Innovation, It’s What the Arts Do Best—From home concerts to car parks, the paradigm shifts that defined the pandemic

By Darryn King

Over the last year and a half the arts have had it tough, but amid the gloom some notable lights have shone. When we look back at how we survived the pandemic, what and who will we remember? And perhaps more importantly, what will endure as we go forward?

2022 Muscial America Innovation, It’s What the Arts Do Best—From home concerts to car parks, the paradigm shifts that defined the pandemic
Photo © Kyle Flubacker

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s staging of Twilight: Gods at the Millennium Lakeside Parking Garage, 2021

On Thursday, March 12, 2020, Berlin-based pianist Igor Levit sent out a message on Twitter: “The idea of listening to and experiencing music together is gone—for now. It's necessary, yet so sad.”

At the time of Levit’s tweet, the COVID-19 pandemic was silencing opera houses and concert halls around the world, and it was clear that live music and all it entails was especially dangerous; just two days earlier, a rehearsal by the 122-member Skagit Valley Chorale, in Washington, became one of the first documented super-spreader events.

The silence would not last long. “I'd like to continue sharing music with you,” Levit’s Twitter announcement went on, “Starting today, 7 pm EST, I'll play something for you from my home, here on Twitter. Which repertoire? I've got no idea yet. We'll see. It's an experiment.”

That evening, right on schedule, with his smartphone camera aimed at his piano and the video-streaming app Periscope activated, Levit played Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, premiering what would become a series of more than 50 lo-fi “house concerts.”

Levit’s performance was the earliest successful pandemic pivot in classical music. Through 2020 and into 2021, tentatively at first, and then with increasing confidence, artists and organizations proved their resourcefulness, their resilience and, above all, their resolve to keeping the music going. For some, if there could be said to have been a silver lining to the crisis, it was the opportunity to innovate.

By his own admission, Levit was far more concerned with cultivating community than achieving exemplary sound quality. South Africa-born violinist Daniel Hope, also based in Berlin, figured you could do both. Social media, he noticed, was full of soulful performances of locked-down musicians like Levit, crummily captured and relayed via smartphone. He decided music deserved to sound better.

On March 25, 2020, with Christoph Israel on piano, three cameras, and a socially distanced sound team in the basement, Hope launched a six-week series of home concerts from his living room, broadcasting live on Arte and on Deutsche Grammophon’s YouTube channel. For the title of the series, he naturally leaned into the surname: “Hope@Home.”

Over the coming weeks, “Hope@Home” turned into a virtual salon, hosting such diverse guests as conductor Simon Rattle, directors Barrie Kosky and Robert Wilson, trumpeter Till Brönner, pianist Tamara Stefanovich, and rapper Max Herre. As Hope would note, everyone he asked was uncharacteristically available (Robert Wilson’s appearance came about after Hope bumped into him on
the street!) 

“Hope@Home” was followed by “Hope@Home on Tour,” with the violinist traveling and live streaming performances from theaters around Germany. A third iteration of the series in spring 2021—“Europe@Home”—saw Hope performing 27 concerts over nine weeks. In the end, his videos featured over 400 musicians in over 150 episodes and were streamed nearly eleven million times.

If music lovers were stuck at home, at least they could enjoy world-class concerts like never before. The same day “Hope@Home” premiered, versatile British vocal ensemble VOCES8 began pouring its ample energies online with the launch of #LiveFromHome.

Assuming the role of impresario, VOCES8 presented concerts by The Swingles, U.K. vocal consort The Guesaldo Six, and the Academy of Ancient Music, among many others, ultimately working with more than 500 artists, composers, and others in the industry. VOCES8’s four “Live From London” festivals—a fifth is on the way in December 2021—sold over 135,000 digital seats in more than 75 countries.

Clearly, the digital concert hall is here to stay. “It provides us another medium with which to reach out, connect and educate,” says VOCES8 Artistic Director Barnaby Smith. “‘Live From London’ is a welcome furtherance to the work we’d already been doing, and it will continue.” 

The arrival of summer 2020 in the northern hemisphere meant more opportunities for audiences to, at last, experience live performance outside of the confines of their homes, though traditional productions in traditional venues were still largely out of the question. In June 2020, Deutsche Oper presented an abridged Das Rheingold for spaced-apart audience members in the opera house’s carpark, a venue which, it was noted diplomatically, had “remarkable” acoustic properties.

Gradually, the alternative performance venues became more integrated into the storytelling. In November 2020, Tulsa Opera staged Rigoletto in the city’s baseball park, ONEOK Field, for 1,685 socially distanced audience members. The production, directed by James Robinson, took its cue from the venue, with the titular jester cast as the team mascot, the Duke as star pitcher, and Sparafucile as umpire. The performance commenced with an announcement over the P.A. system—“Play ball!”—and, more or less inevitably, Tulsa’s daily newspaper judged the occasion to be a “home run.” According to the company, half of the audience was seeing its first opera.

While Tulsa Opera Artistic Director Tobias Picker noted that a regular baseball diamond is roughly the size of the stage at the Metropolitan Opera, one notable pandemic-era production took advantage of the opportunity to really stretch out. The resulting work, a Michigan Opera Theatre and Lyric Opera of Chicago co-production, would have been one of the more staggeringly innovative productions
of any year, pandemic or no. 

Director and Michigan Opera Theatre Artistic Director Yuval Sharon—who has previously brought opera to warehouses, operating train stations, and escalator corridors—opted for drive-through Wagner. Twilight: Gods, his abridged version of Götterdämmerung, premiered in October 2020 in the Detroit Opera House Parking Center. In April and May 2021 it was restaged (and filmed) with site-specific alterations, in Millennium Park Lakeside Garage in Chicago.

Unlike Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Wagner-in-a- carpark, the audience for Twilight: Gods was very much on the move. For just over an hour, convoys of cars traveled from floor to floor and scene to scene, led by dark-cloaked figures waving red LED traffic wands, winding an upwards course, with audio piped into vehicles via designated radio frequencies.

The production featured an English translation by Sharon, intimate instrumental arrangements ranging from solo cello to chamber ensemble by Edward Windels, and original music by sound artist Lewis Pesacov. “As you navigate a tight corner,” Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones noted, “you may have to take care not to hit a cellist.”

In Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras’s scenic design, the Rhine was invoked by shimmering lengths of blue fabric, with a trio of Rhinemaidens apparently swathed in the same material. Indeed, some of the costumes had been borrowed from Lyric Opera of Chicago’s canceled Ring Cycle. Poetic narration was performed in Detroit by poet Marsha Music (playing the part of the earth mother Erda) and in Chicago by avery r. young (as Erda’s offspring, the Norns). 

For Siegfried’s funeral procession, vehicles followed a hearse through a space lit by dancing flashlights and hundreds of electric candles, with the funeral music—appropriately for the birthplace of Motown—given a thoroughly funky rearrangement by Pesacov, replete with the comical thwacks of a vibraslap. The show culminated, gloriously, with Brünnhilde’s entrance in a Ford Mustang. As vehicles filed out of the venue, the radio signal grew increasingly faint, the music eventually being subsumed by static.

The Detroit performances accommodated more than 400 cars, with 250 driving through in Chicago; by late August, the filmed version had been streamed nearly 3,000 times. Though born out of pandemic-enforced necessity, critics agreed that the show—indeed the art form itself—had been invigorated by the limitations rather than compromised by them. Jennifer Golz in Opera News called it “a glimpse of what opera can be in its next century.” The Wall Street Journal’s Heidi Waleson deemed it “an encouraging harbinger of opera’s future and our own.”

Twilight: Gods arguably signaled the way forward in more ways than one. In the wake of racial unrest across the U.S., critics were quick to note that the casts were comprised predominantly of performers of color. A similar learning curve seemed evident in the two iterations, months apart, of the New York Philharmonic’s Bandwagon project. 

On weekends in August through October 2020, the Bandwagon, a red Ford F-250 truck, traveled across New York’s five boroughs, presenting nine pull-over, pop-up concerts every week for eight weeks. The 81 unannounced concerts were serendipitous treats for unsuspecting audiences. But Bandwagon 2, which hit the road in April 2021—the same month all American adults became eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine—was something new again.

This time, the Philharmonic partnered with six New York institutions—A Better Jamaica, Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education, El Puente, Flushing Town Hall, Groundswell, and National Black Theatre—to highlight the work of local artists. There was a freestyle dance battle, a tag-team DJ set, poetry readings, and spoken word and, more broadly, a feeling of engagement with communities perhaps less familiar with the hallowed halls of Lincoln Center. 

At a time when the worlds of classical music and opera were forced to reset, perhaps the most lasting and meaningful pandemic-era pivot was a greater commitment to issues of accessibility, diversity, and equality. “We have discovered new harmonies,” Bandwagon creator and Executive Producer Anthony Roth Costanzo said in a statement, “and found different approaches not only to making music,
but to listening.” •

Darryn King is a freelance journalist and Trivial Pursuit question writer based in New York. His work appears in publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Vanity Fair.