After receiving the link for the performance, we all logged on and introduced ourselves, audience included. Then, after opening statements from the creative team, director Ethan Heard screen-shared a video detailing the process of taking Lady M online, showing the cast as they recorded tracks and clips of video, and talking to arranger Daniel Schlosberg who retooled Verdi’s score for guitars both electric and acoustic, mandolin, saxophone, clarinet, violin, percussion, and piano.
This was followed by two “live” performances, the first part of the Witches’ Chorus lip-synched by Jamilyn Manning-White, who was representing the Weird Sisters (in this production, there are only three-another work of arranging by Schlosberg) last night. Manning-White was extraordinarily game throughout, using Zoom backgrounds and wild gesticulations to become a witch in her apartment and remaining utterly calm when the recording cut off halfway through her lip-synch (something I never thought I would write about an opera in my life).
Quentin Oliver Lee followed this by singing (actually live, this time) Macbeth’s dagger scene, complete with spooky, direct-to-camera stares. The translations appeared in the Zoom chat. His voice, was rich and pliant, even over my crappy laptop speakers. Manning-White and Lee are both engaging performers who are clearly making the best of a weird situation, and I look forward to hearing them sing this live one day.
The show closed with a “music video,” of Felicia Moore singing Lady Macbeth’s Sleepwalking aria, compiled out of footage taken by the cast and crew with whatever they could find on hand. Moore, who I simply loved as Susan B. in The Mother of Us All at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in February, did a bang-up job, considering the circumstances, her enormous voice sounding warm and strong on the recording, even if her high notes were a bit too thick on top.
I am a Felicia Moore fan, and I can’t wait to hear and see her in this role. As Susan B., she exuded strength, grace, and power, and I can only imagine how fascinating she’ll be with a little pure-evil added to the mix as Lady Macbeth.
All in all, it was a bit strange, watching pre-recorded videos over Zoom. But Heartbeat Opera is absolutely making the best of a bad situation. They want to pay their artists, and adapt to the circumstances. That is more than can be said about many artistic institutions right now, and I hope they’re able to continue initiatives like this for as long as this crisis lasts.
I also think that, when the dust settles a bit more on this, Heartbeat Opera might find themselves amongst those leading the charge in online opera, finding innovative ways to incorporate digital technologies and reach broader audiences with their shows than before. In an art form in which liveness is a prerequisite, this crisis will likely make us rethink what liveness means anyway.
Like many of us, I’m sure, I go to the opera to lose myself for a while. As a reviewer, I’m searching for the times when my pen stops scribbling, and I can just be there with the music.
I did not get this feeling last night, and that is not the fault of Lady M, or its extraordinary cast and creative team whose ingenuity and spirit should be applauded. Instead, I got something perhaps more interesting. In this format, there is simply no such thing as the suspension of disbelief, no way for actors to disappear into their characters, audiences to disappear into anonymity, crew and creative to disappear backstage.
Zoom makes us constantly confront the realities of living in the time and place that we do, always forcing us back to the inside of our cramped apartments and the sirens outside.
There is no backstage, not any more, and the video shown at the beginning made this abundantly clear. We see the artists getting interrupted by long-awaited calls from unemployment, by their partners and children, by technological difficulties. There is almost a training montage of rehearsing, cutting together, people goofing off with Zoom backgrounds. The “Out, damned spot” hand washing takes on new meanings. Manning-White said in the Q&A that Heartbeat worked hard to craft rehearsal schedules around her toddler’s schedule, and that her daughter loved checking in on “Mommy’s friends” while she was rehearsing.
Last night, I was at every minute aware of the artists as people with families and lives, aware of my fellow audience members, and almost painfully aware of myself, watching it all. In normal times, this would be a bad thing, and this review would be a bad review. But these aren’t normal times.
In Lucia’s mad scene, the chorus watches her, the spectacle of female madness in her bloody white dress. We watch her too, and whether Donizetti did this on purpose or not, we become part of the chorus. This scene is so brilliant because it implicates the audience as spectators by mirroring our own morbid fascination back to us. The chills I get from this scene are not only from the sound of that glass harmonica, but from the sudden leap outside of myself, as I watch myself watching Lucia.
Lady M gives me a similar feeling, but with a distinctly 2020 twist. Zoom, the platform that now defines our lives, lays bare the act of spectatorship, by sheer necessity peeling back the artifice, leaving just people, in their homes, singing or watching or both.
By doing this, Lady M asks questions that are worth considering as the arts adjust to this global situation that is devastating lives and livelihoods, and making singing itself a risky enterprise: What is opera without the artifice of performance? What is opera without live singing? How can we keep our beloved art form alive?
We don’t know yet, but Heartbeat is right to engage with these issues and find creative solutions.
The first 18 performances of Lady M have sold out, a wonderful sign that opera fans are out there and are willing to support artists. More performances are going to be added soon.