Onstage wasn’t an option, so Jewish artists reimagined theater for the pandemic era.
By Irene Katz Connelly
Dec. 30, 2020
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Eric Einhorn, the artistic director of On Site Opera, initially struggled to imagine how to serve a scattered, homebound audience. For an opera company that stages site-specific operas in unconventional venues — think “Pygmalion” in a wax museum — the end of public gatherings seemed as if it would be crippling.
But after canvassing regular patrons, Einhorn found that many were missing not consumption of art, which they could easily do at home, but the experience of being in an audience.
So when Einhorn and his colleagues staged their first pandemic-era production, “The Beauty That Still Remains” — a three-part series of song cycles based on real and fictive diaries, including Anne Frank’s, which is still running — they attempted to recreate not just a performance but the feeling of attending one.
That meant creating physical artifacts to accompany virtual performances. Along with access to prerecorded performances, audience members received librettos designed to look like actual diaries. While program notes are normally a minor accessory in the opera experience, Einhorn treated the libretto as an artistic object in its own right, basing the design on pictures of Frank’s actual diary and holding “auditions” for handwriting that resembled hers.
After listening to the performance, audience members could join virtual discussions led by artists and experts — the composer Juliana Hall, for example, discussed the process of creating music from Frank’s words. The panels, Einhorn said, imitated the longed-for “buzz” of a theater lobby.
In some ways, virtual performance has been a boon for artists looking to expand their reach. Like the Jewish Plays Project, On Stage Opera has gained a modest international following, which Einhorn hopes to expand through remote programming even after the pandemic ends.