Opera Singing & The Performing Arts
by Cathleen McGowan
The fear, uncertainty, and grief brought on by these many months of pandemic isolation have taken their toll on everyone. The performing arts have been very hard hit—stages have “gone dark,” performance opportunities have been postponed indefinitely, traveling to gigs has become nearly impossible, students have paused lessons, and funds have dried up. So, performing artists, who are dependent upon gatherings, performance and travel, have had to get especially creative.
But being creative at a time like this is challenging. In my brain, curiosity and fear cannot occupy my attention at the same time. The lack of motivation and energy lags that everyone feels in isolation affect creative people as well. It’s been difficult to discover opportunities at a time when falling asleep on the couch is the natural thing to do. Not to mention when there are concerns about health and family as well. I’ve had to keep reminding myself that the performing and visual arts are important at all times not just joyful times. They are a lifeline for humanity and my sanity. I am still deeply connected to the arts.
Singers like me who also teach, have moved lessons to Zoom and other virtual or digital formats. Previously, teaching virtually was a supplement to in-person teaching. Now it’s our lifeline personally and professionally. Thankfully, most students have been amenable to continuing on-line. But, there have been gifts to come from this pandemic as well. Teaching those in distant locations who may not have had access to the limited number of teaching and practicing professionals in towns far far away. Distance as a limiting factor in teaching has vanished!
Most singing is a super-spreading activity, where a safe distance apart is more like twenty-seven feet, not six. Operatic technique is less spreading; however, I am not keen to share a stage at the moment – even with a singer’s mask that allows free movement of the face. The Singer’s Mask is a relief project for Broadway performers whose stages have closed for the season. Performance, too, has moved on-line. Most of us have had to suddenly learn new tools such as Zoom and Jamulus. Zoom is widely popular and apps such as Jamulus give us an opportunity to make music together in real time, so long as internet connections hold. Live opera performances can be done on-line.
Some on-line formats, such as Zoom, can drown out some audio frequencies, particularly the higher frequencies (or leave you open to background noises as well). This is a big limitation for a soprano such as me. This is why recording the performance and releasing it on-line via a Youtube channel or other video website is a better option for acoustics. Solo recitals have made a comeback in popularity, as we are isolated from each other. Music has gone from recording studios and live stages and instead into home offices and kitchens.
My scheduled European debut has been postponed until who knows when, so a recorded recital with a live component is one of my major isolation projects. In the process, I have acquired some new skills: acoustics analyzing, sound editing, lighting, staging, video recording and editing, costuming, props. And teaching my reluctant husband to sing, because he may not be an experienced duet partner, but he’s the duet partner I have.
Making a recorded on-line recital has come with challenges I hadn’t anticipated when I started. The rhythm of my accompaniment tracks does not budge at all. That slight improvisation of tempo that happens in the moment cannot be done. There’s no conductor to follow visually. I’ve had to plan my performance according to the recording. I’ve been able to adjust the recording tempo somewhat with software, but in the performance I will have to follow the recorded music. I never appreciated the luxury of live accompaniments as much as I do now.
There are silver linings. This recital has given me the opportunity to perform pieces consecutively that I would not attempt to do on a live recital, because it would be too physically demanding. Operatic singing is an athletic activity, even if you haven’t had six-and-a-half abdominal surgeries as I have. If you’ve seen performers sing, leave the stage, and come back a moment later, that’s because our muscles need to take a break. We need to shake everything out to come back fresh for the next songs. Recitals are a marathon.
And speaking of muscles, during this pandemic, we opera singers are also helping to rehabilitate those suffering from persistent lung problems due to COVID-19. We know how to breathe in ways that aren’t obvious without training. We know how to find air when it feels like there is none. We’re breathing experts. Maybe we were made for these times after all.
Side note by Publisher: Whether you love opera, musical theatre or simply love the arts, I invite you to join me in Cat’s upcoming virtual recital on March 28th and April 3rd: https://www.virtual-opera-with-cat-mcgowan
Photo credit Mike on Pexels (no other info provided by photographer).