The team at the Glenn Gould School films their fall opera double bill, Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins + William Bolcom’s Lucrezia. Photo c/o The Royal Conservatory.How do you teach opera during a global pandemic?

This was the question facing the team at the Glenn Gould School (GGS) in Toronto, tasked with planning its annual fall opera production. It was April 2020, and no one knew how long newly-imposed COVID-19 restrictions would stay in place, or what might be happening six months in the future when rehearsals were officially scheduled to begin. Little did they know at the time that they would be working on a new, operatic hybrid of stage and film – rehearsed, sung, and recorded for online consumption. 

“My meetings in the spring and early summer were all about ‘How can we do this? What kind of project can this be?’” explained director Amanda Smith when I spoke with her in November 2020. “Just trying to pay attention to what was happening in the world and what would be safe meant that it took several months to figure this out, always looking at the potential of what we could create.”

Read more: This fall, the GGS adapts opera for online – plexiglass and all

The UnCovered: Notes from the Heart ensemble, recording the full cast finale in front of Koerner Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music. Photo by Dahlia KatzAs Halloween approaches, I would normally be looking forward to going to Toronto’s beautiful Koerner Hall for one of my favourite events in the fall music theatre calendar – The Musical Stage Company’s annual UnCovered concert. Clearly, this won’t be taking place this year as it usually does, so I got in touch with company founder and artistic director Mitchell Marcus to find out about how the company is reinventing itself in response to the pandemic. What struck me most in our conversation was a sense of renewed emphasis on the importance of creating, maintaining and expanding community through the sharing of music and storytelling. 

Mitchell MarcusCommunity has always been at the heart of Musical Stage’s mandate, he told me, but with the company’s rebranding in 2017, and recent explosive expansion, “perhaps we have lost a little bit of that.” But with the intense process of the last seven months it has come very much back into focus. Like other companies forced to pivot when theatres were shut down in the middle of March, MSC has leapt into the new world of experimentation: with small outdoor physically distanced live shows (Porchside Songs); with rehearsals and workshops conducted online via Zoom; and, most prominently, by reimagining their signature annual theatrical concert, UnCovered

Read more: MSC’s UnCovered Reinvented

Image from Crow’s Theatre/Project Humanity’s 2019 play Towards Youth.“Is there a radical hope to be found in the humble drama classroom?”

This question was asked (and answered in the affirmative) by Towards Youth, a play by Andrew Kushnir produced by Crow’s Theatre and Project Humanity in the early spring of 2019, almost exactly a year before the current COVID-19 lockdown. Originally commissioned through, and inspired by, University of Toronto professor Dr Kathleen Gallagher's research project Youth, Theatre, Radical Hope and the Ethical Imaginary, the play was created from verbatim interviews  with drama students in India, Taiwan, England, and Greece, resulting in a production described by Now Magazine as “ambitious, sprawling, and invested with tenacious heart” that captured the imaginations of audiences and critics alike.

In a time when the role of the arts in schools is under budgetary and philosophical attack, this is an exciting and crucial argument to the contrary. Now that – thanks to the ongoing pandemic –  almost all live performance has been shut down, we are all feeling the lack of connection and community that live theatre provides. What better time to celebrate and explore the power of drama studies in schools, and the belief that exposure to (and participation in) the arts can not only change individual lives, but empower those individuals to change society for the better?

Read more: With “Dinner and a Show”, Crow’s Theatre goes online for a cause

Alicia Barban, Sara Shanazarian and Aisha Jarvis as the American Trio in Dead ReckoningLoose Tea Music Theatre, an indie opera and music theatre company based in Toronto, was already a vibrant, though small, presence on the Toronto scene before the pandemic hit, producing innovative socially conscious productions that pushed the boundaries of interdisciplinary performance while staying based in classical voice. With the advent of the lockdown in March, like every other theatre company, all their plans had to be put on hold. Excitingly, however, as everything stopped and the usual doors closed, new doors blew open, as if the pandemic had unleashed a new energy. 

Speaking with Alaina Viau, Loose Tea’s founder and executive artistic director, I was astounded by her hunger to create, and how she has embraced the enforced rest from live theatrical performance to concentrate on planning and building future initiatives for her company as well as initiating new partnerships to expand her own and her company’s artistic vision. 

Read more: Loose Tea: Unleashed by Lockdown

Mezzo Wallis Giunta (left) and Jennifer Nichols (right) in the TSO’s June 2017 Seven Deadly Sins, by Kurt Weill. Photo by Jag GunduI have been friends with Jennifer Nichols since meeting as colleagues working at Opera Atelier more than ten years ago, and I have followed her freelance career with great interest ever since, sometimes reviewing or previewing her shows for The WholeNote: Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with the Toronto Symphony in 2017, for example which she choreographed and performed in, with mezzo Wallis Giunta; or 2019’s Dora-nominated Pandora for FAWN Opera which, again, she both choreographed and danced in. One of the things I love about her work is how she is always looking for new challenges, new ways to push herself and discover more of what is possible in terms of choreography and performing to music. 

In the May/June issue of The WholeNote, we found ourselves as virtual colleagues again – she wrote a moving guest article about how music is at the heart of all she does: dancing, choreographing, teaching, producing and, as she said to me the other day, even just walking down the street. Now, with the continuing need to physically distance ourselves from each other, thanks to the ongoing world pandemic, even walking down the street is bounded by restrictions; most of her other activities have had to be recalibrated, reinvented, moved online as much as possible, but somehow trying to keep that human connection that is created by dancing with, and in the live presence of, other people. 

Read more: Music in the Dance of Life: Responding to a changing world
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