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San Diego Opera looks to continued adaptation to bring audiences together

The San Diego Opera presented "La Bohème" as a drive-in production last fall to adhere to COVID-19 safety restrictions.
(Courtesy)

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The San Diego Opera is looking forward to continuing adaptive programming to allow its ticket holders and donors to enjoy the arts as the “communal experience” they’re missing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

David Bennett, general director of SD Opera since 2015, said the opera is leaning on the success of its fall production of “La Bohème” as a socially distanced drive-in performance to influence the company’s continued adaptations in a changed marketplace.

SD Opera had planned “La Bohème” years ago as one of its grand operas for its current season, which runs from October to May.

When the pandemic hit last spring and shut down in-person performances, “we were struggling to try to find a way to stay connected with our audience,” he said. “We started off by doing a series of online programs so we could still remain close to each other.”

Bennett said “the thing that we were all struggling with is how do you perform live, in front of a live audience, in a way that preserves the safety of two groups: the employees, which includes artists and administrative staff, and the audience itself?”

He was inspired by other, smaller drive-in concerts over the summer. “Seeing that gave me an idea that that would be something we should try to explore,” he said, although “we knew our endeavor would have to be much larger than that.”

SD Opera general director David Bennett hopes to promote the "communal experience" of watching live opera performances.
San Diego Opera general director David Bennett hopes to promote the “communal experience” of watching live opera performances.
(File)

Staging a grand opera outdoors for a drive-in audience demanded “a great deal of time over the summer preparing and developing a business plan,” Bennett said. “The company spent months in safety planning with the county department of public health and developed a rigorous reopening plan that dealt with the safety of all the different kinds of employees,” from singers and orchestra members to stage laborers and makeup crews.

The county approved the reopening plan, Bennett said, and a safety officer was hired to oversee the protocols.

“Each singer had to be confined to their own 120 square feet of private space,” he said. They could not walk into one another’s 8-by-15-foot “bubble.”

“Everything we did was outdoors,” Bennett said, “even the rehearsals. And, of course, we confined the audience members to staying within their cars during the whole performance.”

The production’s sound was transmitted through the cars’ FM radios. “We had a really fantastic audio designer who is very sensitive to mixing the needs of the live orchestra and all the singers,” Bennett said. “It wound up being this very intimate experience inside of your car that’s different from when you’re inside a large theater.”

The outdoors, he said, “lends a sense of casualness and ease to seeing a performance of opera that I think is a way to break down some barriers that sometimes people feel are associated with opera.”

The drive-in performances in the parking lot of San Diego’s sports arena gathered more than 1,600 cars, Bennett said, meaning an estimated 4,200 people attended, with “over 300 employees engaged in the production.”

The performances netted “zero cases of COVID,” he said.

“We are the only opera company in the United States doing something like this, still today,” Bennett said. “We were able to preserve and honor the full value of our contracts with these singers, when most opera companies are canceling or postponing contracts.”

SD Opera has been in the area since 1950, when it was founded to bring touring operas here. In 1965, a group of supporters funded the transition to a company that produced operas as well as provided “the money to build the [San Diego] Civic Theatre,” Bennett said. The theater opened downtown in 1965 and has been SD Opera’s home since.

“We’re one of the older opera companies in the country,” Bennett said.

A normal season, he said, is composed of three grand operas, one in the fall and two in the spring, and three smaller shows such as chamber operas and concerts, which make up SD Opera’s “Detour” series.

Based on the success of the “La Bohème” drive-in, Bennett said SD Opera is “planning more drive-in opportunities this spring, yet to be announced.”

The company also is looking at next season, which starts in October, and is hopeful about a return to the theater, he said.

“We are still uncertain when that is going to happen,” Bennett said, noting that it will depend on administration of the COVID-19 vaccine. “Beyond that, you have to consider when audiences are actually going to want to return, even if they are allowed in a theater.”

Above all, Bennett said, he hopes the upcoming season will offer something more than live performance. “It’s bigger than that. It’s having the communal experience where people are together sharing something. For all of us, we spend so much time at our homes now and we’re connected via Zoom, not in a theater sharing something.

“I’m really thinking a lot about that and what gathering means to a community and how, as an arts organization, we provide that opportunity.”

For more information, visit sdopera.org or facebook.com/SanDiegoOpera. SD Opera also can be found on Twitter (@sdopera) and Instagram (@sandiegoopera).

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