The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic Kamala Sankaram, composer and performer, spoke with me about her upcoming premiere of all decisions will be made by consensus, the first Zoom opera.
Kamala Sankaram, composer
Interviewed April 18, 2020
TB: Thank you again for chatting with me. Starting off on the positive end of the spectrum, what is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
KS: Well, we’ve been rehearsing the Zoom opera this week and that has been very fun. It’s weird, but [also] so nice to be able to reconnect with people and make something in the middle of all of this.
TB: [The Zoom opera] is one of the fabulous things that I know we will talk more about. But, for those who are not familiar with your career and background, would you mind sharing some of those details with me?
KS: Sure! I am a composer and performer, primarily working in opera and theater. I do some chamber music also, but it’s mostly opera. In the past year, I worked with Washington National Opera and Houston Grand Opera. But, I also do many projects that are very tech heavy. For example, I worked with Opera on Tap to make the first virtual-reality opera. This past September I did a piece where we data-mined the audience in real time. I’ve always been very interested in the intersection between technology and culture, and, therefore, how technology affects culture. As we were talking [about] before the Zoom meeting started, I have a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology and my research focus was reading on the internet. So, I’ve moved away from research in that domain but it has found its way into the creative practice.
TB: That has to be one of the most interesting things about you as a composer and performer: you have this very rich and deep understanding of technology. So, before we talk about your undertaking with the Zoom opera, could you back up a little bit and tell me where you were and how you first realized that you were going to be affected by the pandemic?
KS: Like everybody, I think I had heard little bits of information seeping in through the noise of the election year. Starting in February, I started to become more aware of it, but I wasn’t thinking much of it until my partner had a really long conversation with a friend who is an ER doctor in Texas. In March, his friend basically said, “I’m preparing myself for this. Soon, it is going to take over the emergency room.” Around that same time, the Italian ER doctor’s social media post went around, basically saying, “We are overwhelmed, we can’t deal with this.” There were all of those pictures too.
So, those two things happened around the same time in the beginning of March and that is when we really started to think [that] this is more serious than anyone has really led on to at this point, and maybe we should be more concerned about it. As soon as that [thought] entered the consciousness of people in New York, then we started getting these cases and things started getting cancelled.
We actually play in a band together called Bombay Rickey and we had been scheduled to play at the Chicago Opera Theater’s gala on March 13. That was the first thing to get cancelled. It caused a lot of anxiety because we were all waiting and asking, “Are we going to get on a plane and fly to Chicago, right now? Is that the responsible thing to do?” At the same time, it is difficult because, for them, that is how they make a huge chunk of their budget. [Chicago Opera Theater is] actually a really good example of people who are being great colleagues in the midst of all of this because they did cancel the gala, but they also went ahead and paid everyone who was supposed to have performed. Which, considering the huge financial loss they had, the fact that they were willing to do that really says something, I think.
That was first, but then I am also co-artistic director of a small opera company in New York City called Experiments in Opera. We were supposed to do an Anthony Braxton piece at the end of March. And that was the same thing of, “Do we cancel it?” So, we’re trying to take the lead from the environment around us and what other people are doing. This theater seats 40 people, so it is under the 50 person limit which means, theoretically, we could go ahead. But then the order came down from Governor Cuomo that everything was going to have to shut down. So, of course, we cancelled that. However, Experiments in Opera made the commitment to pay the people that were in that show as well.
I think the most difficult thing about all of this is the uncertainty, you know? What is the responsible thing to do while still trying to maintain your ability to pay people as this is their livelihood? We’re all trying to do the best that we can for the community while, at the same time, still staying afloat. Especially since New York hasn’t done anything to really help with the rental situation. Experiments in Opera is lucky because we don’t own a building and don’t have to pay rent. But there are a lot of small theaters in the city that now they’re not getting any ticket revenue and they still have to keep paying these gigantic rents. I’m afraid that a lot of them are not going to make it through.
TB: So as the Artistic Director of Experiments in Opera, one of the decisions that you had to make was how do you pay the artists, because that is instinctively what you want to do. So could you talk a little bit about how you came to this decision?
KS: This particular piece is small, it only had a rotating cast of 6 people total and no set or lighting designer. So we knew that once things are able to open again, it will be very easy to put that piece back together. I think that is one of the big challenges for more established companies; meaning, Experiments in Opera is small, so we always have smaller budgets and casts, and because of that, more flexibility. But if you’re dealing with a million-dollar production, it’s a lot harder to shut it down and then start it back up.
That made the decision easier in some ways, because we are committed to this show whenever we can put it up again. But this is something we are talking about right now as we have a much bigger show in the works for the 2021 season. Now we have to make a decision about that piece: can we actually go ahead with that performance? Especially with the continuing amount of uncertainty around, one, whether things are going to be open; and two, what is the fundraising environment going to be going forward?
TB: Thank you for talking about that side of the business. Could you talk a bit about how this affects your financial situation?
KS: Yes; I am in a more stable position in some ways because I teach at [State University of New York] Purchase College. I’m an adjunct there, so I don’t make a huge amount of money from teaching; but, [the job is] continuing even through this. Over the summer I won’t have any income though, so things will change to some degree.
A lot of my income comes from commissions and from productions of older pieces. Both of those things are also in question at this point. New commissions are on hold for the moment as it remains to be seen whether they will go forward or not. If they don’t, then that is a huge chunk of money that I was counting on that I won’t have anymore. Same with the productions of older pieces. There was a tour in the process of being put together for the data-mining piece that premiered in September, and now it’s very uncertain whether that will still happen. So, a large part of the difficulty of all of this is just not knowing how to plan things.
TB: What would you say is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned so far in this situation?
KS: It just reinforces the inherent fragility of what we do. It’s already such an ephemeral thing to perform music in front of an audience. This is going to go against the fact that I made a Zoom opera, but things that are meant to be experienced live are really meant to be experienced live. Seeing them on video (unless it is a really well produced video that is intended to be a movie) like archival footage—doesn’t really take the place of a live performance.
Maybe it is good for us to be realizing this, because there has been a historical reluctance to actually archive things well. I know that part of that has to do with union agreements, but I think this should force us all to take a step back and ask if we can make other ways to experience this that aren’t the same but would broaden the reach of a work so that it is not totally contingent on three hours in an opera house.
TB: I would love for you to talk about how you came to the realization that you wanted to put together and compose a Zoom opera.
KS: When this all started, I saw a lot of my friends doing these Facebook Live events or live-streaming performances from their living rooms in order to reach out to audiences and maybe make up a little lost income. So, I teach a history of electro-acoustic music class at SUNY Purchase. One of the things that we spend a lot of time talking about is how people engage with new technologies and how the first thing that most people do is try to bring habits or practices that are associated with things they are more familiar with into this new medium. You see this with synthesizer music: the first pieces for synthesizer are all very classical sounding with great harmonic progressions, themes, developments, and all that. It’s not until we get into the 60’s that you start to see more exploration of, “Oh, I could make a really weird sound with this that has nothing to do with harmony.”
I started thinking, “If we’re going to be forced to engage with these technologies as our means of creating performances, then we should create a performance for the medium. What might that look like?” Because, as you have probably experienced by now, the way that the internet works—because you’re sending packets of information over distances—there is always a certain amount of latency which makes it impossible for people to synchronize. So if you are in two different places, you cannot sing “together,” you can’t match the pulse. So that was the first thing: how will you make a piece where no one is ever going to be able to match each other? Second, how do we deal with the context of the Zoom box and what might that look like? Then third, if we cannot sync with each other, what might an accompaniment for the piece look like?
So, through experimenting with my collaborators—Kristin Marting, the Artistic of HERE Arts Center, and Rob Handel, an Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Dramatic Writing, the three of us had worked together on the data-mining opera—we had already done something that [engaged] with technology as a form of dramaturgy. And that’s how we approached this, right? If Zoom dictates what the dramaturgy is, then what kind of piece will we end up with?
I’m looking at this as a first step, and I’m hoping that we can take what we learn from doing this. And, I hope anybody who is interested will go off and make their own piece, because it looks like we’re going to be dealing with this for a while. Maybe we will make a new genre, Zoom music. Or maybe we will decide this is not sustainable; we need to find something else. I don’t know at this point.
TB: So, realistically, how have you dealt with the polyphonic sound for this composition?
KS: Rather than trying to avoid it, that’s a feature of the piece. The piece is structured with aleatoric boxes for the most part. I am controlling the orchestration, which is completely electronic. I’m running it from Ableton Live through the Zoom audio. I am responding to the singers in real time, and they are responding to each other, but they are not meant to sync up with each other. The progression of the piece is through layering. For example: you start with one singer, then two, and then it becomes the difference between cacophony and having six people singing at once versus one person singing a solo.
TB: Very interesting. So then, as we’re looking at each other now, is this the Zoom box or the proscenium?
TB: Can you tell me a little bit about how that has been being dealt with?
KS: Sure; so what Kristin has been doing is trying to figure out how to use the affordances that are given to you by the platform. For example, we are using the webinar structure so the audience are the attendees and the singers are the panelists. What that means is that you can control what the audience sees. You can control and make it so they see the gallery view rather than the speaker view. You can control entrances and exits by having people turn their cameras on and off. You can use the spotlight feature to make one person’s picture take up the entire screen. That enables us to engage with the other boxes with our gaze. So, there is this weird, fake intimacy because you have this very close-up view of the person’s face, which you wouldn’t get if you were actually watching a stage performance. So we are engaging with that intimacy by having people look at each other even though they are not actually in the same space.
TB: So how has this affected your compositional vision, or how has the pandemic pushed you into new realms musically?
KS: I have been interested in trying to find more ways to employ improvisation, in opera especially. And the thing about working with this technology is that you have no control over when people are hearing things, so you have to trust their judgment. You have to let go of the feeling of control because you don’t have it. That has been a big part of it: just figuring out what I can change and what I have to adjust myself to.
Then, of course, the technology. And part of the issue that everyone has is that all of these technologies are not intended for instruments. Voices do better because the compression on the conferencing platform is specifically meant to emphasize the speaking voice and suppress any background noise. So, [it is] figuring out how to work with people who are in their homes and help them adjust volume levels and compression settings to try and get the best possible sound.
Since we did not plan this ahead of time and spontaneously started working on this piece after everybody was in quarantine, that meant we couldn’t buy people equipment. We can’t buy them nice headphones, et cetera. So, we were basically having to improvise with what people already had at home, and some of them are not even in their apartments anymore— they left the city. That has been a learning process. And, as a lot of the doctors out there are saying, there may be a need for a second wave of social distancing necessary in the fall. One of the things I have learned is that we all need to be better prepared for having to go online. That will mean that—when we’re able to—we should get microphones, headphones, and all of that, so that it will sound better next time around.
TB: Who are your musical influences for writing this opera?
KS: I think that part of what started me thinking about the aleatory involved was having done Braxton’s Syntactical Ghost Trance Music. I was in the vocal ensemble that did the 12-hour recording of that piece. There’s something about giving singers the freedom to go into these weird places that seemed very interesting. And I was already in the Braxton-headspace because we were starting to put together this opera for Experiments in Opera.
But then also chant. I was a church musician for 20 years or more, and I learned to do Anglican Chant. So, there are certain harmonies that are underpinning the chant; but, then you have the freedom to express the text as you would as long as you’re within the mode. Basically, it is this weird combination of Anthony Braxton and Anglican Chant.
TB: That is super interesting. So then, one of the things that you talked about is a bit of how you see things going forward. Who do you foresee performing this show in the future?
KS: It is pretty open. Anyone who wants to can perform it. I wrote it for the people who were available [at the time]. It is [for] three baritones, a mezzo-soprano, a soprano, and Joan LaBarbara, who is a very special performer. Because, at this point, she has a very, very low singing range. This composition utilizes that and also her speaking voice, which is pretty fantastic. She is in a baritone-tenor range, so it is a lot of baritones. [Laughter]
TB: Looking beyond the Zoom opera, how do you foresee this pandemic changing our shared musical landscape?
KS: There will be a shift to recording, I think. In the opera industry, we have gone back and forth about [whether] recording adds value to live performance, or does it take value away? [People might think], "Why should I go see anything live, when I can just watch an archival recording of a great singer doing it?” What I hope is that we will come out of this realizing that recordings are not a substitute for the real thing and that we do miss it.
On the other side of it, however, I hope that companies will realize that there is still value in having really good quality recordings available. Because the simple mathematical truth of it is that, even if you’re the Met and you have 3,000 seats to fill and you’re only doing six performances of an opera, that is 18,000 possible people who will see the piece. But if you look at the top videos that are on YouTube, they have a million views. So, I know one of the questions that has come up about the future of the opera industry—even before this all happened—was, how do we increase reach and visibility? There has been a lot of conversation about whether we should be putting recordings online, and I think that it will make sense to make that an investment. Because what would it look like if every live performance had something that is thoughtful to make it its own self-contained thing, in addition to the live performance? I think it is a conversation that we need to start having.
TB: As you are a teacher, could you give some advice to performers and composers about how to get through this pandemic?
KS: The best thing that you can learn is flexibility. The people that I have seen surviving are those who allow themselves to try things that are not comfortable. For example, I don’t know if you saw that Wagner duet with Jamie Barton and Ryan McKinny [with Kathleen Kelly, piano]. That was delightful; I would watch that. What a wonderful use of the talents of both of those singers, and also the technology was really brilliant. It is going to be creative thinking of that sort that allows us to continue through this crisis.
For students, because you haven’t been locked down into a particular path yet, we’re going to be relying on your creativity to see what are some solutions to performance and connecting with people that we haven’t thought of. I’ve done a lot of tech stuff, but I’m also older than most students. I don’t know as much about the new things that are coming out as they do. So, they might be the ones to lead the way on this.
TB: Maybe next we will see, TikTok: the Opera.
KS: Right! TikTopera! [Laughter]
TB: Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today. Is there anything else that you would like to add to our conversation?
KS: I hope that we will allow ourselves to have a field-wide conversation about the way that we’ve been doing things; because, what this crisis has really shown is that, [the way the field does things now] is not sustainable. You cannot ask a singer to spend six months preparing a role and then cancel on them and not pay them. I understand that everyone is dealing with budget lines, but we have to stick together as a community or we are not going to make it. Also, I hope that we can find a better way to make this art form viable. Crises provide moments for radical renewal. So, I hope that we will take advantage of it, as horrible as it all is. It allows us a moment to step back and ask, “Is this the best way that we can do things?”
TB: So, final question, what is your video binge for the pandemic?
KS: Well, I have watched Tiger King, like everybody else did. Also, I watched Kingdom, which is a historical Korean zombie drama.
TB: Very interesting! Thank you again for talking with me today.
all decisions will be made by consensus
Composed by Kamala Sankaram
Libretto by Rob Handel
Directed by Kristin Marting
Looking at You
Composed by Kamala Sankaram
Libretto by Rob Handel
Composed by Kamala Sankaram
Libretto by Susan Yankowitz
About Kamala Sankaram
Praised as “strikingly original” (NY Times) and “new voice from whom we will surely be hearing more” (LA Times), Kamala Sankaram works at the cutting edge of opera. Her recent genre-defying hit Looking at You (with collaborators Rob Handel and Kristin Marting) featured live data mining of the audience and a chorus of 25 singing tablet computers. Sankaram, Handel, and Marting also created all decisions will be made by consensus, a short absurdist opera performed live over Zoom and featured on NBC and the BBC3. With librettist Jerre Dye, and Opera on Tap, she created The Parksville Murders, the world’s first virtual reality opera (Samsung VR, Jaunt VR, Kennedy Center Reach Festival, “Best Virtual Reality Video” NY Independent Film Festival, Future of Storytelling, Salem Horror Festival and the Topanga Film Festival.) Recent commissions include the Glimmerglass Festival, Washington National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, the PROTOTYPE Festival, and Shakespeare Theatre Company, among others. Awards, grants and residencies include: Jonathan Larson Award, NEA ArtWorks, MAP Fund, Opera America, HERE Artist Residency Program, the MacDowell Colony, and the Watermill Center. Also a performer, (hailed as "an impassioned soprano with blazing high notes"–Wall Street Journal), Kamala moves freely between the worlds of experimental music, creative music, and contemporary opera. Kamala recently sang the role of Gwen St. Clair in the revival of Meredith Monk’s ATLAS with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A frequent collaborator with Anthony Braxton, she has premiered his operas Trillium E and Trillium J, as well as appearing on his 12-hour recording GTM (Syntax) 2017. Kamala is the leader of Bombay Rickey, an operatic Bollywood surf ensemble (recipient of two awards for Best Eclectic Album from the Independent Music Awards). Bombay Rickey’s opera-cabaret on the life of Yma Sumac premiered in the 2016 PROTOTYPE Festival and was presented in London at Tête-à-Tête Opera’s Cubitt Sessions. Dr. Sankaram holds a PhD from the New School and is currently a member of the composition faculty at SUNY Purchase. www.kamalasankaram.com