EDITOR’s NOTE: In these distressing times, we need the arts more than ever, but the pandemic has wreaked havoc with performance and exhibition schedules. Over the past few weeks, BAMirror writer George Basler has been reporting on how local arts organizations are “Coping with COVID.” 

By George Basler

Tri-Cities Opera faced some tough decisions after it suspended normal operations in March because of COVID-19. There was pressure in the beginning just to shut down and stay on hold, John Rozzoni, general director, said.

But that did not happen. “As a community organization, it was important to me to stay active,” Rozzoni said. “We are needed more than ever in a time of great need. Instead of pulling back, we decided to run forward.”

Not that 2020-21 has been a normal season for the opera company, now it its 71st year. Its website lists no live performances at the The Forum or at the Opera Center, 315 Clinton St., Binghamton. Instead, the company has moved to virtual performances.

One such effort garnered some national attention. In September, TCO and the LUMA Projection Arts Festival, with support from Opera Omaha, collaborated on a new work presented in a virtual reality form. Miranda: A Steampunk VR Experience blended theater, opera and live-motion capture, organizers said.

According to a press release, the movements and emotions of TCO singers performed in Binghamton were replicated in real-time via live-motion capture, face tracking and real-time mixed audio to create an immersive experience. Audiences watched the performance in standard 2D via YouTube or participated in virtual reality using HTC Vive, Oculus Rift or as a WebVR experience.

The idea for the production came from LUMA co-founder Joshua Bernard Ludzki, who wanted to create live theater that could be experienced virtually after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the live theater industry, organizers said.

Creative technicians at Enhance VR worked closely with LUMA. Using Unity and Photon, the team pioneered a new software framework designed for producing live musicals and operas. Miranda, with a score by Indian-American composer Kamala Sankaram, marked the world debut of the software, the press release said.

The production, directed by Alison Moritz, came together in six months, which is an incredibly short time for such a complex effort, Rozzoni said. He called it “a wonderful, challenging and experimental” experience. Moreover, “it got us (Tri-Cities) attention we have not received in the past,” he said. The New York Times reviewed the production, and Forbes magazine gave it a write-up.

“The art form is in its infancy. We pushed the technology to its limits,” Rozzoni said.

Tri-Cities is also using technology to salvage its Educational Outreach Program, now in its 46th year, which annually brings a children’s opera to schools across the region. More than 17,000 students participated in 2018-19, and TCO was on track for a larger participation in 2019-20 until COVID-19 caused the cancelation of 32 performances, Rozzoni said.

Instead of planning live performances for this season, Tri-Cities is providing a virtual offering of the children’s opera Monkey and Francine in the City of Tigers for delivery to schools or homes via a digital link. The opera, commissioned in 2017 by the Houston Grand Opera Company, fuses stories and music from India, China and West Africa. Four visiting artists recorded Tri-Cities presentation.

Tri-Cities is also providing a behind-the-scenes video, distributing a coloring page for students based on scenic designs from the opera and developing an activity that children can use to create their own characters and scenes, Rozzoni said. The project is currently in the editing process, with availability planned for next year. “We made an investment in doing this in hopes it sells well,” Rozzoni said.

The opera company also stayed active by organizing TCO Next: A Virtual Local Competition. The company received some 200 applications for the first-ever event, Rozzoni said. A team of three judged the first round anonymously through numbered audio recordings. The panel selected 28 semi-finalists who were then narrowed to 10 finalists.

The finalists performed in a streamed concert on Oct. 18 with a separate panel of judges picking the winners. First prize went to Schyler Vargas, a baritone who won $3,000 and a future role with Tri-Cities.

The “cool thing” about the event is that it provided financial support and visibility to singers who may be feeling discouraged by the COVID-19 situation, Rozzoni said.

Tri-Cities has also scheduled a holiday concert, “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.” Details will soon be available on the company’s web page, www.tricitiesopera.com.

Rozzoni also hopes to schedule a concert series in the spring in which small groups of singers would give lunch-time performances at local restaurants.

“We’ve been bold,” he said, while also acknowledging the company cannot go on indefinitely unless it can return to normal operations. “There is uncertainty, but I refused to be downtrodden,” Rozzoni concluded.