Rehearsal Photo from the Tosca that Never Opened.
Rehearsal Photo from the Tosca that Never Opened. Photo by Aria Denison

All Quiet on the Coronavirus Front

The governor’s gathering ban hits music venues and arts organizations

At Sessions Music Hall, about 300 people are bouncing to punk rock, some swirling in a mosh pit, as Toronto-based punk band PUP shreds through the first three songs of their March 11 set. After one of the songs, the singer banters with the crowd and someone from the audience yells out, “Thank you for not canceling.” 

The novel coronavirus is on everyone’s minds. And for good reason. 

As PUP plays what could be a premature ending of their North American tour in Eugene, Gov. Kate Brown announces her intention to ban all events in Oregon that have more than 250 people, following the lead of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. And as of Monday, March 16, Brown banned events of more than 25 people and is recommending that gatherings not exceed 10 people. She also banned restaurants from serving food — delivery or take out is still OK — and recommended social distancing, meaning people should stay at least six feet apart.

As everywhere, the gathering ban has hit the arts world hard here. From the Cottage Theatre to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, playhouses are closing productions, music venues are dealing with lost revenue during prime concert season, and productions that require investing time have been canceled. But the governor’s office says its looking for solutions. 

Music venues were already feeling the crunch before Brown made her announcement. Scott Landfield of Tsunami Books says artists were canceling tours. For his store, each event’s loss of revenue ranges from the hundreds to the thousands of dollars, depending on whether it’s an author event or concert. 

The silver lining for Landfield’s business is that he says people have been coming in to “panic buy” books to entertain themselves as social distancing measures are in effect. His store can offer customers drive-thru service: customers can call or order online and pick up a book from the parking lot. 

Bob Fennessy, the WOW Hall’s publicist, says in an email that artists scheduled to perform at the venue were already rethinking tours because Seattle was canceling events. After the governor’s order, WOW is losing events for its biggest months of the year. 

“Even if we do manage to reschedule most of the events, the economic impact will be hard,” he says. “Show staff won’t get paid at all, and office hours are being reduced. We still need to do building cleaning and maintenance. Can you imagine what the corner of 8th and Lincoln would look like if our facilities staff didn’t clean up every day?” 

Fennessy says the venue needs about $20,000 in donations to weather the crisis.

Christian Gaston, workforce and labor advisor for the governor’s office, says they’re tracking three areas of the economy. The first is the professional class — those who work in office settings where working remotely is an option. The second is the category of workers who must be on-site to work. The third is where arts organizations are: If there aren’t customers or ticket buyers, people can’t work. 

Gaston says that third group has been hit hardest, which includes restaurants and bars, and the governor’s office is talking with organizations like Travel Oregon and regional arts groups to find solutions. 

The traditional solution has been tax credits, but that might not work for arts organizations and venues. Since the state government has to have a balanced budget and can’t deficit spend, he adds so the federal government will have a huge role in stabilizing things. 

The governor’s office is also talking with Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington and the Oregon Community Foundation to help nonprofits that conduct fundraising at this time. 

“This is a fairly unprecedented event,” he says. “We all need to work together.” 

He adds that the impact will be larger than any one entity, and conversations need to happen about what payments will be delayed, what people can wait on for the future and how to collaborate. 

Eugene Opera Artistic Director and conductor Andrew Bisantz says he hopes the governor understands the impact on performing arts companies like Eugene Opera, the state’s second-largest opera company, and how they need special consideration. 

“Something like a symphony orchestra can reschedule a concert. An opera company can’t,” he says. “Eugene Opera, Portland Opera and other large performing arts organizations rely on one project. By having that project canceled puts us in greater peril than other organizations that can reschedule.” 

Before Brown’s ban on gatherings, Erika Rauer, executive director of Eugene Opera, says she was planning for Tosca to go on as the coronavirus spread to the West Coast. Sure, tickets were hit hard for the Hult Center performance — about 600 sold for opening night, under 500 for the Sunday matinee — but she says she thought more tickets would sell on the day of the performances when people would feel safer about coronavirus. And the Hult Center was going to seat concertgoers accordingly to meet social distancing measures.  

The show accounted for about a third of the opera company’s budget. Now the Eugene Opera has to deal with how to move forward.

Rauer says the timing of the governor’s call for social distancing measures was unfortunate because they had just staged their dress rehearsal: the most expensive rehearsal. 

“It’s basically a performance call, at the expense of a call without revenue coming in,” Bisantz says. “Full orchestra, full crew, everything that has to happen.” 

Bisantz says rehearsing opera today is calculated, so no expense is wasted. Singers rehearse with pianos in a rented space, so the organization isn’t paying for the Hult Center. Before the final dress rehearsal, the orchestra has performed a few times with the singers. 

“We don’t go into that final dress rehearsal lightly,” he says. “We fully expected to open the show. That’s how committed we were despite how the scary the news was getting.” 

In previous years, the coronavirus shutdown could have been the final note for the nonprofit. But under Rauer’s leadership of Eugene Opera, the organization will still be around for another season and plans to have its Diva Cage Match in May at the University of Oregon. 

What does concern Rauer, though, is the health of Wall Street, which can determine whether a donor will continue giving, and how much. 

“That’s the danger — that this compounds,” she says. “That folks tighten their purse strings because they’re worried and they have real financial impacts on their families.” 

With canceled or postponed productions, some arts organizations have asked patrons not to ask for refunds and instead make the ticket purchase be a tax-deductible refund. But for Eugene Opera’s March 13 and 15 performances, ticketholders have already been refunded because the Hult Center canceled all events in response to the governor’s order. 

Some patrons have already sent the opera company the money — and an additional sum — back, Rauer says. 

Bisantz says having a career in performing arts means he’s used to letting go and not feeling nostalgic about previous performances, although he says it’s tough to have what could’ve been one of the greatest productions of Eugene Opera. The production featured Jill Gardner, who has portrayed Floria Tosca 45 times in her career.

“Some of our patrons who watched the dress rehearsals said it was one of the greatest things the Eugene Opera has ever produced,” he says. “That no one else is going to see it is very disappointing.”

Bisantz says what’s unprecedented about social distancing measures’ impact on the arts is that if there was an earthquake in Eugene that halted production, opera would be performed somewhere else. In this case, opera has been called off everywhere.  

“People who love this art form are going to need to rally in an extraordinary way first to preserve their local companies,” he says. “If people in Eugene want an opera company, this is where their support should be.”

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