No. 13 • 2020-08-05

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The Opera Philadelphia Channel

It’s a gross understatement to say that the pandemic has upended the arts and culture communities. Performing arts organizations dependent on live audiences have all been forced to reexamine fundamental assumptions and adapt quickly after cancelling some or all of the 2020-21 season. Many have turned to online content, primarily streaming performances from back catalogs, while sprinkling in a few experiments with virtual live/recorded performances (mostly available for free, but sometimes for a fee or donation).

Long before COVID-19, but amidst a challenging arts landscape, Opera Philadelphia has demonstrated a willingness to embrace non-traditional, innovative approaches. The company refocused around a new model in 2017, launching the inaugural O Festival. It was billed as operatic binge watching… a way to “Netflix the [live] opera experience”. In early May I wrote about their Digital Festival O (you can still stream 3 of their world premiere productions, through the end of August), a timely reaction to the necessities of the pandemic. I think this quick experiment has been invaluable for creating the path to the future.

Now, rather than Netflix-ing live opera, they are opera-tizing Netflix. The Fall 2020 festival can’t happen as planned, so the company has rapidly pivoted its 20-21 season to the new Opera Philadelphia Channel, a streaming service.

It’s a lineup of primarily premieres and reimagined works filmed specifically for this format, favoring new work over pre-existing recordings. The back-catalog may appeal to opera lovers, but it also lacks a sense of immediacy (after all, it’s already part of history and you can watch it later). The premiere of new work is an event, tied to a particular moment in time, which I believe to be crucial for the performing arts.

Most interesting to me, they will “commission and premiere four new digital works from some of today’s most dynamic composers”. My hope is that they will lean into the possibilities of the video format with these new commissions. Filmed versions of staged operas and recitals are really just a nostalgic substitute, but new digital works can define a new genre. Put another way, the native medium of opera is live performance, and it’s difficult to build audiences through something that’s a shadow of the real thing. But there’s an opportunity to create new fans of this emerging content medium that is digitally native.

It’s a bold move. This is the time to experiment, and to embrace new ways of creating. A season subscription is $99 (some will perceive as low and others will think it’s absurdly high). I think it’s priced correctly… Artists and arts organizations should be paid, and it’s going to take a lot to film and produce these works. Efforts like this are a big reason I’m a fan of the company, and I applaud Opera Philadelphia for jumping headfirst into this experiment.

(Socially) Distant Creations

What I’m creating

Last week, I presented an online session, Keep Singing! – Creating a Virtual Chorusfor the Apple Distinguished Educator Festival of Learning. It’s a one-hour tutorial, primarily for music educators, summarizing the process of creating a virtual chorus, from recording to audio mixing to video editing. I hope you’ll share it with anyone who might find it helpful.

No. 10 • 2020-07-08

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Art, Education, Tech, and Equity

Mid-Summer is normally a time for performances, festivals, and new works spanning all art forms and genres. But right now there’s no clear path in sight for the return of live audiences, especially with COVID-19 cases rising across the country. Conversely, with the start of Fall terms now just 1-2 months off, most in education are consumed with plans for reopening our schools, colleges, and universities for possible in-person instruction, thoughseveral prominent Universities have announced highly scaled back versions of an on-campus experience.

Both the performing arts and education have turned to technology as a partial solution (online classes and streaming performances). At the start of the crisis, most of us accepted the tradeoffs of moving (too) quickly online for classes this past spring. We could be forgiven for making it up as we were going along, because well… we were. When performance venues shut down, any new bit of content or diversion was received by audiences as a gift. And with ticket income essentially going to zero, any opportunity for engagement (and maybe even a tiny bit of revenue) was welcomed by arts organizations.

Technology can be used in amazing ways, enabling us to do and create things that weren’t previously possible. But the use of tech can also further divide us into haves and have nots. Much has been written about the Digital Divide, the inequitable access to high speed internet that hinders education, employment, and economic opportunity. I believe that internet access should be a right and a public utility, but also that the growing divide is about much more than access.

While we rely more and more on technology, it is also clear that the tech industry has an equity problem. The most profitable companies in the world are also some of the least diverse. We all use products and services from Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, while their employees are overwhelmingly white and Asian males. It’s not that I believe there’s ill intent, but when there’s a lack of diversity among the voices involved in the creation of new tech, the outcomes also serve a less diverse audience (and are sometimes downright scary). Racially biased facial recognition systems have led to false arrests. Amazon inadvertently built an AI for human resources biased against women

So, I don’t think about the Digital Divide in terms of devices and connections, but rather the pathway to generate knowledge, creativity, and opportunity. While smartphones are nearly ubiquitous, the software applications (and expertise) to assemble creative collaborations (the kind that I try to highlight in this newsletter) aren’t widespread. I fear that COVID-19 isolation is further increasing the digital access divide into a learning and cultural divide: those with essentially unlimited bandwidth, equipment, and training to participate in creative making and learning vs. those without.

For more information and resources, I spoke about this topic in my
TEDxPhiladelphia 2019 talk, Getting Woke to the Digital Divide.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • What to My People is the Fourth of July [Daveed Diggs] A powerful video monologue inspired by Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”.
  • 8 Minutes 46 Seconds [Richard Young and friends, including Joseph Conyers of the Philadelphia Orchestra ] A moving collaborative performance by musicians from around the world of the “Albinoni Adagio” (by Remo Giazzoto), in tribute to George Floyd, lasting exactly 8:46.
  • With a Little Help From My Friends [The Muppets & James Corden] Heartwarming socially-distanced performance of the Beatles’ classic tune by our favorite characters.
  • Pipelinefunk [Armin Küpper, via YouTube] An amazing solo saxophone jam using a huge pipeline as a creative partner.
  • WAFM [Greg Chun] Original a cappella song and public service announcement that perfectly captures the current moment, by actor and composer (and Fleet Street alum) Greg Chun.

What I’m creating

Your (semi) weekly Hamilton reference… No way to convey the beginning and ending rhythms of this song with piano (at least not with my meager keyboard skills). So I combined last week’s intro and outro using Minecraft music blocks with piano and vocals. Sorry to make you Wait For It.