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Eastern Music Festival and Greensboro Opera Weigh in on COVID-19 and Its Impact on the Arts

June 11, 2020 - Greensboro, NC:


Coping with crisisThis is the fourth and final article about how the coronavirus pandemic has affected Greensboro music organizations. In this issue I share my talks with Chris Williams, Executive Director of the Eastern Music Festival, and David Holley, General and Artistic Manager of the Greensboro Opera.

By the time I caught up with Williams at the end of April, the decision to cancel EMF's entire 59th season had been made. They had been trying to work out a plan for several weeks before they finally made that difficult decision. Williams: "It just got harder and harder by the day to get confirmation that the international kids could get visas or that the international faculty could even get across the border."

Interestingly, "One of the first piano students to register is from Wuhan, China, a student at the University of Miami. She was the first one in and the first one out! When the university closed, she went home to her family."

Williams looked back, "We were in such a good place – we had the program lined up, the guest artists were set, the marketing plan was in motion, but you just can't beat the medical issue. There was nothing we could do to feel secure about having 400 people living in dorms and apartments on the Guilford campus. The worst possible scenario would be to get everyone here and THEN have someone get sick. And us having hundreds of kids quarantined on campus would be far worse than everyone staying home for the summer."

"There was some really great programing; it's now on pause. We built the program, we wrote the essays, everything is compiled, so we'll figure out a way to use it. Maybe we'll put together some Spotify lists and publish them and say, 'Listen to these great orchestras play these pieces while you read our essays....' "

For the Greensboro Opera, the decision was, perhaps, less consequential. Holley: "Because we did our second production, which is our chamber opera..., in December, we didn't have a production in this time period [March-May], so I feel very blessed. I've been on a lot of Opera America's Zoom calls with opera companies that are in our same budget category, [and] some have had to face cancelling productions and losing ticket revenue. So, we dodged that bullet."

Holley continued, explaining one cancelled event. "GO thrives and enjoys many, many collaborations, so we lost our collaboration with EMF, which was supposed to be July 15th. That's an immediate impact. We hold the event at Temple Emanuel, it's more informal, and we've really enjoyed doing that."

Williams takes a long view. "We've made it through 59 years – this is the first cancellation ever. We may have missed a concert here and there because of thunderstorms in the past. But now, we're already at work trying to figure out what to do for next year."

Holley waxes philosophical about when performances begin again. "It is going to be so healing. It's going to be such an outpouring for the arts. People are starved. We take things for granted until you don't have them. I think the arts are going to come back really strong – a real therapeutic influence in our town."

I asked Williams about finances. "We're going to be OK through the summer. A number of our largest donors and loyal supporters said that they will continue to make their gifts because they're here to support the organization not just the concert programming. Our gala was just before all this hit the news – it was February 29. So the money we had raised for scholarships..., we've been in touch with most of the gala donors and contributors, and they said 'yeah – roll it over into general operating to get us through this rough patch.' "

What about the summer scholarships? "We had made the matches and the notifications, so the students were in the process of signing their final letters and sending their deposits. That's where we were in the process [when the program was called off]. Very little cash had actually traded hands."

What's down the road? Holley: "We've been involved in a lot of change – a new president and new fiscal year, new board members (all at the time the pandemic became evident). We're looking at streaming past productions on our website. That's a work in progress."

"I want to be as nimble as we can be in any eventuality.... I'm not sticking my head in the sand, but I'm not going to say, 'no matter what, we're going to go forward' because we have to be sensitive to what people feel comfortable with. How comfortable do you feel sitting next to somebody you don't know in a 3,000-seat theatrer? We're going to take our cue from the symphony [GSO]. They have an event in August [in the Tanger Center]."

Holley offers some thoughts about the future. "So many board members have tapped out their contacts, inviting them to come to productions. But everyone one of your board members knows five to ten family members who are spread out across the country who have never been part of the audience base.., [so] you could do a virtual event and actually grow your audience just by inviting people you know who could never travel to see your productions. That's a silver lining!"

Williams: "I hope people will understand that this is a temporary situation; this is not EMF's last day. This is the change between Act I and Act II. Next year is our 60th anniversary, and I hope we can build a really great festival. And maybe this is galvanizing. Maybe this helps people understand, not just with EMF but with all the arts organizations, that we are fairly fragile but we are a determined, hard-headed bunch of people. We're going to find a way to make good things happen. It may take a while and it may not be perfect. But we're going to keep pushing forward. This is not just EMF – it's everyone. We're all stuck, kind of frozen in amber. It won't last forever. We may come out the other side with a different understanding of what it means to be part of an arts community."

Holley: "We're planning to come out of this a more vibrant, nimble, and contributing organization for the community. The bottom line – it's communication, to stay connected with everyone. Silence is the worst thing at a time like this."