BARN OPERA’s Artistic Director Joshua Collier on Keeping the Barn Doors Open

How a Small Vermont Company Pulled Off a Pandemic Season Without Canceling a Show

By Chris Ruel

The Brandon, Vermont Chamber of Commerce describes the home of BARN OPERA as “the quintessential New England town.” It sits in the middle of the state, closer to the border with Upstate New York than that of New Hampshire. A beautiful, yet simple, old white church, complete with a clock tower and a sky-piercing steeple, sits in the center of town surrounded by quaint shops and inns; the downtown could be a movie set.

Brandon has a rich and varied arts scene, particularly in terms of music. There’s a violin school and a chamber orchestra music camp founded in 1963. Since 1995, an annual bluegrass festival takes place in the summer. Compass Music and Arts Center took over a 52,000 square-foot building abandoned in 1993, and after renovations, the Center now has a 250-seat hall perfect for live music.

A quick jaunt down Pearl Street takes you from downtown to a barn that sits between Otter Creek and Sanderson Covered Bridge. The barn is the home of BARN OPERA, a regional opera company with a young creative team that has brought the art form to the people of Brandon who have welcomed it with open arms. The company’s growing audience caused a move to a new barn that upped the seating capacity from 50 to over 100.

BARN OPERA’S administrative team, all of whom are fairly young, represents the changing face and nature of opera. Its Artistic Director, Joshua Collier, is a tenor with a stellar reputation within the New England opera scene, having sung leading roles across the region, and BARN isn’t Collier’s first rodeo as an arts administrator or founder of a company. In 2013, he established Opera Brittenica, a Boston-based company specializing in the works of Benjamin Britten.

Collier and his team, like those around the industry, never expected the cataclysm that struck in March 2020 and shut down the performing arts for months to follow. The company refused to be a COVID casualty and looked for ways to keep the BARN doors open even as they saw cancelation after cancelation wreak havoc on companies large and small. To do this, they engaged with the State of Vermont to develop a plan that kept artists and audiences safe. The protocols worked. From when the doors opened to welcome live audiences in August 2021 to when they closed for the season with a British-themed New Year’s bash four months later, not a single instance of COVID was linked to BARN’S performances.

The Grid

The administrative team ran through best and worst-case scenarios as they looked for ways to keep their artists and audience physically and emotionally healthy during a deadly pandemic.

“I do not think that it is pessimistic, but realistic, to plan for the worst, but hope for the best. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and in the opera world, the adage stands,” Collier stated in an email to OperaWire.

Six months into the pandemic, in September 2020, BARN produced an outdoor concert. Consulting with local health professionals and a state-level contact, the company determined that per the Governor’s orders, each family unit needed to have 100 square feet to be safely distanced from others. In order to abide by that, and guarantee that even when walking to their pre-designated seating area, audience members would maintain social distance, the company created an outdoor theatre space, with marked 10×10 squares and six-foot-wide walkways in a grid pattern.

The town granted BARN permission to use the baseball field and spent hours marking an immense grid using spray-painted lines. With the grid in place, the next challenge was getting the audience from their cars to the field. A bridge that passes over a small stream separates the parking lot and the field. Once across the bridge, audience member temperatures were taken and masks checked. And, just like an indoor venue, those masks had to stay on at all times.

“The artists were so rejuvenated spiritually by the experience, I swore, and my board agreed with me, that we would exhaust EVERY solution before we’d ever cancel a show. Performers need to perform as much as the audience needs to be nourished by the art that we create. It is a symbiotic relationship, and as an opera organization, we have the responsibility and obligation to take care of both,” Collier said.

Working with the State

Like governors of many states, Vermont’s Phil Scott held weekly COVID briefings, informing residents on where things stood, disease-wise, and the restrictions that were in place to protect the Green Mountain State’s population. Collier had a contact within the state health department to whom he reached out. His contact acted as a sounding board, helping Collier and his team tease out solutions.

After each of the Governor’s briefings, the team would get together and compare takeaways from the update, and in Collier’s words, “tried to square the round peg.”

“The state was involved in the first conversation, understanding that we were not trying to overstep the restrictions, but keep everyone safe, work within the confines of the guidance, and still be able to produce programming,” Collier said.

“There was never any opposition because the question that I came to them with was not ‘Is it ok if I do X?’ but ‘How do we do X while staying within the structure of the emergency authorization from the governor?’ According to my contact, [our approach] was a welcome and VERY rare occurrence.”

Much of the work Collier, his team, and his state health department contact embarked upon was a clear understanding of the guidance being issued by the state, as well as the CDC.

Collier explained, “It was mostly about clarification and definitions of phrases/terminology. For example, the guidance was that general/mixed household indoor gatherings were not permitted, while gatherings of vaccinated people could not exceed 100 people. So, we could square that by requiring vaccines for the audience and the artists, which placed us within the guidance of the law. We always took the most stringent guidelines from the state and CDC as far as masking and vaccines, while occasionally going above that.”

Implementing the Plan

With their protocols ready to go, Collier and team presented them to the board and to the artists, both of whom approved. From there, BARN emailed their ticket-holding audience, alerting them about requirements to attend performances. They also published announcements on social media, within the local papers, the company’s website, and on message boards. Collier stated the company did everything in its power to notify its audience, but not everyone got the message.

“We had to turn a few ticket holders away from the barn because they did not bring proof of vaccination. We did not issue refunds as the expectations were clearly articulated. It disappointed us that some did not follow the very clear requirements, and if their takeaway is that BARN OPERA goes over and above the CDC guidance, and does too much to mitigate the COVID-19 threat, then I am perfectly ok with that.”

While the state didn’t send an official representative to monitor BARN’S implementation, Collier’s contact was at every performance, and Collier is fairly certain the health department was aware that all rules were being followed to a T.

“I can imagine that word traveled to the state that we would not skirt the laws, and they didn’t need to get officially involved, but I trust that the state had its hands full with lack of compliance from other organizations. That they didn’t feel the need to micromanage our zealously overly compliant company is not offensive to me.”

Ending 2021 with a New Year’s Bash

Attendees at BARN’S British-themed New Year’s Eve bash, which featured a performance of “HMS Pinafore,” partied like it was 2019. With so much uncertainty about where the pandemic was headed, cutting loose in a highly safe environment brought back a sense of connection, and with it, joy.

“The audience and the artists alike lived and celebrated that night as if it was the last night of live performance for an indeterminate amount of time, and I got MANY emails and notes of gratitude based on all the pains that we took to ensure everyone’s safety.”

Said Collier, “It was not that we were flippantly thumbing our noses at the pandemic; we took a significant financial hit in order to keep everyone safe. Weeks before the nationwide run on antigen tests, when there were millions available, we invested in them. When the omicron variant was running rampant, we knew we were going to have to implement this secondary check. So, not only did we require everyone (artist and audience) to be vaccinated, but also boosted, and the artists were all tested within 2 days of the show, and we tested the audience within 2 hours of the show. Our team administered the tests, and only after an audience member provided their vaccination record for all 3 (or 2 with J&J) and got a negative test result were they given their actual ticket to the barn.

With all these measures in place, we collectively felt that it was reasonable to assume that omicron would not be in the barn, and while we said that masks were welcome, they were not mandatory. We also had contact tracing abilities. There were 80 people in the barn that night, most of whom did not wear masks, and we did not have ONE case of covid-19 resulting from the event.”

Finding a Path to “Yes.”

“Every company is in a different situation (i.e. size, scope, location, etc) so some measures that I could take will not be available to all companies, but I think that the overarching point is rather than making a knee-jerk reaction and closing production, take a breath and assert that it is possible to go on,” said Collier.

“From conversations with my fellow Artistic Directors around the country whose companies have been forced to close their doors, the major hurdle is psychological. Fear has tremendous power and causes people (and in this case, companies) to react irrationally. If we assume we COULD go on, then the work is finding how to get to that ‘yes.’”

According to Collier, opera fans and patrons should be brought into the process as well. Collier’s friends who live in more conservative areas expressed reservations about alienating the unvaccinated from the art form. His perspective; however, is this: attending a performance isn’t a right, but a privilege and ways exist to see productions via streaming for those unwilling or unable to get vaccinated, which don’t jeopardize fellow audience members and the artists.

“It is not possible at this time for it to be business as usual, and that it requires partnership with the audience in order to make it work. We spent $1000 over our budget to purchase the test kits, and we didn’t require the audience to foot the bill. It was more valuable for us to ensure that the show went on, and then figure out how to get back into the black as soon as possible.

At the event, one of our audience members thanked me personally for all the work that I did to keep everyone safe, and then, the person handed me a donation check to BARN OPERA for $1000.”

BARN OPERA’S 2022 Season opens on Feb. 11, 2022, with a production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale.”


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