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Lessons From a Land Hurricane

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In October 1787, the premiere of Don Giovanni was postponed twice due to unprepared performers and tough rehearsal scheduling (according to Mozart.)

In July 2012, Wolf Trap Opera's opening of Don Giovanni was postponed twice due to a land hurricane. (It even has a meteorological name: derecho. I'm not making this up.)

We managed our first full performance of Giovanni on our third try, and a little over a week after the storm, everyone finally had electricity restored. The superstitious among us might be forgiven for thinking that the price for setting an 18th-century opera in the technology-saturated 21st century was to have all of us thrust back to 18th-century darkness and heat. Of course everyone had their theories as to who was responsible: the title characters whose friends wished him "Go to hell!" instead of "Break a leg," the singer who maintains her flirtations with this particular opera have always been somehow cursed, and yours truly who wore a white dress instead of a black one to opening night for the first time in her life. But show business folk aren't superstitious. Really...

No matter who was responsible, lessons were learned. We live in a small corner of a small business. Our constituents are few by any measure (about 80 employees and 1,500 patrons), but being good stewards during these challenging few days was as important for us as it would be for any organization, large or small.

It's Only Opera

Business as usual in the theatre (well, probably in most places, but I'll stick to what I know...) can be far more dramatic than necessary. Forgot to spike the chair? Horrors!! Violin parts aren't bowed correctly? Tragedy!! Singer has a sinus infection? Life can't possibly go on...

But when there is a true challenge, all the little things take a back seat where they belong. And it's not the end of the world, none of it. I don't mean to belittle the value of what we do to make people's lives more vivid, but it's only opera. If everyone is safe and healthy (even if they're hot as hell and in the dark...) that's what really matters.

Generosity of Spirit

I was among the handful of Wolf Trap employees calling patrons to notify them of the rescheduled show, and I was astonished by the number of folks who were truly sweet and generous. (Of course, there are the "how-dare-you-do-this?!?" outliers, but they were few.) Even in a one-minute phone call, they expressed support for our little company and empathized with us as we tackled this little bump in the road.

Make Up Your Mind

We heard from multiple patrons and staff members how much they appreciated the fact that we made quick and clear decisions and stuck to them. At the time, these decisions felt a little knee-jerk, certainly outside of the considered and thoughtful way we like to do business. But we learned again that in the absence of a 100% guaranteed "right" decision, people just appreciate decisiveness and clarity.

Don't You Love Live Theatre?

The patrons who didn't get to see the show end on opening night (and the singers who were cut off mid-scene) weren't happy with the way the show slammed into a brick wall at the moment Donna Elvira was lamenting that "Heaven's anger cannot be delayed; I can already sense the fatal lightning bolt and see the deadly abyss of hell opening up..." (Hmmm... in retrospect, I guess we should be glad it wasn't worse...) But everyone who was there will have a story to tell, about the time that Don Giovanni lived.

This came home to me in a big way when, in the wake of this event, patrons who saw our 2003 Barber of Seville cut short by a thunderstorm reminisced so enthusiastically and fondly about being there when Rosina, Almaviva and Figaro were stranded on the second floor of Bartolo's house, never to escape for all eternity. (The very definition of failure to launch, I would guess.)

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And now, with Mozart in the rear-view mirror, we move from classical to neo-classical, with Stravinsky's touching and elegant The Rake's Progress. Come along for the ride.

"My life lies before me,
The world is so wide:
Come, wishes, be horses;
This beggar shall ride!"

(Tom Rakewell, via W.H. Auden)