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KUNÉ, Canada’s Global Orchestra, have a concert coming up on November 14, 2020 in Koerner Hall.

Nicola Betts/Handout

Call it an optimistic hustle, or call it a pipe dream, but the Royal Conservatory of Music is earning itself a unique status with its 2020/21 concert season. Among arts organizations of its size – and the conservatory boasts a bigger budget than the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Canadian Opera Company and the Royal Ontario Museum – the RCM is the only concert presenter in Toronto forging ahead with a season lineup of in-person, indoor events.

Of course, in 2020 the saying no longer goes, “prima la musica”; rather, it’s “safety first.” The RCM’s entire 2020/21 lineup, including the more than 100 concerts slated for the spacious Koerner Hall, will adhere to the Ontario government’s mandate of a 50-person capacity for indoor events in staffed businesses. And for those who do snag a precious seat, extensive COVID-19 protocols are in place: masks, temperature checks, physical distancing and mandatory signing of a health waiver and questionnaire. The concerts will have no intermission, concessions or merchandise sales.

Protocol aside, it’s the crowd limitations that cripple most major presenters. For the likes of the TSO or the COC, a 50-person cap doesn’t even allow for a decent dose of Wagner and his 100-strong orchestra, much less an audience to hear it. Yet the RCM has wiggle room in its broad-ranging programming, and there’s little holding them back from a season focused on smaller scale events.

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Ladom Ensemble is scheduled to perform on Sept. 27 in RCM's Mazzoleni Concert Hall, in Toronto.

BOHUANG/Handout

“The concerts we’re doing are quite nimble,” says Mervon Mehta, executive director of performing arts at the RCM. Indeed, a 50-person limit leaves plenty of room for Angela Hewitt’s Art of the Fugue (Oct. 18) or Elliot Madore’s recital, aptly titled “Troubled Times” (Nov. 22). And it’s apparently just enough room for more crowded events, such as Opera Atelier’s livestreamed Something Rich and Strange (Oct. 28) or the Beethoven-heavy night with Adrianne Pieczonka, Michael Schade, and Johannes Debus conducting the COC Orchestra (Dec. 3).

Developing the safety protocols is exhaustive work, piled on top of the already hefty task of putting together a concert season – and it seems the RCM will see little payoff in the form of ticket revenue. The crowd restrictions put the 1,150-seat Koerner Hall at just 5 per cent of its audience capacity, a far cry from the 30 per cent that Mehta and the RCM had hoped for earlier this spring. “We’re going to lose money on every single concert,” Mehta says. “No question.”

But better than most presenters in the city, the RCM can shoulder the loss. Their performance calendar is only one revenue stream, supported by its publishing arm, and the conservatory itself, which is still running with online and one-on-one classes. With its ticket revenue propped up by more stable verticals, the RCM is poised to set a precedent for safely produced performing arts. The true value of their hopeful season may be in the chance to present fact-based findings to government bodies and show that not all concerts are the chaotic, crowded risk that many perceive.

James Ehnes is co-curator of the RCM's scheduled Beethoven Festival.

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“It is curious that in an 1,100-seat theatre, I’m allowed to have 50 people,” says Mehta, whose restrictions are the same as for the Horseshoe Tavern’s standing room for 400, or the 19,800-seat Scotiabank Arena. “It should be based on what can you seat in a socially distanced manner with masks on. We’ve done the count; we can sit 340 people in our hall, 100-per-cent two-metre distance between everyone. But the number is 50, for the moment.”

And for the moment, the RCM looks ahead with a season laden with contingency plans and an understanding nod to those suffering the starkest losses. “All the local artists that were going to be on our stages, they’re the ones that are most affected by this. All their gigs have dried up.”

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