After more than a year of dark theaters, Seattle’s performing arts organizations are starting to plan in-person fall seasons, with two of the city’s largest such groups announcing this week the return of in-person programming. The dual announcements, by Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Opera, represent an optimistic leap into the unknown, and an example of how local arts organizations — and audience members — will be approaching the process of reopening.
The two companies, which share Marion Oliver McCaw Hall as a performing space, will launch their seasons with smaller-scale performances, gradually moving toward larger works. PNB will begin in September with a repertory program of work by Alejandro Cerrudo (the company’s current resident choreographer), including a ballet previously seen only through the company’s digital season; all are works with smaller casts that can be rehearsed and performed with physical distance. Seattle Opera opens in October with the Puccini classic “La Bohème,” presented on an intimate scale (there will be, for example, no children’s chorus) and featuring many of the singers originally scheduled to perform in the company’s canceled 2020 production of the opera.
While some local arts groups have earlier announced fall reopenings — Seattle Symphony said in March that live concerts would return to Benaroya Hall in September; Broadway at the Paramount has posted a slate of touring shows beginning in October — many have not yet done so, still grappling with what the pandemic means for the return of live theater. But as the world of live performance begins to return (Broadway theaters, for example, plan to reopen at full capacity in September), what was unthinkable just months ago now seems possible.
“I’m so encouraged by hearing about other theaters, across the country, also making plans,” PNB’s artistic director Peter Boal said last week, expressing cautious hope for the season. “It feels like it could happen.”
As local arts organizations reopen, they are required to follow specific guidelines for theater/performing arts events spelled out by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office for each phase — and while it’s hard to say in May exactly what things will look like in September, it seems safe to assume that some social distancing measures may still be in effect. For audience members, as with so many experiences in this pandemic era, going to the ballet or the opera will feel a little different next season.
All patrons and staff at McCaw Hall, vaccinated or not, will be required to wear masks for all performances, and seating capacity will at least initially be greatly reduced. PNB’s first two repertory programs will be for subscribers only, to allow for more spacing in the auditorium, and will be one weekend rather than the usual two. Seattle Opera is keeping open the number of performances it might offer for each opera to potentially allow for a smaller number of audience members. The opera’s general director, Christina Scheppelmann, said that, as far as capacity, the company was basing its plans on rules from the governor’s office, adapting them if need be.
But onstage, audiences will see both traditional favorites and new, modern work. PNB will offer three popular story ballets: the annual Christmas production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” (not part of subscription), “Romeo et Juliette” and “Swan Lake,” with Boal hoping the latter two will help draw large audiences in 2022, when capacity limits may be lifted. Contemporary repertories will include a world premiere from Robyn Mineko Williams, new-to-PNB ballets from Justin Peck and Alonzo King, the return of Crystal Pite’s “Plot Point” and Ulysses Dove’s “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven,” and an all-Twyla Tharp program closing the season, including the PNB premiere of Tharp’s “Sweet Fields.”
Seattle Opera’s season, after “La Bohème,” includes Christoph Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” (which will be staged in the intimate Tagney Jones Hall at the Opera Center, down the street from McCaw) and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Also part of the season will be the local premiere of “Blue,” a new opera about contemporary Black American life by Tazewell Thompson and Jeanine Tesori; it was the winner of the best new opera award by the Music Critics Association of North America last year. A special bonus (ticketed separately) will be a one-night-only concert by American tenor Lawrence Brownlee.
Both companies offered digital programming throughout the pandemic, expanding their viewing audiences worldwide. PNB will continue to offer digital subscriptions, filming dress rehearsals and opening night performances (those who have paid for in-person subscriptions will get digital access included). Boal noted that this season’s digital subscriptions greatly expanded PNB’s audience — to all 50 states and 34 different countries — and he wants to continue that reach.
Scheppelmann said that decisions about digital offerings next season for Seattle Opera have not yet been made, and that conversations with the various unions need to take place before that determination. While she said she would like to continue with some form of digital content, “from all I hear, many audience members are really hungry to go in person again and see live events.”
Other issues are still in conversation as well, for both companies. It’s not yet clear how many musicians each organization can safely bring back, though both directors are hoping for the largest possible orchestras. Rehearsal protocols need to be developed for large-scale works, particularly performances involving children, such as “Nutcracker.” And both companies are still reeling from a year without live performance and the revenue that it brings.
But Scheppelmann and Boal expressed optimism for the new seasons, and the step closer to normalcy that they bring. Scheppelmann spoke of the importance of not only presenting new work for audiences, but “knowing that we’re employing people again at full capacity” — musicians, stagehands, costume shop workers, everyone who contributes to putting a large production on the stage. “These are highly skilled professionals; they need to get back to work and earn a livelihood.”
And Boal reflected on what it might mean to gather together in a theater again. “I’ve loved a lot of our digital discoveries this year, and some of them we’re never going to abandon,” he said. But live performance — “this sharing of experience and humanity” — is something else, something uplifting. “We’re better together, and that’s what we’ll be able to celebrate and enjoy.”
Even with masks and distancing, Boal said, “it’ll be a step toward getting back to what is dear to all of us.”