Revenue / 11.03.20
Honking Is Encouraged at San Diego’s Drive-in Opera
Images courtesy of Cliff Thrasher
“After hearing these beautiful arias, people would honk. They would actually honk and blink their headlights! To be standing backstage hearing that, I could feel it come up from my solar plexus and into my heart. It meant that people were really there and were really engaged!”
What is INTIX colleague Risë Walter talking about? San Diego Opera’s recent, four-night parking lot production of Puccini’s “La Bohème!” Yes, a parking lot production. Billed as San Diego’s first “drive-in opera,” “La Bohème” was performed on the evenings of Oct. 24, 27, 30 and Nov. 1 in the Pechanga Arena’s parking lot. Guests remained in their vehicles, and the opera was transmitted to car stereos via FM radio. A half-dozen big screens were set up, showing simulcasts of the various singers onstage.
The end result still has Walter, Chief Marketing Officer for San Diego Opera, buzzing. And she gives complete credit to her colleagues who made it all happen. “I love my team — marketing, PR, patron services and education,” she says. “Everybody stepped up without complaint. One of the core values in our mission statement is ‘Nimble adaptation to the changing marketplace.’ Well, this was the living example of that core value.”
Equally impressed was Cliff Thrasher, Director of Patron Services for San Diego Opera. With the help of a safety officer, San Diego Opera worked with the county to obtain the necessary permissions and to secure both the format and location. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is how amazing a team I work with,” he says. “We were able to pull this together — package it, sell it and be in a position where we were standing in a parking lot and welcoming back our patrons — all working from our homes. It’s great to be surrounded by such creative, thoughtful, intelligent and sensitive people at such a time. The opera is a big ship, we’re on a new course and we’re nowhere near all the way turned yet.”
Indeed, many challenges had to be addressed and overcome from concept to creation to execution. Originally, there was a whole, weeklong opera festival envisioned. But those plans had to be scaled back. “In pitching it to the board, everyone was very concerned about health — coming together again, keeping everybody safe and so forth,” Thrasher says. “So, we decided to move forward with just ‘La Bohème.’ We got the go-ahead on Sept. 22. And, in four weeks, we got a stage built, tickets sold, and we got the five different unions we work with all on board.”
He continues, “At that time, we decided to go with the opera’s seven principals. No chorus, no children’s chorus. It would be outdoors. After we got the orchestra on board, we just needed to find a venue. The San Diego Symphony has a new artistic director, Rafael Payare. Our conductor was unable to come because of travel — he was in Europe — and COVID-19. Maestro Payare stepped in, and this became a merging of the two powerhouse arts organizations in San Diego.”
Walter adds, “The most challenging thing for me was figuring out what to do with all those people who were already subscribed. We decided on a price — $300 for premium parking, $200 per carload for general admission parking — but we had all these subscribers who would have been sitting in five different price zones if we were still in the theater. What we did was looked at how many parking spaces we had, and we banded them in our own minds. The most expensive tickets would go here, the next most expensive would go there and so forth. We prioritized the subscribers in bands, and then put all the general audience behind them. Figuring that out was quite a challenge.”
Of course, the major challenge was COVID-19 and the onstage protocols that had to be enforced. Because health experts believe that loud singing can easily spread the coronavirus, each singer needed 120 square feet of their own wherever they were on stage, which meant they couldn’t be any closer than 15 feet from the person they were singing to at any given time and no closer than 4 feet on either side. Meanwhile, the musicians played in Plexiglas cubicles, maintaining social distancing.
The opera itself was also streamlined to run less than 90 minutes to eliminate the need for an intermission. In terms of the fans, once on-site, masks and social distancing were strictly enforced when patrons left their automobiles to use the restroom. Thrasher, who is in his 16th season at San Diego Opera, calculates the performances drew between 400 and 450 cars a night. Ace Parking helped in the logistics of placing the various vehicles and maintaining traffic flow.
So, what was the general fan reaction? “In September, we started calling everybody, and the average phone conversation was probably at least 18 minutes,” Thrasher says. “Some were very excited and wanted to talk about all of the details. Other people were not as excited and were asking things like, ‘Who wants to see ‘La Bohème’ in a car?!’ The die-hards that showed up, I would say 95% of them, loved it. There was the 5% who ended up behind an SUV, or behind a light pole or their battery died. But, for the most part, the response was incredibly positive. We told everyone ‘The gate opens at 6,’ and we didn’t expect people to show up at 5! People were gung-ho for something new, so we had to learn to manage that, too.”
Looking ahead, Walter, Thrasher and Co. have started planning for three performances of “All Is Calm,” an all-male a cappella opera centered around the Christmas Truce of 1914 when the trench soldiers on opposing sides declared their own official cease-fire for a time, sang Christmas carols, played soccer, and shared food and drink until their commanders found out and ordered the shooting to resume. It will be performed in the same parking lot. Then, in the spring, there are already discussions underway on producing some sort of outdoor opera festival and selling it as a package.
Walter is hopeful “All Is Calm” will continue to expand San Diego Opera’s fan base. She states that 32% of their single-ticket buyers for “La Bohème” were first-timers. And she is heartened by some of the feedback she has received since. She concludes, “One of my favorite responses was this lovely note: ‘It was 90 minutes of beauty and joy and sadness, deep emotions and exquisite music. It was so great to be with people again, feeling appreciation and beauty and creating loveliness instead of tearing down the world and hating each other.’”
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Tags: Music , Venues , Leadership , COVID-19 , Coronavirus