Nebraska safely produces outdoor opera production of 'The Cunning Little Vixen'
calendar icon23 Nov 2020 user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen
Lincoln, Neb.--During the coronavirus pandemic, a number of theatre companies, opera companies and other musical performances have either canceled live productions or gone with remote performances. This fall, the Glenn Korff School of Music found a way to safely produce its opera “The Cunning Little Vixen” with live, outdoor performances on Oct. 3-4.
Leoš Janácek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” is a story about the one-ness of man and nature, and the eternal cyclical regeneration of life, love and hope.
The singers performed from the patio of Kimball Recital Hall’s main entrance on campus, with some fun excursions into the grass and foliage. A nine-piece chamber group, The Trace Chamber Society, conducted by Glenn Korff School of Music doctorate student Rebecca Nederhiser, performed the orchestration from behind the singers in the lobby of Kimball Recital Hall. A large LED screen framed the playing space with illustrations designed by Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film alumnus David Tousley (M.F.A. 2015) that helped tell the story. And the performers playing various animal characters operated beautiful, large-scale puppets.
“There were a lot of people involved in this production, all acknowledging that we were doing something different and special—creating live theater for live human beings, amidst a pandemic characterized by isolation,” said Richard H. Larson Distinguished Professor of Music and Director of Opera William Shomos. “I think everyone valued it in a really special way, and all of us rose above ourselves to make it happen.”
Back in mid-March, when the university pivoted to remote learning to finish the spring semester, Glenn Korff School of Music faculty began thinking ahead to the fall semester. While other music performances this fall are happening via webcast with no in-person audience in the school, the opera program successfully held two outdoor performances in front of a live audience.
“I got an e-mail from our school’s director Sergio Ruiz last spring that said, ‘Start thinking of creative ways to deal with a worst-case scenario without extra funds,’” Shomos said. “I took that seriously, and I thought, ‘Okay, what can we do?’ I went on the assumption that we’d have a situation where the university would be open, but that I’d have every imaginable restriction standing in the way of a typical performance. Then came the idea of an outdoor performance. I didn’t look back after that.”
Producing the opera outside helped solve many technical issues, including social distancing and protecting the safety of the singers. Singing unmasked indoors was found by researchers to spread COVID-19 through microscopic airborne particles known as aerosols.
“The professional voice community was aware early on about the probability of significant aerosol transmission, which was affirmed by some major scientific studies later in the summer,” Shomos said. “Back in the spring, however, the general public seemed more worried about surface transmission. But it was my concern about the aerosol factor that really canceled out any notion of an indoor opera production.”
Producing it outdoors on the south lawn of Kimball Recital Hall on campus gave Shomos the room to block the staging of the performers safely.
“The Glenn Korff School of Music’s policy is a minimum of 10 feet social distancing for vocalists,” Shomos said. “I was literally out on the patio of Kimball Hall with a tape measure trying to figure out how the characters in the opera could be staged, as a rule, 10 feet from each other.”
“I felt like we were doing what we knew how to do,” said Glenn Korff School of Music doctoral student Patrick McNally, who played the Forester. “I got more comfortable with it as the semester progressed, and it didn’t turn into a super-spreader event. I think the fact that this production was successful proves there are protocols that can make this safe.”
“I never felt I was sacrificing my own personal safety in order to be a part of the opera,” said first-year master’s student Olivia Hacker, who played the Vixen. “Not only did the cast do their part in not socializing in an unsafe way apart from the rehearsals, washing their hands regularly and drinking water. We were required to keep distance from the other singers, and no one was singing unmasked until the week of tech rehearsals when we had our mics. I felt like the rehearsal process could not have been safer.”
All of the rehearsals took place outdoors.
“The whole idea of having every rehearsal outside was so that the singers could actually sing unmasked, if they wanted,” Shomos said. “Yet through the entire rehearsal period, they all chose to sing with their masks on. It’s not comfortable singing in a mask. This kind of dedication to taking care of themselves and each other was really impressive to me.”
McNally said Shomos helped make it as safe as possible with the blocking. For example, if the singers had to pass each other as part of the staging, they were not singing.
“The puppets were actually really helpful in that you can do a love duet with puppets from a distance that you couldn’t do in person, especially when they’re not hand puppets, but they’re big, 12-foot tall puppets,” McNally said. “You can move them each six feet apart from each other, and the two of you can sing and tell a story that way, which I thought was pretty inventive. The whole thing, just having the puppets, everything seemed bigger and broader. There was more understanding from the audience of who is relating to whom without being right next to each other physically.”
The 26 puppets used in the show were designed and built by Nebraska Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Andy Park and Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film alumnus Jill Hibbard (M.F.A. 2020). Seventeen of the puppets were mâché animal heads that matched characters in the opera, along with an additional nine banner puppets.
Park and Hibbard have collaborated on a number of puppet projects, including last year’s Nebraska Rep production of the devised theatre piece, “A Thousand Words,” which also featured a variety of puppets.
“When we were working on ‘A Thousand Words,’ we had puppeteers right next to each other and even two people working one puppet,” Park said. “That’s obviously not a good idea in this situation. These totem puppets could be spread out. It took one person only to operate the puppets, and they were simple enough that a new puppeteer/opera singer could learn it and work on them very quickly.”
“And it was designed that the closest they could get to each other was six feet, so it already created that buffer,” Hibbard added. “That’s where large-scale puppetry is a really great tool to be able to perform while also adhering to social distancing protocol.”
The other challenge for the production was the orchestra, but Shomos said it all came together for the performances.
“I kept telling my cast, ‘You know what, I’ve never produced an outdoor opera with projections, puppets and an orchestra playing in a different building. This is all new to me—let’s just see how it goes,’” Shomos said. “The way it held together was so rewarding. There was a lot of work by a lot of people trying to imagine how things could fit together. I can’t say enough for Rebecca Nederhiser.”
Nederhiser, as the conductor and musical director, worked on the score all summer to learn what the singers would be doing, and what her nine-piece orchestra would be doing.
“My role was everything music-related,” Nederhiser said. “Leading up to our dress rehearsal week, my time was spent in daily outdoor rehearsals with the cast, and socially distanced indoor rehearsals with the orchestra. From the beginning, I established consistent tempos with the singers and ensemble, knowing that in performance, the cast would not be able to see me. As a conductor this went against my traditional function of influencing sound through visual gestures. In fact, I often joked with the cast, my goal throughout the rehearsal process was to train them to eventually 'not need me.' During the performances, it was really the monitors and sound systems that connected us to one another, allowing me to react to the needs of the cast from what I 'heard' rather than what I couldn't see."
Inspirmedia Productions provided media for the performance, including the LED screen for the projections and monitors for the singers, orchestra and conductor.
“The monitor was almost instant sound,” Nederhiser said. “There was hardly any delay, so every single member in the cast had not only the ability to hear me, but also individual instruments of the orchestra in their ear. They could actually adjust, like, oh, I need to hear a little more of the clarinet line or the flute line or whatever they needed.”
Shomos said the entire production proved the adage that necessity is the mother of invention.
“It’s really true,” he said. “We looked at everything that we couldn’t do and instead of getting hung up on that, we looked toward what we could do. I think that was a valuable lesson for all of us involved in the show. We were all doing things that we normally don’t do because we had to. You work with what you have, and you try to create something beautiful.”
For everyone involved in the production, it felt good to return to a live performance.
“I think it pulled a lot of us out of that shell of isolation that we’re feeling as performers right now in our country and around the world. We are not alone in this. Several organizations are experiencing trauma,” Hacker said. “There’s nothing like getting to communicate through music, and I so missed it. It was really exciting to look up after tech week and see all these faces ready to hear some opera.”
The community that forms between performers and the audience is important, McNally said.
“Now, more than ever, when everybody is in their homes, trapped in front of computers all day, to get out and experience something as a community and to have a dialogue as a community, which is fundamentally what theatre is, it’s really important,” he said. “I’m glad we got to do a little bit of it here. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Nederhiser said the experience taught her the power of community and the power of overcoming.
“And honestly, the power of the arts,” she said. “I think that is maybe the biggest thing I walked away from is how much people still need the arts and the awareness of how much they missed going to live performances. I think for us now, every time we get the opportunity, we’re not going to take it for granted.”
“I’m really proud to have been a part of this opera,” Park said. “The music was incredible. The orchestra was great. The singers were tremendous. They committed to the puppetry. The illustrations and the puppetry and the singing all worked together in a way that I thought was just stunning. I’m really proud of it.”
Shomos hopes it inspires his colleagues around the country to keep finding creative ways to keep live performance going during the pandemic and beyond.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “There are so many things that could have gone wrong—if it rained that weekend, if school had shut down the day before, if someone in the cast had gotten sick. We accepted the risk fearlessly because we thought it was the right thing to do. You just find solutions to the challenges.”
Shomos said everyone needs to consider all the ways to keep having live performances as we move forward, including using outdoor venues.
“People are craving for these live musical events that bring communities together,” he said. “And we can do this. It worked for us. Let’s get our music out where it belongs.”
To see the Glenn Korff School of Music’s webcast of The Cunning Little Vixenon YouTube, visit https://go.unl.edu/gksomopera.