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Opera's New Normal

Posted on: October 13, 2020

Given its 400-year history, we know that opera has survived some trying times. World wars, devastating fires... and yes, even multiple pandemics too. But with resiliency, adaptability and sheer persistence, this thrilling art form continues to thrive to this day.  

The upcoming premiere of The Anonymous Lover by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is an extremely long-awaited return to the stage for LA Opera (246 days to be exact), and it will be anything but business as usual. It goes without saying—but we’ll say it anyway—that there’s nothing more important to us than keeping our audiences, artists and staff safe. And trust us, there's a lot to keep track of when staging an opera under normal circumstances. Staging an opera in the middle of a pandemic? It's a whole new game.

As safety guidelines from health experts continue to evolve, we’re still working our way through exactly what this means for us on each day of rehearsal through to the final product that you’ll enjoy safely from home. Things can (and surely will) change at any moment, so we’ll be poised to adapt what we’re doing to make sure we’re keeping everyone safe. That said, we’re marching forward (masks on and six feet apart), consulting with experts and making sure we deliver the world-class opera that you’re used to.   

Calling in the Experts 

Though we’ve been poring over every new development throughout this pandemic, our primary expertise remains in opera. We planned and announced The Anonymous Lover in the middle of the summer, and we had no way of knowing what the world would look like as we moved forward. Since we can’t foretell the future, we did what anyone would do—we turned to the experts (COVID, that is, not fortune tellers).  

Beyond obtaining all possible guidance from the local, state, and county health experts, we consulted a COVID compliance agency to guide us on everything from best practices, to securing the right personal protective equipment, providing tests when necessary, and even decontaminating spaces. Though there is still so much unknown about COVID-19, we can guarantee that these folks are always up to date on the continually shifting protocols and restrictionswhich is why we always have one of their officers with us while we’re onsite. 


Socially Distanced Singing on a Stage 

Generally, the best way to keep people safe is to keep them apart, so that’s what we’re doing as much as we can. As you’re aware, there won’t be any audience members physically present in the theater to watch the performance. Only staff members with actual, essential tasks will be allowed to be onsite at Colburn’s Zipper Hall and even then, they’ll be COVID-tested, temperature and symptom-checked, and be divided into zones that specify where they can go. We’ll even be distancing the performers too.  

We’ve all likely seen the videos visualizing how talking and breathing project respiratory particles into the air. But singing, and opera singing particularly, can send aerosols flying at distances of 15 to 20 feet. (And this should surprise nobody whose ever enjoyed an opera from the back of the house, still hearing every note crisply and clearly)Orchestra musicians, particularly those playing woodwind and brass instruments, also spread their respiratory particles into the air at alarming distances, so we’re limiting all of this activity to only what is necessary.  

How, exactly, are we limiting singing in an opera? It’s not as impossible as it sounds. The Colburn School digitized their entire campus, making it possible for the cast and crew to stay connected while performing and working from different locations. Fred Vogler of Sonitus Consulting and Francesco Perlangeli, Colburn School’s AV Manager, developed plans to connect a number of spaces in the school’s Grand Building via data, video, and fiber optic cables-- which certainly comes in handy for virtual coaching sessions, read-throughs and planning meetings. Even when we absolutely have to get people together in person, we’re limiting the time they spend singing and talking. We’ve even moved all 29 musicians entirely to another room. The singers will sing live to the music, but it will be piped into Zipper Hall for them remotely. And even then, after the singing is done, we’re taking precautions to clear the room and leave it empty for at least 90 minutes before entering again just to make sure the air is cleared of any lurking particles. And for the orchestra, we’ll circulate the air in their room for at least 60 minutes, just to make sure that everyone is as safe as possible. 

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With All of These Changes, What Will the Audience See?  

Our hope is that you won’t experience anything but beautiful opera. Since we won’t have a live audience, we’ll have the entire theater available to us (while there’s nothing like having you there with us, we’re trying to stay focused on the silver lining here) and we’ll use every inch of space creatively during the production. Think singers in the balcony and in the middle of the theater, which will be a first for all of us. 

Singers, generally, won’t be close to each other, thus mask-wearing will be limited on stage. Using multiple angles and creative camera work, we’ll aim to make us all feel like we’re experiencing the story together as one man desperately tries to figure out how to tell his best friend he’s in love with her. Our creative team will also be utilizing the latest and greatest in lighting tech to project dream-like images on the singers and make them appear as though they’re singing together (even though they’ll be a safe distance away). This is what we call innovation to the highest degree. 

The production designer Hana Kim puts it best when she says, creating staged work under COVID restrictions is, of course, vastly challenging because the essence of theater is about human interaction in the same room, in the same moment... We want to capture this moment we’re living in and really re-enforce the fact that we have all these new restrictions right now but we still love each other, we still try to be close to each other, we still talk to each other. There are still little, rom-com moments happening in our life. So I think we will not hide it in the production...  and not hide the fact that we are under these circumstances.  

These are certainly unique circumstances, to say the least. We couldn’t be more grateful for this team of creatives and experts putting their genius minds together to make opera happen in LA once again and remind us just how “together” we can be when we’re still apart. 

Want to learn more about The Anonymous Lover? Click here.