SALT LAKE CITY — Princess Leia thinks this whole working-from-home thing is pretty darn great.
Everyone else? Not so much.
Princess Leia is Patricia Richards’ cat, and the feline loves having the interim president and CEO of the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera — stylized as “Utah Symphony | Utah Opera” — around the house a lot more these days.
Richards, of course, would prefer things went back to the way they were before the coronavirus and social distancing basically exploded the Salt Lake-based arts organization’s plans for the coming year. As it is, Richards says safety and financial stability are the groups’ two most important goals right now.
“My primary objective, to be honest, is to make sure all the staff and musicians are safe and well,” Richards told the Standard-Examiner in a recent telephone interview. “That’s been our primary guide. We actually canceled our events a little bit before the county closed our venues — we just felt it was in the best interest of our employees and the public.”
And beyond that?
“We’re just trying to manage this financially, with all of our revenue streams just stopping,” Richards admits.
In looking at the transition to the other side of this pandemic, Richards believes it will take “a while” for audiences to come back to the symphony and opera.
“We think it’s going to take about two years to get back to what we would even marginally call normal,” Richards said. “I say this because of our experience after 9/11. The fear, the sense of invasion, caused people not to gather in groups for a long time. National statistics say it took audiences two years to get back to normal.”
Until there’s a vaccine and effective treatments for COVID-19, Richards doesn’t believe people will be comfortable in large groups.
“Our hall seats 2,800 people, and that’s a lot of people in an enclosed space,” she said. “It will take us a while to get our audiences back.”
In the meantime, the symphony and opera are exploring ways to continue to engage with the community.
“Music does bring people together,” Richards said. “And at times like this, that matters more than anything.”
Paula Fowler is director of education and community outreach for Utah Symphony | Utah Opera. She says the organization is beefing up its digital resources to offer more online content to Utahns.
“Our mission is to connect communities through great live music,” Fowler said. “We treasure the experience of coming together — there’s something so magical about that. But we can’t do it safely right now, so we have to adjust to the situation we’re in.”
Since the early days of the pandemic, Fowler says a lot of musicians have been taking to their own social media sites to offer virtual concerts. The Utah Symphony and Utah Opera arts organizations have been picking up those videos and offering them on their websites.
Richards says she hopes Utahns will take advantage of the opportunity to hear world-class musicians for free.
“Utah has more in the way of high-level performing arts — for our size — than any other community,” she said.
Both the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera organizations are offering instructional learning videos in a program called “School From Home,” as well as on-demand streaming in listening rooms.
The Utah Symphony website, at utahsymphony.org, offers music bingo, activity sheets, an “Ask a Musician” section, a music scavenger hunt, instrument video library and more. The “Living Room Concerts” feature allows visitors to watch informal concerts from home to maintain social distance.
“A lot of our musicians, they miss playing for people,” Fowler said. “So even though they can’t see the audience now, they love sharing music with them.”
Utah Opera’s website, at utahopera.org, provides virtual assemblies for children, an “Ask a Singer (or Pianist)” feature and a number of videos that teach various vocal techniques to young singers. In addition, Utah Opera commissioned four short operas for the sesquicentennial of the transcontinental railroad last year; those were recorded and are now in the process of having subtitles added to them, according to Fowler.
“We know that school teachers have been given a huge burden here, so we’re trying to help with ‘School From Home’ and other digital resources,” Fowler said. “We were just thinking, ‘How can we help teachers, and keep students’ minds engaged and learning in the area we represent — music?’”
When the pandemic eventually begins to weaken and disappear, arts organizations like Utah Symphony | Utah Opera will be looking at its programming to determine when it will be safe to again put 90 musicians on stage.
“We think we’ll have to be flexible, we think we’ll have to be creative, we think we’ll need the support of our communities,” Richards said. “Because whatever we do will not be economical. It will be very hard to support our artistic endeavors, so we’ll rely on the generosity of the community to keep us going.”
Richards said everyone in the company would rather be gathering safely and performing in front of live audiences, and they look forward to the day that’s again a possibility.
“Everybody is already envisioning the emotions of being back in the concert hall or Capitol Theatre,” Fowler said. “One artist said they love sitting on stage and looking out into a hall with people — it’s something we took for granted.
“We won’t do that now,” she continued. “Now, when we have that opportunity, we’ll pinch ourselves.”
If there’s a silver lining in the coronavirus pandemic madness, Richards believes it’s that people will come to appreciate the value of arts more.
“Especially when you haven’t been able to experience it in person for a while,” she said. “You notice what you miss, and how much you miss it.”
Until then, Richards will continue to spend a lot more time with Princess Leia, working — as with so many others — from her computer at home.
“My cat thinks this is the greatest thing ever,” Richards said, adding with a laugh: “And, she types the most interesting things when she walks across my keyboard.”