By Robert Croan
“And then the pandemic punched us in the face.” That’s how it felt to David Walker, in his first season as Palm Beach Opera’s general director – a post he took over after Daniel Biaggi resigned in 2019.
“It was going so well,” says Walker, 54. “Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ [the opening production in January 2020] was our highest-grossing show in 12 years. Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville’ did well too, and we were in rehearsals for the company’s first-ever production of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin.’ That was looking like another hit.”
The lockdown came in early March. Walker coped as best he could. Not only was Onegin canceled, but the 2021 season, already announced, was in jeopardy.
“Ticket sales took a hit, of course,” the director explains. “We had to give some refunds, but a lot of people turned in their tickets as a donation. With our annual fund, lower-level contributions took the worst hit. With major fundraising gifts, there were a lot of difficult conversations because wealthier donors’ portfolios were hurt, but virtually every individual and corporation was able to keep their previous commitments.
“No salary has been reduced, and only one position has been eliminated. There have been no pay raises, of course.” Moreover, the company’s two resident artist programs – vitally important to the prospects of young performers – are going on.
Walker credits Opera America, a service organization for the opera community, for helping him get through the pandemic crisis.
“They had Zoom sessions,” he says, “group therapy for administrators, Class of COVID-19. All of us were going through it, sharing what was working, and more important, what was not working.” Some companies were already going virtual.
The biggest lesson: “It was a mistake to do nothing. The challenge was to keep connection with the patrons, continuity with the patron base. The mistake of many companies was not to do anything.”
As it was impossible to go forward with PBO’s original 2021 plans, Walker decided to turn the season into a live outdoor festival in the 6,000-seat iThink Financial Amphitheater at the South Florida Fairgrounds. From Feb. 19-27, the company will present two performances each of Puccini’s La Bohème, Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.
“We’re taking safety extremely seriously,” Walker stresses. “We’re only using 22 percent of the Amphitheater’s seating capacity, to allow for social distancing. We’re requiring masks, and we’ve developed three separate protocols, using CDC guidelines and a medical advisory team: one for audiences, another for the artists, and one for our staff.”
Walker had been a successful countertenor before retiring from performing to go into administration. When he made the career change, he attained two degrees beyond his master’s in music: an MBA and one in arts administration. His musical and business acumen, along with the lack of performance opportunities during the pandemic, helped him assemble A-list casts for the festival productions.
“I called in all my favors,” Walker quips, adding “opera-goers are never going to see such an incredible line-up in this area.”
The cast lists read more like the Met than a regional company: Latonia Moore, Isabel Leonard, Michael Fabiano, Quinn Kelsey and Samuel Ramey in La Bohème; Janai Brugger, Kathryn Lewek, Matthew Polenzani, Joshua Hopkins, Morris Robinson and Ryan Speedo Green in The Magic Flute; Michael Chioldi and Hopkins joined by Ana Maria Martinez in Pagliacci, with Patrick Summers conducting.
It hasn’t been easy, especially for singers who’ve seen most of their engagements withdrawn. Chioldi, 51, who was preparing for his role debut in the title part of Onegin, recalls that it was Friday the 13th of March, when he learned that the show was canceled.
“My life completely changed,” he states. “I had a full schedule. I was singing 10 months of the year. I had a ‘Rigoletto’ coming up in Spain. Canceled. And then there was nothing.”
Chioldi, who had a small teaching studio at the start of last year, doubled his student load to 20 hours per week, teaching virtually from his New York apartment.
“Covid taught me how much I missed performing,” he says, “to realize how important the arts are.” The baritone is happy to be doing his fourth Pagliacci production. “I love playing villains,” he admits. “I love to chew the scenery. Tonio is dark, distrusted, disturbed. He misunderstands Nedda’s kindnesses and encourages violence and revenge. And the Prologue is one of the greatest arias in all opera.”
The singer describes with horror riding his bike in New York and “seeing refrigerator trucks [with dead bodies] going by – we were all scared.” As a diversion from the gloom, he started a cocktail series on Instagram. “Mondays and Thursdays for 12 weeks, each show we made a different cocktail, unusual drinks tailored to 20- and 30-somethings.” He also devoted more time to cooking for himself and husband Scott Hill – mostly Italian dishes, his specialties being lasagna and shrimp scampi.
Soprano Moore, speaking from her home in Coral Gables, has had a different sort of experience. “When you called,” she says, “I was printing out my divorce papers.” Married since 2014, with two children 6 and 4 years old, she feels that she and her ex-husband get along better now: “We’re great co-parents for our kids. When you’re together for long periods of time, you get to know who the other person really is, and sometimes it doesn’t work. This is what needed to happen in my life.”
In March 2020 the singer was in France singing Tosca. “My tenor was ill,” she says, “but he refused to consider that he might have COVID. When I got home, he called to tell me he’d been diagnosed with the virus. Luckily, I tested negative. But I lost 13 jobs. Everything shut down.”
There was an upside, however: “There are opportunities that I wouldn’t have had without the pandemic. For many years, I was typecast as Aida. That catapulted me, and Aida gets more money than the lyric roles, because there are fewer heavy voices these days. I’ve done 165 Aidas! Once you get into doing Aidas it’s hard to get out of the mold. I want to shine in different ways.”
La Bohème’s Mimi is a role Moore performed often between 2000-07, and she’s happy to be returning to it here. “Mimi is vocal therapy,” the singer, now 41, believes. “Young sopranos are often given this role, but now I’ve lived. I understand more musically than I did 20 years ago. You go on stage and have fun. You feel like a 19-year-old girl. You can understand that what she and Rodolfo have is infatuation rather than true love.”
Moore’s understudy as Mimi is soprano Shannon Jennings, 32, a Benenson Young Artist Program participant, who will also sing First Lady in The Magic Flute. The Orlando native calls the pandemic “devastating,” but feels “grateful for the creativity and resourcefulness of the people that I’ve been able to work with.
“Collaboration is essential. It’s where I believe the magic exists. To share that magic safely – that’s what’s given me joy this year.”
Perhaps Walker sums it up best by saying, “We have to be resilient; we have to be creative. We’re trying to take this as an opportunistic and optimistic season.”