Of all the arts consortiums expected to pivot and succeed in the pandemic, the opera was not one of them. In stark contrast, the Virginia Opera (VAO) has proven more resilient than reticent with an inventive 2020 fall season, aptly named “Stayin’ Alive.” With outdoor concerts live-streamed on Facebook, and programming both accessible and entertaining regardless of age and familiarity with the difference between an aria and an overture, VAO has shown that opera exists for the people—pandemic or no.
Over Zoom, I spoke with this season’s emerging artists on what the transformation of the season has meant to them and how they hope it changes their industry for the better, forever.
Below, my conversation with the four emerging artists from the Virginia Opera’s Emerging Artists 2020-2021 season. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
In this Interview
Symone Harcum, Soprano
Whitney Robinson, Mezzo-Soprano
Nicholas Martorano, Baritone
Eric J. McConnell, Bass
With such a quick and seismic shift to the season, in what ways has this “Stayin’ Alive” season changed you as performers and artists?
Robinson: The diversity of material that we have, it’s been really exciting. Everyone here has learned 15, 20 new pieces, which is crazy. Having this variety and being able to share it with people, you know–Okay, what’s next?!–has been so exciting. In a regular season you’re preparing one specific piece for so long that it’s a nice change to have so much variety.
Harcum: I think it’s also very informative, really, how we take in music and in what ways we can use our voices so we can be effective in any genre. Because we are opera singers, but we are also musicians, we are communicators. We should be able to communicate to them wherever their hearts are. If their hearts are in musical theatre, in pop music, in Disney–I would love to connect to them in that way.
Martorano: Being able to sing our arias for people is really cool. Because a lot of the arias we sing are the lead roles in these huge operas that we’re a little young to do, but we don’t get to do them yet in person.
McConnell: I’ve found that singing this more pop-style stuff, for instance, [at one of our past concerts] we ended with “Seasons of Love” from “Rent,” which though based on an opera, is a decisively very rock, very pop-modern style of singing. And I have actually found that it has retroactively helped my classical singing [by making me ask] “Ooh, what if I tried singing this piece in a different way?” Everything is just so interconnected.
Martorano: We were always so afraid to do things. “Oh, you can’t do that because it’s not going to put you on the path to do this” or “you can’t sing this or learn that because then someone’s gonna think that.” I think the thing about COVID is that that has all been blown away. At this point it doesn’t matter. Our minds are so much more open to learning new things.
I had the pleasure of attending your Wednesday Wind Down Concert last week, and it was a completely different–although equally enjoyable experience–to the operas I have seen at the Harrison Opera House. What has been your favorite audience response so far?
Martorano: [at our concert Mon 9/21] There was this little girl who had a sign for us that said “you guys are amazing” and she was dancing to all of our songs.
Harcum: And that sign was just a napkin, like she didn’t come to this event with a sign that said “you are awesome.” She was inspired at some point to write on a napkin and bring it over to us. It was just the most adorable [thing]. The responses, especially from the children, we’ve had a few of those.
Martorano: Yeah one little boy at our first event came right up and said, “I enjoyed your singing.” As awesome as it is to be on a stage, it’s a little more removed.
McConnell: People are being exposed to this art form and realizing that it’s not this hoighty-toighty, kind of elitist sort of medium.
Harcum: When you bring us and the songs we’re used to singing, these opera tunes that have been lifted up so high that it is inaccessible, to see their response to that so plainly in this setting has been wonderful for me. It has renewed my belief in the fact that everyone really does love opera.
With the performing world going through so much upheaval, what does it mean to you to be able to perform?
Robinson: Honestly, I think we’re the lucky ones. There are so many people in our industry who don’t have this at all. They’re not performing, not able to maintain that audience connection. This is keeping us sane, working, out there connected with the audience.
McConnell: It is really bringing us all together. That transference of energy from audience to performer and back really is something you don’t realize you’re missing until it’s gone. Which I know we all kind of felt back in March.
Harcum: Anybody that has a passion to do something, they feel that it is important that they do it. It’s not only important for us it’s important for the world. This is the gift that we were given, right. When you’re kept from doing something you love, you go insane. That’s just the way it is. The fact that we are here, together, allowed to do some form of what we love to do is just, priceless.
What does it mean to you to see the joyful reactions from the audience at a time when there is so much uncertainty?
Harcum: I feel that when the world is crumbling, the best thing that we can do is to give everyone a form of escapism, right, a very loving form of escapism. And because of these restrictions that targets, seems to target us, performers, you know, it stops us from doing that.
Martorano: For me, it’s like, “it’s bigger than us.” When I go out and perform and sing for an audience, it doesn’t matter if it’s cold or the wind’s blowing at you or you know, the mic didn’t work or something goes wrong–it’s bigger. There’s a lot going on, you know, right now, and if we can bring joy to even one person because we’re doing this, like, then it’s worth it for me.
McConnell: I think it’s keeping our audience sane, as well. People who love the theatre, they crave live performance. It’s not the same coming through a computer screen. I mean, it’s a nice little substitute, but it doesn’t check all the same boxes.
Harcum: I saw those memes and it had the world burning and there’s someone yelling on the side saying “I have an opera degree!” This is the way that we can be actually useful. It’s true, we’re opera singers. Come here, please, help us, help you. And you, help me. We all need this.
This seems like the perfect time for the opera industry to change and modernize for a whole new generation who probably have never considered the opera ‘for them.’ While a ‘return to normal’ certainly seems far off, what changes do you hope to see and which changes currently being made do you hope stay permanent additions to opera?
Martorano: I think we’ve completely relooked at how we get people to come to the opera. I think, if you can bring some stuff outside, just out your front door and show people what’s going on. We did a concert at The Plot, maybe a block away [from the Harrison Opera House] and people were like “When are you doing more things?” I mean, we’re not talking that far away and people didn’t really know what was going on. So I think a new way of just exciting the community and bringing some things outside, is going to help.
Robinson: Opera is going to take tech to the nth degree, from now on we are going for it.
Harcum: I think the new and innovative ways that we are presenting the art form, than what we have [historically]. For example, when we started we were doing socially distanced performances, I mean, socially distanced in our own homes, and we would all do one show, or one scene. And the ideas that came out of that were much more interesting, I think, than what we have seen in many of the traditional stagings of things. And it wasn’t outlandish or offensive, like I feel like we think they’re going to be sometimes in this industry. It was just great, it was intriguing and it was new.
They’re doing virtual reality operas right now. We sat in on Opera America’s virtual opera houses–it looks like a video game of each opera house. They’re sending the dimensions in, and you can walk around this opera house and see exactly what’s happening.
Robinson: But also, on the flip side, I think we’re going back to something, where, when it started, opera was also these little salon-style concerts, where you’re just, like, in someone’s home with a piano. It’s a small group and you’re just sharing this experience with them for like a short concert and then you go to another one. So, we’re not only taking opera to the next level virtually, but we’re also bringing opera to people’s homes, literally.
Harcum: I think there’s nothing, nothing that this industry can’t learn here. There’s no way that this industry could grow too much and become more diverse. And if we just keep on this path, even when things get better, I think we might be experiencing a whole new comeback of opera, Laura Croft style.
In this Interview
Symone Harcum won first place in the 2018 NSAL-DC Dorothy Lincoln-Smith Voice Competition and the Sylvia Green Voice Competition. Recent roles include Bea in Opera Maine’s production of “Three Decembers” and the role of Krystyna Zywulska in “Out of Darkness: Two Remain” under the direction of composer, Jake Heggie, and librettist, Gene Scheer, Gertrude in Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel” and La Ciesca in “Gianni Schicchi.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in music education from Norfolk State University in 2012 and her master of music from Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University, she began study in the studio of Denyce Graves and Margaret Baroody.
In 2019 and 2020 she joined the Des Moines Summer Festival as an apprentice artist. Last season at Virginia Opera Harcum sang the role of Clorinda in “La Cenerentola,” covered the title role and sang The High Priestess in “Aida,” and performed in the Fall Education and Outreach Tour.
Whitney Robinson, a mezzo-soprano from Houston, TX, received her bachelor’s degree in music, vocal performance from the University of Houston and received her master’s degree in music from the New England Conservatory. Robinson studied under Bradley Williams at the New England Conservatory of Music as the artist diploma candidate. As a member of Virginia Opera’s Herndon Foundation Emerging Artists Program for the 2019-2020 season, Robinson performed Tisbe in “La Cenerentola,” and she is thrilled to return as an emerging artist for the 2020-2021 season. She will sing Ruth in “The Pirates of Penzance,” Zita in “Gianni Schicchi” and Marcellina in “Le nozze di Figaro.” Robinson also sang with esteemed companies such as Odyssey Opera, CLOC, Central City Opera and Opera Saratoga.
As a member of Virginia Opera’s 2020-2021 Herndon Foundation Emerging Artists Program, Nicholas Martorano will sing Marco in “Gianni Schicchi,” covering Count Almaviva and singing in the chorus for “Le nozze di Figaro,” and covering the Pirate King and Samuel, as well as singing in the chorus for “The Pirates of Penzance.” He also sang the Pirate King in the Education and Outreach Tour of “The Pirates of Penzance” with Virginia Opera last season. Last fall, Martorano sang in Santa Fe Opera’s workshop of “M. Butterfly” in collaboration with American Lyric Theater and joined Opera on the James as one of the Tyler Young Artists. Past roles include: Hortensius in “La Fille du Régiment,” Apollo in “The Cows of Apollo,” Publio in “La clemenza di Tito” and Sid in “Albert Herring.” Martorano graduated from the University of Southern California and Carnegie Mellon University.
Denver native Eric J. McConnell has quickly garnered acclaim in the American opera community for his distinctive dramatic voice and theatrical performances. He debuts as an emerging artist with Virginia Opera in its 2020-2021 season, where he will perform Simone in “Gianni Schicchi,” Bartolo in “Le nozze di Figaro” and the Sergeant of Police in “The Pirates of Penzance.” Other roles performed include the Sodbuster (Missy Mazzoli’s “Proving Up”), Figaro/Antonio (“Le nozze di Figaro”), Bartolo/Basilio (“Il barbiere di Siviglia”), Olin Blitch (“Susannah”), Dr. Grenvil (“La traviata”), Frank (“Die Fledermaus”), Sacristan/Angelotti (“Tosca”), Grandpa Moss (“The Tender Land”) and Elisha Fitzgibbon in the orchestral premiere of Evan Mack’s “Roscoe,” a performance featuring Deborah Voigt. He trained as a young artist with Opera Colorado, Central City Opera, Opera Saratoga, the Aspen Opera Center and Seagle Music Colony, and holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Miami.