American singers in Germany reveal how opera safely resumes

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Nationaltheater, where the Bayerische Staatsoper takes place. Wilfried Hösl

In Germany, live opera is making a gradual comeback. Just last week, an ambitious second installment of director Stefan Herheim’s film Ring cycle opened in Berlin. And in Bavaria, site of Germany’s first COVID-19 infection, Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper (BSO) announced it would build its revised season of staged operas and ballets at the request of a hungry audience. of culture. Such news may seem otherworldly to opera fans in the United States, where the Metropolitan Opera has canceled its entire 2020-21 season, a grim indicator for other U.S. performing arts institutions as the country fails to limit the spread of a respiratory virus that makes singers particularly vulnerable.

For the handful of American singers based in Germany, the dissonance between what happens at home and a gradual return to work is unsettling. And for the members of the group under contract who readjust to a modified but rigorous resumption of their work, it is downright dizzying.

“It’s very disorienting being an American in Germany because most of the news we see is about what’s going on back home,” said Samantha Hankey, an American mezzo-soprano in the Bayerische Staatsoper ensemble since 2019. , “So, being in a country where things are going pretty well, it’s heartbreaking to be at work.

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Hankey and his colleagues, a group of 22 singers of different voice types, performance backgrounds and nationalities, form the core of the historic Munich theater’s solo voice reserves. Unlike most singers in the United States, who negotiate an independent career after music school and young artist programs, contract ensemble singers in Germany build their careers by performing regularly and studying lead roles. and stars in state-sponsored theaters. A local thirst for opera in these communities means that opportunities are abundant, exposure is high, and independent colleagues can be counted among international opera A-listers.

While many European singers began their careers working in ensembles in regional houses, a small handful of American singers, such as Hankey in Munich, Jessye Norman in Berlin and Thomas Hampson in Zurich, also turned to theaters in European directory to gain experience. Despite the job security enjoyed by members of the ensemble, Americans have a steep learning curve that involves moving abroad, often to provincial towns; repeat rehearsals in foreign languages; and adapt quickly to a demanding performance schedule in which some productions may receive simple hours of rehearsal before opening.

“It’s not that things are crazy and out of control,” said baritone Sean Michael Plumb, a member of the BSO ensemble since 2015, “but it forces me to trust my colleagues that everyone else does. his work.”

This level of activity not only offers many opportunities for on-the-job learning, but it also allows flexibility in the repertoire and frequency of performances that satisfies the unique cultural appetite of the region and betrays both a different business model and a different look for opera. than the standard in the United States

“The enthusiasm of the Munich community for this theater is unlike anything I have ever seen. It’s a respected thing to be a singer here. It’s an honor to be a singer, ”observed soprano Emily Pogorelc, whose arrival in Munich before the start of her contract in August was fraught with uncertainty and bureaucracy.

Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed this passion in her remarks on extended virus precautions to Bundestag lawmakers last week, saying: “We want the economy to recover; we want artists to be able to perform again.

And little by little, the artists replay. Since the spring, when weekly live concerts brought both artists and a small number of spectators to the Staatsoper, performances have resumed in Munich with the official opening of the season, the premiere of Marina Abramović. 7 deaths of Maria Callas, in September. But reopening the Staatsoper, with its rapid turnover of artists and productions, means adjusting to the pandemic in audience and behind the scenes, and steward Nikolaus Bachler, in his final year on the job, has chosen to follow protocol developed for this year’s Salzburg Festival, in which more than 100 lyrical, theatrical and symphonic events were presented to 70,000 people without any resulting cases of COVID-19.

While distancing itself into the theater, masks, routine performer and staff testing, and keeping individual contact logs for employees are all factored into the plan, the BSO also borrowed the badge system from several levels of Salzburg for workers. Ranging from red (artists whose work makes it impossible to adhere to distancing or mask rules during rehearsals) to yellow (employees must adhere to standard public health guidelines), ID badges have become a symbol of how including the element of trust that Plumb mentioned on a daily basis. -the overall daytime work has changed during the pandemic. “It takes a lot of trust in our entire opera community,” says Hankey. “COVID-19 is still here. We are taking a risk. “

Identification badges alert members of the Bayerische Staatsoper society to which social distancing protocols they adhere to. Bayerische opera house

Regardless of the success of Salzburg, BSO’s efforts to apply these measures over a longer period to a greater number of stage productions with variables such as backing vocals, international cast and technical processes involved are particularly ambitious. Overcoming challenges has meant changing rehearsal processes, both for covers, which may only receive one rehearsal on stage before opening, as well as for new productions, which may linger for weeks in a room. of rehearsal.

In a recent upturn in The magic flute, with Hankey as the second lady, the quick changes were eliminated and the music was cut off, although she actually received a slower and more intentional rehearsal process than when she rehearsed the part in February. Meanwhile, a new production by Walter Braunfels Die Vögel, an adaptation of Aristophanes’ satirical ensemble comedy The birds starring Pogorelc, organized musical rehearsals in a warehouse in Munich to accommodate the mass distribution and the choir under the direction of Ingo Metzmacher.

“This is a very timely article about following a good hope and counseling friends through the adventures of the bird kingdom, but there is a huge chorus. It was so amazing to hear such a great choir live now, ”said Pogorelc.

Although ensemble singers spend the majority of their time in their home theaters, the Staatsoper encourages singers to sing roles in other homes in Europe and the United States. But since the pandemic began in March, a proverbial “cascade of cancellations,” as Plumb puts it, has continued its demoralizing flow outside Munich. The impetus to return to work where possible, however, has remained strong, even as security measures evolve in response to the virus.

“The initial shock has worn off and we are all getting our sleeves back and doing whatever it takes to put on the show,” he added.

The luxury of returning to work is now granted to a small handful of singers around the world. But both for the artists and for the enthusiastic and complacent audience, the distance has sparked a reflection on the value of opera for both singers and spectators.

“I have a renewed sense of appreciation for what I’m doing, how special and necessary it is. I’m not sure if it’s the right thing to do in the midst of a pandemic, but that just feels right to me, “Hankey said.” It’s really appreciated by the audience and it makes me feel like I have a goal. “

American opera singers in Germany explain how they get back to work safely


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