On March 13, 2020, we had our last large premiere at Theater Dortmund with the chorus onstage. We performed “Die Stumme von Portici” to a nearly empty auditorium, a so-called Geisterpremiere. We nevertheless, of course, gave it our all. There have been other premieres since then as the lockdowns have come and gone, but so far the chorus hasn’t been involved in those out of safety concerns.
In talking with friends, I’ve noticed that many of them point to this date as the day the coronavirus threat felt serious. And it was, unintentionally, the last time I wrote anything on this blog. So here’s an update about the last year.
Following the Geisterpremiere, we stopped going to work for several months. It was unsettling.
At first, I tried focusing on my fitness routine. After forgoing the gym, I hoped to recreate my enthusiasm with at-home workouts. Unfortunately, I find working out at home to be less fun, so while I showed up (to my living room) to train, I also felt like I was going through the motions.
On the musical side, Fiona Apple’s album “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” dropped at the perfect moment, and this gave me creative fuel. I’d always been nervous about singing in my apartment. I can hear my neighbors a bit, and so I figured that they could hear me. But once the theater was off-limits, I realized I had to get over it and sing at home.
But what to sing? Naturally, we had some music to learn for the theater, but I wanted more. My search for satisfying music led to the two biggest changes in the past year:
- I began singing lower rep. I experimented with some bass rep to gauge the limits of my voice, but as time has gone on, I feel very comfortable with what might be called “bass baritone” music. This actually tracks with the kinds of solo rep I tend to get, so I feel like I’ve been a de facto bass-baritone for a while. This is still an experiment though.
- I began playing guitar and piano again. Since there was no telling when we could work with pianists again, I looked for ways to self-accompany. That initial desire sparked a revival in my private musical life.
My guitar playing especially has been a major focus of musical energy ever since. At first, I was learning how to play “finger style” like you would for country or bluegrass, but eventually, my focus turned towards classical music. My first attempt to self-accompany was to play through Schubert’s “Ständchen” on guitar while singing. That made me realize that I needed better technique and, eventually, to buy a classical guitar.
In May, the lockdowns were loosened a bit in Europe. The theaters were allowed to open in NRW, but the restrictions meant that it wasn’t viable to resume our season as originally planned. However, we did go back to work in a limited capacity: the chorus could only rehearse in smaller sub-groups, and we had to be seated far apart from one another while singing.
This relaxed period continued until the middle of October. During that summer, cases were pretty low here. We could and occasionally did go to restaurants. Many colleagues took summer vacations abroad, though Rebekah and I stayed home. I resumed going to the gym.
In the fall, our modified 2020/2021 season began playing out. Some productions were cancelled, and others filled their spots with reduced running times and casts. Different theaters found varied solutions to the problem of protecting their artists and audiences while also trying to remain economically viable for themselves and their employees. We continued rehearsing, though our eventual return to the stage kept getting pushed back.
The basic problem was this: grand opera is a crowded business, and singing makes managing aerosols expelled from the lungs difficult. You need lots of people onstage and in the orchestra pit, not to mention all the people working backstage who often work in close contact with one another. At the same time, you need repertoire to be ready to go should the situation rapidly improve.
In late October, it became clear again that the pandemic in Europe was surging. The cases exploded in Germany in a way they hadn’t in the initial wave. We continued rehearsing, but the season was modified again.
In December, even this limited activity became untenable. We went back into lockdown, and we ceased working for several weeks around Christmas. It’s unusual to have Christmas off, but because of the situation, Rebekah and I once again stayed in town.
I did get to do some live performing though. I sang a few masses in the week around Christmas with some colleagues. The church doors had to be kept open (we all wore coats, and I hugged a hot water bottle), and we wore masks when waiting, and we all had to sit far apart from one another, but standing up to sing a song, aria, or quartet felt the same as it always had. It was exciting.
I also published the, hopefully, first of many self-accompanied songs. I made a quick arrangement of the German Advent song “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging” for the Sunday mass, and I additionally recorded it at home to share on YouTube.
That recording features my steel string acoustic, but since then I have purchased a nylon string classical guitar. Researching this was a good project in late December and early January as a way to distract myself.
The Pool and the Monolith
This last year has been, in some ways, transformative for me. If I continue the practice habits I’ve developed, then over time I might be able to really make something out of them. At the very least, they give me a musical outlet separate from my day job. And the discoveries I’ve made about my singing could only happen in periods where my voice got long periods of rest.
However, the last year has been outright bad in other ways, and I’m not going to pretend that everything is just peachy. It’s not.
There are the general lockdown blues that are affecting everyone. It’s been exceedingly lonely at times, even as a married person. There have been long stretches where I lost the plot and fell into bouts of distraction. The state of the opera industry worldwide is a looming threat. And there’s a creeping anxiety coming from nothing specific beyond the water we’re all swimming in.
Several of my family members in the US have gotten Covid-19, and my grandmother died of it in early February. I hadn’t seen her since 2018, and we haven’t visited our families since 2019.
In nearly all other ways, we’re lucky. My parents, my stepmother, and my surviving grandmother are vaccinated. I’ve kept my job. My sister is healthy. Rebekah’s family has remained healthy. My friends who have gotten the disease have recovered. We don’t have children and have therefore been spared the stress of schools closing. We can pay our rent.
But it’s hard to have perspective right now due to the enormity of it all. There are stories of people in much worse situations, and beyond those there are the hidden masses of people whose stories aren’t told except in statistics. Their tragedies nevertheless spill into humanity’s pool of collective trauma, and from that pool rises a monolith built from the names and memories of the dead. It inches higher every day, and against its awful silhouette our personal successes, failures, and losses stand in pitiful relief, threatening to freeze around our hearts.
A Dream of Spring
We resumed rehearsing in late January and have continued ever since. We’ve even done some staging rehearsals, albeit with no singing from us and all while wearing medical masks. We’re still hoping that, following Easter, some kind of regular performance schedule can begin again in earnest.
I also hope to share more self-accompanied songs in the coming months. When I do, I’ll share them here too.
If you judge yourself lucky, consider donating to organizations helping those who weren’t. We’ve chosen Gast-Haus statt Bank e.V here in our part of Dortmund, and there’s likely an organization in your city helping out.
If that’s not a possibility, consider other ways you can help yourself and those you care about. Sometimes it doesn’t take much more than a bit of humanity. An ear. A message. You never know.
In any case, I hope for your continued health and the health of those you love.
P.S. In the background of all this of course were the US elections and the ongoing racial injustice there, but I’m leaving them out of this narrative, which focuses on the coronavirus.