Back on stage with 'Tosca'
The past 19 months have been tough on everybody, including Portland Opera. The Opera had been in transition anyway when COVID-19 pandemic and government restrictions shut down the performing arts world in March 2020.
Sue Dixon, who had taken over as general director from Christopher Mattaliano the summer before, remembers it well and the ensuing weeks. Little did she know that the pandemic would restrict stage performances for 19 months.
"There was so much unknown," she said. "We were in a health crisis, and it was a global health crisis, it didn't just affect Oregon and our area. The information was coming out swiftly and rapidly, constantly changing, and even when we were thinking about being outdoors, we were getting so much information of the threat presented for singers."
So, like most companies, Portland Opera improvised to just stay active. For many days, there would be a pianist playing and a singer singing on the balcony that faces the Willamette River and walkways at the Hampton Opera Center. Later, the opera organized outdoor shows with Oregon Ballet Theatre at Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and at the new Old Moody Stages venue at Zidell Yards. Opera a la Cart went around the city to entertain fans outdoors. Virtual shows became reality.
And, starting with Dixon, there has been basically an overhaul of leadership.
Now, it's time: Portland Opera returns to Keller Auditorium with Puccini's "Tosca," Oct. 29 and 31 and Nov. 4 and 6.
"We're looking forward to celebrating with patrons," Dixon said. "We're not going to be a full house and that's OK."
The Tribune caught up with Dixon to discuss all matters Portland Opera:
Tribune: It's been almost two years, you must be excited.
Dixon: When we step on stage for opening night of "Tosca" on Oct. 29, it'll be 727 days since we've performed a main stage production. It's hard to capture in words what so much of us are feeling. I had just started my leadership. "Madama Butterfly" was my coming out as general director (the fall before). When we shut down in March, I'd been on the job 4 1/2 months. We shut down right as we took the stage for "Bajazet" tech rehearsal.
Tribune: How'd you navigate the down months?
Dixon: We're lucky we own this building, and it has a lovely balcony. We'd have a pianist and a singer out there performing. Because of rules against gatherings, we did things quietly. We'd send out a tweet right before we perform to people because we couldn't promote it. We did it for the whole summer 2020; probably 30 (shows). It was just for the fun of it, as a connection, surprise and gift for the community.
(The shutdown) was hard for performers, they're so used to working as an ensemble and gathering together, and in crisis we are nurturers and healers. We couldn't do that.
We also worked on core strategies as part of our strategic plan — on initiatives, mission and identity as an organization. I'm really proud we did that work in that quiet phase. And, we brought five artists into our artist program and did digital content.
Tribune: And then you went to the outdoors …
Dixon: We did so much in the community. Once everyone started to get vaccinated, there was a sense that you could get out there and do something safe — for staff and patrons. At Old Moody Stages, we did performances with our chorus and alumni young artists. We collaborated with Oregon Ballet Theatre and OMSI and put on shows at OMSI ("Frida").
Tribune: At what point did you start to move forward with the 2021-22 schedule?
Dixon: Once we started to put a vaccine mandate in place and we had the support of P5 (Portland'5 Centers for the Performing Arts) and Metro and the governor, then we started to feel we had safeguards in place to perform. We reached out to artist management and talked to staff about how they were feeling. We reached out to everyone with an anonymous survey, to the orchestra, chorus, staff, principal artists. They said, "We're nervous, but let's do it."
Then we asked our audiences, "Do you want to come back?" Half of them said yes, we're ready, we're vaccinated. People wanted to know that we're taking health and safety as the cornerstone of what do. We're not going to be a full house (for "Tosca"), some patrons are still not comfortable attending. Everyone is impacted differently by this pandemic.
Tribune: Thoughts on the new artistic director, Priti Gandhi?
Dixon: I'm excited to work with Priti. When we were going through the equitable search for artistic leader, she was just someone who just impressed with her knowledge of the opera world. She sat on a lot of panels with Opera America. I had an eye on her as somebody I was impressed with. Her candor and vulnerability and honesty were traits we were looking for in an artistic partner.
It was instant chemistry; we have the same value system; "What does it mean to be leaders and a beacon of change?" We want to transform our industry and this company … to be more human centered. Everything we do is more of an ensemble, naming Karen (Slack) and Damien (Geter) as artistic advisor and Damien as intern music director. Collective voices, different lenses.
Tribune: Karen and Damien helped you through the pandemic, correct?
Dixon: When I took on this job, I didn't come from an opera organization. I'd been working with organizations for eight years, coming from arts and culture in general. I knew until I had a permanent artistic director, I needed ensembles to make decisions. I wanted to be an agent of change; but, it was important to have people at the table who didn't look like me and who didn't have the same thought process. I needed individuals who challenged me. I was so impressed by Karen (a singer), and we had a Zoom meeting and I had chemistry with her. Same thing with Damien, he's a hidden gem, he's been in our productions, but I didn't know the breadth of work he has done. He's a composer who went to school for conducting. He's a singer. And he lives in our backyard (Portland).
Tribune: Can Portland Opera recapture an audience?
Dixon: This is a million-dollar question. Everyone is trying to figure out how to respond to the pandemic and bring audiences back and find new audience members. There's no secret that ticket sales have been lower than pre-pandemic levels. Right before it we had sold out "Butterfly." We were on trajectory to meet financial goals.
There has been grief in the industry. The older demographic, they may never come back. But we're doing digital content, capturing performances and streaming to audiences who don't feel comfortable attending.
Tribune: What brings fans back?
Dixon: It's about repertoire, how do people see themselves on stage? Opera has been focused on traditional pieces; I've spent the last two years listening to audiences, not just the community that comes to opera but the community that doesn't come to opera. "What will it take for you to come and see opera?" They want to be represented on stage. They resonate with story and piece. The stories we tell. Hoping that will bring audiences to us.
For tickets to "Tosca," see www.portlandopera.org.
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