May 20, 2020

Princeton Festival Goes Virtual To Present 2020 Season

KEEPING PATRONS ENGAGED: A scene from the Princeton Festival’s production of “Madame Butterfly,” which streams on June 7 at 1 p.m., during the first week of the organization’s busy online season. (Photo by Jessi Franco Designs)

By Anne Levin

Of the various rosters of virtual events currently offered by local arts organizations, the Princeton Festival’s is among the most ambitious. The recently released schedule of “Virtually Yours” — performances, poetry readings, podcasts, discussions, and artists’ videos — covers the month of June, which is when the 2020 festival would have taken place if a worldwide pandemic hadn’t caused its cancellation.

“Our patrons are used to this time period,” said Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk in a phone call from his native Trinidad, where he has been sheltering since March. “I thought, rather than spread this out over several months, why don’t we just try to curate something and do it during the time people are used to seeing us?”

The long list of free, streamed events begins Monday, June 1 with Princeton Festival artists singing selections from The Sound of Music, and continues through the week with artists’ videos, a podcast on “Women in Music,” a lecture by Tim Urban on “Why We Love Opera,” a WWFM broadcast of the Concordia Chamber Players, an organ recital by Matthew Middletown, and a Princeton Festival performance of the opera Madame Butterfly. The next three weeks are similarly varied.

Once it became clear that the COVID-19 crisis was a serious threat, Tang Yuk and colleagues formed a special task force. “They were looking at reports every day as we got closer and closer to June,” he said. “In March, we realized we weren’t going to be able to do the festival this summer. Not everyone had canceled their summer festivals at that point, but it became clearer to us that we weren’t going to be able to do it. I always remind people that rehearsal starts at the beginning of May. So we made the decision at the beginning of April to cancel the physical season.”

Tang Yuk recalls the ensuing few weeks as “a wind-down period.” He had to contact all of the ticket buyers and major donors, one by one, and send personal messages to all of the artists, managers, and production staff.

“I started thinking about what we were going to do, and the idea just gradually evolved,” he said. “What if we reached out to some artists and asked them to make videos for us? And then lecturers, too. It gradually came together. When I thought we had enough content, I started to think about what to call this. ‘Virtually Yours’ just seemed right.”

Artists who were to have been performing at the Festival this summer were happy to provide videos for the virtual season. “I have to say, every single artist we reached out to for a video agreed to do it, and they were all enthusiastic about it,” Tang Yuk said. And of course, we’re paying them. Donors had already given us money for the season. It was important to have one-on-one conversations with them [donors], which I did to let them know what we were thinking about,” he said. “No one was surprised. They all expected it.”

The second, third, and fourth weeks of “Virtually Yours” will include the launch of an opera workshop series with Kyle Masson, a broadcast of The Princeton Festival Baroque Orchestra, a performance of Mozart’s opera Le Nozze di Figaro, a live musical theater revue, a recital by pianist Rachel Cheung, and several other events. The final offering is a streaming of the opera The Flying Dutchman, on Sunday, June 28.

As for the future, starting with summer 2021, Tang Yuk has two possible scenarios in mind.

“Of course, we don’t know what the situation will be, and they are saying a vaccine is a year to 18 months away,” he said. “So it’s not only a question of can we produce something, but it’s also got to be something the community is comfortable coming out in public to see. One possibility is that we get into Miller Chapel (on the Princeton Theological Seminary campus) or another place in Princeton, and do a production as we normally do. The second possibility is to do a performance in a tent big enough for the performers to do social distancing, and then stream it to our audience. We’ll have to make a decision in the fall. The festival may look a little bit different than usual. But every arts organization is thinking about planning ahead and having contingencies.”

For a full schedule of “Virtually Yours,” visit