So we survived, bloodied but unbowed. As classical music approached the end of 2020, concerts were still being performed, some of them to real audiences, operas were still staged, audiences were still listening, composers were still composing. But clearly, it has been a horrific year: something like three quarters of events have been cancelled, many livelihoods have been lost, many prospects blighted.

Normally, at this time of year, Bachtrack would be publishing our annual statistics on performances in the year gone by. With so many of those cancelled or postponed, that would be a sad and pointless exercise, so instead, here are some reflections on the year just past and on the years ahead of us. My thanks to the many arts leaders who contributed their thoughts.

The year of the mask: Riccardo Minasi © Opernhaus Zürich
The year of the mask: Riccardo Minasi
© Opernhaus Zürich

Governments kept faith – up to a point

Pandemic responses from culture ministries varied in scope and timeliness, but most countries eventually came to the rescue of their arts institutions. In the UK, most organisations have made use of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Cultural Recovery Fund or both. In several countries where government grants constitute the majority of an orchestra or arts centre’s income, grants were maintained in spite of the lack of performances, allowing institutions to put the money to other uses. The outlier, of course, is the US, where there is little government funding of performing arts. While many institutions who spoke to us avoided redundancies altogether, many – such as The Royal Opera – did not.

The people most hurt were those in the network of freelancers and small businesses which service the performing arts industry. Government pro-employment initiatives generally didn’t do enough to help the self-employed, for whom cover in many countries was patchy or non-existent. There are a lot of anecdotes about people who would have expected to spend their summer working on concerts and festivals who spent it driving an Amazon van, and that’s a situation set to continue for a while. For orchestras whose members are self-employed, a key concern will be whether they can generate enough work for their players to keep them afloat.

Looking ahead, the concern will be for young artists entering the profession. For students, the normal rounds of classes and competitions have been greatly disrupted. Many musicians have spent a great deal of time and resource on preparation for concerts or operas which have not taken place: that may be survivable for seasoned professionals, but it’s been particularly hard on those just embarking on their careers. Help is needed.

The year of video

The industry’s year was defined by a pivot to video. We asked institutions whether they had video capability prior to Covid-19: by far the most common response was “yes, but limited”. By the end of 2020, however, it would be hard to find a single classical music institution that hasn’t been filming and screening performances, either with or without audiences or pre-Covid archival footage.

Video has given purpose to many institutions – orchestras, festivals, opera houses, dance companies – in areas where live performances were forbidden or uneconomic; without it, they would have struggled to maintain a sense of relevance and self-worth. But the cornucopia of video footage raises two important questions.

The first question is about brand and marketing. The cost barrier to creating a video platform is so low (a few hundred pounds on Vimeo, or free on Google, as long as you’re prepared to subject your viewers to Grammarly ads), that an extraordinary array of performing organisations have chosen to create their own platform. How, one wonders, are prospective viewers going to find out that these platforms exist, let alone the details of their content? “Build it and they will come” just isn’t good enough: producers of video need to distinguish their offering from the dozens of others and recruit a loyal audience. That means marketing spend – by whatever channel they choose.

The second and rather more existential question is about whether consumers have sufficient appetite for video to pay out enough money in subscription and pay-per-view fees to make the whole thing viable – a tougher question to which no-one really knows the answer. And if they do have the appetite, what kind of video content will persuade them to part with hard-earned cash? One of the disappointments of 2020, for me, was quite how little innovation was on evidence in most of the videos. The “put two cameras in row J” approach might yield good enough results if the artists are extraordinary, but most normal mortals are going to need a bit of artistry and invention to stand out. Just a handful of opera videos stood out from the crowd: VOPERA’s L’enfant et les sortilèges with its inventive green screen animation, the acid humour of Finnish National Opera’s Covid fan tutte, Swedish Radio’s film-noir style Don Giovanni in concert, Scottish Opera’s beautifully acted The Telephone. Concert film-makers have also been slow to find innovative ways of using the medium, although I saw one excellent example of concert footage blended with historical documentary: Iestyn Davies’s John Dowland concert at Hatfield House.

There is an extraordinary depth of film and animation talent out there – just look at Pixar's new Soul for a virtuoso (albeit extremely high budget) demonstration of applying animation to the music world. Let's hope that classical music finds ways of putting that talent to use.

Is there appetite for change?

Three shocks defined the political environment of 2020: coronavirus, the George Floyd killing and the rise in awareness of the climate crisis. I started asking all my interviewees this question: when the pandemic has passed and the arts world returns to “a new normal”, how will that be different – and how should it be different – from went before?

The answers indicated that in the main, arts leaders have little head space for anything other than restoring the status quo ante. There were some thoughts on coronavirus-induced changes becoming permanent, such as shorter concert formats or increased use of video, but many of the concepts I had expected to hear about didn’t feature in the responses: addressing the precarious nature of many arts careers, major changes to the star system or touring to reduce carbon footprint, a rethink of arts programming to promote inclusivity. That’s mirrored in the approach of Arts Council England to grant support for the arts, which has overwhelmingly been dedicated to preserving what was there before the virus struck.

Don’t expect the arts world to use 2020 as a pivot point around which to re-invent itself. “When all this is over”, reinvention will surely come, but it’s going to be a matter of evolution, not revolution.

The most burning concern

In this pandemic period, one question above all others keeps arts leaders awake at night: when performances return to normal, will audiences return to the halls and can I stop my institution running out of money before that happens?

On both parts of that question, the signals are mixed. There seems to be plenty of agreement that nothing replaces the thrill of watching live music in a hall together with hundreds or thousands of others to share the experience; countless people have been desperate to grab any crumbs of live music available. But it’s also clear that second and third waves of virus have dented confidence. It may take a long time before people feel safe in numbers, and some people’s behaviour will have been changed permanently.

Financial situations vary greatly, with the biggest variable being confidence in the ongoing level of government support. The balancing act for a CEO is to keep enough activity going to avoid sundering the bonds between their institution, its artists and its audience, while husbanding enough financial reserves (or borrowing capacity) to survive through what could be a lengthy hibernation. It’s not an enviable task.

2021 and beyond

The next few months are going to be horrible as casualty tolls mount from the latest virus waves and increasingly draconian measures are taken to limit public gatherings. But mass vaccination will happen, with logistics eased by the Oxford-Astra-Zeneca vaccine, and the virus will subside. We all feel in the eye of the storm right now, but that storm will pass – and we can all hope to be better prepared for the next one. 

Through the year, many artists have made good use of the constraints imposed on them as a means of regathering their strength. As far back as late March, New York City’s “Music Never Sleeps” highlighted the passion and emotion being injected into their music by artists starved of live performance. In December, listening to the online gala that La Scala staged in place of their usual season opener, it was striking that many of the singers were in better voice than I had heard them for a long time. When a return to performance arrives, we can expect them to be re-energised and even more passionate about their music than before. And that, at least, is something to look forward to.