How Opera Singers Salvaged Their Season

Feb 25, 2021

COVID has put the kibosh on most live performances in this country, but an opera produced in Charlottesville will go on in an unusual way. 

Victory Hall Opera singers recorded themselves for a documentary about how the pandemic has changed their lives.
Credit Victory Hall Opera

Charlottesville’s Victory Hall Opera was planning a production of La Traviata when the pandemic hit.  It was a small irony since that 19th century Italian opera tells the tale of a young woman fighting a deadly disease.

Artistic Director Miriam Gordon-Stewart says the company had hired a distinguished, 74-year-old conductor from The Met.

“Joel Revson was originally scheduled to conduct our Traviata production," she recalls.  "He contracted COVID and after a very long struggle passed away.”

But Gordon-Stewart and a cast of five felt the show should go on, even as experts blamed singing for spreading the disease.

“Instead of canceling the project entirely, we decided to re-imagine it as a documentary film – to show what singers are going through during the pandemic and how the pandemic is really specifically and uniquely affecting them and their relationship to opera," she explains.  "Being a singer is a calling and it’s an identity.  What are we missing when we don’t have access to hearing the human voice?”

Victory Hall asked cast members to share their thoughts and feelings from their homes in New York, Florida, Georgia, Virginia and D.C.

“All of them have international careers and all of them have individual stories of what has happened to them during the pandemic, before the pandemic, why they became singers," Gordon-Stewart says. "There’s so much diversity in a singer’s story and how they came to singing opera.”

Two cast members, Carlton Ford and Victor Ryan Robertson, also explore the subject of race as African-American men in the world of opera.

“It is rare, becoming much less rare, which is good as we find ways to bring opera into the 21st century and to have it represent contemporary American life.”

For all of them, Gordon-Stewart says  the transition to recorded performance was a challenge.

“We’re all trained to do live singing that takes decades to learn how to do, so when everybody is suddenly asked to sing into an iPhone or to perform to a video camera, it’s not the easiest thing in the world.”

But they managed, and – after telling their stories from home – headed for Virginia – to record with a local sound engineer -- Grammy-award-winner Glen Alspaugh.  They came together for one week in Charlottesville under very strict COVID safety conditions to record the soundtrack for the film -- La Traviata.

There is, of course, no predicting when live opera will return to the stage, but that hasn’t stopped Victory Hall from planning.

"We are commissioning a new opera called Fat Pig based on the Neil Labute play and a series of concerts that we're hoping to do in outdoor acoustics,  exploring all that Albemarle County has to offer in terms of natural acoustics, and we're hoping to bring  another canceled project to the stage from last year called No Daughter of Mine, based on a memoir by my own grandmother in which  I will be singing along with Lauren Ambrose, who most people will know from Six Feet Under."

But first, the documentary – UNSUNG. The virtual curtain goes up Friday at 8, and it will be available for a month online through VictoryHallOpera.org.