Tamino, in the foreground, played by Geoffrey Agpalo, performs while a monster, operated by puppeteer Ian Bannon, approaches in the background during the opening night of Opera Maine’s production of “The Magic Flute” at Merrill Auditorium in 2019. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Opera Maine plans to present live opera with in-person audiences at Merrill Auditorium this summer, an indication the arts are beginning to recover after a lost year.

But the Portland-based opera company, which is expected to announce details of its plans on Friday, is uncertain how many tickets it will be able to sell or what its budget will be for the one-act production of “The Elixir of Love” on July 28 and July 30. The move by Opera Maine comes after Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, recently cautioned arts leaders who are eager to return to normal, “We must not declare victory prematurely.”

Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, spoke about the perils of reopening during a National Endowment for the Arts webinar exploring best practices among arts venues. “I believe we likely could see a return to more fully open Broadway shows and movie theaters sometime in the fall,” he told about 7,000 participants from across the country on Tuesday. “No guarantee, and at least initially we will still need to be wearing masks.”

The arts are slowly coming back in Maine. The Portland Museum of Art reopened Thursday, and last week, the Bates Dance Festival announced it would return with a limited in-person festival this summer, including instruction and performance. Portland Stage will present the comedy “Bad Dates” in April, the fourth live production the theater has hosted since reopening in the fall with small shows and limited audiences.

Opera Maine’s decision to move forward with “The Elixir of Love” is significant because it signals a return to ticketed performances at Merrill. Other summer arts presenters, including the Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick and the Ogunquit Playhouse, have not announced their plans. Ogunquit is committed to a four-show season, but Bradford T. Kenney, executive artistic director, did not return a message Thursday to discuss details. Curt Dale Clark, artistic director at Maine State, said he was exploring “all options to give us the best chance at an actual season, potentially backing the season up into the fall.” He did not offer details how that might work. Maine State performs on campus at Bowdoin College and is restricted by the college calendar.

Caroline Koelker, executive director of Opera Maine, said the organization’s decision to return to in-person, indoor performances was based on a desire to help artists return to work with the confidence it could stage a meaningful production safe for audiences and performers alike. While “The Elixir of Love” by Gaetano Donizetti will be fully costumed and staged with sets, lighting and “the whole shebang,” Koelker said the production would be modified and presented without intermission.


Instead of a production involving as many as 175 artists and technicians as is typical of an Opera Maine production, the July presentation will be “relatively small” with five principal singers, a chorus of 10 and an orchestra of 16. Opera Maine also will present “As One,” a contemporary two-voice opera about about identity, on July 16 and 18, as part of Studio Artists program. The location of that production has not been determined, Koelker said.

At this time, based on current state regulations involving indoor gatherings, Koelker said Opera Maine could sell up to about 400 tickets to Merrill, which can accommodate about 1,900 people. The number of available tickets likely will increase later in the spring and summer, if public health conditions improve and distancing regulations are lessened. Opera Maine is working with PortTix, the Merrill box office, to determine the best way to handle ticket sales. “Right now, we are thinking of selling tickets within a section and then waiting to assign seating until closer to the performance date, but that is yet to be determined,” she said. “But what we do know is that it will be a new process for our community.”

Tickets for the main stage production likely will go on sale in April. Audience members will be required to wear masks.

Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, who chairs a House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees arts funding, presented grim data Thursday about the impact of COVID-19 on the arts and humanities during a Congressional hearing that included testimony from one Maine arts leader.

Pingree said museums and historic sites were losing about $1 billion a month collectively and the unemployment rate among artists remains exceptionally high. While the national unemployment rate for the fourth quarter of 2020 was about 6 percent, the rate for dancers and choreographers was 77.8 percent; among actors it was 47.6 percent and among musicians 21.5 percent, Pingree said. “These are sobering statistics about the state of our arts and humanities organizations across the country, and it is important to remember that there are real people behind those numbers.”

Kathleen Mundell, who directs the Camden-based nonprofit Cultural Resources that works to preserve and promote traditional arts in Maine, testified about a year of “tremendous loss – of lives, of jobs, and of human connection.” Many of the organization’s apprenticeships were postponed, as well as a new exhibition, “Always Home: Wabanaki Traditional Arts,” which was to open at Monson Arts last year.


With Cares Act funding, Cultural Resources will move forward with the apprenticeships and open the exhibition at the end of May, Mundell testified. “We have also seen the extraordinary capacity of the human spirit to find ways to keep going,” she told the subcommittee’s members. “I believe supporting traditional arts helps people through such dark times by honoring people, their places and their cultural practices.”

Opera Maine also received Cares Act funding and will seek additional federal money when it becomes available in April through recent legislation, Koelker said.

Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director at Portland Stage, said it’s been an exhausting year, and she encouraged people “to just hang in there for another month or two” with strict adherence to public-health safety measures, and then maybe public-health conditions will improve enough that “we might be in the clear.” She is following vaccination rates and COVID-19 case numbers in Maine on a daily basis. She is pleased so many people have received at least one dose of a vaccination, but frustrated so many people are still getting sick.

“It’s discouraging to see the numbers go up instead of just plummeting down,” she said.

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