The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic Crystal Manich, director, talks about her experience early on in the pandemic. As the pandemic was emerging, she was directing Il Postino in California. The uncertainty and difficulty in seeing a path forward are especially interesting given the work that Ms. Manich has accomplished across the field, which is seen in the addendum to her interview.
Crystal Manich, director
Interviewed March 17, 2020
TB: Thank you for chatting with me today, Crystal. Would you mind telling me a bit about where you're at in your career and what your daily work-life looks like?
CM: Yes. Until now, I've been very steadily employed as an opera director for over a decade. I've been successful because I've worked with budgets—both large and small, with everything in-between—and according to the company where I'm working, had the ability to adapt to different realities, which I think has led to a lot of my success. Also, my ability to create a good show, even when the budget for that show is different from the show I did the month before. My career took off in 2008 during the financial crash, and I think, because I was young and had not been given big budgets, my career was really propelled, unlike other directors who had a tougher time adjusting to those realities.
So, thus far, I've worked a lot in the regional circuit in the US, and I've done a couple of shows in Australia, and a few shows in Buenos Aires. It was with Buenos Aires Lìrica, and I do miss it there. They closed a couple of years ago, so I haven't been able to go back. But I really loved the productions I did there. So I have international experience, which is a different game when you're dealing with foreign currency and dinging calculations so that you can understand what your budgets are.
TB: Could you tell me about one of the proudest moments in your career thus far?
CM: An example of something that I experienced last season was that I was asked two years in advance to do a Norma in Utah. But it came with some unusual requirements because they knew that the theater they perform in would be under renovation during part of the season. So, they came to me with a mandate that there could be no set because we had to perform it in a concert hall. From the beginning, that was part of the deal, and they said that they wanted a big projection show because they had new projectors that had been bought but hadn't been used yet. That was the box that we were put in. We could have costumes and projection but no set, and props depended on how much room was left on stage because the orchestra was going to be on stage too. So all the performers were to perform in front of the orchestra with the chorus all the way upstage on risers.
When you get something like Norma, you think of it as this epic opera. But when I looked at it, I loved it and I thought this would be ruined by having a set, actually. My mentality was to just embrace the story. When you really look at it, it is so incredible how these two women are able to unite rather than divide despite the fact that they're in love with the same guy.
I wasn't expecting that because I'd never seen Norma. I had assumed that it was just going to be about this vengeful woman [up] against this younger woman who took her man, and it wasn't that at all. There are so many intimate scenes in Norma in the same way that there are some intimate scenes in Aida. Then, I started to embrace this idea that Norma's people were only seen in the shadows, so you just saw this mass of people behind her. I started embracing this idea that there was going to be no interaction with the chorus and that she [Norma] was this really strong female and could be down front and center all the time. We could see both her fierceness and her vulnerability, depending on the scene. Norma goes through this incredible journey of vulnerability, and you realize she is just a woman in addition to being this fierce leader of these people.
For costumes, I had Bradon McDonald who was a runner up of Project Runway. He was a dancer and he's been designing clothes and costumes for a while now. After Project Runway, he got some attention because [he was] one of the top four in that season. [He] came to me with this idea that—because there was no set—there would be this huge robe that Norma would put on when she was talking to her people and being a warrior queen. It became an extension of what gave the druids power and an idol in a way.
So with the projection, we used the entire orchestra shell with three projectors. We shot scenes with the singers ahead of time that we then edited into sequences so that we could see memory and a psychological evaluation of themselves. Then this big tree, the Irminsul tree, was right in the center with branches going up and out into the shell. So when she stood center with this cape on, you saw her as a 3D extension of the tree.
It ended up creating all of these possibilities that I would never have thought of if I had had a traditional set and costumes. I used that cape to the best of my ability and as much as possible. Because we went this couture way with the clothes, it felt like a runway show; so, you couldn't imagine these people actually sitting in real furniture because these clothes aren't supposed to move like that. So it is one of my best memories from last season for sure.
TB: Turning to our current situation, could you tell me a little bit about where you were and how you started to realize that the pandemic was going to affect your life?
CM: I was in Santa Barbara, California directing Il Postino for the third time this season—which has been a great gift to direct and a brilliant piece. It is like revisiting a friend and discovering new things each time. Obviously, the news had been coming for a while, but also the flu was going around. So, I got to Santa Barbara and I caught the flu right away. I got treated for that immediately and had Tamiflu and all that. But COVID-19 was in the back of my mind because everyone was talking about it. So, we had illness strike [not COVID-19]some of the cast in different ways. February through March is a bad time of year for rehearsing opera.
We had been sold out for the two shows we were doing and suddenly, two days before the show, people started returning their tickets. There is no refund policy, so they didn't expect a refund. They were donating their tickets back, and the company was able to resell them to other people who wanted to come. But it was because older people felt like they needed to stay home. For that reason, the company actually did better ticket sales than they anticipated because not only did they sell out, but they sold some tickets two or three times. It was interesting because we had people returning the tickets but we ended up playing to sold-out houses for both performances anyway.
My stepsister is a doctor in San Juan, here in Puerto Rico. And she was sending me advice about how to deal with the plane and travel. I did the whole wipe down of my seating area and took sanitizer. I also got the window seat on the plane because they said it was the best place to sit and I took every precaution I could. I did have one connecting flight with a long trip from LA to Miami, and then to here [Puerto Rico].
I got home Monday night of last week, and Wednesday everything—I'll never forget it. I was sitting here with my mom just watching things unfold, and it just felt like every hour something happened. Then people started talking about how their operas were being cancelled. I've only had one cancellation out of my next two jobs so far. But it is not even the most immediate one for some reason. In May, I am supposed to go to Streetcar Named Desire in Roanoke and it is cancelled, which is a real bummer.
Watching this all happen in real-time and trying to wrap our heads around how this will forever change the industry is really prevalent for me because I think many industries are going to change. I think corporations will realize that people don't need to be in offices as much and can work remotely. It is going to also change the idea of real estate for corporations. I would also hope it would make people realize how expensive our lives are and that we pay $5 for coffee at Starbucks. I wonder if it is going to change how people think about their money and how they spend it on a daily basis.
But for the arts, all of these places are offering streaming. TheMet is offering their streaming service and some other places are too. And I wonder if this will permanently make some companies switch to streaming only? Are there some markets out there that would now only want to see opera online and would pay a subscription for that? Or is there even a paywall? I think it is dangerous if we don't and lose the performing arts. That's a really scary thought and people [would] become more isolated as a result of this. The communal gift the performing arts gives us may be more of a boutique experience now. If it becomes a boutique, I wonder if opera, theater, or musical theater will survive? I think a lot of companies are going to go under as a result of this because so many are hanging on by a thread, and it is really sad that it will happen so fast.
TB: Can we back up and talk about Streetcar Named Desire? I know that you have already put money and effort into this show. Could you talk to me about how this has affected you financially and what situation this puts you in?
CM: It is difficult because not every company pays directors in advance. There are some companies that will pay you a third upon signing, a third on this first day of rehearsal, and a third at the opening. There are a lot of companies—usually the smaller ones—that do not pay until opening, and that is the case with Streetcar. They're trying to find out if they can pay us at least something. Because, the thing is, I have put a year into this already. I've led the design process, and the designer had designed the set. It was being built. I made a prop list, I've talked to the costume person, and there has been a lot of time put in. Pre-production is busier than actual production. (At some point, I should log my hours that I spend in pre-production for a given show.)
So, in terms of brainpower, it is, of course, in pre-production because I'm learning the piece for the first time and figuring out how I will put it up on stage. But, you have to think about what the budget is for the show. For Blanche, she has these incredible solos, and if I'm looking at the budget and think that this is a ten-person show, what do we put on everyone else so that Blanche can have incredible clothing? There are so many clothes that have to be props and changes that have to happen on stage. You have to coordinate: how much time does she have to change from her robe into her dress? What do her undergarments need to be to appear as period appropriate? People expect movie quality visuals, which means period-appropriate. Financially, my score was $60-80, and the personal hours that I've put in that I'm not being compensated for. And there is this force majeure clause. It's funny because, when you read it, you think that is never going to happen. Epidemic? Never going to happen, but it is on there. I guess this has made me realize how fragile my line of work is, and I'm now trying to figure out what is next. The company is certainly not to blame for the cancellation—it is completely uncontrollable. No one would have ever thought that this could happen.
The idea of not working until my next contract in mid-July—if that one doesn't get cancelled—is fine. I don't mind being home. I haven't taken a break in a long time. But how do I move forward now? What skills do I actually have, and how can I monetize my skills in ways that are different? I don't think we're going to get to go back to the way things were. I think the performing arts are forever hit. But I think not being creative isn't an option for me. So how can I make a living being a creative person? And when you talk about monetizing your artistic talent, it is all relative: some people are going to like your work and other people aren't.
A book that really helped me a few years ago was Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love. She writes about how we're in the wrong mindset and that we should not be putting pressure on ourselves to make our art make us enough money to live. And that once you take that burden off of yourself, you actually live a better life. I've been really listening to her in my head because I think it is important for me to remember that if I've made a living for 11 years doing this. I've been really lucky. That perspective is super important for my mental health right now; for my drive, and for the ability for me to feel like it is not doomsday. Because in the end, my creativity will always be there, and I just need to figure out how to adjust to serve a new reality.
TB: To put this in context, how different was your life six weeks ago?
CM: It was different in that I was totally secure. I've signed contracts until next April, so a year's worth of signed contracts. In our world, that means things are secure and fine. We all have our hardships, our financial big picture, and things that we want to be better at. This was going to be a year for me to nip that student loan debt in the bud finally. Six weeks ago that was totally a reality, and now it is not, really. Nothing feels like a guarantee now.
TB: Do you think that this will change the musical landscape in the future and how so?
CM: If we're really going to be home for the next eight weeks—if not 12-16, which is what they are starting to say now—I think people are going to, and already have, become very comfortable getting other stuff online. As a result, classical music and opera opening up to this wider audience is a really good idea. It might actually get people interested in classical music, which is actually the good that could come out of all this. People could start listening to classical music again and start connecting to these stories. That's the best thing that could happen. But on the flip side, the worst thing is that people only want to get it on the screen and not actually start going to the theater again, once the theaters reopen in the fall. There are consequences to the good things happening.
There are some directors offering coaching online for free, which is great. But the thing is, they can't do that forever. So, where is the point that you assess your own value? I am trying to put a value judgement on what I do. If I don't direct ever again, I don't know if anyone would notice that I stopped. I'm really questioning all of that now. I am not saying I don't value myself, I do. And I think that what I do as an artist is very powerful, but how does the outside world view that? How is that going to contribute to society? Because my argument is that being an artistic person is what Shakespeare said, "Holding a mirror to nature." Showing people these stories and saying “This is you, this is me,” or this dramatic story is meaningful because it paints a picture, a bigger depiction of what is actually happening in the world or in the past. In a lot of ways, the arts both illuminate the past and tell the future.
I guess my biggest fear is how is that going to change with all of this? People are talking about World War II a lot right now in the media, and there is a meme that says, "In World War II, your family was asked to fight on the frontlines. We're being asked to stay home. I think we're going to be ok." That perspective is really good because it shows that, if we could get through a terrible time like that, something good will come out of this as well. Look at what came out of World War II: a lot of innovation and women going into the workforce. So perhaps this might be the advent of the revitalization of classical music. I would love for that to happen.
TB: Yes, we would love for that to happen. In wrapping up here, I've got a couple more questions for you. First, what question did I not ask you that I should have?
CM: How are we coping personally, and how is that changing our relationships with other people? I feel like I've been FaceTiming with friends that I wouldn't normally on a regular basis. Because everyone's stuck at home and sad. It is this communal connection that helps. I'm very strong-minded today and pragmatic about the situation, but two days ago, I was not. Not because of work, but because of having to look at your life and reassess. It's hard. I find myself now online looking at other careers just to see what's there. That's not an easy thing, so knowing that you're not alone is really comforting. And I think it's times like these where your friends and family can really help you.
TB: Last question, I know you gave a book to read, but what Netflix should we all be watching?
CM: Glow. I love Glow. I am sad they haven't released a new season yet. It is so great.
TB: Well, thank you again for chatting with me. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness in this very difficult time.
January 16, 2021
After this interview, I had four productions cancelled in addition to the Streetcar with no sense of when they may actually be produced. I received partial payments for those productions, including the Streetcar, for which I am grateful. In the summer, I went to Wolf Trap Opera for five weeks to film various opera scenes for streaming. It was an incredible experience and a testament to resilience in the arts. Seventy people quarantined together in a hotel. Subsequently, we were able to have the singers perform without masks while keeping the six-foot distance.
This fall, I also directed a production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte for Pittsburgh Opera with resident artists and reduced orchestra. We performed six shows with a 90 minute running time for an audience of 52 and had a live stream. I set it during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and World War I in Italy, with the setting being a munitions factory to embrace the space of Pittsburgh Opera’s headquarters, where we performed the opera. I learned so much about how to direct singers in masks... and found that the piece really revealed its commedia dell’arte roots given the mask work.
In the spring, I am still slated to go to the Chicago Opera Theatre in April 2021 for a live stream at the end of that month. The filming of The Copper Queen for Arizona Opera has been postponed until May 2021, but we have undergone an extensive and fantastic pre-production process for it. We’re ready to go.
In the meantime, I’ve spent a lot of time studying new things through courses and writing. I am in a very different headspace than I was in March and believe that I have improved for the better. I have new goals and plans for the second half of 2021. I have spent time focusing on the good things I have in my life. I don’t believe that the industry will be the same, but we need to embrace the potential that opera can perhaps be more accessible to a mass audience in a way that was never dared before.
Scenes from La Bohème
August 9, 2020
Scenes from Eugene Onegin
August 16, 2020
About Crystal Manich
Crystal Manich has directed over sixty-five productions in opera, plays, and musical theatre across the United States, Argentina, and Australia. Recent work during Covid-19 includes Mozart’s Così fan tutte for Pittsburgh Opera with masks for streaming, and filmed excerpts from well-known operas for streaming for Wolf Trap Opera. In 2021 Crystal will direct the world premiere opera The Copper Queen as a feature film for Arizona Opera. She was the Co-Founding Artistic Director of Opera Omnia; former Assistant Artistic Director with Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam in Brazil; former Artistic Director of Mill City Summer Opera. Her first short film, L’Ivresse, explores opera in film and won the audience award at the 2018 Great Lakes International Shorts Festival. Crystal holds a BFA in Drama and a Masters in Arts Management from Carnegie Mellon University and currently makes her home in Puerto Rico.