When Inland Northwest Opera general director Dawn Wolski heard about the statewide restrictions on live entertainment announced last week, she feared the worst for Opera Gram, the opera’s fledgling performance-by-appointment program.
The new restrictions on live entertainment, essentially banning it without exception , were released July 16 and went into effect on July 20.
The original ruling prohibited all live entertainment, indoor or outdoor, statewide, including drive-in concerts, comedy clubs and music in restaurants without exception.
“One of the things that’s a gift with the arts but also a challenge is that the arts naturally encourage people to come together. That is actually our purpose,” Wolski said. “But we are all willing to comply.”
It was unclear, Wolski explained, in the first iteration of the directive, whether performances on private property were prohibited or only those in public venues. So, after consulting with lawyers regarding the applicability of the new law to Opera Gram, Wolski and her team quickly reached out to the governor’s office through a variety of channels.
The opera heard back from the governor’s office directly on Monday. Nick Streuli, the executive director of external affairs, explained over email that, unfortunately, as described, Opera Grams could not proceed.
Wolski followed up immediately, sending Streuli a video of the kind of performance in practice. During any Opera Gram performance, she explained, artists are required to stand at least 20 feet away from listeners while they sing. She quickly received a call back.
“I just started asking questions: Say uncle Guido wants to bring his accordion over to his niece’s to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in a backyard – that’s prohibited? He said, ‘Correct.’ And I said OK … say one of our students is practicing diligently in their practice room, but then sometimes they’re going out on their back deck or balcony and performing for the neighbors across the fence?”
That got Streuli’s attention.
They spoke for over half an hour, and by the end, Wolski had brought up enough points and questions that Streuli promised to take them back to his team.
“He was extremely receptive, but I didn’t know if it was going to make any change,” Wolski said.
Wolski said she explained that the opera had every intention of complying with whatever decision the governor’s office made but that it was critical that representatives from the various sectors of the arts community have a seat at the table during the discussion and given the chance to provide input about their varied circumstances.
“I feel that there has not been equitable treatment between the various industries in how they are permitted to proceed,” she said. “Other industries – particular businesses within those industries – here have specific mandates that they are supposed to be following in terms of all the various safety protocols. And yet there’s this one size fits all, unilateral, uncompromising ban on live entertainment.”
“Give us the opportunity to follow the same mandates as any other industry that you are allowing to open. Give us the opportunity to meet those standards, as well. We’re willing to comply, but we need a seat at the table.”
Wednesday, the next day, Streuli forwarded the revised memorandum, which now reads, “All live entertainment is prohibited except performances outdoors for members of the same household where social distancing of a minimum of 10 feet is always maintained from the entertainer, and facial coverings are worn by all individuals.”
The new rule will allow Opera Gram to continue bookings after all.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Wolski said, explaining how Streuli had thanked her and highlighted the role her insights had played in the revision. He also invited her to participate in the continuing conversation. “I don’t have a lot of experience lobbying for the arts … this has definitely whetted my appetite to be more involved in advocating for the arts and for our artists.”
“At the end of the day, Opera Grams are not about financial gain for INO; they don’t make us money, ” Wolski said. “What they are doing is giving me an opportunity to hire our local artists, give them work and give them a place to be creative and an outlet for their art.”
For information about Opera Gram, visit inlandnwopera.com.