Opera in a time of pandemic

Following strict health protocols, CU stages Hansel and Gretel for streaming

By Peter Alexander Dec. 9 at 4:15 p.m.

Putting on a staged opera during a pandemic is challenge.

There are many restrictions: distancing of performers, at least 12 feet because of the spread of aerosols by singers; no orchestra in the pit; rehearsal and performance space having to be aired out every 30 minutes; and of course no audience.

Leigh Homan

All of those challenges and more have been met by CU Eklund Opera director Leigh Holman and music director Nicholas Carthy. Fully staged, streamed performances of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel will be available online starting at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, through 11 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

The pandemic has had a major effect on the CU opera program. But the students depend on their experiences at CU to prepare for their careers, and Holman and Carthy were not willing to lose a full year of students’ educations.

The pandemic arrived in March just as the opera program was preparing Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. “When we got in dress rehearsal for Figaro and that turned into nothing, the outpouring of both grief and love was enormous,” Carthy says.

The opera planned for the late spring was Beatrice and Benedict by Hector Berlioz. Unwilling to let it drop, Carthy and Holman found a way to record individual musical numbers with singers performing separately. Holman worked over the summer with a videographer to make those numbers available online (see the final product here.) 

After that, they turned their attention to the fall production. As it turns out, Hansel and Gretel is the ideal opera to produce at this time: the cast is small, the opera is fairly short, which made it easier to observe time limits singing together, and it is a Christmas tradition in many opera houses. And another benefit: CU produces the opera every few years, so there was a complete set and costumes in storage.

Nicholas Carthy

But obstacles remained, including the orchestra. “We were told by the College of Music in no uncertain terms that we could not have the orchestral members to do it,” Carthy says. But rather than deny the students the opportunity of singing with an orchestra, he entered the entire score into a music writing program and sampled the score through a symphonic sound library. The result is a sampled orchestra, using real players and instruments.

Carthy set the tempos throughout. The performance tempos are not rigid—there are ritardandos and accelerandos—but they will be the same each time. “My role changed from somebody whose sole object in the pit is to be with the singers, to somebody who has to force the singers to be with me,” Carthy explains.

Holman had her own obstacles. “We had quite a list of protocols that we needed to follow (to stay safe),” she says. “When we practiced the staging all of the singers wore masks.”

They had to limit the singing in rehearsals, Holman says, because “even if you sing through the mask it starts the clock, and you can only sing for 30 minutes before you have to leave the room for 15 minutes.”

For the early staging rehearsals, no one sang—a rehearsal pianist would play the score while the singers spoke their lines in rhythm. “Once we had a scene ready to sing through, they would take their masks off,” Holman says. “We sang for 30 minutes and then left the room.”

Linsey Duca, Tommy Bocchi and Kely Riordan observing social distancing in CU’s Hansel and Gretel

The staging too had to observe the protocols. The singers had to stay 12 feet apart. ”Our technical director Ron Mueller was so helpful in marking out the stage so that we knew exactly where 12 feet was,” Holman says.

“We tried to make it as active as possible but stay 12 feet apart——a lot of circles around the stage. There’s a sword fight with brooms but the brooms are six feet long, and we used little bandanas that they could use when they weren’t singing, or when (Hansel and Gretel) were asleep under the trees.”

The stored sets for Hansel and Gretel were designed for Macky Auditorium, but the rehearsals and recordings took place in the much smaller Music Theater. This meant individual set pieces had to be combined on the small stage; scenic artist Jennifer Melcher Galvin hand painted a backdrop that other set elements could fit into. “It is one of the stars of the show!” Holman says. “It really brings it all together.”

The performances will feature three different casts, two singing the original German and one singing an abridged version of the opera in English, designed for school outreach, that lasts about an hour. Purely orchestra material—the overture and the Witch’s Ride—are cut from both versions. All the performances were taped the weekend of Oct. 24–25.

Tenor Tommy Bocchi as the Witch

You will notice that in all three casts, the witch is sung by a male tenor. This is often done in opera houses, to give the witch an additional bit of humor and to add a man’s voice to a cast dominated by women. In CU’s case, there is another reason: a male witch gives more male students the opportunity to be cast. 

Although the origin of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale is quite dark, Carthy and Holman point out that the opera is more humorous than scary. In the opera, Carthy says, “It wasn’t an evil stepmother, it was a mother with two boisterous children and a headache. And the witch has to be so funny!”

Holman agrees. “This is a story about a real family who love each other but they are going through hard times,” she says.

It is overcoming the challenges of presenting opera at all that Holman keeps coming back to. “We really paid attention and stressed the protocols that our epidemiologist gave to us,” she says.

“Our singers were very, very serious about these protocols. I did want to make that point, because when people see the video of people on stage together, that can make them nervous. Everybody did take it so seriously. And we’re really proud of them about that.”

# # # # #

Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck
CU Eklund Opera
Nick Carthy, conductor
Leigh Holman, stage director

Stream available from 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, through 11 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15

Detailed program information and stream access available here.

NOTE: Edited for clarity 12/9/20

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