Downtown’s Theater District has been the cultural heart of the city for decades. A place where people of all ages, races and denominations have gathered together to experience vibrant, profound and fantastical works of art. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the damage to many of the venues and organizations was devastating, but they came back stronger than ever. Now, just a little more than two years later, COVID-19 has struck, forcing each organization to re-think the way shows are produced and executed. In today’s physically distanced way of life, the Theater District now looks to Houstonians for support, as their lights remain off and their stages dark. Despite all the challenges, the Theater District organizations continue to hold on to the mantra of “resilience”, something our city knows a thing or two about.
The Houston Grand Opera took a direct approach when choosing to cancel their upcoming season through February 2021. With the largest orchestras and largest number of people onstage, from technicians to costume changes, HGO recognized early that producing an opera during the pandemic simply wasn’t possible.
“There’s literally no show that includes less than 150 people as part of the performance, which of course makes it very expensive and very complex to find ways to keep people safe,” said Managing Director Perryn Leech. “We knew early on that we would be taking an extended hiatus.”
HGO’s subscribers have been loyal supporters after having been subjected to a temporary venue for a year during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and the organization felt the need to really take care of them during this shutdown by pushing their entire subscription money to next year — a move that makes HGO stand out among others. But their lack of virtual content hasn’t gone unnoticed.
The opera is extremely complex, and without the ability to perform to a recorded soundtrack, it’s difficult to provide virtual content without a highly executed plan, which Leech has been busy creating.
Beginning this fall, HGO will deliver digital programming twice a month. The first program will be a traditional concert format with one singer and a piano at the Cullen Theater, recorded live for subscribers. The second will be one-act operas of an hour or less, and HGO has been working diligently to develop protocols so these can take place.
“As it stands, we’ll do weekly testing for people who are recording, rehearsals in masks, and once we’re in the Cullen, the masks will come off for filming,” Leech said. After recording the content will be delivered first to subscribers, and later the general public.
As for financial stability, The Houston Grand Opera is in a better place than those who rely on their box office to pay wage bills and staff.
“Picture in your head short, medium and long term, because each one of us [in the Theater District] will have different issues, and for us it’s very much more medium and long term,” Leech said. HGO was y grateful to receive a loan under the Payroll Protection program in the spring, but that was a short-term fix. Because opera is a very expensive art form, Leech said HGO is able to survive for a period of time, as long as they can hang on to their donors.
“We can’t do without audiences for too long without it starting to affect our donor base,” Leech said. “I’m much more worried about two years from now than I am two weeks.”