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Pedestrians pass the temporarily closed Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto on March 24, 2020.


Are the arts an essential service such as food processing, stocking the shelves at our supermarkets or delivering our masks? Not technically, I suppose. Yet they are essential to anyone who finds joy, solace, connection, meaning and beauty in the live arts.

Music, dance and theatre are a foundational part of humankind, of living and being every day. Between 2006 and 2008, federal, provincial and municipal governments poured north of $100-million into the opening and expansion of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum, yet these Toronto landmarks remain shuttered with no indication whatsoever from government that there is any plan for their reopening.

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In March, we came together as a collective to stay home, “flatten the curve” and curb the virus. At first, we were told to do so to keep hospitals from getting overburdened, but after that didn’t happen, the reasons became murkier. Three months later, hospitals are (frighteningly) empty and the curve has flattened, but we are still out of work. While I wait in line at the grocery store, locking weary eyes with a bandana-wearing dad, I think of the numerous contracts I’ve lost since March and wonder when will the show go on; how will this commedia dell’arte play out? In September, the Canadian Opera Company was scheduled to open its 2020-21 season with Wagner’s Parsifal, the largest and longest opera ever staged in Canadian history. However, they have cancelled their fall season, falling in line with a vast majority of companies across the border.

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Today (in most places at least) we can get a massage or a tattoo; we can have someone trim our COVID-19 coif or even fly on an airplane cheek-to-jowl with other passengers, but we cannot sit in a theatre, masked, silently facing forward. The corridors of the AGO are empty, but we can wander every aisle of Canadian Tire, mask optional. Is this all arbitrary? After 100 days of lockdown, is anyone coming up with a plan?

If we look to the continent of the enlightenment, the Salzburg Festival in Austria is set to open this August. It seats 1,000. Audiences will be wearing masks during timed entries and exits, there will be no intermission, and cast and crew will all be tested. Deutsche Oper Berlin can begin preparations for September performances of Die Walkure with confidence as various states in Germany plan indoor gatherings of 1,000 by the end of this month. The City of Toronto has offered some precision guidance of its own: no gatherings of 250 before August or 25,000 before September – 99-per-cent wiggle room. How is this a return on the government investment from 12 years ago? How is this a plan?

When will we actually have an adult conversation about risk-assessment and personal responsibility, given that there are simply no guaranteed or perfect solutions in life, let alone with this novel coronavirus? Studies show the virus does not transfer in environments where an audience does not engage vigorously and keeps their attention on the show before them. Performing requires engagement from all four walls of the stage; there are no TV contracts like in professional sport. Theatre, ballet, opera, live music – we can watch them all online (recently, the Metropolitan Opera held its first At-Home Gala, an event that drew 750,000 viewers) – but they’re meant to be live and communal. For people, by people, with people.

Again, I return to that influx of investment in the first decade of the 21st century. Throwing around the CERB and the CEWS is useful in the short term, but how about strengthening those $100-million art investments? The COC and National Ballet rely on $9-million and $13-million respectively from the box office each year. Perhaps the government can buy extra seats to allow for physical distancing? Of the workers (orchestra, dancers, chorus, visiting artists, apprentices and stage crews) at the Four Seasons Centre, 96 per cent are self-employed and need the doors open and our audiences back. At least it’s an opportunity for another acronym.

I can only naively hope that the organizations that put the “performance” in art are busy making such a case to government. Going to a show would provide a much-needed respite from the digital, polarized landscape of social media. We also need to bring revenue back to our economy and bring the dignity of work back to those who have been shut down. Our only solution here can’t just be to keep staying home, approaching the back wall of Netflix as we see other countries, however cautiously, open up. Uncertainty will always cause anxiety, but the government has a responsibility to articulate plans so that we have some optimism that the future, however complicated, can still be hopeful.

Robert Pomakov is a Toronto-based international opera singer.

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