Best of 2020: OperaWire’s Top 11 Industry-Defining Moments of the Year

By Francisco Salazar

This calendar year has been a difficult one for the world and for the music industry. It tested artists in ways they never thought they would. And yet it also showed resilience, love, and humility. It was a year where generosity was predominant and where artists united for a better cause.

Usually, at this point in time, OperaWire has a tradition of naming the 11 artists who have had an unforgettable year. But given the circumstances we have all experienced, 2020 is not like every year and we could not carry on the tradition in the same manner. Instead, we adopted a different approach highlighting our top 11 memorable moments of the year and celebrating the many artists and companies that allowed the music to continue.

11. Three Albums

With artists stuck at home with no work, many decided to go to the recording studio and release new music for their fans. In the case of Jonas Kaufmann, he released three new albums. The first came in the middle of the year, a studio recording of Verdi’s “Otello.” The album had been recorded prior to the lockdown but it was still a great addition to opera lover’s CD collections. The release was even more special as Kaufmann made a podcast that he released to go along with the new album during which he explored and analyzed the work.

Then in September, the Bavarian tenor released “Selige Stunde,” an intimate album of lieder recorded alongside pianist Helmut Deutsch. The album was recorded entirely during the lockdown and was the first from this series of recording sessions. It was perhaps his most acclaimed album of the year and one aimed at providing calm in a moment of utter chaos.

At the end of the year and in time for the holiday season, Kaufmann gave audiences his first Christmas album. It was an instant viral sensation particularly for his “interesting” rendition of “All I Want for Christmas” but it was also saw the tenor at his most delightful and simply having fun. He released two music videos alongside the album. And if fans, didn’t have enough, the tenor also sang the traditional Summer Night Concert in Vienna which was also released on CD for Sony Classical, giving audiences a fourth recording this year.

10. The Online Recital

Opera artists around the world (from the most renowned to those on the rise) offered some type of online recital or video content to continue to bring music to their audiences. It was a way of giving back and at the same giving audiences something new to look forward to. It also gave audiences the opportunity to interact directly with their favorite artists.

Among the hundreds of online recitals, one of the highlights was without a doubt the work of tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz who continuously presented Facebook recitals throughout the pandemic, singing everything from classic opera arias to songs from his native Mexico to Rancheras. He even showcased his son and wife in the concerts, allowing them a more intimate feel. And even in the pandemic, he presented audiences with two new albums including a Christmas CD, which he recorded in his home.

9. ‘A Riveder le Stelle’

The Teatro alla Scala was preparing to open a new production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” with Lisette Oropesa and Juan Diego Florez. But at the beginning of November, the company canceled and went into lockdown. Nevertheless, the Teatro alla Scala moved forward with an opening night gala in order not to miss the festive Dec. 7 date. The theater invited 25 artists in a staged gala directed by Davide Livermore. Soloists were prerecorded on different days and there was even a moment to honor Mirella Freni. The gala also included ballet and actors and gowns created by Armani, Dolce and Gabbana, and Valentino. The gala was streamed all around the world and over 2.6 million viewers tuned in breaking yet another record for opera streams.

It may not have been a gala with important guests and after-parties but the Teatro sure put together a starry and lavish night that felt like the real thing and made audiences remember what it is to be in a real theater.

8. The Superstar Masterclass

The pandemic hit the world of opera in many ways and with almost every artist unemployed, some decided to continue their famed masterclasses online and help train the future generations of opera singers.

Most notably Isabel Leonard, Jennifer Rowley, and Lisette Oropesa gave free masterclasses to young singers. Rowley helped singers prepare for audition season through the Fort Worth Opera inviting social media experts, publicists, and professors as well as coaches. Oropesa had classes about specialized voices and even spotlighted issues of institutional racism during her sessions. Leonard worked alongside the Dallas Opera’s TDO Networks and gave individualized coaches to upcoming talent. In all, they gave hours of their time and allowed singers to perform in front of the many special guests that were invited.

7. The Donizetti Festival Goes Virtual & Global

If there was ever a more innovative festival this year, it was the one in Bergamo. After all theater companies shut down for the second wave and canceled most productions, the Donizetti Opera Festival moved forward. The festival created a new streaming platform available around the world that allowed audiences an inside look into the making of the productions and also provided background for each of the works it was presenting.

And of course, the festival provided three live productions of “Marino Faliero,” “Belisario,” and “Le Nozze in Villa.” It even added an extra gala to celebrate Donizetti’s birthday starring all of the festival soloists including Carmela Remigio, Michele Angelini, Annalisa Stroppa, Roberto Fronatli, Celso Albelo, Michele Pertusi, and Francesca Dotto. It may not have been what the organization originally planned, but it gave audiences something to celebrate.

6. Opera in Big Tents & Parking Lots

With most theaters closed and with social distancing restrictions firmly in place, a number of companies sought out unique ways to present opera. The Deutsche Oper Berlin reopened in a parking lot presenting “Das Rheingold.” The company showcased the work to 200 seat audiences for five euros and used Jonathan Dove’s 1990 reduction of the score for 22 musicians and 12 singers. The orchestra was also amplified and the company championed ensemble members to perform the stripped-down version.

Later in the fall the Michigan Opera also performed in a parking center with a production entitled “Twilight: Gods.” Part live performance, part immersive installation, audiences remained in their cars to experience scenes from the final opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle on various levels of the parking structure. The “drive-thru” performance featured international artists as well as new poetry connecting to Wagner’s mythological world.

Meanwhile in Atlanta when most U.S. companies were going digital, the Atlanta Opera announced a Big Tent season which included 12 renowned international opera stars in performance. The company also worked alongside young artists and presented productions of “The Kaiser of Atlantis” and “Pagliacci.” Using all the necessary safety protocols, the company was able to fit 240 audience members in pods of four to move forward with their events.

5. Indie Companies Lead Operatic Innovation

If we look back at this year, we can all agree that some of the greatest innovation from around the opera world came not from the “big name” companies, but those with more flexibility. Faced with incredible challenges, almost every independent opera company showcased great resilience and innovation. Some projects that really stood out in this vein include the Decameron Coalition, which saw such companies as Bare Opera, Lyric Opera of the North, Fargo-Moorhead Opera, UrbanArias, Opera in the Heights, Milwaukee Opera Theatre, An Opera Theatre, Resonance Works, and Chicago Fringe Opera come together to create a unique, multi-faceted online opera experience.

Then there’s Heartbeat Opera, which faced with the cancelation of its headliner project “Lady M,” decided to make figurative lemonade out the sour situation by creating a multi-night Zoom showcase in which the company provided audiences with previews of the work that was to be. The project was such a hit that the company extended the run of its online fantasia.

On Site Opera, which relies on unique spaces to create its opera experiences, adapted to the only spaces we could access during these times. First up came “To My Distant Love,” an opera experience via telephone in which recipients got very personalized performances from anywhere they might be. And most recently, the company opted for a more enhanced multi-media experience for its upcoming season that champions using and supporting the mail delivery service (another potent statement by the company as well).

And the exploration keeps on coming. Companies are using the limitations to create unique experiences of old masterworks, as seen by Against the Grain Theatre’s adaptation of “Messiah / Complex” or cinematic explorations of semi-staged operas as is the case of Teatro Grattacielo’s “Fedora” Haymarket Opera Company’s “Acis and Galatea,” or Vegas City Opera’s Ring Cycle, to name just a few.

This is likely where most of the operatic innovation is coming not only over the next year, but for years to come and it is a major reason for hope in the opera world in 2021.

4. The Salzburg Festival Shows A Way Forward

I think that the Salzburg Festival’s success in 2020 can’t be overlooked. In a time where everyone was canceling left and right and the only solution seemed to be to take things slowly and without much elaboration, the Festival’s leadership took stock of the complex situation and found a way to manage it in a safe manner. The festival did make major changes to its original programming, but didn’t curtail its artistic identity in any way. For those that were there, the Salzburg Festival was still very much the Salzburg Festival of years past from an artistic perspective.

And while that is laudable on its own, I think the system that the company explored to ensure a safe environment in the midst of a pandemic is definitely most essential. The company led the way, helping numerous other industries as well in the process, showing other opera companies around the world a way forward in the midst of the chaos and giving hope when many had lost it.

3. The Met Brings the Online Gala to the Forefront

With no opera theaters opened throughout the first part of the pandemic, numerous opera companies found ways to unite artists around the world and bring them inside their houses. The Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the Teatro Massimo di Palermo, and the Donizetti Opera Festival, among others. The online gala has quickly become a part of opera culture, even though it was born just a few months ago back in April.

And the first company to champion this multi-artist, global online gala was the Met Opera, which brought more than 40 renowned artists together for an afternoon of musical celebration. Artists logged in from New York, Paris, South Africa, Chicago, and even Vienna. These artists brought us into their homes and performed in a myriad of ways from acapella or with prerecorded tracks or unique accompaniments (then there was Erin Morley, see below). Artists used everything from professional cameras to their cellphones. At the end of it all, the three-hour experience turned into one of the most memorable afternoons of the year.

2. The Teatro Real’s Socially Distanced ‘Traviata’

As all opera theaters and festivals were canceling their 2020 seasons, the Teatro Real de Madrid found a way to keep opera performance alive. The theater scheduled 27 performances of “La Traviata” for socially distanced audiences of 869 and had Leo Castaldi reimagine the opera in a semi-staged production. The theater also employed four casts that were led by Marina Rebeka, Lisette Oropesa, Lana Kos, and Ekaterina Bakanova as well as Matthew Polenzani, Ivan Magri, Michael Fabiano, Nicola Alaimo, and Artur Rucinski, among other distinguished artists. And for audiences not in Spain, the Teatro Real live streamed the production worldwide through its streaming platform and later on OperaVision.

If there was ever a time for hope, the Teatro Real showed that opera was possible in the time of COVID-19 and showed the opera world it could move forward.

1. Black Lives Matter

Reimaginig opera creatively proved one of the major topics of discussion in 2020. But perhaps the single most important conversation taking place in the opera world was that of the institutional racism embedded within its structures.

After the death of George Floyd, there was a shift in the world with Black Lives Matter movements ramping up their presence and voices around the world. It was clear that major reckoning was necessary and that conversations about race were essential to our social development. The opera world, like many other industries and institutions, was forced to take a long hard look in the mirror. And from there, voices that had been previously overlooked and ignored, were allowed to come to the forefront.

Almost all opera companies (especially in the United States) pledged for more equity and inclusion and suddenly works by Florence Price, Joseph Bologne, William Grant Still, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor were being re-evaluated and included in many reimagined and future seasons. Suddenly companies were creating new programs for inclusivity, black conductors were starting to get much deserved and overdue visibility, and black artists were finally getting leadership positions. It also started conversations about diversity empowering Latin and Asian artists to also reevaluate their works.

But the ones leading the revolution were the artists themselves. J’Nai Bridges, Morris Robinson, Julia Bullock, and Russell Thomas, Latonia Moore, Soloman Howard, Leah Hawkins, Brianna Sinclaire, Laquita Mithcell, Briana Hunter, and many other voices came to the forefront to speak about their experiences in the industry. And then there were the efforts of Lawrence Brownlee, Karen Slack, or Kenneth Overton, who created their own online shows to put a spotlight not only on these issues, but to provide a platform for industry workers and artists to dive deeper into the challenges being faced and how to move forward. While there is still a lot to do in our industry, the voices of black artists had perhaps the most profound impact on the opera world in 2020, one that will resonate for years to come.


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