Singing opera in surgical masks

In this file photo taken on March 16, the Paris Opera chorus performs the opera Faust in Paris. The opera live-streamed the performance from the Opera Bastille online and on television last month.
In this file photo taken on March 16, the Paris Opera chorus performs the opera Faust in Paris. The opera live-streamed the performance from the Opera Bastille online and on television last month.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • No one loves wearing a mask at work, but spare a thought for the chorus of the Paris Opera, who has to project through multiple layers of cotton and polyester.

When the 70 or so chorus members took the stage recently for a rehearsal at the Bastille opera house, they certainly did not appear to have lost any of their sonorous beauty.

But having a mask strapped across one's face is far from ideal for a singer.

"It really disturbs the delivery," said Ms Sylvie Delaunay, who has been with the chorus for more than 20 years.

"When one sings opera, there are deep inhalations and exhalations, so if breathing is restricted, we get tired very easily."

With all cultural institutions in France shut due to the pandemic, the chorus of the Paris Opera was preparing for a new staging of Faust by 19th-century French composer Charles Gounod, screened on television and online last month.

The chorus has learnt what works and what does not. And the high-filtration masks proved difficult for them, said Ms Delaunay.

"As soon as you take a breath, you swallow it," she says.

The chorus has opted instead for stiff surgical masks, in stylish black for the actual performance.

The need for such protective equipment was highlighted last month when it was found that France's Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot had Covid-19 when she attended one of the last rehearsals for Faust. She tested positive the following morning.

This is the third time the Paris Opera - shut for more than a year, first because of strikes, then because of the coronavirus lockdowns - has live-streamed its performances, following Verdi's Aida and Mozart's The Magic Flute earlier this season.

For opera fans, such Internet broadcasts offer nowhere near the thrill of a seat in the auditorium. But the house has at least been able to reach a global audience for the first time since the pandemic.

Each new staging has been subtly transformed by the circumstances. Aida - in a controversial new production by Dutch director Lotte de Beer, starring German tenor Jonas Kaufmann - was a largely stationary affair because of social-distancing constraints.

In contrast, a new staging of Gounod's Faust - headed by German director Tobias Kratzer, with a star-studded line-up including Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho and French tenor Benjamin Bernheim, and conducted by Lorenzo Viotti - includes a bustling, albeit masked, nightclub scene, in a setting that might have a nostalgic edge for some in the current climate.

Soloists have been permitted to perform without a mask, albeit with daily Covid-19 tests.

But while the chorus was bunched together for the final show, the members had to socially distance throughout rehearsals.

"We're less able to hear each other. We hear our neighbours... But the sound of the group is more distant. It's not at all the same," said Ms Delaunay.

Masks also mean some of the articulation is lost, said chorus master Jose Luis Basso. "The job of a chorus singer is all about exaggerating the pronunciation of words... But still, the results aren't too bad," he said with a smile.

In opera, the chorus often takes centre stage, as in set pieces like Va, Pensiero from Verdi's Nabucco or the Gypsy Chorus from La Traviata.

In Faust, perhaps one of the best-known French operas alongside Bizet's Carmen, its opportunity to shine is in famous choruses such as Wine Or Beer and Immortal Glory Of Our Ancestors.

Mr Basso says the current crisis has underlined the importance of the chorus. He hates the idea that its members are sometimes dismissed as "people who failed to become great soloists".

"The tests to join the Opera are extremely demanding," he said, adding that they require the mastery of multiple languages, musical styles and technique.

Despite the difficulties, it has been vital to keep working, said Mr Alexander Neef, Paris Opera's director-general. "If we don't perform, we don't exist," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2021, with the headline 'Singing opera in surgical masks'. Subscribe