June 24, 2020

Princeton Festival Tackles Upcoming Season with Panel Discussion: Things Will Not Be “Business as Usual”

By Nancy Plum

Three months after the Princeton performing arts arena essentially shut down, it is clear the 2020-2021 season will require major adjustments from performers, administrators, audience members and donors alike.  Princeton Festival, whose month-long June season usually fills area halls with opera, recitals, chamber music, and lectures, quickly adjusted this year to create a “season” of virtual vocal showcases, podcasts, lectures, and archival performances.  The Festival’s third week of “Virtually Yours on Demand”  included a live online panel discussion last Tuesday afternoon with leaders from Princeton area music organizations discussing how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted performing ensembles and how organizations will fine-tune a summer traditionally jammed-packed with planning, but with no idea how and when live performances will be able to happen.

Hosted by Princeton Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk, the online conversation included Princeton Pro Musica Executive Director Mary Trigg; Trenton Children’s Chorus Executive Director Kate Mulligan; Princeton Singers Executive Director John Cloys; David Osenberg, development director of WWFM; Jerry Kalstein, chair of Boheme Opera NJ’s Board of Trustees; and Hilary Butler, executive director of Westrick Academy, the home of the Princeton Girlchoir and Boychoir. The discussion focused on the future of the performing arts in the Princeton area, including how ensembles are navigating the times ahead and what next season might look like.

All of these organizations have adjusted to a “non-live” performance format which has gone on much longer than anyone imagined. Performances (including a Princeton Girlchoir tour to Spain and Portugal) were canceled or postponed to early fall, only to be postponed again when it was unclear if venues would be open.  All participants in the discussion have developed some sort of digital presence, ranging from music theory classes to online voice lessons, but it has become clear to choruses in particular that current technology allows neither ensemble accuracy in real time nor a sense of unity in performing. However, as Mulligan was quick to point out, the ability of Trenton Children’s Chorus members to connect to one another was in many cases more important to the young choristers than trying to sing simultaneously. Several ensembles have created “virtual choirs” by having individual singers record themselves with “click-tracks,” but all recognize the massive amount of work involved in editing numerous audio pieces and synching with video to create an acceptable finished product. 

The principal question facing music organizations looking ahead to the fall is how live performances will take place. The panel cited a recent study issued jointly by Chorus America and several other vocal music service organizations which stated that “in the hierarchy of ‘safe’ activities to return to, group singing is considered among the least safe” — essentially branding singers as “super spreaders” of illness. Packing halls full of enthusiastic audience members may create the same effect, leaving organizations to create “social distancing maps” for concert venues, to find that only 20 percent capacity might be achieved. When the online audience listening to Tuesday’s panel discussion was asked “What would make you comfortable attending a live performance,” 42 percent responded that they would attend if the concert were outside, 11 percent if people were six feet apart, 39 percent if there were a coronavirus vaccine, and 8 percent responded that none of these options would make them comfortable. It was clear from the feedback that organizations will have to think outside the box to keep in front of their patrons and communities this year.

While, up to this time, music ensembles had lived to perform live, three prospective formats have presented themselves for the future: 100 percent live concerts, 100 percent virtual performance, or some combination of both. Throughout these past months, performing organizations worldwide have learned (and fortunately shared) new applications for digital presentations, and it appears that hybrid seasons of online virtual and limited live performances may be the new normal. An upcoming Trenton Children’s Chorus gala might be a combination of a virtual auction, videos of members singing and possible small live concerts. Unfortunately, because of its size and the restrictions and the uncertain nature of group singing as a risk factor for COVID-19, Princeton Pro Musica has made the decision not to present live performances in the 2020-21 season. While in “pause” mode, the ensemble is planning online presentations, and, like many organizations, initiating a fundraising “seed campaign” to aid in getting through the coming year successfully and building a platform to launch its next season of live music.

Maintaining fiscal viability without earned income was a major discussion point among the panelists. All the organizations represented have had to create annual budgets without knowing exactly what the future might look like, while worrying about whether or not donors would continue to support music not heard live. The dilemma of how much ensembles might charge for viewing virtual performances is also one which organizations will surely be addressing in the coming months. When presented with the question “Do you plan to donate to your favorite arts organization this year,” 56 percent of the online audience claimed they would provide support at the same level as previously, 36 percent at a higher level, 5 percent at a lower level, and 3 percent responded that they would be unable to donate at this time. The high percentages in the “same or more as previously” categories were encouraging, and the panel was quick to note that institutional funders have stepped up in recent months to increase donations.


n closing, host Tang Yuk spoke about opera’s particular challenges of singing through a pandemic, whether it be two “super spreader” lovers singing Puccini or a roomful of drinking choristers musically dispensing good cheer and germs in a Verdi party scene. With jokes about singing love duets via FaceTime and Zoom, Tang Yuk and the panel agreed that staging could be handled in a creative way to keep performers comfortable, safe, and entertaining, but there was still a lot to think about. The issues raised and discussed in Tuesday’s online conversation, ranging from opera to chorus to radio, were clearly merely a stepping stone to further conversations about how the regional arts scene will look in the coming year and ensure that everyone survives this most unusual circumstance inspired and artistically unbroken.