As a first thought before returning to live performance on the opera stage after many months away, mezzo-soprano Brenda Rae told herself, “Remember that you do know how to sing.”
This thought helped Rae prepare for the lead role in Opera San Antonio’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, which opens Thursday at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, followed by a Saturday performance. Audience limits and pandemic safety protocols will be in place for both performances.
Opera San Antonio returns to the stage after a 14-month hiatus since its February 2020 performance of Bellini’s The Capulets and Montagues, having canceled its May 2020 production of Rigoletto due to the advancing pandemic.
Cast members of Lucia di Lammermoor said they are more than ready to perform.
Months of preparation would usually go into working toward a major operatic role, but Rae said the pandemic made her normal practice patterns unpredictable. Her performance schedule had been on pause for months before she was invited to sing in Germany in August.
She told herself, “All right, I don’t have much time, but I’m going to rely on my years of training” and reminded herself of her abilities.
Having played Lucia in four previous productions also helped her confidence, as did the safety-focused production plans forged by Opera San Antonio Artistic Director E. Loren Meeker that Rae’s co-star Musa Ngungwana called “genius.”
Ngungwana, who plays the role of Lucia’s priest and advisor Raimondo, said eliminating the chorus and condensing the full-length production to a tight 90 minutes were excellent choices to limit the number of people on stage at any given time and lessen risk.
Socially distanced positioning onstage, called “blocking” in the theater industry, will also promote dramatic aspects of the opera, he said. With Meeker’s choreographed movement within each performer’s designated space, “you’ve got all the space to yourself to move, and to focus the singing, and to focus the drama on the people.”
Meeker’s clever direction overcomes any awkwardness that safety protocols impose, he said. “The limitations that would have been there have been eliminated, mainly because we have people that are cognizant enough and experienced enough to know how to adjust quickly.”
The operatic style known as bel canto lends itself to post-pandemic performance in multiple ways, Ngungwana said, with storytelling less dependent on having a full chorus to explain and move the action forward and less need for the large-scale sets of grand opera productions.
“The focus is just performance, the voice,” Ngungwana said. “Bel canto offers you the chance to move [opera] back to where it started: the singing.”
Rae flew in from Minneapolis for the production, and Ngungwana traveled from Philadelphia while fellow cast member Claudia Chapa lives close by in Austin. She will perform the role of Lucia’s chambermaid and confidant Alisa, an integral part of the story as Lucia suffers under the demands of an overbearing patriarchy.
In any scenario involving members of the aristocracy, servants “are part of the tapestry of how a royal hierarchy is, or a family with a long legacy,” Chapa said. She will also join fellow cast member Rick Novak, a tenor playing the role of Normanno, in singing some parts that would normally be handled by the chorus. Her role is otherwise intact, she said, as is the essence of the story – and all of her favorite parts of Lucia di Lammermoor.
“It’s the greatest hits, so pretty much everything we’re listening to in this 90-minute concert is my favorite,” she said.
The three cast members asserted that they are able to focus on their performance in part because of how well-planned the safety protocols are.
Dustin Z West traveled from New York to take on the position of stage manager and health and safety coordinator for the Opera San Antonio production. West said the two roles, one traditional and the other a new response to the pandemic, are a natural fit.
“A big part of my job normally is safety as the stage manager but even more so now with all of the different COVID-19 precautions we’re taking,” West said.
He brings the experience of having managed the production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte for Opera Grand Rapids in Michigan in the fall. Using guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and medical professionals, the focus on masks, distancing, and sanitized dressing rooms were vital, West said.
“With this being a respiratory virus, we wanted to really pay attention and make sure that we’re not doing anything too risky that could potentially have long-term implications for their careers,” he said of the performers.
That the San Antonio Symphony has been performing with safety protocols in place since February also helps, he said, as the musicians will perform onstage behind the singers rather than crowded together in the orchestra pit as would normally be the case.
West also credited the ventilation system of the Tobin Center, where Lucia di Lammermoor will be staged.
“We worked with them to ensure that it was operating at its maximum efficiency, so that’s constantly recirculating the fresh air into the building, and making sure that that we’re working with clean air as well,” he said.
One operatic tradition had already long been adapted to be appropriate for pandemic conditions.
Similar to “break a leg” in the theater arts, opera performers wish each other “toi, toi, toi” for success before a performance. The term derives from an old superstition of spitting over a fellow performer’s shoulder, but long ago, Chapa said, spitting was dispensed with in favor of simply saying the words.
“It’s essentially to get rid of all the bad energy and to wish you luck,” she said, an appropriate sentiment for a San Antonio community looking to emerge safely from the pandemic.
Disclosure: Opera San Antonio is a San Antonio Report business member.