Friday, September 25, 2020

Opera production during the pandemic

During non-pandemic times, Doug Provost manages carpentry, sound, lighting, projections, hair & makeup, the costume shop, and more at Seattle Opera. As Director of Production, he supervises the creation of new shows, and productions that we create with other companies. COVID-19 shutdowns have forced the opera industry to adapt in order to survive, and Provost has risen to the challenge with gusto. We sat down with Doug—masked, and from more than 6 feet away, of course!—to learn more about how his role at Seattle Opera has changed in the last six months.  

Since COVID-19 shutdowns hit in March, what have been the biggest changes for you? What are the challenges and what have been the opportunities? 
My primary role as the Director of Production is still the same. Unfortunately, with cancelled performances and the reduction in our core staff, the remaining team and I have taken on additional roles and responsibilities left behind from our furloughed colleagues. I am really proud of my team and how they have navigated the new work dynamics. Despite the painful challenges that the company has faced, our team has had a can-do attitude, and demonstrated amazing work flexibility, and a willingness to take on jobs that have been out of scope to help advance our company and our art. We are approaching this new normal akin to playing a Super Mario game. We are navigating situations and obstacles which are in constant motion; a continual state of flux. This has resulted in a mindset of constant learning and a stretching of our abilities. Getting hit by a new obstacle isn’t viewed as “failing,” but more as an opportunity to learn, adjust, and grow. This has totally changed our work culture for the better. We’re in it to win it. I am so proud of our team.

How is presenting opera different for screen rather than for live performance? 
Similarities exist between live performance and video capture, but the performance event is very different. We continue our standard practice of planning the scenes, the sets, costumes, lighting, etc. However, adding the element of the video capture changes some of those relationships. A major factor in our storytelling for a live audience is the spatial relationship of the performers in proximity to the audience. We tend to stage singers as close to the orchestra and the audience during arias and important scenes. During a video capture, that relationship to the audience chamber is less important as we focus our efforts on camera angles and camera movement to tell our stories. The position of singers on stage is more flexible in the video capture, as the camera lens can zoom in and the microphones will record the singers wherever they are onstage. 

A photo snapped by Doug that shows his view during the filming of Seattle Opera's Cavalleria rusticana Highlights Recital.

Capturing our singers with microphones allows stage directors more freedom to stage scenes anywhere. The other major difference between live performance and video capture is the post-performance work. There is just as much work on the back end as there is on the front end. Following a live performance we take the set down, box up the costumes and the run is over. Post-video performance requires hundreds of hours of editing, viewing, logo and caption insert as we prepare for the final rendering. The work isn’t finished until the final render is complete and the content is uploaded ready to view. 

While we all want to perform for live audiences again as soon as we can, what, in your view—are new practices we should keep from this time?
Reaching new and existing audiences with the online content is something that should continue beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Opera stories are really compelling and are supported by the most amazing songs ever written. Sharing our art beyond the walls of the performance hall is incredibly important to break down barriers and spark dynamic conversations. We take on tough subjects and we drive conversations. We have the privilege to present challenging pieces, not shy away from the controversy, own the hard conversations, and deepen the experience for everyone. We as an art form need to continue to grow and stretch so we don’t end up as simply a "museum piece." Telling compelling stories, providing contexts for those stories, and encouraging community conversations is the path forward.

Doug Provost supervises the testing of our recording setup in Tagney Jones Hall, which is allowed under the governor's orders, which allow for recording artistic programs for streaming. A number of safety protocols are also being followed. 

What have you learned during this time? 
I/we must remain flexible moving forward. We can’t be afraid to take risk as long as we continue to learn and grow. Providing art that uplifts, makes people laugh, challenges societal norms, promotes reflection, and entertains is important for our humanity and society. 

What keeps you passionate about your work?
Working toward a final artistic product is amazingly satisfying. Knowing that what we are doing impacts thousands of people motivates me. Each opera projects is has enough differences that every day is new and interesting. Seeing all the parts working towards the same goal and watching it unfold from inception to finale is inspiring.

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