“There were many tears shed,” said Megan Gillis, co-founder and executive director of City Lyric Opera, and producer of their recently canceled Cinderella performances at the A.R.T New York Theatres on 53rd Street. “It was like we were almost there, and almost made it, but not quite...”
The audience was already seated for the first of their two scheduled performances on December 18, the last day of their show, when they found out that a member of the orchestra had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I found out 30 minutes before we were supposed to start the show,” Gillis said. “So we already had audience members there; the whole cast was there; the whole orchestra was there. And then to have to tell everyone to turn around and go home was really, really sad – kind of a heartbreaking thing, you know.”
She said they had that last minute, frantic kind-of-a meeting to see if they could possibly salvage the show, but ultimately decided to shut down because even though everyone was vaccinated, the singers were singing without masks, the remaining orchestra members on wind instruments couldn’t be masked and they “didn’t want to potentially subject our audiences to getting infected.”
Gillis’ company, a small nonprofit co-founded with fellow trained opera singer Kathleen Spencer six years ago to provide “a one-of-a-kind experience for audience members by welcoming them to the operatic art form without judgment, expectation, or financial burden” (modern, relatable and affordable) only does two mainstage performances a year, one in the fall and one in May. Pauline Viardot’s “Cendrillon” (Cinderella) was chosen as a colorful, fun show to celebrate their return to the theater, their first since November of 2019.
“We marketed it towards kids and towards families,” she said. “Families were bringing their kids to introduce them to the opera.” They usually choose small venues such as the 99-seat theater they were set to perform in “so that you are really up close and personal to the singing, to the performing, so you can kind of get that visceral connection to them.”
City Lyric Opera joins a cascade of New York City theater cancellations and postponements since December, caused by the dramatic rise in breakthrough COVID-19 cases from the Omicron variant. While there were stops and starts to live performances throughout the fall when an occasional cast member would test positive, the surge in cases and seeming sudden shutdowns of major shows in the middle of the holiday season caught many by surprise.
“With Heavy Hearts”
On December 17, the first announcement that all four scheduled shows of “The Rockettes Christmas Spectacular” were canceled “due to breakthrough COVID-19 cases in the production” was followed later in the day that the Christmas show had to end before Christmas due to increasing challenges from the pandemic.
On Broadway, “Jagged Little Pill” also ended their run on December 17 due to COVID. “Ain’t Too Proud,” the story about the life and times of singing group The Temptations, closes for good January 16. And the Prototype Festival, geared up to celebrate their tenth anniversary of multi-disciplinary theater and artists in mid-January, writes that “with heavy hearts” they too will have to put off their production for a year because of the disruption caused by the virus. So many known, and possibly even more lesser-known events and performances, stopped in their tracks. Some permanently, some pushed down the road, hoping for a quickly subdued pathogen that will allow their shows to resume.
In the middle of the disappointment felt on both sides, from both the artists and audiences longing to be together again after too long of an absence, is the very real impact of lost wages for those who invest their lives in their art. Behind every cancellation is an unpaid artist.
“I think [this shutdown] is so reminiscent of March of 2020 for so many of us who had lost thousands of dollars in performances and gigs. Our whole livelihood,” Gillis said. She estimates they lost about $8,000 in ticket sales and the refunds they had to process from having to cancel the last day of the show.
“We’re a small non-profit, to lose out on that amount of money is huge for us,” she said.
On an encouraging note, Gillis said with some pride in her voice that “the whole cast elected to stay to perform the show one last time – for no audience – so that we could possibly release it in the future, or just to have.”
“So that was nice,” she said.