With singing together silenced by the coronavirus, what’s an indie opera group and choir to do?

Panoramic Voices and LOLA Opera screen a prior collaboration, and consider the future


Singers are coronavirus super-spreaders. Singing can swiftly spread COVID-19 via microscopic airborne particles known as aerosols,

In early March, one of the first events in the U.S. later identified as a super-spreader incident was a choir rehearsal in Washington State. During a two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal, a single individual with COVID-19 infected 52 people. Two people died.

In the months since COVID-19 arrived, the act of group singing — whether on professional opera stages or in community choirs — has gone from soul-affirming to life-threatening.

Liz Cass and Brent Baldwin know this only too well.

A much-admired mezzo-soprano, Cass is featured in many of Austin’s more adventurous indie classical performances, some of which she had a hand in making happen through LOLA (Local Opera Local Artists), the organization she co-founded. (LOLA launched with an all-female production of Puccini’s classic, “La Bohème.”)

Baldwin is artistic director of Panoramic Voices, an equally adventurous choral collective known for its genre-spanning collaborations.

On Valentine’s weekend, LOLA and Panoramic Voices teamed up for a performance of Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” — an achingly beautiful 17th-century baroque masterpiece. Erica Gionfriddo added edgy choreography. Both performances sold out.

Then a couple weeks later, COIVD came. Live performance stopped. And people stopped singing together too.

Now, LOLA and Panaromic Voices are hosting an online viewing party of the “Dido and Aeneas” performance, along with a live discussion with Cass, Baldwin, choreographer Gionfriddo and stage director Rebecca Herman.

Admission is by donation and part of the proceeds will go to the SIMS Foundation which provides mental health services to Austin’s music community. The event will stream on LOLA’s YouTube channel.

“Some of us performers get into this art form because of the immediate connection with the audience, the joy of being in the same room singing to someone. and the connections that are made by that,” said Cass during a recent chat by, yes, video call.

“There’s something so satisfying about singing with someone you’re standing next to,” says Cass. Her frequent duet partner is soprano Julie Taylor, and among their repertoire is the glorious Flower Duet from Delibes’ opera “Lakmé.”

“When our voices combine and the overtones line up, it’s just a feeling of pure joy,” says Cass. “And you can’t replicate that online or standing far apart.”

Cass’s day job, as it were, is director of the Armstrong Community School. In the last months, has manage the school’s pivot to online. “It’s a really challenging time because everyone is Zoomed out,” she says. “And here we are trying to coax people back online one more time to focus on making music.”

Mindful of the streaming fatigue, Cass and LOLA have been thoughtful about what they present online. It wasn’t until July that organization launched LOLA Shorts, videos of ten minutes or less featuring singers, musician and composers doing their thing.

LOLA had planned to launch a full production of Peter Stopschinski’s opera “Lardo Weeping” next year. Now, though, plans are for a pivot to a digital, but one that is not just to another recorded performance. “We have to find a new way to get excited about it,”

Related: ‘Alone with the audience: “Lardo Weeping” is opera in the making’

Similarly, Baldwin has yet to host a choir practice by Zoom. “When we have gathered online, it’s just been for everyone to check in and check on each other,” he says.

Soon Panoramic Voices will announce some new programming too, though it is still being carefully planned out. “Whatever we do, it has to be intentional, both artistically and interpersonally,” Baldwin says. “As much as we all miss making music together, now is not the time to do something just to say we’ve done something.”

Someday choirs will once again chorus and operas will play.

Until then, says Cass: “I like to remind myself to sing every day.”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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