OPERA EDUCATION IN THE TIME OF COVID-19
By Andrew Ryker
How do we continue Opera Education in a time of Social Distancing? Despite all of its grandeur, opera is a very intimate art form. The stories we tell are exploding with intimate moments, whether it be a consoling embrace between Donna Anna and Don Ottavio or a fiery grab of Carmen and Don Jose. And intimacy is just the start; what about the numbers? If you’re lucky, your program numbers. Large casts. A chorus. An orchestra. How do we rehearse with twenty plus people in the room? Here’s some ideas that I hope will spark a conversation:
Now might not be the time for the big shows. What about all those fantastic chamber operas? You can never go wrong with The Impresario. Menotti comes to mind. The Medium. The Telephone. The Old Maid and the Thief. We’re living in an amazing time for new American chamber operas; now is the time to dive into As One, Glory Denied, Three Decembers, and many more. And don’t forget about solo operas; La Voix Humaine is a classic but there’s many more including works by Argento, Heggie, Hoiby, Schönberg, and Ricky Ian Gordon.
How big is your rehearsal room? I thought I was pretty fortunate, but suddenly my room feels quite small and remarkably non-breezy. Are there bigger options? Somewhere you can open the doors or windows to get the air flowing? Our band room comes to mind. Perhaps a large dance studio? The middle school gymnasium next door? A community center? A church basement? A large banquet room on campus? Can you rehearse on the actual stage? The bigger the room, the easier it’s going to be to spread out and allow everyone some personal space.
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
What if we don’t do operas at all? What about a song cycle? Many of them are rich with dramatic depth. Frauenliebe und leben comes to mind as well as Die schöne Müllerin and Banalités. There are wonderful newer cycles from Libby Larsen, Ben Moore, Gwyneth Walker and many others. Singing solo is a fantastic way to social distance. The major assignment could even be to prepare a whole role, which you could coach throughout the semester. And don’t forget, those kids need resumés, bios, and headshots. You could do a unit on any or all of those things and never step foot in a classroom. Have you considered doing an opera or scenes “in concert”? This would allow you to perform without staging and maintain social distancing in while performing. Does your institution have an Opera Lit class? Could Opera Workshop become Opera Literature for a semester? That would go a long way towards getting us out of the classroom and on to the computer.
Between meetings, lessons, and classes, we’ve all started the process of moving online. Can we continue this with opera education? Can we rehearse virtually? I think so. The student could be in one room with an accompanist or a track while you’re in an entirely different room. There could even be a small group of students in the rehearsal room. I think you could even stage virtually if there was a computer or a camera in the rehearsal space. And don’t forget, we can perform online as well. Your scenes or operas or aria concerts could be live-streamed from your department’s Facebook page or uploaded to YouTube to share with the world. On that note, have you ever considered filming your opera like a movie instead of presenting it live? If this sounds exciting to you, you might want start out by reaching out to your institutions film department. And read your copyright and licensing rules very carefully!
I grew up on the Minnesota border, so I know there’s some real limits here, but how about that first month or two of classes? How about “dry” rehearsals without singing or an accompanist? How about bringing a speaker outside and performing with a track every once in a while? It sounds crazy, but you could load up the electric piano, grab an extension cord and bring your accompanist with you. You could even perform outside; set up a stage somewhere on campus or perform an outdoor theater in a public park.
GET OUT THE SCISSORS
Maybe you’re stuck on that big show you had in mind or your students are already preparing roles. Can you cut the chorus? There are several shows where they could be creatively eliminated. CosÍ fan tutte comes to mind; cut the chorus and suddenly you have a chamber opera with six singers. I’ve even directed The Elixir of Love, The Barber ofSeville and Cenerentola with no chorus and a lot of creative cuts. You could go even further and present a concert of just the arias, duets and select ensembles from a single opera and bill it as “selections from…”.
Some of my favorite assignments in grad school were when we took the baton for moment. What about Self-Staged Scenes? Assign partners and then put students in charge of finding their own scenes, preparing the music, and ultimately staging it. You would split your time among the scenes, moving from room to room to coach and give notes or suggestions. This could all be done virtually or in person, depending on your situation. Students could perform their scenes for their classmates, which could also be either virtual or live. Ultimately, the scenes could be performed for the public, either live-streamed, uploaded to YouTube, or performed for a limited audience in a large space. We did this with musical theater scenes as well!
WEAR THOSE MASKS
Why not? We’re all pretty used to it by now. Especially for music rehearsals where we don’t really need to see their faces. And while you’re at it, don’t be afraid to keep on the students about social distancing. Six, ten or ever twenty feet at all times. Challenge yourself to stage your scenes or an entire opera where no one ever touches. Anything is possible. Our department is discussing how we can administer zero-contact temperature readings to enter our building. If this isn’t possible, I’ll be investing in a no-contact thermometer to scan everyone who enters the opera space.
Now is the perfect time to be drilling and perfecting those audition arias. Coach, coach, coach. What about monologues? Monologues are a fantastic outdoor activity and more and more young artist programs are asking for them. Same thing goes for musical theatre songs; how about adding one or two to their packages? You could teach a whole unit on the subject. Have you ever considered staging arias to be presented in a scenes concert format? You could spend the entire semester working on solo pieces and still have a very fulfilling, educational semester.
Andrew Ryker is the Director of Opera and Asstistant Professor of Voice at Ohio University. He’s the former Artistic Director of Boston Opera Collaborative and previously taught at Drake University. Andrew has served on the directing staffs at New England Conservatory, Opera New Jersey and recently spent seven years with Des Moines Metro Opera. He was the recipient of the Goldovsky Directing Internship in Atlanta as well as a member of the young artist program at Opera North. Ryker received his master’s from New England Conservatory.