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 E. Loren Meeker, General and Artistic Director of OPERA San Antonio, discussed the onset of the pandemic. Having been forced to cancel a production, she shares a valuable insight into that experience and what the pandemic means for the future.
E. Loren Meeker, OPERA San Antonio General and Artistic Director
Interviewed April 4th, 2020
TB: So what’s the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week.
LM: I love that question. I have been most grateful for the unexpectedly awesome living circumstances that I’m in. I still call the Boston area home. But with this new position, I have been spending more and more time in San Antonio. My artistic administrator, Veronica, and her husband have been gracious enough to host me. The original plan was to host me through our spring production of Rigoletto.
I have to say, to be in Texas where it’s been warmer and I can get outside; I feel like I have air and space even within the home. I would feel very different over the last couple of weeks if I were at my home in Boston, which is colder, smaller, and more isolating. So for the moment, I am grateful to be in Texas.
TB: Would you mind giving a bit of background to your career and where you are now?
LM: I feel like I have two similar but different hats on at the moment. What that means is the vast majority of my career leading up to the fall of 2019 has been as an independent stage director for opera, which is essentially being a freelance artist. It is hopping around the US and sometimes around the globe directing a variety of productions.
In the fall, we came to a conclusion here in San Antonio to take a new step. And that new step was my becoming the General and Artistic Director of OPERA San Antonio. We’ve been leading up to that for the last two years, first with my being here as an independent stage director. Second, it was becoming an artistic advisor, and now it is this new territory. So the reason I say two hats is because I am still maintaining that independent directorial career in addition to the administrative work that I’m doing with OPERA San Antonio.
TB: Obviously, you were in San Antonio when the pandemic really began to hit, but what was it that was affected?
LM: We watched and waited for a couple of different puzzle pieces to fall into place in order to look at what the right decisions for the rest of our season were going to be. Part of that was listening very closely to not only what was being said at a federal level, but also at a state and city level in terms of—and most specifically—bans on public gatherings. Early on that was at a variety of numbers; first, it was 500, then 250, and finally places were starting to discuss 50 people. As those conversations developed and solidified across the US and Texas, we were watching that. The other big element was also watching cities coming closer to making shelter-in-place decisions.
We knew our venue was going to be impacted by bans of any number. The Tobin Center is well over the 500 mark. So even when the biggest bans were happening, it still affected us. Then as we got closer and closer to 50, it became apparent that not only was our public going to be impacted, but we also have more than 50 people in a rehearsal. The opera has the cast, the orchestra, the stage management, etc. So, that became a health concern as well.
I set up contingency plans, where we knew some of the next big spending that was going to happen and the dates that corresponded with those. That meant we could very carefully look at how to make the best decision, both from a health and financial position. We reached the tipping point where most of the spring shows across the industry were being cancelled. More specifically, our mayor had put a ban on public gatherings of 50 people or more. And that has continued to be extended. That meant that no matter what creative thinking I did to try and salvage Rigoletto as it currently exists, it would not be feasible. So those were the tipping points that we were looking at early on that led us to the decision to cancel—though I prefer ‘postpone’—our production of Rigoletto.
TB: But the cast was not yet in San Antonio, is that correct?
LM: That is correct. We were scheduled to start chorus rehearsals, but our chorus is local. We cast a net that extends to Austin—which is two hours away from us—but it is a local chorus. They were scheduled to begin April 6th and our principals and technical team were scheduled to start on April 18th. So purely through the timing of what was happening on a national level, we were in a position to make this judgment call prior to people being in rehearsal.
TB: Were you the director for Rigoletto as well?
LM: Yes, I was.
TB: So when did you start working on this production?
LM: I had been working with the organization even when I was an advisor to help OPERA San Antonio to think more than one show ahead. We were able to start to solidify the titles and look at what directing and artistic teams we wanted to engage. So I’ve known for this last year that we were doing Rigoletto; the production that we decided on was more or less settled over this past summer. Specifically, I’ve been digging into, arranging, and organizing for that production since about July.
TB: So that is one side of this, could you also talk to me about all of the things that went into the actual cancellation of Rigoletto? OPERA San Antonio made the decision and then had to move forward with it. What was that part?
LM: Once all the contingency plans were laid out and the decision became final, the things I looked at were the big picture and the small picture. Big picture, what are the choices that need to be made in order to keep the company sustainable beyond this cancellation? Personally, I feel that as an industry we are obligated to keep companies afloat so that whenever this resolves itself, there is work on the other side. And there is a set of financial decisions that go with that.
The other [small picture] was looking at what it means to cancel now and how to try and help artists, who I think are the most impacted at the moment. I want to be very careful to say that every opera company’s financial position or circumstances that they are facing are vastly different. I can only make the choices that are right based on what happens here in San Antonio. We are a company that does two mainstage productions a year. Just this season, we had instituted a winter concert opera. The financials that we used to put this together—whether that’s ticket sales, sponsorship, grants, or individual givings—means we run on a knife’s edge to make the budget balance. We do not happen to be large enough to have an endowment or a reserve because we’re a very young company. In this form, OPERA San Antonio has only existed since 2015, so we don’t have those same resources that other companies have.
When the crisis happened and when the cancellation became unavoidable, I then needed to look at several other things that fell into place fairly quickly. The ban on gatherings of 50 or more meant that the production was literally not going to be possible. That same ban also meant that our largest fundraiser of the year was not possible. And it’s not going to be possible in the fiscal year of 2020. Several of the corporate sponsorships were being withdrawn from OPERA San Antonio as well. Those are three pretty large financial things that hit us over the course of a couple of weeks.
When I said to the board that the cancellation was necessary, they agreed. I looked at what was happening across the industry with the various amounts of payout to independent artists versus companies who were purely enacting the force majeure with no payout. I ran the numbers every which way I could and with all of these puzzle pieces that have fallen into place, we are not in a position to be sustainable as a company if we entertain any kind of payout. So what can I do? I understand this [financial necessity] as a general director, but as an artist—who is also impacted by this—my heart is broken. So I told the board that I want to start the OPERA San Antonio Artist Relief Fund. That was big decision number one for me because even if it is a small amount it will help our artists in the long run.
The second thing was that I had said to the board, “Yes, it is right to ‘cancel’ this season, but I would like to reschedule Rigoletto for the 2021/2022 season.” So while it is not an immediate help to the artists, it does say to them, we value you and we want to create art with you. We’re going to put this back on the books as soon as we can and you will be a part of that. So rather than saying, we can’t do this and that’s it, I’m trying to put these other big puzzle pieces into play to make things sustainable in the short and long term.
TB: Let’s talk about the financial situation because one of the things you noted earlier is that you’re missing not only this show but one of your biggest fundraisers. How does that affect OPERA San Antonio as you’re moving forward?
LM: We rely heavily on a few things that I can roughly break into thirds. A third of our revenue is ticket sales. We’re lucky as—from what I can tell—that is on the higher end of what companies are able to do. Another third is this [cancelled] fundraiser. The other third is a mix of grants and contributions, both at a foundation and an individual giving level.
So as I said with Rigoletto when two-thirds of that went away, that was really a big blow for us. Now I think the question will be—this entirely depends on how long the pandemic lasts—not only when the bans are lifted, but psychologically when people feel comfortable re-gathering in larger numbers. There is a whole exercise of what is the world on the other side of this in terms of giving levels? Do they go down? Do they go up? When people are comfortable getting back together, can we get that big fundraiser back on the books?
The interesting thing about the financial perspective is that there were some pretty immediate answers to when we lost revenue and being sustainable in the short term. But what it will mean to be sustainable in the long term is wildly difficult to predict right now. Because literally, nobody on the planet has been through anything like this before.
TB: For sure. I have heard several comparisons between 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis in these interviews so far.
LM: Right. Even taking the arts out of it for a second, when I’m listening to the news and how it is affecting the economy or other industries, most of the vocabulary is about how unprecedented this particular scenario is. Whether that’s the Great Depression, the 2008 recession, or 9/11, you can’t look at any one thing as an indicator of how fast the economy might recover or how problematic this will be. It’s wildly and completely unprecedented, partially because it is not a singular event. How is COVID-19 going to develop or not? How are we going to find vaccines for it and how quickly? None of us have answers to those questions right now and without answers to those questions, the next round of puzzle pieces can’t fall into place.
There’s no way it could change by next week. That’s also part of what is interesting about this: it could get better, it could get worse. We could come closer to vaccination or we could be just as far away. But until some of those next puzzle pieces fall into place, it is going to be really hard to determine—specifically to the arts industry—who we are on the other side of this. At the moment, there is no other side of this. There is no end date I can look at and say, “By June 15, I will know exactly the state of the economy; and the psychology about people wanting to go back to events; and can accurately target and predict what to do at San Antonio.” Right now, it’s just wildly up in the air.
TB: So talking about Loren the artist now, how has this impacted your creative process?
LM: In some ways, it feels like it is on hold. And in other ways, I’m fortunate to have some productions that are still on the table. In the short term, my creativity took a big hit, even in the last couple of weeks. I should have been in a place where I had that organizational/administrative hat on, but at the same time gearing up for the start of my rehearsals, which would have been in mid-April. So when I had cancelled my own show, it took that immediate creative outlet away. And suddenly it was really a lot more on the administrative end, which for me is new. But it felt like the creative part was missing.
However, there are projects that are coming up that are in the fall of next year and are still on the books—that could change. But at the moment, we’re proceeding with our preliminary production meetings, creating design and material ideas, and all the things that have to happen leading up to the rehearsal process. So for the moment, I do two or three days of purely administrative work and then a day of purely creative work. So the creative isn’t totally gone. It’s just not as fruitful as I would have anticipated it having been if all my projects were still on the table.
TB: So drawing back and reflecting on this experience so far, how different was your life six weeks ago?
LM: Vastly different in some ways and not so different in others. The not so different part is because a year ago I had happened to decide to personally back off on the number of directorial projects that I was taking. At the time, I thought that I needed to back off in order to love the art that I’m doing and keep the creative juices flowing in a way that is positive. So in some ways, the gap in creativity—or the time to think—was somewhat anticipated. But then six months ago, I decided to become the general director of a company. Suddenly that time that I thought was going to have to recharge and re-energize as a director was replaced by the more administrative responsibilities of helping OPERA San Antonio.
Now what I would say is; the more and more we talk about creativity because projects have been cancelled, there is less and less of that on my plate and more of the administrative work. The biggest unknown has been specifically how to deal with this as an administrator and the new challenges that we’re facing in the pandemic. I had anticipated, as a new general director, needing to collaborate and rely on my colleagues and mentors to help learn what the job is. Of course, there is going to be a big learning curve for anyone in the first year that they are doing something new. And I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was suddenly facing an economic and health crisis of this level and needing to guide a company through that.
My colleagues and mentors have been phenomenal resources through this time period. But by the same token, this is new territory for all of us. It is this really endlessly intriguing and difficult daily cycle to be an artistic administrator right now. The news changes so quickly, so your contingency plan changes quickly. I feel like I’m organizing and reorganizing and working harder than I was before. That’s not to say I’m not a hard worker. It is just evolving from moment to moment in ways that six weeks or even six months ago I couldn’t have prepared for.
TB: Can you talk a little bit about the ways that you’re seeing it evolve?
LM: On the small scale, a week ago stay-at-home orders were in place for San Antonio through the 9th [of April]. So I had to figure out what my life is going to feel like when I’m working from home and how to organize my staff at least through the 9th. That psychology changes and the kind of work we can achieve changes when suddenly those stay-at-home mandates are now in place through the end of April. That has an impact on a personal level. It has an impact on my staff members who have families. It has an impact on the resources that are available to us. So that feels like it evolves depending on what is happening at a state or city mandate level.
The news itself evolves and changes. About a week ago, the president was saying that we should be through this by Easter. If that is true, you do one set of contingency plans that says that we’re going to be back in the office by X, Y, or Z date. And if he’s right about being through this then maybe the bans on 50 or more lift by this date. Well, here we are a week later and that’s no longer true. Now the news is saying Texas could be the next hot spot and it may start to peak here at the end of April. So if we’re peaking at the end of April that pushes all my timelines to even later.
So, I just have to keep watching the news. I have to keep leaning on my colleagues and also the OPERA America structure, which has been great in terms of just hearing what’s going on. It is a daily learning curve of trying to suss out where we, as a nation, stand in this pandemic and how to plan for the other side of it.
TB: You have a really unique view on this as well. Wasn’t this your first show as the general director?
LM: Yes, this position was finalized just after I had directed Tosca for OPERA San Antonio this fall. At that time, I was still only involved with the company as an artistic advisor and an independent stage director. Right after we finished that process, I became the general director. This meant I oversaw our winter concert from afar because I had other independent conflicts with my being here in San Antonio. Fortunately, Garnett Bruce, who is the artistic advisor, was able to come in and help with that. But the next big thing that was going to be a wonderful way to bring the whole season together was Rigoletto. It was to be my debut as both the general director and stage director. And it was also our music director’s debut as music director and conductor. So we were really looking forward to having those new titles and guiding the company through Rigoletto. Of course, that has been postponed.
TB: What a difficult moment.
LM: Oh completely. Again, to go back to the financials for a second, I looked at Francesco [Music Director] and I said, “We’re both artists who were to receive fees based on our independent contracts [for directing and conducting Rigoletto, respectively]. We’re not taking any of those fees.” Because I’m trying to be fair, what I‘m doing to other artists, I have to do to myself. So it has definitely impacted both sides. Now I am trying to figure out how to balance and maintain as we go forward.
TB: How do you think that this will change the musical landscape in the future?
LM: In the best possible world, this will help us evolve. Meaning what I’m seeing happen right now—that seems like the way to produce and keep the operatic arts alive when we can’t gather—is shifting to more social media platforms. It is creating the apartment aria videos and figuring out ways to collaborate online. That’s a spark of a new source of art that is going to continue to grow no matter what the world looks like on the other side of this storm.
Art has always found ways to weather storms and ways to reinvent itself. Now the best of all possible worlds version is that that spark continues in its own vein and we get to go back to the other veins that have already existed. Whether that be grand opera or a company like On Site Opera, where they are doing works in unusual spaces. I want all of that back in the mix. And if we get healthy and happy economically on the other side of this, it could be. We could have all of these different tools at our fingertips to be able to create art. That would be my best wish for the industry.
What’s going to be tricky is figuring out when or how soon we can reach that place, versus what are the steps that we can take or be able to maintain until that is possible. What can we do when there are bans on gatherings of 50 or more? What can we do to start to build ourselves back up to the public, so they are comfortable psychologically reentering the big halls? I wouldn’t be surprised if that means every company across the board has to figure out how to reconfigure themselves and build back up to what they were pre-pandemic. OPERA San Antonio is no exception to that. We’re going to have to judge this and watch the psychology and timing very carefully, in order to understand who we will be by the time we’re supposed to be back in production, which would be October.
TB: What advice would you give to both directing and singing young artists?
LM: There are a couple of different angles. Find time to think about how your skill set can apply to something larger than the specificity of creating or directing opera. I have been very lucky to have a career that has kept me sustained through the operatic arts since the early 2000s. I have not had to look at any kind of job opportunity that is outside of the artistic world. But now that is all changing.
So I do sit down and wonder, what’s the landscape going to look like on the other side of this? How many opportunities will there be for the industry as a whole on the other side of this? What is that going to mean for the artists who are extremely established all the way through the young artists? I think if I was on the young spectrum of this, I would think outside the box; not only in terms of how to create art that would fulfill that part of my soul but also how to take the skill sets that I have that could be applied to other job opportunities. I have a feeling that in the short term (maybe in the long term) the need to be flexible and do multiple jobs is going to be to everybody’s advantage. I haven’t solved that for myself. But I am starting to think about, “What could this be and what can I do?”
Puzzle piece number two: if I was a young artist, I would continue to analyze who I am and what I can do that will not only keep me happy but stable from an economic position. That is going to be different for every single person because it is going to depend on their unique resources and support system. The answers to how to be a happy healthy artist when the world feels like it’s turning upside down every day are going to take a lot of self-analysis and planning on a day-to-day basis.
TB: Obviously a lot of your advice would transfer over, but is there any additional advice to the musical community at large as they’re trying to deal with this?
LM: My brain has really only started to dip into this territory, so it may be a vague answer. But I think because I’m trying to operate both as an artist and an administrator going through this, what I see at the moment—which I don’t think is a permanent solution—are companies and administrators trying to figure out how to survive; artists trying to figure out how to survive; agents trying to figure out how to survive. Everybody within those categories is talking to each other. But the big groups haven’t come together with all of these different facets of viewpoints that it takes to actually create art. We haven’t figured out how to all come together and speculate on what this can look like in the coming weeks or months.
Part of me thinks, “I’m new to administration and never been through this before. So I’m going to go towards my administrative sources to get answers.” But the next layer of conversation, is breaking away from our bubbles and going to each other and saying, “What are you thinking about?” We’re supposed to be in this to collaborate.
When we get to the place where we cannot just be in crisis management mode, but in ‘how do we get through this and collaborate as a community’ mode, I think you’re going to see some of the most creative ideas. That’s where a future answer lies. There’s more that will come out of this when we start to use each other and lean on each other as collaborative artists. I apply that terminology to administrators as much as I do to singers, musicians, and conductors. When we reach that next layer of conversation that will be another big turning point for the industry.
TB: Before I ask you my last question, do you have anything that you’d like to add to this interview?
LM: I say this as much to myself as I do to my colleagues in the industry at large: every day, try to figure out how to buoy and support each other and find hope. Because right now it is scary. It’s scary to read timelines that say things like, ‘public gatherings will be banned for two years’. There are sparks of conversation about what we can do to keep art afloat, which not only keeps my fellow artists living, breathing, and surviving as humans but ultimately will make the rest of humanity survive as well. Find hope, because there will be a way through this.
TB: Since we’re all stuck inside, what is your video binge recommendation?
LM: Most recently the one that I like is Unorthodox, which I just watched on Netflix—fascinating and brilliantly well done. Realistically, there is a lot of action movie watching and also some delightfully horrifying bingeing, like Tiger King. I can never unsee that.
It’s funny you asked this. I feel like when I’m in rehearsal mode and I get downtime, I have never been successful at watching the very artistically motivating or dramatically fulfilling options. It is like it takes too much effort for my brain to focus on something that intense. I’m finding that to be oddly true in the current crisis too. NCIS is all my brain can handle. I don’t have to fully absorb it.
TB: Thank you so much for speaking with me. I very much appreciate your time and thoughts going through this process.
Following our interview, Ms. Meeker co-directed with Mr. Ryan McKinny David T. Little’s opera, Vinkensport. This ingenious work will be followed by several other collaborations in the new Texas Opera Alliance and OPERA San Antonio.
Vinkensport by David T. Little
E. Loren Meeker, co-director
Ryan McKinny, co-director
Timothy Myers, conductor
About E. Loren Meekers
Praised by the Chicago Sun-Times for her “inspired innovation,” stage director E. Loren Meeker has garnered worldwide acclaim for her keen artistic vision and rich, measured storytelling. With an international career spanning engagements across the United States, Argentina, Singapore, and France, Ms. Meeker’s work has been seen at notable houses including Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, Washington National Opera, Teatro Colón, and more. A diverse artist with a background in dance and theatre, Ms. Meeker is especially regarded for her unique, cross-genre perspective which she regularly brings to her work on the operatic stage.
Ms. Meeker’s upcoming season encompasses a number new artistic collaborations. Most recently, she co-directed a film version of David T. Little’s Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera and directed a film version of Mozart’s The Impresario in collaboration with Houston Grand Opera, Austin Opera and OPERA San Antonio where she was recently named General & Artistic Director.
Met with critical acclaim in her most recent productions, Ms. Meeker is regularly praised for her distinctive and illuminating takes on standard repertoire. Of her 2019 production of La bohème with OPERA San Antonio, Mike Greenberg of Music Incident Light reported, “It’s an uncommonly lithe staging. This is that rare opera production in which every action of every character is purposeful and natural – not a false note the entire evening. As much as the words and the music, Ms. Meeker’s abundant, intelligently placed details show us who the characters are."
Recent highlights of her directing engagements include regular collaborations with Washington National Opera (Carmen, Don Giovanni), Lyric Opera of Chicago (Rigoletto, Die Fledermaus), The Glimmerglass Festival (Show Boat, The Cunning Little Vixen, La bohème), and The Dallas Opera (Show Boat, Manon). Other notable credits include engagements at Houston Grand Opera (Les pêcheurs de perles), Atlanta Opera (Daughter of the Regiment), Wolf Trap Opera (La pietra del paragone), San Francisco Opera (Die Fledermaus), Teatro Colón (Manon) and Singapore Lyric Opera (Manon Lescaut). Equally at home in contemporary repertoire, Ms. Meeker has directed five world premieres for Houston Grand Opera (HGOco) as well as the world premiere of Jason and the Argonauts for Lyric Opera of Chicago (Lyric Unlimited).
Ms. Meeker’s vision and skill as a director has been recognized through a number of recent honors and awards, including two “Best of Opera” awards through the New Orleans Opera Association for her productions of Faust (2017) and Die Fledermaus (2015). Her production of Carmen with Washington National Opera was included in DC Metro Theater Arts’ 2015 “Best of Opera” list. Other notable awards include First Prize (Division IV) of the National Opera Association Opera Production Competition for her production of Lakmè at Rutgers University as well as six “Best Of” ArtsImpluse Theatre Awards nominations for her production of Cendrillon at Boston University Opera Institute.
Ms. Meeker’s unique path to directing began with a background in dance and gymnastics, later combining her talents in these disciplines with a love for acting and singing. She received her BFA in Theatre Studies at Boston University and immediately applied her diverse theatrical background to the world of opera. Ms. Meeker is currently based in Boston, Massachusetts.