all of our patrons. We have a lot of online, online activity and people are being generous right now. So we're feeling good for the time being, Speaker 2: 08:24 How was the opera able to sustain itself in terms of, did you have to lay people off? Have you been able to keep your full staff? Speaker 3: 08:34 You know, we've been very lucky because we haven't had the furlough or lay anyone off. We did receive the PPP funds that came through during the summer, which helped us retain employees, but we've still been in a situation that we haven't had to do that, which has been terrific. Speaker 2: 08:48 All right. Well, I want to thank you very much for talking about pivoting in the pandemic. Speaker 3: 08:53 It is where we all live, right. Being comfortable with Speaker 4: 08:56 Pivoting is I think a lesson for all of us. Speaker 5: 09:08 [inaudible] Speaker 4: 09:10 Rebecca Mondo is speaking with San Diego operas. David Bennett go to SD for the latest updates about upcoming events and performances. Speaker 5: 11:03 [inaudible].

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Arts organizations have been hit hard by the pandemic. But San Diego Opera discovered that some of the lessons it learned from an earlier financial crisis have proven useful during these current challenging times.
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