After being forced to cancel its 100th anniversary season last summer due to the pandemic, Cincinnati Opera is optimistically pushing ahead with a 2021 schedule. This month’s outdoor summer season at Blue Ash’s Summit Park has been carefully planned to follow the state safety protocols as well as recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Opera even has a staff COVID compliance officer helping coordinate all the moving parts.
Cincinnati Opera will present three perennial favorites in shorter 90-minute versions for its “Summer at Summit” season—two Italian operas, Puccini’s tragic Tosca and Rossini’s comic The Barber of Seville, plus Bizet’s Carmen, the French story of a fiercely independent woman. There will be a total of nine ticketed performances between July 17 and 31: four for Carmen, three for Tosca, two for Barber. The season opens with a free, but still ticketed, Opera in the Park event on July 11 featuring live opera and musical theater selections from summer cast members.
Performing opera outdoors has its challenges, both because of the pandemic and just generally. Audience members will watch from reserved spaces in one of the 389 square “pods” painted onto Summit Park’s three-acre lawn facing the stage. Each pod can hold up to six people, but only one ticket purchaser is allowed per pod; about 1,000 total patrons are expected each evening.
Because of social distancing needs, Tosca and Carmen will use fewer Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra musicians than a normal version at Music Hall (35 to 40 instead of the usual 65 players). Barber of Seville normally uses fewer musicians and choristers, so its numbers have not been reduced for this production.
Partly because of the reduced number of players, the operas will be amplified. There will be no sets, extensive costume changes, or intermissions. Plans call for instrumentalists and chorus members to wear masks and be socially distanced. Principal singers will maintain COVID-proscribed distances but won’t be masked.
Cincinnati Opera Artistic Director Evans Mirageas emphasizes that, despite these challenges, he’s maintaining high artistic standards. “We have world-class stars singing in all three productions,” he says. “And we have a couple debuts of world-class stars, particularly in Tosca with Ana María Martinez, a celebrated Puerto Rican soprano, as well as Quinn Kelsey, a famous Hawaiian baritone joining us for the first time.”
The operas have been shortened with scalpel-like precision to maintain integrity, says Mirageas. “I’ve worked with each of the directors and conductors to make certain we didn’t lose one moment of essential drama or, equally important, one piece of famous music. We were able to make the 90-minute versions by taking out the high cholesterol. This is a chicken-and-fish version.”
The opera action will happen under a tent with a weatherproofed roof, lighting and sound equipment, and large video screens that allow the entire audience to see close-ups. A 35-foot-high three-segment tent features a main center section for the principal singers and, behind them, the orchestra. Two side sections will hold the chorus.
Lyla Forlani, in her first season as the Opera’s director of production, says the principal singers will act their parts and all cast movements will be staged; the shows won’t just be concerts. There also will be creative behind-the-scenes work by the resident lighting designer, Thomas Hase.
Can this season work with these limitations? Morris Robinson, the Cincinnati Opera artistic advisor who’s singing the bass part of Don Basilio in Barber, thinks so. He’s appeared in pandemic-era productions elsewhere. “People are just hungry for art,” says Robinson. “I’m blessed to be one of the ones who’s had a chance to deliver it during this time of the pandemic.”