Michigan Opera Theatre to take productions outdoors this season

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News
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Michigan Opera Theatre plans to return to the stage this spring with in-person performances at outdoor venues in Wayne and Oakland counties.

More details on the productions and venues will be released by Michigan’s principal opera company on Tuesday, but none of its programming will take place at its main stage at the Detroit Opera House this year. The opera company hopes to bring its live performances back to its Detroit venue in the spring of 2022.

“Due to the need to observe social distancing, large scale opera and dance productions will not take place in the Detroit Opera House until 2022,” said Wayne S. Brown, president and CEO of Michigan Opera Theatre.

The Detroit Opera House, however, will be open for other activities, including graduations and Broadway in Detroit productions. 

MOT’s outdoor season will begin in May and continue through September. The outdoor performances will be supported by sponsorships and ticket sales that can be accommodated through the governor’s limitation on outdoor venues, Brown said. The opera company also plans to offer smaller programs throughout the region, at parks and smaller outdoor venues. 

“We believe outdoor performances enable MOT to leverage favorable weather conditions,” Brown said, noting the venues provide ample room for social distancing and allow the non-profit organization to adhere to state restrictions on gatherings.

Like other performance arts organizations in Michigan and across the country, Michigan Opera Theatre’s 2019-2020 season was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. Statewide shut-downs and restrictions not only prevented MOT from offering opera and dance performances from March through June of its 2020 season but also had an adverse financial impact on the annual operating budget.

Typically, Michigan Opera Theatre offers five opera and five dance productions each season and also hosts several Broadway in Detroit tours, said Maxwell Bolton, director of marketing and communication at Michigan Opera Theatre. The company’s season typically runs from fall through spring, and the opera company was forced to cancel performances by Dance Theatre of Harlem, as well as productions of “Champion,” and American Ballet Theatre’s “Swan Lake,” and “Pagliacci,” last year.

“The impact of COVID has been severe. It’s been significant,” Brown said. “It’s been both challenging but also inspiring in other ways. We were in the midst of performances and preparing for the Dance Theatre of Harlem performances and Terrence Blanchard’s opera “Champion” when the governor’s announcement came down and all activities had to be canceled.”

The opera company’s annual budget dwindled from about $16 million in 2018-19 fiscal year to about $7 million in the current fiscal year. A portion of MOT’s operating revenue comes from ticket and subscription sales. Attendance in the 2018-19 season amounted to 31,180 patrons for opera and dance performances. Last year’s attendance reached about 18,000, curtailed by the shutdown. Revenue also comes from rental events and Broadway tours. 

To help meet basic operations last fiscal year, MOT converted a $1.3 million Paycheck Protection Program loan to a grant. Additionally, Brown said many corporation and individual sponsors allowed their donations to go toward operating expenses. Subscribers also converted their refunded tickets to donations to the organization. 

“The pandemic has had a pretty significant effect on artists, volunteers, stage crews, and administrative staff,” Brown said, noting that MOT cut expenses, salaries and reduced staffing. Many of the organization’s 77 employees also had to take furloughs. “To a large degree, they have found their livelihoods dramatically affected.”

Despite the tribulations of the past year, there were some bright spots, Brown said.

During  the pandemic, MOT was able to lure Yuval Sharon, considered one of the most in-demand and innovative names in opera, as its artistic director. Sharon succeeds the late David DiChiera, who served as artistic director from the MOT’s founding in 1971 until he retired in 2017. Sharon was initially scheduled to take a partial sabbatical in the Orient for several months last year but his plans were altered because of the pandemic.

Yuval Sharon, the newly appointed Michigan Opera Theatre artistic director, poses for a portrait at the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit.

Sharon was “the creative genius” behind MOT’s efforts to stage “Twilight: Gods,” a compressed version of Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung,” in an unusual venue last year: the six floors of the Detroit Opera House Parking Center. The drive-up concept attracted an audience from 14 states and drew national attention. A little over an hour long, all aspects of the production were based on then-current COVID-19 restrictions. The parking garage accommodated 96 cars per performance day and guests were charged by the car, not person.

Brown said MOT might consider using the Detroit Opera House Parking Center once again as a performance venue. 

“At some point, there will be a return, or something of a different nature, to create performances in other alternate spaces to the Detroit Opera House site-specific work to offer a different kind of performance experience,” Brown said, noting Sharon was known for his innovations in staging productions in unusual venues on the West Coast and around the world.

The pandemic also inspired MOT to bolster its digital platform to not only expand its presence but maintain contact with its subscribers and at-large audience. The organization launched the digital campaign “MOT at Home” to bring performances, blogs, podcasts and interviews to its audience through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Podcasts have featured panel discussions and artists interviews from locations around the world. 

MOT also presented its first-ever digital production, “The Very Last Green Thing” by the Michigan Opera Theatre Children’s Chorus, streamed on Facebook last spring. 

Despite some of the lingering challenges, Brown and MOT are looking forward to the spring and the future program offerings of opera and dance, especially as MOT marks its 50th anniversary this year.

“There is a view that in the darkness one looks for the light … the artistic leadership we were able to find is part of that light,” Brown said, referring to Sharon. “We were able to mount “Twilight: Gods” in two months … we now look forward to what’s next and to sharing with the public what we next have in store.” 

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