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What Happens When You Cancel a Once-in-a-Lifetime Opera

The coronavirus hit America at the worst possible moment for Lyric Opera.

From a rehearsal of Die Walküre in February   Photo: Clayton Hauck

On March 13, a decade after Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ring cycle began as a twinkle in the eyes of music director Sir Andrew Davis and general director Anthony Freud, the latter assembled the whole company onstage: orchestra, soloists, chorus, and stagehands. In the previous few days, Chicago arts organizations had postponed or canceled their upcoming performances, one after another, to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“I told them we had reached a point where we simply had to cancel,” Freud says. “There were lots of tears, but I think there was also an understanding that the decision was unavoidable.” The decision would have been made for them three days later, when Governor J.B. Pritzker banned all gatherings of 50 or more people in the state.

The Ring cycle, as Richard Wagner’s four-opera, 18-hour epic Der Ring des Nibelungen is more compactly referred to (everything about it is long, even the title), consists of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, tales of gods and monsters and the pursuit of an all-powerful ring. Producing it is a mammoth task, as I detailed in a suddenly less newsworthy story in the April issue of Chicago. Lyric began years of behind-the-scenes work on this Ring in 2013, and rolled out the first three operas during the three most recently completed seasons. The plan had been for Götterdämmerung to premiere April 4, and then for three full cycles of all four operas to happen the weeks of April 13, 20, and 27.

Opera companies don’t undertake a Ring lightly. This Ring was to be only the third cycle since Lyric’s founding in 1954. The three-quarter-day total duration is twice as long as it takes to read The Great Gatsby cover to cover. The strain on the musicians is immense, both in repetitive stress and for the soloists’ memories. It’s the longest work in the live-performance canon, and you need a large orchestra, a chorus, and large-voiced soloists to put it on, to say nothing of sets, props, and costumes of some sort. New Ring cycles by world-class opera companies are so rare that devotees travel the globe to see them, like total solar eclipses.

Now it’s all gone up in a puff of smoke. If an evil demon or a giant-turned-dragon had schemed to find the worst possible day to cancel the Ring project during its yearslong sprawl, it would have been pretty close to March 13. “We canceled the Ring at a devastating moment financially because we were so far into rehearsals,” Freud says. Götterdämmerung was almost onstage; the revivals of the other three were in full swing. “Essentially we had spent the money we were going to spend, more or less in its entirety.”

At the time of the cancellation, Lyric projected a worst-case scenario of the financial loss: $27 million. To give a sense of the scale, Lyric’s total operating budget for fiscal 2019 was $76.5 million. (The company’s fiscal 2020 ends June 30, and management declined to share its original estimate for the operating budget, although they did say it’s comparable to 2019.) Through a combination of repurposing of sponsorships, canceled tickets donated instead of refunded, reduced expenditures, and collegial agreements on how to compensate musicians, stagehands, and other employees, the overall loss for canceling the Ring and everything following it has been mitigated to $15 million so far.

Sadly, streaming or recording the prepared Ring isn’t even a possibility to bring in revenue or audiences. Any attempt to perform after March 16 would have run afoul of even the 50-person gathering ban many times over, as the orchestra (more than 100), the chorus (more than 90), and the stage staff (60) would separately violate it.

It’ll be a while, exact length still undetermined, until this Ring will be seen through. Freud says he expects that Götterdämmerung will likely appear on its own in a season schedule four or more years down the road, completing the cycle begun in the fall of 2016 with Rheingold. Longer-term planning has had to wait as the company sorts through the immediate fallout, which includes the postponement, this past Thursday, of the season’s final two shows, the musical 42nd Street and the chamber opera Blue. “I don’t think I’ve ever been busier in my entire working life,” Freud says.

The full, four-operas-in-a-week Ring cycle of Lyric’s new production, the marathon the Ringheads have been slavering for, looms in the foggy, more-distant future. Freud says that after we readjust to the post-pandemic world, his dream would be a second shot at this Ring in 10 or 15 years.

“It’s unthinkable the Ring and Lyric will not meet each other again,” he says. “The time will come.”

For now, I’ll just tuck my maroon-and-gold Ring scarf, distributed at Lyric’s season-announcement press event, in a pile of memorabilia. We marveled at the monumentality of a Ring production slow-cooking for 10 years. Now, it’ll be more like 20.

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