If the COVID-19 pandemic has a lesson for the arts community, it’s that what’s small can still be mighty. Without a house to fill and lavish sets and costumes to maintain, Washington’s tiny itinerant opera company IN Series has scrapped plans for its 2020–2021 season, originally set to take place in various venues across the city. Instead, the company is now pouring its resources into all-digital programming that will be free to the public, currently the first and only performing arts company in the region to do so. IN Series artistic director Timothy Nelson said the move allows his group to “market to the audience that we want rather than the audience that we need to pay the bills.”
“In theater, it is more important than ever for us, so that we justify our existence, to be creating work that is really helping people grapple with this crisis,” Nelson said in an interview. “A lot of the work we’re considering has to do with issues of separation or intimacy that is allowed or disallowed.”
As the region began shutting down in mid-March, forcing the region’s performing arts organizations into suspended animation, Nelson had the hunch to get ahead of the curve. By mid-April, the company held its first live cocktail hour vocal performance on Facebook and on April 30, the date originally set for the IN Series annual gala, the company announced its first all-digital season, culminating in a fully digital opera house without walls, set for construction by this July. “I couldn’t bear not making work I was sure I was going to be able to produce and I couldn’t also bear the idea of just rescheduling things from this year to next year,” he said.
Most small performing arts companies only have archival footage of past productions, often shot largely from wide angles and meant as a reference point to mount another show in the future. Rather than offering such material online or trying to replicate the theatrical experience, IN Series envisions it will present more not less of the kind of novel programming that has been the company’s mainstay, specifically designed for a digital experience, starting in September.
Nelson said he anticipates the company, known for its spare and original deconstructions of the operatic repertoire, will release at least 12 premieres, doubling the company’s usual season programming. In addition, there will be feature-length films, operatic shorts, and an episodic series with interactive and virtual reality components involving unique collaborations with filmmakers, animators, writers, and dancers. Older technologies will also be in the mix, like radio and telephone operas to be offered to stations hungry for fresh content in a world bereft of live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.
Up for consideration are pieces about healthcare workers suddenly serving as spiritual guides for patients in their final hours, or possibly a production of Euripides’s Alcestis to raise questions about whether a younger body is worth more than an older one. La bohème would usually be a major logistical challenge for the company to stage, but not an animated feature of Giacomo Puccini’s beloved classic of Bohemian life in 1830s Paris, with the various characters voiced by singers recorded from their homes, according to Nelson.
“One of the reasons we’re not announcing or committing to titles throughout this season is because we don’t know what the virus is going to do. It may end up that we have to create projects that are entirely remote for the whole season,” he said. “Being on the small side, I think it’s easier for us because we can be flexible, we can change things up at the last minute in a way that larger companies can’t because they have such overhead.”
Successfully harnessing the digital beast could help IN Series reach audiences on a scale unfathomable in the small theaters that usually host most of its shows. On April 30, the inaugural online “cocktail concert,” a commedia dell’arte performance interpreted live by tenor Peter Joshua Burroughs and pianist Carlos César Rodríguez in their home, reached more than 2,200 views on Facebook. The performance was followed by a virtual reception to be enjoyed with a suggested homemade cocktail pairing.
In “normal” times, the performers could never have accommodated such a crowd in their living room. Online, the experience instantly becomes more accessible, reaching far beyond the ageing white audiences that usually account for the bulk of opera house patrons.
By reacting and commenting publicly, viewers who may have never experienced opera before can comfortably form a community. “There’s a huge opportunity for acceptability that doesn’t happen at all—it’s impossible—in an opera house, in a physical building,” said Nelson.
Despite the perennial struggle to translate online viewership to monetary contributions, Nelson said the company has already seen a jump in donations from the same period in previous years, and new avenues of funding have also opened up, such as potential corporate sponsorships of specific digital products.
“It’s sort of a win-win in that yes, we’re not monetizing it, but we’re making an investment in the next 10 years by building our brand and our brand recognition, not just locally but nationally, that will then translate into local ticket sales,” Nelson said.
He stressed that donations for the online offerings directly reach the artists themselves. The company only has three full-time and two part-time staff working alongside more than 60 contract performers.
For all the allure of separate-together programming, virtual reality presents challenges for giving artists the necessary visual and physical cues to make scenes and scores come together. To that end, Nelson said he is hopeful that halfway through the season, artists will be able to rehearse together for a live production in June, but whether that will be a possibility remains anyone’s guess at this point. Medical experts have already warned that there is no safe way for singers to rehearse together until there is a vaccine and a 95% effective COVID-19 treatment, which could still be two years away.
The impossibility of rehearsing and performing together in the same room could sound the death knell for many small performing arts groups, especially in the District, where arts and culture accounts for 8.8% of GDP—more than any U.S. state.
But IN Series has opted for an optimistic outlook on the digital plunge. “We were nervous, because opera has an older audience, we weren’t sure how people were going to react going to a virtual season, but there’s been a lot of excitement and some additional giving attached to that as well,” Nelson said. The crisis, he added “just sort of forces us—we can’t monetize it anyway, so let’s just go full bore and see what happens.”
Tax-deductible contributions can be made on the IN Series website.