Seattle Opera’s production of “Tosca,” filmed at St. James Cathedral, is the final program in a season unlike any other. With McCaw Hall closed to audiences, Seattle Opera produced its entire planned season in a digital format, stretching budgets, imaginations and skill sets. It also made opera accessible to audiences that had perhaps never experienced it before. Now that public spaces are opening again, will the opera company go back to business as usual or continue exploring the digital frontier?
Seattle Opera delivered its entire promised 2020-21 season (though the double bill of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” became recitals of highlights) through increasingly sophisticated filmed performances culminating in cinematic productions of “Flight,” and “Tosca,” which streams online June 25-27 at seattleopera.org. According to Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, an industry umbrella organization, Seattle Opera was one of only a handful of opera companies in the nation to present its entire planned season digitally. At four full operas and seven hourlong recitals, it appears Seattle Opera released more newly recorded material in one season than any other company.
Viewed nearly 200,000 times online, Seattle Opera says these digital productions provided work for more than 275 performers and technical staff. The company has yet to determine how it will leverage its newly developed technological prowess in the future. And these filmed productions are not yet a sustainable income source: “Don Giovanni,” for example, generated about $8,000 in individual ticket sales, while “Flight” generated $21,000. Given that a typical in-person opera brings in $300,000 to $500,000 in single-ticket sales, “the income from the streaming is so marginal, it’s not an income source,” said Christina Scheppelmann, general director of Seattle Opera.
But the yearlong experiment has opened intriguing possibilities for making opera accessible to new audiences and has proven that the notoriously slow-moving industry can be nimble.
It all came about when the initial pandemic lockdown suddenly forced cancellation of last season’s final opera. But canceling the 2020-21 season was not an option, Scheppelmann said.
“What we offer in the cultural sector is — not distraction, that sounds so trivial — but comfort. It stimulates your own interest and creativity. It helps with healing. We can’t give up. No way,” she said.
“The journey from where we started to where we ended was really exciting,” said Doug Provost, Seattle Opera’s director of production. Starting with Seattle Center’s digital studio space comprising the McCaw Hall stage and recording equipment salvaged from the KeyArena renovations, the season opened with a simple recital of highlights from “Cavalleria Rusticana.”
Opera staff replaced thoughts of sightlines with shot sequences and viewfinder frames after bringing on a video director to work closely with the stage director for the stage capture of “The Elixir of Love” at McCaw Hall. When pandemic restrictions tightened in the fall, the cavernous assembly area of the Opera Center — Seattle Opera’s headquarters — was converted into a movie sound stage for filming “Don Giovanni.”
“It’s different than producing opera on a stage for an audience. We are not a film studio typically. We learned a lot of techniques and made great new connections with professionals here that helped us to produce a film,” said Scheppelmann.
With the sound stage as a backup in case the pandemic worsened again, “Flight” completed the transition from stage capture to movie. By then, recording an orchestra was possible at Benaroya Hall, and Seattle Opera was confident they could manage a site-specific production. Just before filming was to start, the governor announced that museums could reopen. To complete filming before the Museum of Flight opened to visitors, Seattle Opera compressed its filming schedule to five days, shooting scenes out of order and leapfrogging camera rigs to eliminate downtime between different locations.
The final opera of the season, “Tosca,” is another site-specific production, filmed at St. James Cathedral and synced with audio recorded at Benaroya Hall.
Historically slow to embrace filmed production, “during the COVID crisis, opera companies were very quick to improvise and innovate to create programming for digital platforms,” said Scorca.
In Europe, government subsidies for the arts helped Vienna State Opera make archival recordings available for free streaming. In the U.S., many companies produced stage captures in empty theaters; some created film projects in sound studios, like Opera San Jose’s “Three Decembers”; and a few made site-specific films, like Houston Grand Opera’s one-act “Vinkensport.” Only Seattle Opera pursued all of the above.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing how our organization moves forward now that we have the technology in-house,” said Provost. Just as practicalities drove the decision to make films in the first place, the answer will depend as much on logistics as creative inspiration.
“It takes a lot of time and effort and money to create the film version and it takes a lot of time and effort and money to put on the staged version. So simply doing both isn’t an option. I think there has to be a lot of reckoning about what the right mix is,” said Scorca.
And for Seattle Opera, live theater is the top priority.
“Our core business is to be on stage, and I’m very excited to go back to the stage. The live experience, there’s nothing like it,” said Scheppelmann. ”But it’s not just our regular audiences. I think there are other people that we could reach in the future.”
Seattle Opera’s data shows that roughly a third of single-ticket streaming sales were out of state, with buyers across the country and in 10 countries. Some of the education talks posted on YouTube have more than 1,700 views — that’s 14 times as many as typically attended in person prior to COVID-19. Seattle Opera’s education program also distributed the short youth opera “Earth to Kenzie” online last year while touring school productions were on hold.
“We cannot go to every single school in the state. Maybe we’ll do this more often and that way we can reach schools that are not easily reachable,” said Scheppelmann.
Wherever digital content falls in the mix of Seattle Opera’s production going forward, the main lesson learned may be one of flexibility.
“That this enormous and rather slow-moving art form could suddenly become so flexible and adjustable,” said Scorca, “is kind of a surprise to all of us.”