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Arts & Life

After Mid-Production Stop Last Year, Lyric Opera Of Kansas City 'Treads Lightly,' Stays Optimistic About Post-Pandemic Future

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Don Ipock
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Lyric Opera of Kansas City
Lyric Opera of Kansas City launched Soundscapes in the City, a series of outdoor concerts, in August 2020. They plan to continue the series in 2021.

It's been a year since the Lyric Opera of Kansas City performed at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

On March 7, 2020, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City opened "Lucia di Lammermoor" at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Two performances in and the production closed — when most of Kansas City, Missouri, shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The Lyric still hasn’t returned to performances at the Kauffman Center, and so far no date is scheduled.

KCUR spoke with Deborah Sandler, general director and CEO of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, to reflect on how this past year has changed the arts. Here's an edited version of the conversation.

Q: I wonder if you could take us back to that opening weekend [March 7] and what it was like then.

Sandler: It really snowballed, you know ... I mean, it was shocking. We knew something was coming down and, we knew the nation was in the grips of something very unusual.

We didn't expect it to impact us as quickly as it did because the next morning [March 12] the mayor [Quinton Lucas] came out with a set of protocols and he talked about no gatherings of 1,000 or more.

And we knew what our figures looked like on Friday. We thought, 'We can get in there Friday. We can do it!' But we thought about it long and hard. And we said, 'No, we're not going to do it.' We talked to the Kauffman Center and we very sadly had to wish our cast goodbye. And it was heartbreaking because we loved that show. I mean, such a performance.

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Karli Cadel
In this scene from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City's 'Lucia di Lammermoor,' Enrico begs Lucia to marry Arturo.

Q: I can only imagine, you know, after a rehearsal process and getting the show off the ground and then having it stop mid midstream after just two performances. Was there anything in particular that you remember any of the cast members saying to you about not being able to finish out the show?

Sandler: I think everybody was upset, but everybody was also scared. Right? Because nobody knew what was ahead of us.

Our conductor kept assuring us that 'No, no, no, this was going to go away.' And, you know, he wanted to stay here [in Kansas City] until he had to go to his next engagement, which he was sure was going to happen. It was in Atlanta. And of course, it didn't happen.

You know, we loved that show. And what we know is that as an ensemble continues to perform a show together, it becomes more meaningful and it gets stronger and stronger.

And it was just so very sad. It was so very sad.

Q: I feel like we're entering a new period with the rollout of the vaccines — and it seems like there's a sense of optimism, but also uncertainty. Maybe I'll just have you talk a little bit about how you're feeling about things now, and as you look ahead in the coming months.

Sandler: Since March [2020], since we started rethinking and reinventing, I decided that it would be good to be conservative, to be very, very conservative. And among the arts institutions in the city, you'll see a lot of elasticity. You know, somebody's wildly optimistic and I was always on the less optimistic side ...

So it's not like flipping a light switch. It's more like slowly turning a dimmer.
Lyric Opera of Kansas City's Deborah Sandler

I do believe we're entering another phase ... I'm optimistic enough to say we will be performing next year. Not exactly the way it was because this thing has had a very serious effect on all of us. So it's not like flipping a light switch. It's more like slowly turning a dimmer.

And, in between, we're doing a program that we call Soundscapes [in the City], which has a number of outdoor performances, which we think are safe. But we are treading lightly into next year and we don't know what's going to happen ... So, you know, we're keeping one eye on now and one eye on the future.

Q: When you think about lessons learned this year, either for you personally or as an organization, what would you say?

Sandler: Whenever we start to create a product, an artistic product, I'm reminded of why I do what I do. Because all of us feel so much better when we're creating a product, when we're doing something, whether it be live or whether it be filmed or whether we're in the planning process. So we know what we do, why we do it, and why we love it. That's all a good thing ...

I think that the community has been very patient. The arts community has been very supportive and that's a wonderful thing for all of us.

We, of course, had to make our organization smaller, both in terms of budget and the number of employees, and everybody who was with us has really stepped up and worked very hard. So I'm very proud of our organization and proud of the community.

And we've learned a lot more about what some of our assets are here [in Kansas City] because whatever we've done we've had to do locally. And so we've discovered some new friends, we've discovered some new talent that we didn't know about, and that's a very exciting thing. So I'm looking forward to continuing those new associations and new friendships as we go forward.

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Don Ipock
In October, Lyric Opera of Kansas City hosted Soundscapes in the City, one of their outdoor performances, at the World War I Museum and Memorial.

Q: There might be some hesitancy, people who are not quite ready to venture out. Do you think that there will be a continued combination of in-person and virtual events? You know, do you think that's just going to be the new norm going forward as people maybe have become accustomed to entertainment at home?

Sandler: Well, the conventional wisdom is that the arts world has changed. And as we go forward, people will want digital products, as well as live in-person performances.

My own feeling is that people are so starved for a communal arts performance that unless you have a reason that you have to be at home and you can't get out, I think people want to be out.

Q: Anything else you'd want to add or you feel like is important for people to know right now?

Sandler: Come back. Everybody has to come back. We want you to come back. We may not do as much as you might want, but believe me, we're doing the best we can as quickly as we can. And just stick with us because there's nothing that makes us happier than putting on opera, putting on musical products.

You know, I said to somebody that what we do is like having a big party and inviting somebody to your home. And that's how I feel. Our door's open, we want people to come in. So let's continue being patient and have an optimistic outlook and we will get through this.

As Kansas City reflects on a year shaped by COVID-19, KCUR is looking back with decision-makers whose leadership played a crucial role at the beginning of what we know now as a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

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