Pittsburgh arts orgs are bracing and adapting during omicron — audiences remain loyal

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Pittsburgh arts orgs are bracing and adapting during omicron — audiences remain loyal
© Provided by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After a hopeful fall season that saw many theaters, orchestra halls and opera houses fling their doors open to the masked masses, things are looking grim once more in parts of the country.

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Broadway in New York City has been reporting ticket sales about 30% lower than in previous years, a significant blow to the sector’s bottom line. Various touring shows and orchestras have been forced to pause or outright cancel shows in the face of positive COVID-19 tests.

In Pittsburgh, things are difficult but less dire, both in terms of attendance and what it means for organizations’ bottom lines. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra this weekend has, for the second weekend in a row, been forced to cancel or alter its programming due to a key musician testing positive for COVID-19. Because of the organization’s contact-tracing protocols, that single positive test meant that two weekends’ worth of programming had to be adjusted. 

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The organization scrambled its resources and managed to mount smaller, alternate programs for ticket holders, who retained the option of swapping for another show or requesting a refund.

“People are canceling left and right at other orchestras,” said Christopher Wu, a violinist with the orchestra. “The fact that we’re still putting something out is a herculean effort on a dime.”

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A symphony spokeswoman echoed him, saying the organization would “move mountains” if a concert had to be “reimagined.”

The switches are keeping orchestra musicians on their toes, changing repertoire at the last minute, “like a football team changing opponents at the last second,” Mr. Wu said.

Musicians who performed at an adjusted concert Jan. 14 said attendance was strong — the balcony was closed, but more than one attendee estimated that the floor of Heinz Hall was 80% full — but the adjustments are causing some exasperation.

“I generally sense that people are trying to be supportive of these organizations’ measures, but it’s frustrating for all of us,” said Ron Smutny, of Bethel Park, a symphony subscriber and volunteer for more than 20 years.

Mr. Smutny said he understands the need for concerts to change at this point and that he’d consider attending altered programming, but added, “It’d be disappointing not to enjoy what I was told I’d hear.”

Overall, the organization continues to lag up to 15% behind pre-COVID years in terms of ticket sales, but 2022 is selling well despite the surge of the virus’ omicron variant, the symphony said.

Pittsburgh Opera is also bracing for possible positive tests. The company’s current production, “The Rose Elf,” which runs through Jan. 30 at the opera’s headquarters in the Strip District, is sold out. That space can hold 200 listeners per show.

Only five singers and a handful of musicians are performing, and according to Chris Cox, the opera’s director of marketing and communications, if someone tested positive, backups are rehearsed and ready to go.

“If enough critical people were out at the same time, it’s possible we’d have to cancel, but we’ve got contingency plans in place,” he said.

The financial situation is also less dire here. While Broadway relies on ticket sales for its profits, ticket sales at Pittsburgh Opera, for example, only account for about 20% of its overall budget. The rest comes from foundation and individual philanthropy and public and corporate funding. Mr. Cox said these have remained strong.

While individual musicians and artists suffered severe financial losses during the pandemic, many larger organizations, especially, fared well fiscally, as a year of low costs and generous federal and state funding more than offset ticket revenue.

According to Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, where about 83% of revenue comes from earned revenue such as ticket sales,at least one touring show in the past month has had to cancel its stop because of positive COVID-19 tests in the cast. But attendance at the Broadway series and other offerings remains strong.

Sales are below pre-pandemic levels at present but climbing, Mr. McMahon said. 

“While New York is largely a tourist market – and we know people are traveling less at the moment – we attract a largely regional audience from the Tri-State area to our Broadway program,” he pointed out as a possible reason why the numbers are not dropping at present.

“At this point, everyone’s frustrated,” said Mr. Wu. “Nobody knows what will happen. Everyone has their own opinions, and it’s tough to agree on the best way to move forward.”

Still, he said, music and the arts are powerful drivers of social connection.

Mr. Smutny, the symphony subscriber who also attends the opera and a variety of other cultural offerings, described the arts as critical to life.

“It’s not the most pleasant thing, having to wear a mask and the like, but if you value the art, it’s worth it,” he said.

Jeremy Reynolds: jreynolds@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634; twitter: @Reynolds_PG. Mr. Reynolds’ work at the Post-Gazette is supported by a grant from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Getty Foundation and Rubin Institute.

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