It’s not the same as live, but it’s as good as it gets online: The Metropolitan Opera in New York has been screening encore performances nightly on its Met Player App since live performances had to shut down in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And the Piedmont Opera has been enhancing those performances with daily talks on its Facebook page by James Allbritten, general manager and artistic director; and Steven LaCosse, a frequent stage director for the company. Allbritten and LaCosse also interview artists with connections to the Met productions.
When Piedmont Opera announced that it was canceling performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” just a week before its planned performances in March, area opera lovers were heartsick.
This was not only because the adaptation of “Anna and the King of Siam” is a particular crowd favorite but also because the local company produces only two fully staged operas a year. Now opera fans would have to wait for Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio.” Originally scheduled for October, “Fidelio,” too, has been canceled.
“The cast, crew and staff are so saddened with this news,” Allbritten said at the time. “As much as our community could use the ‘shot in the arm’ that this beautiful production would have given, it cannot be at risk of our patron’s health.”
Allbritten said that part of the problem is that singing requires even more space than normal speaking. Normal — if you can call it normal — social distancing is 6 feet, opera requires 12 feet because of the greater intake of breath and the greater exhalation of, well, saliva-infused breath.
But Allbritten had a brainstorm. During the second week of the Met broadcasts, he asked LaCosse to do a series of noon-day talks on Facebook live to prepare Piedmont Opera’s patrons — and anyone else who cares to listen — for the broadcasts.
When they asked their listeners at the end of the first week if they wanted more, the response was an overwhelming “Yes,” Allbritten said.
Last Friday, Allbritten interviewed Karen Kamensek who conducted that evening’s broadcast of Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten,” marking the 14th week of the Met’s Nightly Opera Streams and Piedmont Opera Facebook live programs.
“Steve and I have been meeting our patrons every weekday for at least a half an hour to talk about the opera being shown by the Met that evening,” Allbritten said. “Guests have included Anthony (Tony) Dean Griffey to discuss his performance in the title role of ‘Peter Grimes,’ Kevin Burdette giving us insight into both the operas written by Thomas Adès in which Kevin performed.
“New York Times best-selling author Margaret George spoke to us about Tudor history the week of Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy, and Peter Kazaras, an original cast member of the Met’s premiere of ‘The Ghost of Versailles,’ joined us to discuss that opera.”
I tuned in on Thursday and got to hear LaCosse talk about “La Forza del Destino” (the power of destiny), by Giuseppe Verdi.
Smadar and Lee Chaffee of Galax and Hal Garrison of Winston-Salem were also on the Facebook live lecture. All three are members of the Piedmont Opera OPERAtors, the company’s volunteer arm.
The Chaffees said they have listened to the Facebook live chats since they started in March. In the morning, Smadar Chaffee prints out program notes from the Met website, which prepare her for the lecture, which, in turn, prepares her for the evening Met broadcast.
“It helps to shape the day and keep the discipline going,” Lee Chaffee said. Between opera study, lectures and performances, they walk and practice yoga.
They have lunch while they watch the PO lectures.
“We have gotten to know Jamie and Steve over the years,” Lee said.
“And now we feel like the guest singers are our friends, too, because we have lunch with them,” Smadar said.
Before the COVID-19 gathering restrictions, the Chaffees attended PO performances, Met HD screenings at Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, and went on trips to New York and Chicago with PO for opera performances in those cities.
“This is our opera education,” Lee said.
Hal Garrison has been involved with Piedmont Opera since its inception. He was in its first production, “Rigoletto,” in 1978.
“I am the oldest continuously employed opera chorus boy,” Garrison said, laughing. He also served on the board of directors for about 12 years.
“It’s made me very happy that the company has been able to engage so many opera people — with the help of the Met,” he said. “Working with Jamie and Steve on productions, we have gotten access to so much background material — what was going on in the composer’s life when he wrote the piece; how it fits into musical history.
“Then watching the broadcasts at night, I’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s what Jamie meant. ... It adds a little extra, especially to the operas I had never seen before.”
And now, you don’t have to be an opera insider to get a little extra. Just check them out on Facebook.
Piedmont Opera’s biggest fundraiser of the year, the Magnolia Ball, was online Saturday night. If you missed it but would like to help get the company through the pandemic and back into production as soon as possible, visit www.piedmontopera.org to donate.