With Concert Halls Closed During The Coronavirus Pandemic, It’s Opera By Zoom For These Two Liberty Artists
Ongoing concerns about the coronavirus keep venues closed. Two Liberty-based opera artists, a singer and a stage director, try to embrace the situation instead of fighting it.
Opera has been described as an art form in survival mode in the COVID-19 era. Elaborate staging, big casts, and a full orchestra are integral to a successful run.
But, that’s just not possible during the ongoing health crisis, which makes it a precarious situation for artists who make a living directing or performing in opera.
“There are so many things out of our control that you just greet it as it comes,” said Liberty-based baritone Daniel Belcher. “The idea of planning ahead has kind of vanished, or at least planning too far ahead.”
It was back in March when things started to unravel, early in the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. And businesses, including arts institutions, looked to state and local leaders, and health officials, for guidance on whether or not to stay open.
“I kept watching the news,” stage director Kathleen Belcher said, “It was sort of slow — you could see that boulder starting to go down the hill.”
This year marks Belcher’s 20th on the directing staff of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and her artistic vision has shaped operas at companies around the world, including Lyric Opera of Kansas City (she directed "La bohème" in November).
In March, she expected to make her directing debut with Florida Grand Opera in Miami. Verdi’s “Rigoletto” was slated to open on March 28. But, on March 16, Florida Grand Opera suspended performances due to the coronavirus.
“It was heartbreaking because we were almost done staging it,” she said. “We were the last week in the room. I had one more day to finish staging the opera. It was a great cast.”
She added, ”And so it was really, it was a big disappointment.”
Back in March, Daniel Belcher was deep in rehearsals with Minnesota Opera for the world premiere of “Edward Tulane” scheduled to open March 21. It’s based on the children’s book by Kate DiCamillo.
“We were supposed to have our final room run,” he said, “which is the last rehearsal in the rehearsal room before we moved to stage.”
Just hours before the rehearsal got underway, the cast and crew got word that the theater was closing.
“It was the first time the entire team for the world premiere was literally together in the room,” he said, “and we were being sent home.”
He added, “And it was the emotions of not knowing, the emotions of what are we collectively going through as an industry, but also individually and as a country and as a world.”
Both artists have international reputations in the field of opera. They first met in 2002 while working on a production of Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” at San Francisco Opera.
Daniel grew up in Missouri and studied at William Jewell College. So when they decided to get married, they chose Liberty as a home base, in part due to proximity to family— and the airport.
But what’s an opera couple to do in the middle of a pandemic?
“The one good thing that's come of it, we have never spent this much time together as a family,” he said (Kathleen added, “At home.”) “We’ve been together 18 years and we don't think we've had this much time together.”
Kathleen spends 20 to 25 weeks a year at the Metropolitan Opera, along with one or two other jobs for weeks at a stretch. But the Met closed its doors on March 19. And since May, Kathleen, along with about 40 other staff members, has been on indefinite furlough.
And Daniel travels a lot too, with as many as five roles a season. They try to stagger their work schedules — with support from family members for their 15-year-old daughter, Maddie, a sophomore at Liberty High School.
So for now, they’re at home, teaching, directing, or singing, mostly by Zoom. Kathleen said she's been pursuing gardening and cooking, and enjoying a slower pace.
“I was talking to my friends in New York, and I would say, ‘Oh, I'm so glad we're here in Liberty,’” she said, “We can go out in our backyard. We can go sit on the deck. We can walk around the block and not have to avoid 700 people.”
She’d like to get back to work, but safety is a priority.
“I wouldn't want to put anybody's health at risk, not an audience member, not an orchestra person, not my own,” she said. “I look forward to the days when we can (perform again), but I don't see any need to rush into anything.”
Also in March, William Jewell announced a new program starting in August they’re spearheading: an artist diploma, a two-year voice performance program with one-on-one voice lessons, acting classes, and coaching. Daniel serves as the program director.
“They’re teaching us how to negotiate this time,” he said.
“We’re hoping to do (Mozart’s) ‘Così fan tutte’ in the fall with our six artists, and we're doing it outside,” he said. “There’s this arts plaza at Jewell which was acoustically designed, which we didn't even know really existed.”
It’s a way to keep their creative juices flowing, he said, and encourage a new generation of artists to take the next steps in their career. And even though much of their work is done over Zoom these days, instead of inside an opera hall, they’re making the most of it.
“We're trying to look at what it can be, what we can do at this time, as opposed to what we can't,” Daniel said, “because if we just dwell on that, then no, it will never replicate that experience, but we can still do a lot of wonderful things.”
Kathleen added, “I'm hoping we look back on those moments in 10 years or 20 years and say, yeah, 2020 was horrible as a whole, but we got to do all these really lovely things that we wouldn't have done had things been in their normal configuration.”