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 Daniel Biaggi discussed Portland Opera’s need to cancel productions due to the pandemic. This is a fascinating journey through how a very complex organization looked an an unprecedented situation for both the welfare of their artists and the company itself.
Daniel Biaggi, Interim Artistic Director of Portland Opera
Interviewed April 18, 2020
TB: First off, let me thank you again for joining me. I would like to start with a positive question before we talk about the pandemic, so what is the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
DB: First, it’s a pleasure to be speaking with you and I appreciate your having me. The best thing that happened last week on a professional level, was probably the increasing connection with people with whom I haven’t spoken to in quite some time, and trying to figure all of this out. On a personal level, just to be a bit more at home with my partner; cooking dinner together, these kinds of things.
TB: So, for those who are less familiar with your career and especially as you are in transition with Palm Beach Opera, can you give me an update on where you are in your career?
DB: Sure. As you said, having done the singer, teaching artist, and artist’s management route in New York, I was hired at Palm Beach Opera as the Director of Artistic Operations, and eventually became the General Director for 10 years. Last spring, I started to make this transition into being a little bit more involved in a variety of organizations and also trying to figure out ways to be more involved in Europe, both for professional and family reasons.
This led me to continue with Palm Beach Opera in order to make the leadership transition as smooth as possible, which went through the first production of this season and ended the beginning of February. In October last year, I joined Portland Opera as Interim Artistic Director. I’m also currently working as Artistic Advisor to the Atkins Young Artist program at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg [Russia]. Recently, I started working as a creative consultant to a production company that is interested in investing in Broadway and film projects. I function as a sort of artistic researcher to find the projects and bring them to the organization. Then they decide if and how they want to invest.
So it’s been a great, interesting, and certainly very, very positive start to this transitional period. I’ve been very fortunate because of that—even in the past couple of weeks—to actually be very busy, to be continuously engaged, and continuously working. That’s been very fortunate.
TB: You wear so many hats in so many areas, whether that is consulting with young artist programs and giving webinars and talks about how to move the business forward. So, could you back up in time and give me an idea of where you were and how you first realized that you were going to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
DB: For family reasons—the rest of my family’s in Switzerland and we have a lot of friends in the northern part of Italy—from the beginning of the year, we were paying close attention to how things were going in Europe. However, professionally I think it was the end of February, [which was] the second time I went out to Portland during February. This was to be part of the final performances of what had been together as an “American Quartet”—four American one-act operas; then to start the rehearsals for Vivaldi’s Bajazet, which was to premiere in Portland in the middle of March. At the end of February, I came back to New York and was scheduled to go back to Portland on March 15. But we saw the first weeks of analysis unfold on one hand in Seattle and on the other in Portland and Oregon overall. So with the mandate of the Governor of Oregon, we realized that we were going to be affected.
It was in the first week of March when the Governor of Oregon mandated a ban on assemblies of 250 people or more when we realized that most likely Bajazet would not be able to happen. That ban was then extended for eight weeks until May 10 so we knew for certain the performances in March couldn’t happen. I think it was on March 13 that we ended up cancelling (officially) Bajazet. And so, we knew we would only work remotely. So on March 15, I never went back to Portland and stayed in New York City. Of course, that was the first step of the wave of analyses and decision making along the way.
TB: Before we get into talking about the summer and the way that you foresee things going, I’d like to dive into the approach for cancelling the Vivaldi. As I know from you, this is not something that you take lightly. It takes immense amounts of planning, and then the execution itself. So, when you came through on—I believe it was March 12 and 13—and decided that it was going to be cancelled, what did that mean for Portland Opera?
DB: Well first, people who have been with the company for 28 years have said that this is the first time that Portland Opera actually cancelled a performance. [They cancelled one performance,] before because of flooding, but they’ve never had a full production cancelled. So obviously, from the management conversations, we very quickly put plans together, but there weren’t occasions in the past where there might already have been some kind of a communications plan. So, we then—in daily meetings with the senior management team—immediately started to put together communication plans to make sure that it was rolled out the right way and that we could immediately analyze what that meant.
At that time—unlike when we then dealt with the subsequent cancellations—we were still also hoping that we might be able to do something, either with a very reduced audience or even a live stream of a live performance of opening night. We got all the way to the Sitzprobe with Bajazet; so the production and all the costumes had been built. This was all originally put together as a new production. All the musical work had been done and the orchestra had started rehearsing. So, we were hoping that we could record something, or do a live broadcast. Or even for our own sake, figure out a way that we could actually perform it once and create an archival DVD as a starting point to bring it back at some point, hopefully. But more and more we simply realized that that wasn’t going to work.
We continuously checked in with the artists because we wanted to make sure that they would have been comfortable with it. Obviously everything was happening so quickly in those first 10 days of March that we realized that even if we could have probably continued in the theater for another week or 10 days, we didn’t want to put the artists through that. Some had come from abroad, actually from Korea, Australia, and Italy. So especially because of where they were coming from, there was a concern that they wouldn’t be able to make it back. Relatively quickly thereafter came the first travel limitation, which made them more nervous. At that point, we realized that it wouldn’t have been in anyone’s interest to try to push forward even without an audience. That’s when we cancelled it.
TB: So, when Portland Opera did decide to cancel, obviously, you have immense amounts of logistics dealing with so many moving parts. Can you talk a bit about some of the logistics that you have had to work with? I can’t imagine that getting an international cast from a cancellation to home is anything easy at this point.
DB: It was a challenge, but I think one that was relatively quickly solved by they themselves [the artists]. One of the artists, who came in from Italy with her family, actually ended up going to her U.S. family in Florida. The conductor and one of the singers, who went to Australia and Korea relatively quickly, were able to change their own flights and go back. Everybody else was either local or from within the U.S., and were able to immediately return.
Because of the fact that we had just started to load things in, it also wasn’t yet at a point where everything had already been done and it wasn’t yet opening night. Therefore, it was relatively easy to then load everything back out. Which of course we had to do, and put things back into storage, where they were coming from or hadn’t been yet (as they had been newly created for this particular production).
In terms of the conversations otherwise, obviously it was a matter of immediately evaluating with AGMA [American Guild of Musical Artists], AFM [American Federation of Musicians] and IATSE [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees]. What would the situation look like to make sure that we could actually roll it out in the right way and tell people in the right order? We really kept people updated along the way. Everybody was paying attention because we also always knew that the governor was going release a new mandate. So, we expected that there would be more mandates coming about banning [or putting] restrictions on assemblies. And with the exception of one momentary snafu, I think we were able to put everything out the right way, so that people would learn about our response as well as could be expected.
TB: So obviously, there was no financial income from Bajazet. That has to be a pretty big hit for Portland Opera. So could you talk about the way that you are working with this financial burden?
DB: Sure. It was certainly challenging. When we cancelled Bajazet there was already a certain amount of ticket sales, which led to a lot of refunds. [However,] the return of some of those tickets in the form of donations back to the company certainly helped. The rehearsals [for Bajazet] had already happened and this was also to be a special collaboration with the Portland Baroque Orchestra on period instruments, Baroque pitch, and a Baroque specialist conductor. He had actually rearranged or written his own arrangement of the work, and also worked very intensely with creating ornamentation for all the singers. So all of this was indeed unique.
In this case, all the costumes were built in-house and not something we simply rented from somewhere, but actually, really built. Because of all of that work and realizing at that time, what was probably coming down the way, we decided to pay everybody in full and said we’re just going to have to figure it out inside the company afterwards. We also realized that might be one of the last paychecks, certainly for soloists, and we were fortunately able to do that.
Once we needed to cancel other things, part of the challenge of Portland Opera—which was a great benefit before—is the fact that Portland Opera also manages the Broadway Across America series. So, the Broadway shows that are often brought in by the performing arts centers elsewhere, are actually handled by Portland Opera, in Portland’s case. So, there’s a big amount of net revenue in the end that comes to Portland Opera from the Broadway series, and then, of course, Broadway. Because Bajazet was in the smaller hall—850 seat hall—the Keller Auditorium, which is 2900 seats, was taken up by Frozen, Broadway on Tour, which eventually had to be cancelled as well. That’s when we started to realize that the combination of cancelled revenue from Bajazet, cancelled revenue from Frozen, and from The Illusionists that was going to go in right after Frozen, and with everything else that was coming our way, [these cancellations] made it impossible for us to do the same for everyone involved when we then had to analyze the cancellation of the whole rest of the season.
As that mandate extended, we realized that it went past the date of our next big production, which would have been the Big Night production, an orchestral, vocal, and choral concert of operatic highlights at the Keller Theatre in the middle of May. We would have then gone directly into rehearsals for Pagliacci performances in June also in the big hall. Then Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers in July in the 850 seat hall. We realized that the fact that we would also have to cancel Big Night because of the mandate, the fact that it was no secret already that Portland Opera was coming through a financially challenging period, meant that this combination between non-realized ticket revenue, non-realized contributions, and expenses simply made it impossible to just forge forward, realizing that we were probably going to have to cancel anyways.
So relatively quickly, we had to decide to cancel the whole rest of the season. We paid out as much as we could in different percentages. We at least wanted to do something for everyone who was on contract with Portland Opera, rather than to invoke a complete force majeure clause and saying we can’t uphold anything at all. It helped that Portland Opera was already reorganizing last summer after having realized that the summer seasons weren’t quite adding up. So, this was to be the final season with a summer production period still ending in July. Then in August, we were going to go right back into rehearsals to restart the new season in September. But, next season we already had to rethink a bit because of those constraints, which may in the end work out a little bit better now than it might have otherwise.
TB: Thank you, I really appreciate your thoughtful answer on that. So talking about the future, one of the things that you alluded to was thinking about the next season in a different way. So, would you be able to share any of the things that you’re thinking of at this point?
DB: Sure. Because of the information that came out of this strategic analysis that Portland Opera underwent with a broad variety of stakeholders a year and a half ago, we already knew that the budget was going to have to be smaller going forward this year. And it would have to be a different structure next season. The strategic plan for the next five years is already envisioned and in essence, it was figuring out a mix of different venues, production types, and performance numbers per production. So, rather than always thinking big stage and as many productions as possible, we started to analyze what else might we be able to do.
Portland is fortunate in the sense that we have access to three performing halls. One is the Keller Auditorium (2900 seats), I mentioned the Newmark Theatre with 850 seats, and finally the Hinkley studio, which is a black box theater at the Hampton Opera Center where the administrative offices also are. So with that, we already established it may not always be the typical five performance for each mainstage production at the Keller Auditorium anymore, maybe three or four [performances]. We talked about using the Newmark more. And we talked about using the Hampton Opera Studio more, so that we can have a run of 7-8 performances with a chamber orchestra in the black box theater rather than everything in the bigger spaces.
That makes it possible to also look at a different type of repertoire, which was something that came out of the strategic analysis; the Portland community was very willing to explore new repertoire, different stories, more modern stories, and stories from other communities. These include, themes that resonate more today: political things, socio-economic things, and topics that we may associate more with theater or movie industries, rather than with the opera industry. Also, we want to commission new American works and become part of that group. Therefore, workshop some things, use smaller spaces, and at the same time, immensely strengthen the ties within the community by doing much more community engagement work and opening the Hampton Center for others.
In a way this [COVID-19] created a part of the strategic plan by saying, “It’s okay, we don’t have to do four mainstage productions anymore. That wasn’t the goal anyways.” Portland Opera had already planned the next season, which I’m happy to share. We were going to start with Frida in September in the middle hall [Hinkley Studio]; then Tosca in October/November, in the big hall [Keller Auditorium]; and then double bill of American works in the studio. There was one concert [Big Night Concert] in the Keller and then a semi-staged Il Trovatore in the Keller as well. [Being semi-staged] will help save something. We can still do titles and there will be three performances rather than the typical five. So, there was already much more built-in flexibility for season planning and keeping the budgets in mind.
Obviously, now our board of directors has rightfully asked us to evaluate a big variety of options. [Especially,] knowing now about the cancellations of the next three shows and the cancellation of Broadways shows. Book of Mormon has now been cancelled and we’re still waiting for Anastasia and Mean Girls that were supposed to come through in the summer months. Broadway Across America obviously has different parameters of how they make their decisions based on touring capabilities, based on where these shows are coming from, what the travel path looks like, and what the insurance situation looks like over all. But we don’t think any of this is realistically going to happen. Therefore, that is a huge financial burden for the organization.
We did guarantee all our core employees that they would stay fully employed until the end of June, at which time we will have a better sense of what next season really looks like and how that might impact the core staff going forward. That’s about 40 employees, about 10 of whom are from the Broadway side and 30 from the opera side. We’re now starting to analyze and say, “Okay, what if we can’t go back into the theater in August or September? But more importantly, what if the audience is not ready to come back?” If we think we can control the environment to the extent that we feel that our orchestra, performers, and backstage crew are all working within safety restrictions, whether from distancing or whether from sanitary actions that we’re taking, that is one thing. But the psychology of the audience and whether they’re going to be willing to go back into an enclosed space with hundreds or thousands of others is the big question, right?
So, we started analyzing things like; what would it mean if Frida needs to go somewhere else in the season? We have four versions we’re working in; with one the way it currently is, another with Frida later in the season, one with Tosca later in the season, and finally, one with simply starting in the new year. We try not to think of the worst case scenario of having to say there’s a year without a season. But of course, we would not be doing our job if we weren’t at least thinking through those scenarios; just like the sports world and others who make a living from live assembly. Obviously, we have to think about it.
TB: I think that gives a really clear picture of the way that Portland Opera and your work is moving forward in this time, so thank you. Let me turn to you as a creative professional because, you are such an artistic person. How has this impacted your creative process and thinking about your role in the vocal performing arts?
DB: I suppose on one hand, it made it difficult, because it led to a lot of hard conversations that you prefer not to have (because you end up being the one bearing the bad news) with cancelled productions or less income for artists and colleagues, whom you greatly respect and wish you could do more for. On the other hand, in a way it’s made the future planning (if we were able to go back into the theaters and that’s the big ‘if’) somewhat easier for the next two or three years because we said we would immediately bring back the cancelled shows the following season, if we can. Especially Bajazet, which had become such a dear project to everyone. So I think for both for the artists as well as for everyone else, it’s been actually heartening that I call and say, “Hey, is so-and-so available during that period?” Because there’s an inquiry already for a next job, when many other things are still shutting down. And so therefore, it may be that seasons we had planned simply get pushed out and that makes it, in terms of creative thinking, in a way, easier.
On the other hand, I think it’s a false sense of security. And so therefore, we’re trying to be even more creative by saying, “Okay, what if we can’t do it? Does it work with what we can do in terms of online presence,” for example. So, I don’t think we should flood the air waves with artistic content, I think there is a danger that people will start to zone out then. And also, the fact that right now everything is for free is not going to last, realistically. So, if we want to create new content and put it online, we’d still have to figure out a sort of Netflix situation where there’s a subscription fee, or there’s some other way of monetizing what we end up putting out as an artistic product, also from a creative perspective. And so we don’t want to just say that we’ll just do the same thing again, but I don’t think there are any solutions yet at this point to what exactly that will be. But certainly, a lot to consider.
TB: So reflecting on this experience, could you talk a little bit about how different you life was six or eight weeks ago?
DB: Well, there was much more moving around. I normally travel a lot and I enjoy traveling. I was looking forward to going back and forth to Portland and we still had plans to go to Florida to see some of the Palm Beach Opera productions towards the end of the season. [Also,] I was looking forward to being in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre again to work with the Atkins Young Artists there. Obviously, none of that is currently happening. So in that sense, life is much different.
At the same time, it’s been—in a weird way—invigorating, exactly because it led to a lot of conversations. Especially when it came to the cancellations of the 2019/2020 season, we wanted to make sure that everybody learned from us in the right way. We had to create a detailed communication plan of who gets called when and how, by whom, with what information, and how do we tell the story. So that by the time the press release actually went out, everybody already knew what was happening. Therefore, it has been a time when we suddenly had much more direct personal contact with people than we normally have. So, it actually led to many more conversations than it normally would.
That’s where I think the strength of this whole community comes in. It’s led to all these conversations and weekly calls organized by OPERA America, where all the general directors, all the artistic directors, all the marking directors, and development directors get together once a week and spend an hour with each other on the phone trying to figure things out. Normally, we can only do this once or twice a year at an OPERA America conference, or a bigger summer festival where everybody gathers and talks a bit about the state of the industry. That’s been amazing to just see that we have so many creative heads in our industry. If there’s an industry that’s equipped to deal with something like this it’s our creative people, from artists to administrators all around the world.
For me, it’s been interesting because I’ve wanted to be a little bit more involved with Europe again. [So it’s] also fascinating to see what happens there; how things are different or how they are the same. It’s wonderful to be on these Zoom connected calls with people from all over the world trying to figure out what this means. It has been really enriching in that sense and in a weird way, very frustrating, of course.
TB: So, looking forward, hypothetically, how do you think that this is going to change our musical landscape?
DB: I think that’s the big question, isn’t it? I think there are probably various scenarios and there could be much good to come out of it. There was probably a certain reluctance to embrace technology even more than we will be going forward, both when it comes to day-to-day business (meetings or rehearsals, for example), but also with a much broader approach of exactly what it could be if we were differently connected with electronic media agreements, with streaming services, and a product that’s ‘sold online.’ So that’s not something we’ve been doing so far.
I do think that—provided we can assemble again and get together—that the need for humans to be with other humans will always be there. So I’m not too concerned—provided that the health concerns can be controlled, of course—over the fact that we wouldn’t have audiences going forward. I don’t think that we need to completely change everything. I do think it is an opportunity to analyze to what extent the opera industry is so international, for example. It brings together so many artists from all over the world to create one product together, which is exactly what we love. But it may be an opportunity to say, “Well, why don’t we work with our neighbors who are a little bit closer, in the meantime?” And I think for the longevity of the art form, it would probably be equally healthy for singers to travel less and to realize that there’s a sort of a ‘fest’ contract at an American house that allows them to make a living and be part of a community. In turn, this would infuse the community with more knowledge about what these artists’ lives actually look like and may turn into yet a different support system. That’s just one example from a sort of life stability sense.
So the idea that everything has become so fast lived, I think, is exactly to the detriment of performers. They don’t have the time they really need to mature because they’re traveling all over the place. And it’s too stressful for the body in the end. We all think we’re Superman or Superwoman and maybe that is not always the case. And so, a certain amount of slowing down coming out of this might not be bad. It may mean—if that’s the way it goes—that there’s a smaller amount of full-time performers who therefore comfortably make a living and others who—if it’s no longer possible to cobble together a living from traveling all over the world—may decide that there’s a different profession in the making for them. I think there is a possibility to come out of this with a completely stronger societal fabric and integration of artists into the everyday life. And I think that would actually underline the importance of the arts, rather than the somewhat superficial, “Look we’re flying in the next biggest star from, say, 17 hours away to give you something you’ve never heard before.” So I think, if we are willing to listen to our own artists, that would work very well as well.
TB: I think that one of the things that you are illustrating is the fact that looking less to the international jet-setting side to more of the community, which is a very valid response to this. So as the General Director of Palm Beach Opera coming out of the 2008 financial recession you had to deal with some of the worst financial crises that modern opera has experienced. So, what advice would you give to young artists who are at the beginning of what could end up being a crisis for them?
DB: First of all, I would absolutely encourage them to believe in the art form. In a weird way, I’m not so concerned over the future of the art form because I’ve always felt that live unamplified singing with others, and with orchestra and a whole stage crew—really the whole art form of opera—is so timeless and it will endure for many, many more years. I’m never concerned over opera dying out. Therefore, I think there shouldn’t be a fear of that.
However, I would encourage young singers to make sure that they don’t think in sort of a numbers game anymore with thinking, “Oh, there’s enough work, I’ll find my way somehow.” It simply means that they have to be even better, because there may be fewer jobs and you have to be willing to really do the work, from vocal studies, language studies, and drama studies. Everybody is very quick to always say we’re really athletes, but few are willing to actually put in their rigorous sort of daily schedule to get to that point.
Also, I would encourage singers to think of a second stream of income from the beginning, [and if] possible in a quiet way. That may not be what it used to be with the service industry, teaching, or other things that seemed easy, but either left the body or the voice exhausted by the end of the day; then you don’t practice anymore. That’s challenging because it’s easier to find something where you think you can mentally still focus on your own craft, rather than take on a completely different craft like computer programming or translation work or something that happens silently, right? But I think, at this point, I would certainly recommend that everyone thinks of a different type of expertise as well. I hated it when that was the first thing people said in school. They said in the opera studios 20 years ago, “Only five of you are going to make it. How are all you other people going to make money?” And I thought that’s so offensive. So, I don’t want to sound like that, but I think it’s a good thing to do. There will no longer be a stigma for the ‘side hustle,’ right? Because it will be normal and that’s okay.
TB: So before I ask my last question, is there anything else that you would like to add to our conversation today?
DB: Oh, so many things still to say. The most important part I think in all this is kindness and taking care of people. I find that for the sake of being seen as charging ahead or taking decisive action, people tend not to take the time to think things through and talk to each other. I’m old fashioned. I like to talk to people rather than send text messages back and forth. There’s so much that we could talk about with that though.
TB: So, what is your video pick recommendation?
DB: As I said at the beginning, I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve been very busy. So, we’ve not spent a lot of time just watching. I did now see a few episodes of (very late to the party) Schitt’s Creek, which I thought was quite hilarious after a while. It took me a moment to get into it, but I thought it was quite funny and a good moment to turn off your brain for a second. But that’s about the only thing I’ve been watching.
TB: Well, thank you again for this fantastic chat.
About Daniel Biaggi
Daniel Biaggi is an award-winning and internationally connected opera executive and President of Daniel Biaggi Consulting. A believer in the transformational power of live opera performances, Daniel works closely with opera companies to bring communities together through stimulating productions as well as inspiring education and engagement programs. He has a proven track record of impactful artistic planning and casting, successful fundraising, Board development, and community engagement initiatives. He is an accomplished public speaker and loves leading audiences as an event emcee.
In October 2019, Daniel joined Portland Opera as Interim Artistic Director following a strategic planning process by the Portland Opera Board of Directors. In this role, Daniel is focused on artistic planning & leadership for the next two seasons while collaborating with the company to plan and execute a search for a permanent artistic director. Concurrent with his responsibilities at Portland Opera, Daniel serves as Artistic Advisor to the Atkins Young Artists Program at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. He is also a Creative Consultant for Drax Productions, which invests in commercial films and theatrical productions. Drax Productions was represented most recently on Broadway with a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Prior to beginning his position at Portland Opera, Daniel led the Palm Beach Opera for 10 years as General Director. From 2009 to 2019, he orchestrated a financial and organizational turnaround for the company despite the economic crisis in his initial years. At the end of his tenure, he moved into the role of Strategic & Artistic Advisor to facilitate the transition into new leadership for the now financially sustainable and artistically thriving organization. For his work with PBO, he was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership and Artistic Excellence of the National Society of Arts and Letters.
In addition to his artistic leadership, Daniel previously managed the careers of over 40 singers worldwide as Associate Director at Guy Barzilay International Artist Management in New York. He has served on the faculties of Manhattan School of Music, Mannes College of Music, and Sarah Lawrence College in New York; taught at the Juilliard School of Music, the Chautauqua Voice Institute, and the Metropolitan Opera Guild; and adjudicated for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, the Richard Tucker Music Foundation Competition, and the Jensen Foundation Vocal Competition. Daniel served on the Board of OPERA America from 2012 to 2018 and was Chair of the Cultural Executive Committee of the Cultural Council of the Palm Beaches from 2011 to 2013. Daniel is a classically trained singer and has performed operatic roles and recitals in the US as well as Europe. He holds a Post-Graduate and Master’s Degree in Vocal Performance from the Manhattan School of Music, a Bachelor of Music Degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and a Certificate of Musicology from the University of Berne, Switzerland. Most recently, he received certification as Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy from The American College of Financial Services, and concluded the Harvard Business School’s Executive Education Program “Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management” on full scholarship.
In his free time, Daniel Biaggi enjoys sports – especially tennis and snowboarding – loves flying and occasionally jumping out of planes, and appreciates cooking and fine wine.