On December 21, the Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) will debut a recorded live performance that many thought impossible during the pandemic. Thanks to the work of the BLO Health Task Force for Opera Artists, including UMass Dartmouth Associate Professor of Biology Erin Bromage, music lovers from across the country will be able to watch a holiday celebration from the safety of their homes. Due to various health and safety restrictions and guidance, live performances have been largely absent from Massachusetts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A Winter’s Evening”, held at the Crane Estate in Ipswich, Massachusetts features soprano Gabriella Reyes alongside pianist Brett Hodgdon, hosted by reigning Miss Massachusetts Sabrina Victor, featuring classical guitarist Zaira Meneses, and directed by Nathan Troup.
Bromage, writing in his viral blog post which has garnered more than 19.3 million views, discussed a case study of COVID transmission amongst a church choir. “Singing, to a greater degree than talking, aerosolizes respiratory droplets extraordinarily well,” said Bromage. “Deep-breathing while singing facilitated those respiratory droplets getting deep into the lungs. Two and half hours of exposure ensured that people were exposed to enough virus over a long enough period of time for infection to take place.”
These challenges make indoor live performances with an audience prohibitive in an atmosphere of rising positive cases nationwide. This is especially hard for opera since singing artists do not typically use microphones and therefore sing loudly and forcefully.
“While we had many layers of protection, masks, distance, limited duration, and testing, the most important safety factor was the continual replacement of air in the room. To accomplish this, we piped in large volumes of fresh air into the performing space from the other side of the building. By keeping the ventilation fans 100’s of feet away, we were able to keep them on all the time without adding noise. We also continually monitored the CO2 in the performance space to ensure we were getting the desired ventilation rates” said Bromage.
BLO was determined to create an artistically sound musical holiday experience for audiences that maintained the health and safety of all involved. The organization, founded in 1975, is the largest and longest-lived opera company in New England. Like many other arts organizations, BLO’s entire 2020 and much of its 2021 performance schedule was cancelled due to COVID-19 shutdowns. However, the company pivoted early in the pandemic to the digital landscape, creating free online music and video, music discussion series, and podcast programs that collectively have driven tens of thousands of audience members to its website. BLO also recently launched a proprietary streaming service, operabox.tv, which offers free content alongside artistic programs like “A Winter’s Evening” for subscribers or on-demand purchases.
“We are so grateful to have Dr. Bromage as part of our Health Task Force team,” said BLO’s Chief Operating Officer Bradley Vernatter. “His contributions to the field and the public discourse around coronavirus were identified early on by the Massachusetts cultural community. We are delighted he agreed to help us, not only with the logistics of keeping our artists and audience safe, but also helping us understand how the pandemic might play out -- and the impact it could have on us in 2021.”
The UMass system was well represented at the Crane Estate. In addition to Associate Professor Bromage behind the scenes, the event was hosted by reigning Miss Massachusetts Sabrina Victor, a UMass Amherst graduate.