New York Magazine: Reckoning a New Future of New York’s Performances

High Culture Brought Low

The pandemic silenced our symphony halls and grand opera houses. But will the (eventual) restart bring with it a reckoning?

June 19, 2020
By Justin Davidson for Vulture

I last went to the Metropolitan Opera on March 6, and the anxious sensation that viral clouds might be pulsing through the hall, borne on waves of Wagner, convinced me it was past time for the city’s cultural life to go dormant. A couple of days later, it did. Now, as New York reawakens, the performing-arts world is desperate for clues to its future. The city’s status as a cultural capital depends on a world-spanning arts machine that sucks up talent and pumps out performances night after night. The sudden halt, followed by protracted slumber, could leave a lot of wreckage: artists who change careers or retire prematurely, audiences that drift away, donors who decide they’d rather fund social causes and medical research, organizations that can’t afford their mortgages. According to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s timetable, theaters and concert halls will be part of the fourth and last phase of reopening, but even the brand-name institutions wonder how easily they can pick up where they left off.

“I’ve never dealt with such a fluid and changeable situation,” says New York Philharmonic president Deborah Borda. “We don’t know whether our music director will be allowed back into the country, whether artists will be able to come from Europe or Asia, or whether there will be testing for the audience. What about testing orchestra members every single day? There are literally hundreds of questions.” And no easy answers. “For the performing arts, the idea of a V-shaped recovery is not possible,” the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, says. “It’s going to be slow.”

Europe’s musical life is already beginning to rouse itself. The Salzburg Festival’s pared-down summer menu includes two operas. Concerts with scant, widely spaced audiences are starting to take place in Stockholm, Vienna, and Berlin. American organizations face a murkier year, thanks to hazy guidelines and little government funding. Even as administrators try to plan for the future, they’re caught up in triage. Joyce Theater staff spent the first days of lockdown trying to process visas for a fall season of international dance companies before accepting there was no point. Carnegie Hall mapped out multiple scenarios, depending on whether it’s allowed to reopen in October, January, or April or has to forget the entire season. “We have no idea which one is going to be realistic,” says executive director Clive Gillinson. A few days after that conversation, Carnegie canceled all concerts through the end of the year. So have Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic. The Philharmonic estimates it lost $7 million to $10 million by canceling several months of concerts and is facing another $9 million loss from relinquishing the fall season.For the performing arts, the idea of a V-shaped recovery is not possible.— Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera

The Met’s Gelb ticks off the obligations that don’t go away just because the music stops: pension payments, scenery and costume storage, repairs to the building’s crumbling travertine exterior, health insurance for furloughed orchestra and chorus members, and so on — well over $100 million a year. Revenue can’t just be switched back on either, especially since so much of it comes from donors whose portfolios are experiencing cyclone-level turbulence.

Limbo is especially rough on singers and dancers, who must keep their muscles and vocal cords in good working order without any immediate prospect of using them in public. “My colleagues and I are all struggling financially,” says soprano Christine Goerke, one of the Met’s major stars. “There’s not one of us who isn’t panicked.”

And yet survival depends on the one resource that artists have in abundance: invention and creativity. “There’s no knowing when this crisis is going to be over, but it will be over. We’re being given a forced reset. Do we do a drive-in concert? Do we go sing in the middle of a field?  Do we use smaller venues?”

That last suggestion seems like an odd one for a soprano whose voice lifts easily over a 100-piece orchestra to fill every nook of the Met’s 4,000-seat house, but Goerke can accept new limitations. “I don’t always have to dial it up to 11,” she says. “I do have a setting at five.”

Even the Met is trying to embrace austerity within the limits of its hugeness. “The physical opulence of grand opera may have to be reconsidered,” Gelb says. “But the worst thing that can happen is to creatively retrench.” Instead, he points to the enduring magic that other lean times produced, like John Dexter’s 1977 (and still current) production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. “That production was powerful — and remarkably inexpensive.”

These past few months have brought a few gratifying surprises. The Met’s free nightly streams of past performances have drawn hundreds of thousands of listeners worldwide and contributions from over 30,000 first-time donors. Once the bane of the concert hall — Would you please silence your ringer? — the smartphone is now a medium of instant connection. Audiences and performers are barred from being in the same room, but the internet has brought them closer together, allowing for a kind of intimacy that oversize auditoriums preclude.

The internet can’t do much to bring orchestras, string quartets, or dance companies together, but some soloists have found high-tech ways to rediscover a simpler life in music. “Planning years ahead is one of my least favorite things about the industry,” says pianist Inon Barnatan. “I enjoy this ‘What are you doing next Tuesday?’ approach to putting on a concert.” The current state of webcams and broadband is simultaneously helping and interfering: “Having spent my life thinking about every detail and every sound, it’s frustrating to surrender to a subpar iPhone recording. Concerts from home need to reflect the quality of the music-making and be a real artistic experience.” Barnatan runs the Summerfest chamber-music festival in La Jolla, California, and rather than canceling the whole thing, he plans to present a more intimate iteration of six concerts, performed by seven musicians, perhaps with a tiny audience present and the rest safely at home. “The bigger the institution, the harder it is to take risks. Now, though, you don’t have much to lose.”

Inventiveness is an effective antidote against despair, especially when it yields unexpected solutions to problems you didn’t know you had. The 92nd Street Y never had enough space, for instance. “We were bursting at the seams,” says the Y’s CEO, Seth Pinsky. “If we wanted to do something new, we had to eliminate something else.” But thanks to their online programming, the crisis has given them a new global reach, though that doesn’t begin to fill the Y’s yawning financial abyss.

Smaller organizations, already accustomed to navigating severe constraints, are using technology as a creative tool. “We launched our digital initiatives as a way of harnessing our own energy and not waiting for things to happen,” says Beth Morrison, a producer of new chamber operas whose tiny organization lost $800,000 of revenue virtually overnight. “But now it’s essential that we start commissioning artists again. Paying artists is the most important thing we do. So maybe we look at the chamber operas we have in the hopper and reconceive them as film or digital experiences.”

There are signs of an expansive future. The Los Angeles Opera canceled its two-night run of Du Yun’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Angel’s Bone (a Morrison production) and streamed it instead, drawing an audience big enough to fill Madison Square Garden. “We’ve been able to democratize the art form in an essential way,” Morrison says. “My hope is that will continue when this is over.”

Still, technology can only help at the margins with collaboration, improvisation, companionship, contact. A dancer can’t lift a virtual partner. A spread-out string quartet might struggle to stay in perfect sync, and not just because subtle cues are hard to pass around. “In purely musical terms, we could learn to adjust to playing six feet apart, maybe not with quite as high a level of ensemble precision, but almost,” says Eugene Drucker, a violinist in the Emerson String Quartet. But, he points out, four musicians come with four families, each with different levels of comfort with risk. And to perform, they have to travel, which means negotiating many different countries’ regulations and the conditions in different halls.

Anna Glass, the executive director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, has doubts about its fall national tour. “Venues have said, ‘Our audiences are very excited, and the shows are sold out.’ But I’m not even sure how we get everyone in the studio together, let alone get dancers on a plane.” She hopes the troupe can perform from its New York studio for a Minneapolis audience in October, but even that would require testing all the dancers, then gathering them in collective isolation for weeks of rehearsal. The Joyce Theater is taking a more minimalist approach, hoping to present local soloists for deliberately sparse audiences. Executive director Linda Shelton jokes that the theater may have to change its tagline, “Get closer.” “Maybe we should add ‘but not too close.’ ”

The system’s sudden breakdown leaves artists and presenters clinging to a shared article of faith: Crisis makes art even more crucial to people’s lives. “We are a necessity, not a luxury,” Goerke says. “The art form isn’t going away.” Lincoln Center may creep back into the fray as early as this summer, with outdoor concerts in various corners of its campus. But its president, Henry Timms, is already looking forward to the day when the complex can start to satisfy the city’s pent-up cravings for music and dance. “As soon as it is understood to be safe, the demand for the performing arts will be extraordinary,” Timms says. “Congregating and creating art together is one of the more human things we do.” Morrison sounds almost exhilarated about the rigidified business she has spent years trying to loosen up: “I feel more optimistic about the future of classical music than ever because this situation has bred invention.”

*This article appears in the June 22, 2020, issue of New York Magazine.