With live performances shut down since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, artists unemployed, and income streams disrupted, performing arts organizations continue to face the hardest of times. Virginia Opera (VO), a regional opera company based in Norfolk that regularly performs at George Mason University, has created an alternative fall initiative, the Stayin’ Alive virtual showcase, designed to keep the company connected with its audience and to provide opportunities for young singers in its Emerging Artists program.
Singing itself is a problematic activity during COVID. The Washington State choir super-spreader event in March was a wakeup call. The New York Times reported on September 17 that Metropolitan Opera and international star Anna Netrebko is hospitalized in Moscow with COVID, after having shared the Bolshoi stage with a singer who later tested positive (she is recovering and eager to resume performing). Outbreaks have halted attempts by companies in Austria and Hungary to resume performances.
VO took strong steps to protect the safety of the Stayin’ Alive participants. They were quarantined for two weeks at the beginning of the company’s 10-week program and have remained in a bubble since. The production of Artist Showcase the centerpiece of the Stayin’ Alive program, streamed September 16 on You Tube, involved numerous precautions for the artists. About 160 viewers tuned in to the initial broadcast.
After a video bow to the Bee Gees for the title of the show, VO Artistic Director Adam Turner and Assistant Conductor Brandon Eldredge began with a two-player arrangement of the Carmen overture, masked and playing socially distanced keyboards on an otherwise empty stage. They then interviewed each of the featured four singers: soprano Symone Harcum, bass-baritone Eric J. McConnell, baritone Nicholas Martorano, and mezzo-soprano Whitney Robinson. The video interviews were live, from the artists’ homes.
The singers shared what they had been doing during their forced hiatus from performing. Harcum — who taught music in the Norfolk public schools and whose first experience with opera was appearing in the chorus for a VO Pearl Fishers — had adventures in baking. McConnell walked a lot, working up to several miles a day and getting into fine physical shape. Martorano, in addition to keeping in vocal shape with a series of warm-up drills, began reading history. Robinson took up mindfulness and yoga, and is working on a yoga teaching certificate. All greatly missed being able to perform in public and to respond to an audience.
Each of the singers then performed one aria or show tune, taped on an empty stage with the masked accompanist a distance away behind a plastic shield. Harcum performed “Chi il bel songo di Doretta” from Puccini’s La Rondine, bringing a forceful lyric sound to an aria about the bliss of a woman falling in love at first kiss. McConnell, who in addition to a vibrant voice has significant acting chops, portrayed cheerful villainy in “La Calunnia” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, explaining how a slanderous rumor can grow from whispers to a cannon roar.
Martorano sang the love ballad “Joanna” from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, bringing a well-controlled, warm tone to a number that often is performed with more of a tenor sound. Robinson did “Garbage,” a comic torch song from a little-known 1955 Sheldon Harnick revue. Like McConnell, she acts wonderfully, in this case the over-the-top emotions of a woman most cruelly wronged. The four concluded with the delightful “Champange” quartet from Die Fledermaus.
In addition to the streamed performance, the Stayin’ Alive program gives the artists the opportunity to work on arias and duets, participate in master classes, and perform live, socially distanced “community curbside” concerts in public spaces or in front of residences. Having already done a few such concerts, the performers mentioned how much eye contact with an audience means to them.
The Stayin’ Alive virtual showcase will remain available for viewing on You Tube through September 23. Tickets, costing $20, may be purchased on the Virginia Opera website. If you are interested in hosting a curbside concert, information can be found on the same site.
READ Bob Ashby’s interview with Virginia Opera Artistic Director Adam Turner, “The future of opera in the time of pandemic”