The coronavirus pandemic has silenced the world’s concert halls and opera theatres.
Organisations specialising in live performance face an existential crisis under current restrictions on social gatherings, with up to 75% of people employed in the creative and performing arts expected to lose work.
Online digital content has emerged as an immediate option for some. This has taken the form of ephemeral, light-hearted and quirky social media offerings, more weighty archival content, or live-streamed concerts.
These technological solutions are stopgaps rather than long-term substitutes for close human contact provided by live performance.
Digital offers some possibilities …
While digital delivery has the possibility to extend reach geographically and demographically, it can prove a difficult task for groups who cater for audiences accustomed to the ritual of the concert hall – available online viewer numbers in Australia, such as on YouTube videos, are far off comparable live-audience numbers.
Small scale streamed concerts can generate revenue better than larger ones. Percussionist Claire Edwardes of Ensemble Offspring has been holding live Zoom concerts. Tickets cost A$50 per person and streams are limited to around 20 per gig to facilitate smooth communication both technically and personally.
“Everyone is seeing isolation as an opportunity that forces us to ask: how do we spread the word outside of our core supporters, and how do we actually expand our reach?,” asks Edwardes.
… but livelihoods depend on a comeback
Work for online audiences comes with significant costs – high quality streaming technology, as well as fees for artists, production teams and administration – but revenue can be minimal.
While Opera Australia is expanding its digital offerings, staff are being stood down. Chief executive officer Rory Jeffes tells me 475 staff members are on partial wages through Jobkeeper, but an additional 338 staff, mostly casuals, were not eligible and have been stood down.
Local organisations cannot compete for online audience numbers with music streaming giants like Spotify, and institutions with long-established digital offerings: the Metropolitan Opera has nearly 150,000 YouTube subscribers; Opera Australia has 8,000.
Even for companies with established digital footprints, numbers online do not necessarily translate to income. The National Theatre in London (650,000 YouTube subscribers) is considering large-scale staff redundancies despite its popular streaming performances.
And as concert halls are able to reopen, there is a long road ahead in rebuilding audience numbers.
The Berliner Ensemble has removed most of its seats in what may be a glimpse into future nights out. Others are promoting protective suits for concertgoers. Opera Australia is discussing temperature checks – the company stills hopes to stage the Ring Cycle in the 2,000 seat Lyric Theatre in Brisbane, in November.
Some companies are hoping for permission to open up to bigger audience numbers, even while social distancing rules remain. Melbourne Theatre Company executive director Virginia Lovett told The Age she hopes the government will allow performance companies to “open at a capacity that works for us” by knowing the seating details and contact information for every audience member.
But it is not just risks to the audience that will need to be considered. Virus transmission risks posed by singing and playing wind instruments will need to be taken into account in safety guidelines for performers, too.
Compact units like Ensemble Offspring are keen to lead the way back. Unless the government’s plan for lifting restrictions is revised, concert venues will first be allowed to admit just 20, then 100, patrons.
“We hope that because of the smaller size of our audiences and our performances, intimacy will be part of the gradual opening up,” says Edwardes.
And still, optimism remains
The musical performing arts face a lengthy process of dealing with threats to sustainability. Nevertheless, shock has brought on solidarity and support among organisations and venues.
David Rowden, artistic director of Omega Ensemble, expects we will see “more organisations collaborating because there is going to be more need to co-present and to share costs.”
Despite everything, he remains optimistic. “Coming out of this on the other side, maybe people will have an even greater appreciation for the arts,” he says.