Opera in the Age of Coronavirus

Legendary director Atom Egoyan, whose new film Guest of Honour is out now, ponders the uncertain future of the other art form he works in.

I finished my new film, Guest of Honour, last year. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, before TIFF a week later, followed by London, Cairo, Belgrade, and then …

COVID-19 stopped everything. Suddenly. The festival world ground to a halt and cinemas went dark. In fact, I was driving to a festival only to turn around halfway there because the screening was cancelled mere hours before it was to start. Plans for a theatrical release were delayed until it was decided to launch the film on digital platforms instead. My U.S. distributor, Kino Lorber, conceived of Kino Marquee, where films are made available online through the art house cinema of the viewers’ choice, thus supporting the theater as well as the distributor.

David Thewlis (center right) in Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour.

Meanwhile, a fundraiser was started by Janus Films and the Criterion Collection (home to some of my earlier features) called the Art-House America Campaign to assist in supporting over 150 struggling cinemas. I was a proud supporter of this initiative, since many of these theaters had shown my films and helped so many of my colleagues. The campaign has been wildly successful, with about 5,000 donors raising more than $840,000 to help these independent cinemas pay staff and bills until they can reopen their doors.

My film was released at the height of coronavirus and now production is slowly beginning to recommence here in Canada, where I live. However, another side of my career is facing even greater challenges.

As well as making my independent films, I also direct live theater. I was supposed to be directing a production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte this summer. It was cancelled, as was another opera production – Leos Janáček’s Jenufa – which was to happen in the fall; and I’ve just found out that a new production of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice has been postponed for some time in 2022. If you think things are bad in the world of film, imagine what it’s like in the world of opera.

The current difficulty with opera is that singers spend a great deal of time spitting into each other’s faces. Yes, there are moments when they might direct their voices towards the audience and expel particles of spit at the seated crowd, but the moments we most love in this art form tend to be when desperate family members and crazed lovers stare at each other and emote through song. When they do it exceptionally well and the stage lighting allows it, you can actually see the fine streams of potentially dangerous mist floating in the air. And the residue that helps project those extraordinary sounds out of those lungs lingers in the air.

Andrew Haji, Cameron McPhail, Claire de Sévigné and Gordon Bintner in Atom Egoyan’s 2014 Canadian Opera Company production of Cosi Fan Tutte. (Photo by Michael Cooper.)

That’s a problem. Any sort of face mask is obviously unacceptable. Oddly enough, there’s a passage in my staging of Cosi Fan Tutte where the two young male lovers wear fencing masks as they disguise themselves, but even these wouldn’t be sufficient to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. My production of Richard Strauss’s Salome would have an easier time, since the big final aria has the heroine singing at the top of her lungs to the severed head of John the Baptist. Very low risk of transmission.

Helen Field as Salome in Atom Egoyan’s 2002 Canadian Opera Company production of Salome. (Photo by Michael Cooper.)

Since the start of the lockdown, the Metropolitan Opera has been offering some of its productions online, along with many other companies all over the world. This is an extremely generous act, but the core issue of performance remains. What makes the operatic art form so powerful is the unearthly phenomenon of hearing the human voice projected in such an astonishing and completely organic way. Unlike voices in musicals and plays, which are frequently amplified over complicated electronic audio systems, the miracle of opera is hearing human beings emit such beautiful, rich sounds straight out of their bodies with no artificial assistance.

While purists will argue that cinema is best seen projected in its original format on large screens, cinephiles have become quite used to watching their favorite films in a digital format. A few weeks ago, the horror streamer Shudder even announced that it was releasing a Zoom-based film titled Host, and now another platform, Britbox, is streaming Isolation Stories, a series shot entirely in Britain during the lockdown. The world of film and television is quick to adapt, but opera is somehow locked in a physical mode which is essential for its existence.

Theaters have begun to physically accommodate new regulations, with the famous Berliner Ensemble removing 500 of its 700 seats. The audience will sit in pairs with empty seats between them to create what artistic director Oliver Reese calls “an experience that … will anchor itself in people’s memory.” I’ve read about a production of La Traviata at the Teatro Real in Madrid which plays up the heroine’s battle with tuberculosis as an excuse to distance the singers, while the conductors and players are all masked. The architect Matthew Lella has noted that for a current production of The Phantom of the Opera in South Korea, the first few rows of the theatre have been removed so that the actors’ “enthusiastic saliva” doesn’t spray the audience.

Atom Egoyan in rehearsal for Così Fan Tutte in 2019. (Photo courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company.)

I am thinking of new ways to restage my operas. There are surely solutions to presenting opera that preserves its force. In the meantime, the thought of sitting in the upper balcony of a theatre while a lonely singer belts out something far below on stage gives me a sense of safe and melancholy consolation.

Featured image shows Atom Egoyan speaking at the Così Fan Tutte concept discussion for artists/staff in 2014. (Photo courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company.)

Atom Egoyan‘s Guest of Honour is currently available on Blu-ray on Kino Lorber and streaming through Kino Now. The Criterion Channel has also released a collection called “Directed by Atom Egoyan” for streaming including masterpieces Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. With 18 feature films and related projects, Egoyan has won numerous awards, including five prizes at the Cannes Film Festival (the Grand Prix, International Critics Awards and Ecumenical Jury Prizes); two Academy Award® nominations; 25 Genie Awards (now Canadian Screen Awards), including three Best Film Awards. Egoyan was knighted by the French government and is a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest honor. He’s a recipient of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement. For more information on Atom Egoyan and his work in both film and opera, visit Ego Film Arts. (Photo by Ulysse del Drago.)