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For Singers And The Audience, Opera At A Distance Is 'More Precious'

New Orleans Opera
Ivan Griffin and Julianna Espinosa perform at New Orleans Opera’s Evening at the Broadside Theater. Nov. 20, 2020.";

For New Orleans-based singer Ivan Griffin, who has been singing opera for 30 years, the abrupt end to the 2019-20 opera season was “traumatic, to say the least.”

All of his engagements from March through June, when the season typically ends, were abruptly canceled as the country went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That was difficult for me to wrap my head around,” Griffin said. “I spent the first few months just in general being a little despondent. And I didn’t want to sing during that time.”

Griffin wasn’t alone, the whole live performance community was suffering.

“Singing is life,” opera singer Kameron Lopreore said. “It becomes such a unique part of who you are that it feels like that part has been robbed from you.”

Lopreore, Griffin and the city’s opera lovers got a life-line on Nov. 20 when they performed at New Orleans Opera’s Evening at the Broadside Theater — an outdoor theater and event space across from the Broad Theater on the border of the Treme in Mid-City.

While the city has slowly eased restrictions on live performances, singing is still banned from indoor events, making the opera — traditionally staged in an enclosed theater with elaborate sets and costumes, a large orchestra and many actors behind the scenes — impossible to produce.

So the New Orleans Opera has had to adapt, producing driveway concerts around the city and the concert series “Opera on Tap” in the organization’s yard.

Director Clare Burovac said it’s actually made opera more accessible.

“That’s something that’s very dear to my heart, to make sure that people know that opera is for all of us,” Burovac said.

The sold-out night at the Broad was all about Mozart. Yuki Tanaka and Bruce Owen of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra opened the night with the allegro from Mozart’s first string duo for viola and violin. Then Griffin, Lopreore and soprano Julianna Espinosa sang a selection of the prolific composer’s arias before a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s film adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Kameron Lopreore performs the vocal vibration technique called coloratura.


Credit New Orleans Opera
New Orleans Opera
Yuki Tanaka and Bruce Owen of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra perform at New Orleans Opera’s Evening at the Broadside Theater. Nov. 20, 2020.

  “Whoever loves the opera, I think they are all in very deep need to come and see the performance,” New Orleans Opera season ticket holder Deniz Ucar said.

Ucar had tried to catch the “Opera on Tap” performances, but the tickets sold out too quickly.

I received the email, 30 minutes later I logged on, tried to purchase tickets. They were all sold out,” Ucar said.

When the announcement about the Broadside performance came into her inbox, she clicked into action and was able to purchase tickets.

The concert was stripped down from the performances that she was used to before COVID-19. The singers wore plain clothes instead of costume, and they stood in place when they sang, assigned to their own microphones to reduce cross-contamination of COVID-19.

With their bellowing voices, microphones were actually something they had to get used to, Lopreore said.

“We’re used to singing completely un-amplified, and now because of social distancing and outdoor performing we need to use amplification so that people can hear us more effectively,” Lopreore said.

Lopreore’s mic picked up the singer’s rapidly moving vocals or coloratura during his recital of "Il Mio Tesoro Intanto" from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

“It’s sung alone but it’s directed to my character Don Ottavio’s close friend and I’m instructing her to go inform my enemy that I’m coming for him and he’s in trouble,” Lopreore said. “Usually this piece is performed alone with orchestral accompaniment.”

Being restricted from using a traditional opera makes the experience dearer for Lopreore.

“There’s a certain rawness to what we’re doing right now. It’s more exposed. It’s more precious that we get to do this,” he said.

Credit New Orleans Opera
New Orleans Opera
Pairs of attendees sit 6 feet apart at New Orleans Opera’s Evening at the Broadside Theater. Nov. 20, 2020.

Ucar said she didn’t mind that the show was stripped down from the performances she’s used to.

“Their voices! It’s not like listening from a recording,” Ucar said. “And although they are not fully in play, they’re still, with their faces and their eyes, still performing so beautifully.”

Ivan Griffin and Julianna Espinosa perform "La Ci Darem La Mano."

Facial expressions and hand gestures were all that Griffin and Espinosa could rely on for their renditions of “Non Piu Andrai” and “Porgi Amor” from “The Marriage of Figaro” and their flirtatious duet, “La Ci Darem La Mano” from “Don Giovanni.”

“The literal title is ‘come with me, take my hand,’ and typically it’s done with them embracing, so that was definitely a challenge. I tried to peek over at him as often as I could,” Espinosa said.

She peeked. He extended his hand and raised his eyebrows, but neither of them could move from the opposite ends of the stage where they were standing.

“I just can’t go to her,” Griffin said. “[I said] OK, just plant yourself, Ivan, and sing and flirt … from a distance.”

With pairs of seats spaced 6 feet apart, and at a time when the number of COVID-19 cases in the state began to climb for a third time, "From a Distance" seems as apt a name as ever for a live performance in these strange times.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described "Opera on Tap" and misspelled Ottavio, Lopreore and Il Mio Tesoro Intanto.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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