It can be tricky enough to get a performing arts organization up and running in a relatively normal year. Add the venue closures, economic difficulties, and wariness of public singing that accompany a global pandemic to the situation, and the challenge becomes a considerable one—especially for an opera company.
“We were working towards our first full production, and by about March of 2020, it became very clear that that was not going to happen for a period of time,” says Harold Meers, Executive Artistic Director of Charleston Opera Theater. “So then the mission—the immediate mission, at least—sort of changed. It changed into, okay, how do we continue to sing live and engage an audience during a pandemic?”
For Charleston Opera Theater, one answer came in the form of socially-distanced outdoor concerts in neighborhoods with audience members seated in lawn chairs. The organization also gave a summertime performance in Mt. Pleasant’s Memorial Waterfront Park.
“Over 400 people came,” Meers says. “People were so hungry for this.”
Meers hopes to assuage that audience hunger again through an upcoming production of The Tragedy of Carmen—an adaptation of Georges Bizet’s magnum opus by Peter Brook and Marius Constant. Staged in the style of a 1930’s radio drama, the Charleston Opera Theater’s performance of The Tragedy of Carmen will take place at the Hanahan Amphitheater on Saturday, May 8th.
“We’re excited for The Tragedy of Carmen because this is a segue production,” Meers says. “This is taking us from being socially-distanced and cut back and not being able to really produce to, hey, we’re going to do something theatrical. We’re going to do a titled production and hire some singers to come in and have some theatricality along with it—still outdoors. Still with socially-distanced seating. But, you know, things are starting to loosen up a little bit, and it’s a nice segue to get back, hopefully, to producing opera in the theater where it was mean to be acoustically—hopefully this fall. That’s the goal.”
While Meers says that indoor venues are best for operatic performances, he suggests that outdoor settings offer unique opportunities for audience engagement.
“Outdoors, we have to be amplified, but doing it outside also provides you the opportunity to do some things. We’re going to have lots of cameras and a giant screen,” Meers says. “So, you’re going to be able to watch it on a giant screen with supertitles at the same time you’re seeing it, more like what you would experience at a sporting event. So, you know, there’s some positives to be gained from it as well.”
For Meers, the good worked by opera and other performing arts extends well beyond the level of individual entertainment and reaches the social sphere.
“There’s been a lot of emotional hardships through COVID—the separation, the anxiety, the isolation—all of that, coupled with a particular amount of social unrest in our country. Live performances provide an opportunity for a group of people to come together and experience something like opera, which is a very high-octane emotional experience and reminds us of our humanity. But people from all walks of life can come into a theater—or in our case, an amphitheater—or a field, and experience the same performance and experience these emotions. And it reminds us all of our humanity and that we all have that in common. And it really has a unifying effect on the people that are there.”
While live performances may not be considered essential activities, Meers believes that they offer something indispensable to the community.
“Our souls definitely need that in some way,” he says. “And it doesn’t always transfer by watching something at home on your computer or your television or streaming something. It’s not the same as being in the room or in the same venue as hundreds of other people experiencing something together. It reminds us that we all share certain things about being human. And that goes a long way.”
In this interview that aired Monday, May 3rd, SC Public Radio’s Bradley Fuller speaks with tenor Harold Meers, Executive Artistic Director of Charleston Opera Theater. The two discuss the organization’s founding, mission, educational and outreach initiatives, and its upcoming production of The Tragedy of Carmen at the Hanahan Amphitheater at 7:30pm on Saturday, May 8th. More information about the performance can be found at https://charlestonoperatheater.org/
Charleston Opera Theater is a financial supporter of South Carolina Public Radio.
Charleston Opera Theater's production of The Tragedy of Carmen will be styled as a 1930's radio drama