At the close of a catastrophic year in the performing arts, the annual ritual of cobbling together a list of highlights takes on a woeful cast. To begin with, I saw only three in-person events after mid-March. Although I watched dozens of performances online, sitting at my desk day after day lent the experiences a sense of sameness, of solipsism. The power of joining an audience resides in yoking your individuality to a collective, however temporary or disparate. In our electronic watchtowers, we seem to command a wide landscape, but ultimately we rarely leave the cocoon of the self. The COVID-19 year has trapped us all the more completely in the digital bubbles from which we so often long to break out. In a related development, the tech monopolies that already control too much of the cultural landscape have tightened their grip.
The damage that performing-arts groups and working performers have suffered is more severe than we can measure, and years will pass before even a partial recovery takes hold. Union rights were already under sustained attack, and organizations may opportunistically use the crisis to degrade those rights further. The Metropolitan Opera, which furloughed around a thousand employees in the spring, has offered to resume sending paychecks to unionized employees but only if they accept long-term reductions in salary. Elsewhere, institutions have managed to avoid gutting their employees’ livelihoods. The case of the Columbus Symphony is worthy of note: remarkably, it has made no cuts for any of its full-time musicians or staff. Admittedly, that orchestra is a far smaller organization than the Met. As I commented in a piece on pandemic-era string-quartet activity, the hulking dinosaurs of the musical world may face the gravest danger.
Listeners can play a role in the recovery, as well. For more than twenty years, since Napster gave people the idea that music should be free for the taking, a radical devaluation of musicians’ work has been under way. Spotify and other streaming services have perpetuated and normalized that iniquity: the royalties they offer to non-superstar musicians are insultingly small. It was all the more welcome, then, when, beginning in mid-March, the enlightened music site Bandcamp began running a series of altruistic sales, the proceeds of which went directly to artists. It’s also worth bearing in mind that streaming music is more destructive to the environment than any technology of musical reproduction that has come before.
I feel compelled to erect a memorial for eagerly anticipated performances that never took place. Phantom highlights that come to mind: Alban Berg’s “Lulu” at the Cleveland Orchestra; a new production of the “Ring” at Bayreuth; the world première of Kaija Saariaho’s opera “Innocence,” in Aix-en-Provence; a revival of Peter Sellars’s staging of “Tristan und Isolde” at the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Barrie Kosky’s production of Prokofiev’s “The Fiery Angel” at the Met; and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s inaugural concerts at the San Francisco Symphony. John Keats notwithstanding, heard melodies are sweeter than the other kind.
Ten Notable Performances of 2020
“Sweet Land” in Los Angeles, March 7th
Productions by the Los Angeles-based opera visionary Yuval Sharon have appeared on my end-of-year lists in five out of the past six years, and with good reason: no one in the field has been as consistently creative or daring. The first of two astounding Sharon projects in 2020 was “Sweet Land,” an outdoor opera that meditated on the plundering of Native American lands by colonizers. The score was a joint effort by the composers Du Yun and Raven Chacon—the first is Chinese-American, the other of Navajo descent. Scenes from the work lingered in my mind as two ineradicable national crimes unfolded: the separation of children from their parents at the American border and the destruction of sacred Native sites by border-wall construction.