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In the world of the performing arts, it’s hard to imagine anything that breaks more of the pandemic rules than opera. Singers in high passion bellowing nose to nose. Huge orchestras wafting grand chords from the pit. Supernumeraries by the dozen, all crowded onto the stage to make their world seem densely populated.

“So why would we even bother, right?” said director Bob Neu, cutting off a reporter’s first question before it was even finished. Neu was hired by Pacific Symphony to come up with a pandemic-safe way to present an opera. The choice: “La Traviata,” Verdi’s 1853 chestnut that details the love life of a courtesan named Violetta who’s dying of consumption. The result is a uniquely staged version of Verdi’s work, which was filmed last month at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. It will be available for online viewing beginning Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m.

Simply coming up with an opera that could be adapted to pandemic performance rules was a daunting task, Neu recalled.

“The big challenge, of course, is (that) most operas including this one are about love. The first thing that comes to mind is how do you take something that’s about passionate love and do a staging where people can’t touch and embrace and die in each other’s arms and that kind of thing?”

But that wasn’t the only challenge that gave Neu palpitations. 

“Actually, that was the second thing that came into my mind after, you know, no chorus (allowed), which sort of freaked me out. How do you have a traditional opera without a chorus?”

Earlier, Pacific Symphony music director Carl St.Clair spent some time finding out what the limitations would be for staging an opera during the pandemic. He worked with teams from UC Irvine and the industrial hygiene firm, TRC. They provided input on safety protocols and confirmed the adequacy of air handling in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, where rehearsals and the recording would take place. (Despite the pandemic’s lessened threat recently, established protocols were followed throughout the process: musicians were separated from performers, each performer stayed within his or her own stage space, and the opera was filmed without an audience.)

According to St.Clair: “I said, ‘Can we have at least three singers? You can’t really do an opera with two singers.’ They said yes. And then I said, ‘Well, we’d like to have at least some of the smaller roles.’ So the rules were no chorus, no children, no off-stage performances, nothing like that. And it all has to be socially distanced.”

Finally, when St.Clair got his pandemic instructions locked down, he began to consider specific works.

“We figured out that I can have 28 people; I think it ended up being 29 or 30 on stage at the same time. So I thought through the repertoire. For instance, ‘Rigoletto’ came up, but it’s hard to do it without including the famous quartet. And then you can’t really do ‘Carmen’ without the quintet. It was all about, ‘You can’t do this without that.’ ”

“La Traviata” seemed like a worthy candidate in St.Clair’s estimation. Besides having only three crucial lead roles, it’s modestly orchestrated. “It has woodwinds in pairs, a couple of percussionists,” he said. “The orchestration is pretty sparse.” 

St.Clair approached Neu with the idea.

The set pieces for Pacific Symphony’s pared down “La Traviata” allow for the singers to perform socially distanced. Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

“I said, ‘So Bob, how about you consider doing “Traviata” in a version that’s only got three singers, no chorus, and everyone is socially distanced by the direction. And oh, by the way, it has to be no longer than 90 minutes because all of our protocols say we can only be in the same room for 90 minutes, and no intermission.’ (Normally, the three-act opera runs well over two hours, not including intermission.)” St.Clair chuckled.  “And he said yes.”

Passion, but No Touching

Neu and St.Clair started batting around some staging ideas, and possible solutions soon presented themselves. “The more we talked through it and the more we thought about it, the more we realized that the ‘less is more’ concept could work,” Neu said. “There’s very little that the chorus sings that’s absolutely necessary to tell the story. They’re mostly adding atmosphere and commenting on things.”

Other aspects of “La Traviata” make it suitable for stripped-down adaptation, Neu surmised.

“It has one central story. There’s no subplot, there’s no, you know, gypsies throwing babies into fires or anything like that – just three characters who are essential to telling the stories. So when those things all kind of became clear for us, we really became convinced it could work.”

Once they’d worked out the basic logistics, the two men and their team began to consider more practical matters.

Neu said the problem of limited physical interaction among the characters was vexing. “How do you tell the story in some meaningful way, without there being any kind of physical touching? So we ended up (with) this idea that the whole thing is staged as a flashback, something that Violetta is imagining. So when it’s not always about the literal, then you have a little bit of permission to tell the story more creatively and freely.”

The limitations of streaming became advantages in certain respects, Neu said. Directing for the camera allowed certain effects of intimacy that would have been impossible in a live staging.

“With the camera, you can do a lot of tricks so that it looks like somebody’s right behind somebody else when they’re really not. So the whole camera part helped a lot too with achieving a look of intimacy.”

Rehearsals were filled with plenty of extra chores to satisfy various health rules, St.Clair said. “There had to be certain protocols of daily testing and of quarantining. And behind the scenes, we had to assure the sanitation of every little piece of scenery, every vase and every pencil on every table. It was an incredibly detailed job that had to be done every day.”

St.Clair and Neu were helped during the rehearsal process by the performers, who came up with many creative solutions to the restrictions they faced.

“Their feedback was really helpful and positive. They all wanted to make sure that they were still able to connect emotionally and tell the story,” Neu said. “We worked a lot on some gestures such as reaching with your hands, which can be very poignant.”

The opera was shot like a movie, with many takes filmed over several days in May.

Neu and St.Clair’s creation doesn’t just seem like a solution to a host of thorny problems, said Jacob Sustaita, Pacific Symphony’s assistant conductor, who hosted three one-hour sessions to help familiarize people with the opera and the details of Pacific Symphony’s staging. Sustaita sees it as an artful and well-considered alternative to more traditional productions whose pandemic restrictions might go unnoticed by someone who didn’t know about them beforehand.

“I am witnessing some of the highest level of art and music-making, and all while the singers can’t touch each other. They can only get so close to each other. But that makes it really thrilling,” Sustaita said. Neu’s direction cleverly redirects your attention, Sustaita noted. “You never sense (the restrictions). You never sense that there are rules being implemented on stage.”

How to Watch ‘La Traviata’

“La Traviata” ticket holders will be emailed a viewing link one hour before the performance begins. The video will be available for viewing through July 4.

To purchase a ticket or troubleshoot the link, call the Pacific Symphony box office at (714) 755-5799 or email boxoffice@pacificsymphony.org.

Tickets are $25 for 28-day household access.

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

Classical music coverage at Voice of OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Voice of OC makes all editorial decisions.

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