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Minnesota Opera’s Ryan Taylor: ‘We have everything on the table’

In March of this year, when COVID hit, Minnesota Opera canceled the rest of its 2019-20 season, then returned in August with a mostly digital Fall 2020. It began with a program at CHS Field and continues this weekend with 2016’s “Das Rheingold.”

Minnesota Opera President Ryan Taylor
Minnesota Opera President Ryan Taylor: "This company knew before I returned four and a half years ago how to make it through a season, when it was time to plan, when it was time to execute, when it was time to perform, when it was time to engage with education events. What [COVID] has done is force us to lose all of that rhythm and all of those habits and really think about what’s next."
Minnesota Opera

If there were no pandemic, Minnesota Opera would have recently completed its first production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” and before that a revival of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” It would be preparing for February 2021 and the contemporary American opera “Blue,” about the killing of an unarmed Black man by police.

March would have brought Rossini’s glittering “Cinderella,” followed in May by a revival of the opera’s 2016 hit “The Shining.” And the world premiere of the first-ever opera based on a Hmong story.

But there is a pandemic, and it has cut like a scythe through Minnesota Opera’s plans and those of every other arts organization on the planet. While the Opera Center in the Warehouse District sits empty, Ryan Taylor, the opera’s president and general director, and his staff are working from home.

A former operatic baritone who sang more than 30 roles, Taylor formed an attachment to the Minnesota Opera when he spent the 2000-01 season here as a member of its Resident Artist Program. He was serving as general director of the Arizona Opera when the opportunity arose to return. After three directors in five years, Minnesota Opera needed stability. Taylor stepped into his new role in May 2016, wearing his trademark bow tie.

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In March of this year, when COVID hit, Minnesota Opera canceled the rest of its 2019-20 season, then returned in August with a mostly digital Fall 2020. (Please don’t say they “pivoted”; Taylor has banned that word, along with “reimagined.”) It began with a program at CHS Field and continues this weekend with 2016’s “Das Rheingold.”

In August, the opera also announced an in-person Spring 2021 season of two unnamed productions with local talent starting March 21. When we spoke with Taylor on Monday, he had a meeting that afternoon to talk about that.

“As of today, we know that we are unlikely to be able to gather in person in the way that we hoped might be possible in the spring,” he said. “We have a bunch of different options we’re looking at.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, there were very few expectations, and people were impressed just to see companies making progress forward. They wanted to see artists in their homes. Now, expectations are growing. We’re going to be responsive to that. I know what we don’t want to do is give a watered-down version of something. We want to do something different.

“So that’s where we’re at. We should have something to announce by early mid-December.”

As always, this conversion has been edited and condensed.

Minnesota Opera Center
Minnesota Opera
The Minnesota Opera performs at the Ordway in St. Paul, but its administrative offices, rehearsal facilities and scenic and costume shops are in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis.
MinnPost: What has been lost in the past eight months?

Ryan Taylor: I mourn the productions and the creative teams we had slated to bring in for this current season. They would have provided an incredible slate of opportunities for people to engage with the art form and engage in conversation. We were looking at pieces that were traditional and brand new, and ways to present some things that we hadn’t done before. A part of me will always miss what might have been.

The other thing we’ve lost isn’t necessarily all bad. Performance schedules have become so rigorous and habitual. You get into these habits and cycles of producing. Frequently, that doesn’t give us enough time to think big picture and long term about stability and the direction of our work. I think we have lost that rhythm.

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This company knew before I returned four and a half years ago how to make it through a season, when it was time to plan, when it was time to execute, when it was time to perform, when it was time to engage with education events. What [COVID] has done is force us to lose all of that rhythm and all of those habits and really think about what’s next. Do we want to go back to that again? I think most of us have decided no. There was a lot that was great about what we did, but there was also a lot that wasn’t going to be easy to change as long as we had to conform to that same pace and rhythm and work schedule.

We’d like to create something where audiences can continue to engage with this art form in a beautiful way. Something that makes it easier and better and more sustainable for those people who are creating and putting out the creative product.

MP: Are you talking about loosening up the schedule or revisiting the whole idea of a season?

RT: We have everything on the table. I’m gonna be real honest. There are things that we don’t want to give up, and things we don’t want to continue. We don’t want to give up producing opera of all kinds. How we go about doing that can change, now that we’ve interrupted the rhythm. Does it have to be the same times of year we’ve always done? Does it need to be in the same venues? Does it need to be in the same way?

I think about all the folks who joined us for Opera in the Outfield. The company has done things outdoors in the past, but very infrequently. Almost half of the people who came to see us [at CHS Field] had never been to anything we did before. We’re learning what those systems we had in place were helping us maintain, but also how they were keeping us from interacting with a larger percentage of the population.

MP: Because you’re not currently producing operas, what has this freed you to do instead?

RT: A lot of it has been around defining priorities. Our board at Minnesota Opera is extraordinarily gracious in their ability to give us some priorities. I talked with the leadership and the board at large for a long time about what was important in this moment. The most important thing was that there was a company on the other side of the pandemic. So, obviously, all of our decisions have to be viewed through the lens of fiscal sustainability.

The second thing they said was, “You must keep being creative. Your mission doesn’t change because of the pandemic.” We’ve been trying to figure out the correct balance of ways to sustain the organization and continue to be creative. That’s bringing us a lot of challenge. We are not producing on stage, but we are absolutely producing some things in new ways that will be revealed as we move through the rest of the season.

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MP: Did you have anything personal planned that you had to give up?

RT: I did. It was both personal and professional. I had some travel to England, where I was going to check in on some of their summer festivals. They’re a little bit ahead of this country on how they use found and unusual spaces to create opera. A number of brilliant small organizations were featured at a new works conference in New York a couple years ago. I was scheduled to go and spend a couple of weeks touring some of the smaller companies in London. I did give that up.

But I think we’re all learning there are benefits of taking a breath. I don’t want to spend every single day at home like I’m doing now, doing my part against the spread of the virus. But I’ve started cooking again, and I’ve started being creative on my own or with a friend here and there. I feel extraordinarily fortunate.

The cast of "Flight."
Photo by Dan Norman
A scene from “Flight” (2020), the Minnesota Opera’s last production before closing.
MP: Did you feel prepared to meet this crisis?

RT: No! But I feel we did things in a very responsible way. Short-term crisis management is something I do feel competent in. It was that third to sixth week when I started to feel like, “I have no training for managing in a pandemic.” I acknowledge that. But nobody else does, either.

There was a good deal of grace among the staff and the board of the organization. Everyone was acknowledging the same things at the same time. And I was also looking around to see who was doing it well. I’m fortunate to be well-connected to all of the operas in the United States through Opera America. In the Twin Cities, the cultural arts leaders have met on a regular basis to hear what each other is doing. So while I didn’t feel prepared, I wasn’t worried that we couldn’t find our way, because there is so much talent on the team.

MP: Are you talking about the group that Walker director Mary Ceruti started?

RT: Yes. Mary’s instinct to draw that group together was exactly right. It evolved organically to include more and more leaders from across the state. Also, the opera is part of the Arts Partnership with the Ordway, the Schubert Club and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. So I meet with those CEOs regularly. And I do some sessions with Opera America and general directors there across the country. Those are good resources to pull from.

MP: Is there anybody in particular you have turned to for advice?

RT: There are so many. That’s what’s great about the diversity of talent at the opera, as well as within our board.

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One of our most dedicated members of the Minnesota Opera production team, Kerry Masek, had decided that after the previous season she was going to move home to Philadelphia. She had been our production stage manager for seven or eight years and was absolutely critical to our operations. So that was going to be a blow to us. But she immediately decided, since we were all going to work remotely, that when invited, she could step in and help us plan our COVID procedures.

Maybe Dr. Fauci has read more about COVID studies and science and instrumentation and aerosol explosiveness from opera singers, or flutes and horns. But she might be able to beat him in a “Jeopardy!” smackdown of COVID-related information, especially how it pertains to our art form. She has become one of our greatest resources.

MP: What did you feel were your personal strengths coming into this, or strengths you’ve developed along the way?

RT: I’m not sure I would call this a personal strength, but I feel fortunate to have read a study that was done of prisoners of war. There were two types of ways people coped with their imprisonment. One was to say, “I’m sure within two weeks someone will have found me and freed me, and I’ll be on my way home.” They would set a deadline, and those two weeks kept getting moved and extended. They were constantly setting up self-defeating arbitrary dates. By the time they were freed back into their lives, they struggled a great deal.

The other type would say, “These are my circumstances now, and I’m going to make them the best I can until they change.” They didn’t constantly have that setup of expectation and disappointment over and over through their captivity.

Our planning, by and large, has been about, “Where are we now? What is possible?” We know there will be a period when the pandemic has moved on. What kinds of plans can we activate quickly when we reach that moment? We haven’t set any arbitrary deadlines, and I feel that has been a strength of our overall planning. It’s a strategy we’ve all embraced.

In terms of a personal strength, I would just say I have confidence in my ability to stay calm and steady. Maybe not always internally. But hopefully I don’t add to the difficult situation, or fan insecurities, before taking a breath and helping hold everybody together.

Brian Mulligan, center, played Jack Torrance in the original production of "The Shining."
Shining Production Photography/Ken Howard for Minnesota Opera, 2016
A scene from “The Shining” (2016), a Minnesota premiere that was scheduled to return as part of the opera’s 2020-21 season.
MP: In the midst of a global pandemic, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. How did this affect the opera and what was your response?

RT:  When I was hired to return to the company, part of my hiring process was an emphasis the board had an interest in: authentically pursuing equity, diversity and inclusivity. These have become hot-button words. The difference was that our board was ready to go. This was a priority for the institution.

You never know what your work will prepare you for, or what the calendar will present in terms of timing, but one of the things I found heartening in a time that was so dispiriting and so low was that we had put together new language for an ever-evolving diversity charter the company has had for three and a half years. We had settled on some specific goals around anti-racism and anti-oppression, and knowing that we were not there, we were not an institution on the other side of this work, or one that had fixed it or solved it, we were about to state them publicly.

George Floyd was killed on that Monday, and Thursday was to have been the board vote to approve the language in the charter. We took a breath to figure out how we were going to present that vote. Everyone on the staff and the board was well prepared. They all had seen versions of the document. But it was a tender time, and we didn’t know whether we would be able to discuss it effectively without emotions being too great in that moment. And as it turned out, everyone was excited to make this statement and know that it was not reactive to Monday, but it was more important than ever.

That week was when the social unrest began happening around our cities. On Sunday night, I wrote to the staff at large and said, “I’d like us all to gather on Monday afternoon. I want you to take the time you need to process what’s going on in our communities. I want to check in with everyone and make sure you’re well. But I also want us to spend some time together to figure out what our response to this moment in our community is going to be about.”

After much discussion, the staff divided into four different teams. There was a team that was going to spend Tuesday at protests. There was a team that was going to help clean up Lake Street. There was a team that was going to identify local churches that were collecting household necessities and food. That team was going to collect donations and deliver food and supplies. And there was a team who said, “We either have compromised immune systems or we’re in an age bracket that makes us more vulnerable to COVID, so we’re going to stay home and collate a list of resources.”

So we didn’t do opera business Monday and Tuesday of that week, but our work in being a good community partner continued, and each of us made an individual contribution. That made us feel more part of the community at large but also solidified our expectations and our commitments to one another. Some of our board joined us. So I was really quite moved.

I think it has helped inform our process moving forward. I think it has helped build trust within the organization that we will continue to approach things in a manner that fits the moment and that is flexible enough that all of us feel we have a place and a way to contribute effectively.

MP: Are you exploring ways to hold indoor events during COVID?

RT: Constantly. But we are unwilling to ask someone to do something that makes them uncomfortable. It’s hard work to be part of our COVID coordinating team. It isn’t technically or physically challenging, but it is deliberate, emotionally draining work, because you are constantly focused on risk. And you understand the risk that it poses. So it’s difficult for those workers who are tasked with doing that. And I don’t want anyone making themselves physically or emotionally worse.

This conflicts with the idea in the performing arts or entertainment culture that the show must go on. In many ways, that’s important. But unchecked and unbalanced, it can be toxic.

We’ve talked with a lot of artists and staff who lived through 9/11 and were asked to perform the night the Twin Towers fell. Many still carry the emotional burden of not being able to be with their family and friends to process what was happening during that time. So we’re taking a more circumspect approach and being very realistic about what we are able to do.

MP: COVID has forced everything to go digital. What do you see happening after COVID? What does the future of opera look like? Will it be a hybrid of real and digital?

RT: I think our arts institutions exist to provide these beautiful, ephemeral moments of connection. When you are sharing an artistic event that moves you and creates great beauty, and you are sharing that in a moment in time with a couple thousand people, that’s what we’re set up to do. And I think the value of that kind of moment does not go away.

The important thing for us is figuring out what we learn in this digital period. How do we communicate about our work? Is there some new aspect or angle we are creating that we will continue? I don’t know that I would go so far as to say opera will be a hybrid form. In a production like “Das Rheingold,” we were already using a lot of technical features onstage you wouldn’t have seen six or seven years ago. But I think we are learning a lot.

MP: What is the first thing you’ll do when you can do whatever you want?

RT: Personally, or the company?

MP: Why not both?

RT: I spent about three hours the other day with a good friend who lives in Paris. When I can, I like to be able to visit with her. She spent a lot of time singing and performing with me in the United States, she’s a terrific friend, and I would love to be able to see her live and in person.

As far as the company goes, I would like us to think about those first moments when we can get people back together. How can we do that in the most celebratory way?

***

Starting tomorrow (Saturday, Nov. 14), continuing through Nov. 28, Minnesota Opera’s 2016 production of Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” will be available to stream on demand in 2D, 3D or virtual reality. FMI and tickets (pay-what-you-want starting at $15, or $10 for Tempo members). The Fall 2020 season will continue with a live broadcast of a holiday special from the Ordway Concert Hall.