Classically trained singer Tara Khozein moved to Budapest some time ago, but before she did, she left an indelible mark on Santa Fe's avant-garde theater and music scenes.
Like pretty much everyone right now, though, she's taking a beat and sheltering during the pandemic, pausing her singing career in the name of health (and the law or whatever). Meanwhile think pieces and op-eds rage around the web, describing a world wherein we'll always need to be a few feet apart from one another, where restaurants seat you next to mannequins to make you feel like you're near people; where live music is only piped into your home via livestream.
No small fuss has been made over how the cancellations and postponements of music events will affect culture seekers, but for purveyors of arts—specifically music—the pandemic has and will have devastating ramifications. The most cursory internet search for terms like "COVID, singing" easily shows what we probably already knew but were too afraid to say out loud: Singing can spread the virus like almost nothing else. And while that's certainly bad news for an audience, it's almost unbearable for someone who had made a living singing, like Khozein. Painters and poets can hole up someplace with a laptop or a quill, whereas singers and music folk rely heavily on being together and with an audience.
Perhaps most famously, a Washington state choir that observed social distancing during a recent rehersal wound up decimated by the coronavirus and, as we've seen on a local level, opera seasons, bandstand seasons and even small-scale live shows have been canceled indefinitely.
"Honestly, my first reaction was 'Oh…shit,'" Khozein tells SFR. "It makes me worried about my field and about all of the freelancers that depend on work from large institutions like the Santa Fe Opera—not just singers, but the hundreds of designers, instrumentalists, technical theater, house managers, ushers, parking teens, etc."
But, she says, it's also made her reassess how opera might play a role in the future cultural lexicon.
"It also makes me excited to see how a largely conservative body of institutions might be forced to make some drastic changes to embrace new forms of opera," Khozein explains, "and a completely different audience."
Internationally-renowned opera singer Matthew Anchel has similar feelings. Having worked for companies like the Santa Fe Opera, The Metropolitan Opera in New York and Germany's Staatstheater Stuttgart; he's been in opera since he was 7. And while Anchel readily admits articles about COVID-19's impact on live and group singing terrify him, he also says he's long considered the pros and cons of the field. In recent years, for example, he's added online vocal teaching to his repertoire.
"There are always uncertainties when you're trying to be a performer, but all these years I thought I was being responsible and realistic by exploring teaching and discovering that it's something I love to do," Anchel tells SFR, noting that already having embraced an online model for lessons has provided certain advantages during the pandemic. Still, he says, it's an imperfect model.
"While I am lucky that I have been teaching lessons online for years, the realist in me is constantly asking myself, "how long are people going to keep taking lessons if no one is putting on shows?'" Anchel says. "Then what am I going to do?"
He and Khozein agree the swift pivot to streaming musical performances has been an interesting one to watch, but as it applies to the future of opera or large scale performance specifically, it probably won't be a long-term solution—if it could even happen at all.
"I think specifically for opera the logistics at the theater will be so complicated that a digital model may not be possible," Anchel says. "There are sometimes 100 players in the orchestra, 100 people onstage and maybe 100 more people backstage who make what happens on a big opera stage possible."
"I won't pretend that opera can just suddenly become a digital art form. I think it can, but it will take some actual radical thinking about its form," she says. "A digital opera might have more in common with everyone watching the same football game and hearing fans of opposing teams cheering from different bars and restaurants and living rooms. Or it might have more in common with [massively multiplayer online video games]. This of course would attract the kind of musician who is into that kind of thing, and repel others."
For local singer and vocal educator Angela Gabriel, that same uncertainty is present, but so is the possibility for new ways of collaboration.
"It's hard coming to grips with a potential reality without group singing," Gabriel says. "In the meantime, we're all scrambling to stay with the learning curve of distance singing. I can only assume and hope that there are brilliant programmers working on software that will allow us to make music together in real time."
Gabriel's singing group, The Joy Crew (thejoycrew.com), which she hosts with vocalist Amy Elizah Lindquist, is about bringing the act of singing to the masses. For them, isn't about professional know-how (though they surely know what they're doing), it's about healing and togetherness. In an overly simplified nutshell, Gabriel and Lindquist believe that while humanity stopped singing regularly out of self-consciousness or being too busy or whatever else, it's still something deeply ingrained within us that anyone and everyone can and should do. Much of their model, however, relies on gathering, but while they've been unable to meet up in person, Gabriel says The Joy Crew has taken things to Zoom. With a number of online gatherings per week available by donation (including the Parkinsingers, an offshoot dedicated to folks with Parkinson's and other movement disorders), Gabriel and Lindquist are able to keep their cohort singing.
At least for now. We're really only a few months into this pandemic, and while our screens have provided a window into arts and music, it's surely just a matter of time before we burn out. On the topic of thinkpieces, you'll certainly find plenty that advise a sort of return to the land; a quiet life of gardening wherein we limit screentime. How long before terms like "stream fatigue" hit the mainstream? How long before we have to admit that while we've all leaned so heavily into books and film and music, we're just not very good at wanting to pay for them?
"The things I'm worried about are money, singing as a way of connecting and usefulness/creativity," Khozein says. "I think it's a good idea to get a super practical non-singing job, like teaching languages online, copy editing, grant writing, developing workshops, structuring curriculums. There are also a fair amount of resources for financial support for artists."
Money concerns will no doubt continue, but Gabriel points out her Zoom sessions have been delightfully unexpected. That takes out some of the sting.
“I…think that people need this more than ever right now. There are a lot of people who were not able to go to singing events or join choirs for a variety of reasons, including health, mental health, logistics, transportation, etc,” she says. “Now those people are able to sing. Last week we had mostly people from Santa Fe, but there was a woman from Australia singing with us! The possibilities are inspiring! There are so many people wanting to sing right now and I’m determined to help as many as I can.”