Virtual Choir

As the pandemic continues to disrupt arts organizations worldwide, Canadian Opera Company has answered the challenge by launching its new Virtual Choir project this month. In the tradition of the COC’s annual Sing Along Opera Chorus concerts, opera fans and singing enthusiasts of all ages and levels are being invited to come together in a digital performance of the time-tested “Anvil Chorus” from Verdi’s Il trovatore

Attendees of past sing-alongs will recognize the leadership of Chorus Master Sandra Horst, who appears now in step-by-step tutorial videos to help Virtual Choir participants sing their best. To keep everyone well-coordinated, participants will also be sent a backing track recorded remotely by COC Ensemble Studio members Anna-Sophie Neher (soprano), Joel Allison (bass-baritone), and Rachael Kerr (pianist/intern coach). For children or those less inclined to sing, the distinctive anvil-striking percussion parts are a fun way to participate—if there isn’t an anvil handy, pots and pans will do.

In addition to the tutorial videos and backing track, the COC is sending participants comprehensive directions about how to record their singalong performances using readily available technology like smartphones and webcams. For Horst, accessibility is key: “We want this to be for anybody and everybody.” After the submission deadline of June 8th, the COC will use selected submissions to compile the full choral rendition of the piece. 

Putting together a choral performance is a major feat at the best of times, and even more so when the choristers are spread across the country. Nevertheless, participant enthusiasm is high. Attendance at recent Sing Along Opera Choruses has filled the Amphitheatre of Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts with up to 200 people—but early registrations for the Virtual Choir have already well surpassed that number, with interest coming from as far away as Victoria. 

For Chorus Master Sandra Horst, a wide audience is key to the whole endeavour. “This gives people who aren’t professionals a chance to be a part of the movement to online concerts,” she says. “We want to give people the confidence to do something new in their house, be a part of something maybe a little above their normal level of singing, and just have fun singing opera.” 

Horst’s tutorial videos will help viewers decide which line to sing, along with guidance on Italian diction and pointers on where to vary articulation. Another video, provided by the Ensemble Studio, will guide participants through some basic vocal warmups. Horst’s top tip for singing the “Anvil Chorus” at home? “Just sing in your natural voice range and stay as legato (smooth) as possible.”

Virtual Choir
Simone Osborne (Gretel) & Anna-Sophie Neher (Dew Fairy) in Canadian Opera Company’s Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

To members of the COC Ensemble Studio, the Virtual Choir is an exciting opportunity to perform again. “The Ensemble Studio program has a performance part and a learning part,” says soprano Anna-Sophie Neher. “The learning is still going on remotely … but obviously my performances were completely cancelled, and the Virtual Choir is the first thing I’m back for.” With her busy performance schedule suddenly on hold, Neher is using this time to learn new roles, practice even more, and continue improving her artistry. All the same, she is eager to return to what she knows best: “I hope we can return to the stage – that’s where we live as artists.”

Motivated by that connection to the physical stage, the earliest days of the pandemic lockdown saw many artists and organizations respond by transplanting their usual performances into the digital realm through livestreamed concerts and recordings of past seasons. But by disrupting the status quo, the lockdown invites artistic leaders to consider what digital platforms can do better than physical stages, and how digital artistry can share space with live performance in the post-pandemic future. 

Toronto’s Tapestry Opera, for example, has announced a 2020/21 season billed as “immune to cancellation,” with strong digital programming and the option to offer hybrid live audience/streamed productions if the lockdown is lifted. Eric Whitacre’s colossal Virtual Choir began in 2013 but looks more prescient by the day, and every week new digital offerings pour from opera companies, symphony orchestras, and performers around the world.

The COC’s Virtual Choir fits into this rising tide as a leading example of how digital platforms can deepen community engagement with performing arts organizations. “The nature of our world has changed, and digital projects have become a part of how we create music and art,” says Horst. “As we keep getting more savvy about technology, these projects will only become more viable and powerful, not just something ‘instead of’ live performance. We can still reach people and continue the music.” 

Free registration for the Virtual Choir is open now.

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