A scaled-back season planned on a shoestring budget will characterize Opera Mississippi’s 75th year, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
The opera will celebrate its diamond anniversary this season.
But rather than having major performances and parties to commemorate the milestone, the opera will be putting on several smaller performances, including some streaming, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We’re all wearing seat belts and are going to ride the waves to see how this goes,” said Artistic Director Jay Dean. “We canceled our March event. We canceled Romeo and Juliet in April, and we canceled our fall fundraiser.
“Does it hurt? Yes, it hurts. Will we survive? Sure,” he said. “A lack of revenue means that you don’t have as much money to operate with as you’re used to having. We have adapted to that scenario.”
The opera shut down in March, at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
The opera’s March Cabaret Series, “Take Five: A Dave Brubeck Centennial Celebration,” was postponed. Its main stage show scheduled for April, “Romeo et Juliette,” was canceled.
Like other arts groups that rely on ticket sales to help fund operations, cancellations have had a major impact on finances.
This fall promises to be even more challenging, thanks to the caps placed on performance halls by the state.
Currently, auditoriums and other venues must limit attendance to 25 percent capacity.
In other words, Thalia Mara Hall, which normally holds 1,200 people, is now limited to 400. Duling Hall, which holds 250 people, is limited to around 60, Dean said.
Larger main stage shows can often have casts of 100 or more people, as well as lavish costuming and sets – all of which cost a pretty penny for the opera. However, the opera likely won’t be able to afford such a performance if it can’t fill seats.
“We have to make sure when we do an event, we price things and plan things on a budget that will allow us to survive with an audience of no more than 400 people,” Dean said.
On top of that, Dean said many opera patrons might be unwilling to come out due to the virus.
“People in my age bracket, 65 and above, are very cautious. A friend of mine is a choir director at a church. When the pastor reached out to him and asked if they did social distancing, would they come, and almost everyone above 65 said they were not coming back until there’s a vaccine,” he said. “Most of our arts audiences are 50 and above.”
Meanwhile, the opera cannot rely on an injection of cash early on this year, because it is not selling season tickets.
“Usually, we sell tickets as a package, and usually begin in August. We don’t want to sell tickets to events scheduled for April, and then not be able to do it,” he said. “We decided to sell tickets one event at a time. If you click on the January event on our website, you’ll see that tickets will go on sale December 1.
“The revenue will come in one-event at a time,” Dean said. “We’ll have to make it from one event to the next.”
Patrons who purchased tickets for the 2019-20 season have been offered refunds. They also have the option of donating the ticket costs to the opera, or to have their remaining tickets applied to the next season.
The opera does have some money in reserves. Even so, it is cutting costs wherever it can.
Among steps, it has modified agreements with all of its independent contractors.
Opera Mississippi has one part-time staff member, who checks the mail, answers phone calls and manages the group’s office.
Other services, such as marketing and public relations, web design and management, and artistic directing, are contracted out. Those contracts have been temporarily put on hold or modified. The changes have allowed the opera to save between $75,000 to $80,000, or roughly a third of the nonprofit’s $250,000 budget.
Dean, too, is feeling the pinch. As a contract worker himself, he has agreed to forego his salary for the 2020-21 season.
“The best way to stay in business is to shut down as much as you can, batten the hatches and ride it out,” Dean said. “Do what you do and don’t do anything you don’t have to do.”
In addition to scaling back administrative costs, battening down the hatches also means scaling back the season offerings.
The 2020-21 season will feature nine performances. The Diamond Anniversary Gala Concert, which is slated for April 24 at Thalia Mara Hall, will feature six singers and a chamber orchestra.
“In April, in a normal year, we would be doing our biggest production,” Dean said. “Because of COVID-19, and because of the approach we’re taking to make everything as lean as it can be, we have chosen to do a concert.”
Meanwhile, the group has canceled its Christmas show and has postponed two much anticipated Cabaret Series offerings until the spring.
Those shows, retrospectives on Dave Brubeck and Judy Garland, were slated for September and October, to open the season.
Instead, the September and October performances will be recitals and will be streamed online, Dean said.
The September and October events will be free viewing for the public. However, the opera will be asking for donations.
Singers likely will not need masks. “When we do recitals, there will be the singer and the pianist in a room somewhere that is recorded,” Dean said. “If they’re 10 to 12 feet away from another person, I think it’s OK.”
For the Cabaret performances later in the year, singers will be able to social distance on stage.
Other major activities for the 2021 year, including the opera’s plans to premier “Tear Down This Wall,” have also been put on hold.
“Tear Down This Wall” tells the story of an American sailor and a Russian actress, and how the Berlin Wall impacted their lives. It is aptly named after the late President Ronald Reagan’s speech urging the Soviet Union to tear down the structure.
It’s the first opera that has been commissioned by Opera Mississippi, Dean said.
The show would have featured 40 performers on stage, as well as 40 musicians in the orchestra pit. Obviously, which such a large group of performers, the show had to be put on hiatus.
“We’re going to have to do things that don’t cost so much,” Dean said. “It’s going to take us several years to work our way out of this.”