When I look back at my diary for the week of 20th April, I still see it scribbled, tantalisingly, beneath the cross-hatched red lines – details of flights to Chicago, and the all-important start times for each of The Ring’s four operas. I was to review it for this very magazine and Wagner fever had been growing all winter; this was a new production nearly a decade in the making. My loss was, no doubt, inconsiderable, beside that of the artists and technical team who actually labored to bring it all about, for whom its cancellation, three weeks ahead of opening night, must truly have been the bitterest of moments. But even my comparatively mundane preparations had necessitated complicated family logistics to bring such a trip about – two children back at home landed on grandparents, the one-year-old baby on his first proto-operatic jaunt in Chicago, whom a heroic friend had volunteered to mind during the long hours of opera. In short, everyone who would attend or perform The Ring had had a journey, a sacrifice, to make it possible.

Lyric Opera of Chicago © Kyle Flubacker
Lyric Opera of Chicago
© Kyle Flubacker

It’s odd, in retrospect, to think about how quickly every event, even the monumental Ring, was wiped from the season, how suddenly our diaries and calendars, dotted with the unmissables and the highly anticipated, shrunk into nothingness. Only weeks before, we had had a British violinist friend visit us, fresh from the North American leg of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique’s tour, one of the many concert series celebrating Beethoven in this, his 250th anniversary year. We’d heard what it was like to play Beethoven symphonies, concert after concert, week after week, a privileged glimpse into the ardours of intimacy with a particular repertoire. It was to be a mere pause in the action for my friend; since then, all such musical celebrations have been ruptured, albeit with a tempestuous suddenness, surely reminiscent of the great man’s own style. There is, at least, some musical fittingness here. It is not as if COVID-19 roughed up Mozart’s special year. 

A little over a century ago, a somewhat unfair German critic savaged England for being “Das Land ohne Musik” (The Land without Music). Now, everywhere, it seemed, was a land without music. The doors of all the many hundreds of American concert halls, opera houses and theaters were resolutely shut, and remain so, with some of the giants, like the Met and the New York Philharmonic, having already announced their closure for the entire fall season. Other companies still prevaricate, unsure of when to make a final decision. Clearly, though, every twist in the story of pandemic weighs heavily on all arts organisations, overshadowing both present and future in ways possible to imagine but impossible to fully predict.

It’s impressive just how proactive arts organisations have been, stateside as elsewhere, in increasing access to and enhancing their virtual content. You could say that the floodgates of virtual culture have been opened to us as never before and much of it, generously without a paywall. This was outstandingly magnanimous and imaginative of companies and orchestras, and offered so many dazzling possibilities for entertainment to nationwide and indeed global audiences. I’ve had the privilege of watching some of the nightly Met opera streams, and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s At Home Gala, HearTOGETHER, with its specially-commissioned piece for socially-distant musicians, entitled Seven O’Clock Shout by Valerie Coleman. A world premiere in the midst of a global pandemic feels like a triumph in itself for the resilience of the creative spirit. I’ve also tapped into the local scene here in Kansas City, not least the podcasts from the Kansas City Symphony, getting to know individual musicians more as they played to us from their own homes. Removed from the allure and anonymity of the hall, you realize more fully that they are fellow members of your community, that their music making, your entertainment, is their daily bread, and that they’ll need ever more support in these challenging times. 

But I haven’t, I confess, always felt drawn to the virtual interface. At the start, it is true, I had a desperate, tingling case of FOMO (fear of missing out). I signed up; I tuned in; I kept informed of who was issuing what; all wonderful, of course, and all rapidly and thoroughly overwhelming. There weren’t enough hours in the day, not with my other lines of work and homeschooling pre-rational children to boot. But as the time wore on too, I developed an ever stronger sense that you can’t really replicate a full-blooded experience of music online, and that part of what I was missing was gathering around those making music and song and dance, dressing up and leaving the cares of house and work behind. In short, I was missing the element of escape, for an evening, into a realm raised above necessity. The shows online all seemed a bit thin. 

Partly also, somewhat philosophically, I began to feel it to be imperative for me to just sit with the discomfort of what I was missing, to attend to the odd sort of silence that opened up when all concert hall doors shut, and to reflect just why we need culture in the first place, and how we ought to value it. In the gap that opened up – all those months of cancelled diary entries – I found space for reflection, for stepping back. What does it mean to us anyway? How important is it to us that it should return? What do we need to do to support our arts? Where should we concentrate our efforts? I did take time to fill out a National Endowment for the Arts survey, sent to us by our local opera company, which was seeking to probe how Americans would feel about cultural activities after the pandemic, what they’d missed during it, and the effects the temporary loss was having on their mental states and social lives. I wanted my voice to be part of that nationwide survey. Every question was illuminating, a cultural examination of conscience. 

Moreover, in the space that opened up, I found that I was making more music at home – amateurish, of course, and therefore, enjoyable in its abundance and its very imperfections. My husband, after arduous days working in a hospital-setting, decided to learn plainchant. I’d been putting off teaching the children piano – there always seemed to be a more urgent task – now I set to it, more or less blithely. And it was time to teach them to sing, properly, rather than merely squawk out some nursery favorites. There may, or may not have been, what Siegfried Sassoon would have savaged as “corybantic” dancing with the blinds drawn. Happily too, we’d just bought a turntable before the pandemic broke out, and we relied on becoming intimate with our still-limited collection of LPs, and came to enjoy the old-fashioned awkwardness of changing records.

I think, above all, therefore, that this time of retreat from the official venues of culture has taught me the importance of grass-roots cultural life, and how the highest does not – and will not – stand without the lowest. In other words, we won’t value the arts enough, or teach our children their value, unless we are actively making music and song and dance ourselves, in whatever rough and ready way we non-professionals can. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout is a homage to those front-line workers, not least in New York City, who came home at 7pm to the eager, improvised music of cheers and clanging of pots and pans, a symphony of improvised street sound. We are essentially musical animals: we must express ourselves creatively. 

I’m thoroughly looking forward to getting back to watching the arts staged too, when the doors of our theaters open again, and we can put all this behind us. Or perhaps not quite behind us. There’s often wisdom to be gained in an uncomfortable time of privation. For me, it’s this: the tradition of the great opera houses perhaps cannot stand unless we recommit ourselves to singing arias in the shower. Or, for that matter, the balcony.