Online Opera: Performing in a Pandemic

With the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 came the halting of many of the performance industries. Opera was a sector hit particularly hard. Many operas have large casts, and live singing is much harder to do virtually or via video call, unlike other spoken dramatic forms that were able to adapt to being fully virtual. There have, however, been some attempts at creating entirely virtual opera by conservatoires and opera houses, with varying success, one of the most successful being at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, while other opera houses have instead settled for livestreaming their old productions. At King’s Opera, the opera society of King’s College London, we wanted to ensure that we put something on in the first semester of the 2020-21 academic year, but were doubtful about the practicality of staging a full show. We decided on a short showcase of scenes instead, deciding it would be much more manageable.

Our original plan was not for a fully virtual showcase. We wanted to present several small scenes from opera, all on the theme of the supernatural and none with more than three singers in, so we could keep rehearsals to the 6-person rule. Then we would film the whole thing and upload it online. However, when London went into tier 2 restrictions in October, we realised that was no longer an option. We decided to try and create the whole showcase virtually, not quite understanding the size of the task we had taken on. Being a student society, we of course didn’t have the budget that other virtual productions might have. Most of the singers had to record on their phones, in their bedrooms. But we were determined that somehow, we would make it happen.

First, we set about recording all the piano accompaniments. These were then sent to the singers, who video recorded their parts. We held an online workshop over zoom, where we checked in with the singers, listened to their parts and gave as much direction as possible. We then edited all the parts together to make a continuous twenty-minute showcase, trying our best to replicate the format of what a staged production would have been like. Editing all the parts together was the most laborious part of the process, especially because it was so long and I undertook the task despite having basically no video editing experience! The whole process was a bit of an experiment, the first time any of us had done anything like this, so we were seeing what worked and what didn’t as we went along. I used a free video editing software, DaVinci Resolve, which has excellent functions and interface considering its free status.

A lot of the biggest difficulties came about due to the nature of opera itself. We found that no matter how much detailed dramatic direction we gave the singers, it is impossible to recreate the atmosphere, and the creativity, that comes from being on stage and interacting with other cast members in person. Because opera is an art form with great dynamic range, that makes it quite difficult for close microphone recording, and so we had quite a lot of problems when it came to mixing (obviously not helped by the fact that people were recording their best with whatever equipment they had). Some recordings would be very quiet at certain points and very loud and distorted at others, making mixing parts in homophony or counterpoint particularly tricky. The most difficult part of all the scenes to mix and edit were the two witches’ counterpoint at the end of the Witches Scene from Dido and Aeneas. Dido and Aeneas was difficult in general, as so much of it is recitative. We did allow the singers time to listen to the piano tracks and tell us if they wanted any parts re-recorded, so that if it didn’t fit their interpretation we could rectify that. The scene from Carmen was also hard to record and edit, because there were so many different sections with different textures. These included homophony, alternating lines, solo parts, and the ending section which included two-part homophony on top of Carmen’s independent line underneath. It is a shame that as the sound quality was never going to be exceptional, we couldn’t really do justice to the ability and beauty of the singers’ voices, nor fully replicate the experience of hearing opera live.

With all of these considerations, it would be a lie to say that the finished showcase was perfect, but then again, neither would a live performance have ever been. However, the end result turned into something we were all very proud of. It was exciting just to be able to hear voices together performing opera, the closest we can get to a show in the current circumstances. Being able to explore alternative and virtual ways of presenting opera in the middle of a pandemic was also an opportunity and while steep learning curve for all of us, I think we all learnt useful new skills. While they may still come in handy as there is so much uncertainty on when performances will be able to return to normal, it was also useful to learn how to adapt opera to alternative circumstances, as we never know what the world is going to throw at us.

You can watch the King’s Opera Supernatural Showcase on YouTube

Elena Veris Reynolds

Elena has also written:

Opera Mums: Bryony Kimmings’ New Operetta



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