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Jan van der Hooft as Bear and Sara Adèle Schabas as Dukdukdiya/Hummingbird in Flight of the Hummingbird.

Tim Matheson

After three years of planning and fundraising, it was to be the most ambitious season in Pacific Opera Victoria’s 40-year history. To mark the milestone, the 2020-21 season was set to open with the biggest opera POV has ever programmed: Die Walkure, the second work in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Atom Egoyan was to direct Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice. There was the world premiere of The Flight of the Hummingbird, a family-friendly environmental fable, with libretto written by Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, based on his 2008 book. It was to travel to schools all over Victoria, Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland, up to Haida Gwaii – as well as Frankfurt and Berlin.

Also Carmen, Don Giovanni, the Spanish baroque opera Los Elementos.

And, to kick it all off, 40 Days of Opera: 40 consecutive days of free opera out in the community. There were to be hundreds of pop-up performances, beginning on National Indigenous People’s Day, with gigs at farmers markets, street parties, sporting events, Canada Day celebrations and the Royal BC Museum, where an exhibition about opera was scheduled.

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“It’s so exciting to be able to launch your biggest season ever,” says POV CEO Ian Rye, whose company was to increase the number of artists it employs by about 30 per cent for the season. “We needed to raise extraordinary funds to afford all of this expanded programming, and the community rallied around that.”

But like Carmen at the hands of Don Jose or Die Walkure’s Siegmund under attack by Hunding, the season was doomed.

If there was any hope, as remote as it might have been, of mounting the anniversary season despite the pandemic, that disappeared on May 6, when British Columbia announced its COVID-19 restart plan. There will be no large gatherings (i.e. with more than 50 people), including concerts, until there is wide vaccination, broad successful treatments or herd immunity.

“It was the hardest day of my career,” says Rye, recalling the announcement. “It was a kick to the gut, even though we had expected it.”

The pandemic has posed a grave challenge for arts organizations, but it has been particularly catastrophic for the performing arts. Bringing together a live audience of hundreds of people to watch a concert, ballet, or opera is impossible and will be for some time. Even without an audience, many classical music endeavours would be impossible to stage in this age of physical distancing: consider just the number of performers onstage for a full opera, and the musicians, sitting shoulder to shoulder, in the orchestra pit. It can’t be done.

“It’s just not going to be practical or feasible or appropriate,” Rye says. “It’s not a judgment call; it’s not something we can fix with sanitizing stations. There isn’t a business model for an opera company to perform with 125 people onstage when the provincial health limits are 50. It just can’t happen.”

While Pacific Opera Victoria continues to employ staff thanks to government support, the postponement of its season affects about 140 artists.

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“The federal programs … have been generous, so we have not had to slash and burn, although our annual budget has been cut by 50 per cent,” Rye says.

Two weeks after the restart announcement, POV postponed all productions planned for the 2020-21 season, as activities requiring large gatherings will be impossible in the foreseeable future.

That same week, the Victoria Symphony and Dance Victoria cancelled their 2020-21 seasons. It was a terrible couple of days for the arts in the B.C. capital. And, no doubt, a harbinger of what’s to come elsewhere in Canada.

But POV’s announcement was billed as a “reimagining” of its season, not a cancellation.

“This is an existential moment for arts and culture,” Rye says. “So it just seems to me it behooves us to design a future that we can deliver, even if it’s drastically different from what we did three months ago.”

POV’s reimagined 2020-21 season will include a series of chamber concerts for the small screen. If possible, it will record them in front of a live, physically distanced audience. It hopes to stream and/or broadcast past productions; it’s working on getting the rights for that now. Details are expected late this summer.

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And for this summer, POV is planning brief, one-artist pop-up performances. One of its hybrid-electric vans will roll up to a location – a nursing home, a residential sidewalk, or some other unannounced location, the door will slide open, and a singer will perform a short piece to recorded music. It will be short – three or four minutes – so there is no opportunity for people to gather.

The company also plans to commission an original opera in the next few months (it had hoped to commission two) and its home, the Baumann Centre, if possible, will host small, physically distanced performances – not just chamber operas, but other types of performances, working with other companies. Rye sees his company playing a role as a community convener for the arts.

When people are able to gather again, POV will be ready to go. It will launch its next season, whenever that might be, with Bizet’s Carmen – a piece it can prepare with less than three months’ notice. That will be followed by Britten’s Death in Venice and Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

“We’re not putting dates to do it, we’re just saying that the future season is these pieces of repertoire and we’ll get it on its feet as soon as it’s safe to do so,” says Rye.

The company says it will present Die Walkure, Los Elementos and The Flight of the Hummingbird in a future season.

As for 2021-22, Rye says he is confident that Victoria will have live opera again. “We all have to have hope,” he says. “Everybody is working so hard to make this work, to make sure that everybody’s healthy. And, of course, we have to have that aspiration that the arts will return in 2021.”

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