by Jake Pesaruk
Dynasty is no safeguard against the corrosive nature of COVID-19, and even some of Toronto’s most esteemed venues have taken severe dents to their foundation over the last year.
The Opera House, one of the city’s bastions for live talent, temporarily shut its doors last spring and faced down the barrel of a harsh disruption.
“Our calendar was booked solid; spring is a very busy time for us, as all the bands are usually at the height of their tour season,” says Athena Towers, owner and operator of The Opera House.
Towers has been operating The Opera House for over 30 years. The venue is located in Toronto’s Riverside neighbourhood and resides in a refurbished 100-year-old vaudeville theatre. Towers champions how the neighbourhood has evolved over the years along with the venue, marking an era of lively crowds and an urban pulse — until the pandemic booted the doors down.
“Not a soul knew what was happening; everything got pushed and postponed, first to the summer of 2020 and then fall. It was like a domino effect; as of now, everything is booked to the end of 2021, and even backup holds are being placed into 2022.”
Booking woes impacting venues are just a mild symptom of the pandemic.
Being an established figure in the music scene, Towers has also been receiving a deluge of requests for information and updates.
“I’m still getting emails from people that have previously booked asking if they will be okay for September. I don’t know what to tell them; I don’t get my information any earlier than they do.”
The Opera House, like many venues, has been subject to relief programs operating within the city. Such as the fifty percent tax reduction offered to venues by the municipal government and outreach from the Canadian Live Music Association, the Department of Candian Heritage and FACTOR.
While these outside variables relieve some of the mounting pressures of sustaining an empty venue for a year, there is one aspect that keeps The Opera House from boarding up their windows and handing in their keys — and that’s family.
The venue is family-owned and operated, meaning that the hovering shadow of an unforgiving or impatient landlord is a non-concern. This, however, does not omit The Opera House from suffering the logistical terror of keeping the lights on; if anything, it enhances it.
“After running a venue for 31 years, I’ve had to pivot countless times to keep this venue open. That being said, I’ve had to pivot again,” Towers says with an exhausted tone.
One of these major pivots is THE HUB, which has turned The Opera House’s stage into a professional space for live-streaming and recording for artists.
“We were approached by PRG and Lemmon Entertainment and asked to put their resources towards something unique at The Opera House. This is a team of some very talented people letting the public know we’re here and that you can shoot live content and broadcast it, whether the client wants to make it free, a ticketed event or even if they want to sell merch.”
THE HUB launched this March, and Towers is eagerly awaiting to see how it will be utilized over the coming months.
“We started it on the principle of employing people, getting our sound people back to work, video operators and lighting techs. So that one day we can get everyone back.”
But what will become of the venue when it can finally reopen its doors?
Just like any business operator in the city, Towers is waiting on bated breath to see what aspects of her building can be utilized for any live prospects.
This process, along with the prospects, is not ideal.
“It’s hard for us because of the capacity of the venue, we were the first to close, and I believe we’ll be the last to open,” Towers says in an exhale.
The Opera House used to hold almost close to a thousand people on a sold-out night. These packed nights were not only the bread and butter for the venue but for the artists as well. A system that Towers believes may not return for some time, making any notion of reopening not worth the price of admission.
“When bands are paid, they’re paid on the basis of a sold-out full capacity show. A promoter can’t risk doing a show at our venue if our capacity is twenty-five percent… If a band gets paid ten thousand US, plus their catering rider, plus advertising, it ends up being over twenty thousand once the show is said and done. They need to be able to generate that revenue from ticket sales if they’re going to break even and make a little for themselves.”
As for any willingness to budge to reopening with a smaller capacity, Towers isn’t drinking the kool-aid.
“People want to dance. They want to mingle. They don’t want to be socially distanced in a venue like ours.”
Instead, Towers is opting to wait out the potential closing act of the pandemic, as vaccines are on the horizon.
“There are two ways to look at it, there will be an inevitable boom, people are tired of being indoors and being at home. They want to socialize, they want to see their friends, they want entertainment, and they miss it. On the flip side, as an owner, I’m worried; I don’t want to reopen too early, and heaven forbid, have something happen to my establishment. I want to make sure that we’re one hundred percent ready to open.”
The Opera House is an old brick landmark that has nestled itself in the city. With Towers at the helm, it’s clear they have no intentions of succumbing to the winds of the pandemic.
If anything, it’s going to take a lot more huffing and puffing to topple this institution.