Opera Philadelphia’s slate of digital works keeps opera lovers in their seats

Opera Philadelphia’s slate of digital works keeps opera lovers in their seats

Opera Philadelphia continues its digital festival with Missy Mazzoli’s award-winning “Breaking the Waves”

“When communities experience deep crisis we need the arts more than ever,” reads a note posted at the top of Opera Philadelphia’s page for “Madame Butterfly.”

At the time the opera house shuttered earlier this spring, it was preparing to open the Puccini classic. Now, faced with unknowns about when it will resume, the institution has taken a slate of works online.

Launched earlier this month, “Digital Festival O” answers the question of how to keep a community of opera lovers engaged when there is no stage to gather around. Comprising five full-length productions, the digital festival allows audiences to stream the works for free via the Opera Philadelphia Youtube channel. The titles — with the notable exception of “Denis & Katya,” which kicked off the series — are available to watch on-demand throughout the summer.

“The unprecedented social distancing necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has galvanized the performing arts community, sparking generous artist relief funds and online expressions of creativity as we all navigate this challenging time in our history,” David B. Devan, general director and president of Opera Philadelphia, said. “It is our hope to see everyone in September at Festival O20, but until that time Festival O stands for Online.”

“Digital Festival O” continues May 29 with composer Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves.” Audiences can stream the digital premiere live at 8 p.m. on the Opera Philadelphia website and Youtube channel — after which the performance will be available to watch on-demand through August 31. A pre-show discussion with Mazzoli, Vavrek and Darrah will take place at 7 p.m. and will be hosted by Opera Philadelphia’s Frank Luzi and Sarah Williams.

Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s sensational “We Shall Not Be Moved,” Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and Lembit Beecher’s “Sky on Swings” made their debuts earlier this month and are now available to stream.

When asked about the community’s response to the digital festival, Luzi told ALL ARTS that the opera house has been “thrilled” with audience reactions — noting that within the first 24 hours after the web and WHYY broadcast premiere of “We Shall Not Be Moved,” 6,000 viewers tuned in.

“That is more than triple the number of people who saw it live in 2017, when we performed seven sold-out shows in the 300-seat Wilma Theater,” Luzi said, putting the figure into perspective.

Luzi went on to state that he hopes that “We Shall Not Be Moved” finds a “large worldwide audience” as it continues to stream over the summer.

“This opera more than any exemplifies the creative vision of Opera Philadelphia, with a story rooted in the tragic MOVE bombing from May 13, 1985, and its contemporary messages on national identity, race, gender and the limits of the public education system,” he said.

Beyond presenting works for audiences sheltering-in-place, the festival aims to raise money for the opera institution, which states that it needs to secure $4 million by May 31 in order to stay on track with its plans for the 2020-2021 season.

As uncertainty about how and when performing arts venues can reopen still looming, the opera house’s unique season structure — which packs productions into a short festival in the fall, with this year’s “O20” planned for to run Sept. 17-27 — raises additional questions as to how the closures might affect formatting in the future.

“With operas like ‘Sky on Swings,’ by Lembit Beecher and Hannah Moscovitch, and ‘Breaking the Waves,’ by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek,” Luzi said, “we’re hoping to remind opera fans what they love about the new works being born each year in Philadelphia, give everyone a little joy in this time of social distancing and keep the momentum going until we can all gather again in theaters.”

Donations to Opera Philadelphia can be made here. The institution also invites viewers to consider supporting the AGMA Relief Fund and the Philadelphia Musicians Relief Fund.

Top Image: “The Barber of Seville." Photo: Opera Philadelphia.