For five years, the interior of the Highland Park Ebell Theatre had been transformed into 1830s Paris. Soap bubbles mimicked snow as guests filed inside, took their seats and reveled in a modern-day telling of La Boheme, AKA the Hipsters from the Pacific Opera Project.
This weekend, the opera company will once again stage its signature holiday performance -- not in Highland Park but in a church parking lot in Camarillo. You can blame the pandemic for the change.
While indoor performance spaces have been COVID-shuttered for months, some organizers are finding alternative ways to bring their traditional holiday shows to the masses. It isn’t optimal, they say, but at least the music is being sung to appreciative audiences hungry for culture and holiday cheer.
La Boheme heads to Camarillo
Since the opening acts of La Boheme are set at Christmastime, it's well suited for the holiday season. But given the restrictions in LA County, indoor performances were out of the question. That's how the Highland Park-based opera company, known as POP, decided to hold a drive-in show staged in the parking lot of a Methodist church in Camarillo.
“It’s very helpful some of our performers are couples,” says Josh Shaw, POP artistic director, about quarantining challenges. Cast and crew isolate with each other two weeks prior to show dates, and are tested before in-person rehearsals. When on stage and not singing, performers wear masks.
For this drive-in La Boheme held Dec. 11, 12 and 13, there will be only an accompanying pianist which reduces potential production problems from orchestra members.
POP’s prior two productions this year brought many diehard Los Angeles fans to make the journey. Shaw expects the same for La Boheme which has been re-written to reflect the current year. This production begins in Christmas 2019 and the final act is set in spring of 2021. Shaw does the translation. “I never got to set something in the future. I hope I imagined it correctly,” he says with a laugh. “We’ll see.”
“Every great crisis in our society is met with art”
The physical thrill of feeling the intensity of human voices raised in musical unison can’t be replicated in a virtual setting. But technology provides opportunities to keep the art exciting and powerful, says Michael Powers, music department chair at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) at Cal State LA in El Sereno. “Every great crisis in our society is met with art,” he says. “We get to reinvent the wheel this year.”
For decades, LACSHA’s holiday show was staged in different venues around the Greater Los Angeles area, some auditoriums seating thousands. This year, music lovers can experience a Zoom show that will be a hybrid of live and recorded presentations along with interactive elements. On tap will be traditional and modern selections from a variety of musical genres, says Powers about the hour-long show on Dec. 12 at 7pm.
The virtual show offers benefits: it will be easier to transition from large to small groups, says Powers, “without having to worry about the stage setting and organizing the backstage crew.”
Students, however, are finding that the virtual rehearsing process is shining a different spotlight on them. The final recording for show presentation will be a series of individual pieces stitched together. “Students are responsible for their own pieces,” says Powers. Sending videos in for feedback, students have little opportunity to hide in the back row. Every detail of their performance – annunciation, breathing and timing – can be heard and critiqued.
Powers is confident that even when there’s a return to live performances, the department will continue to broadcast concerts to virtual audiences.
For now, this holiday show is a way that students, their families and friends –along a music-loving community – can come together in a shared experience. “Students have been struggling this year in so many ways,” says Powers. “It’s a chance to feel connected.”
“I’m hosting a watch party and it’s the first time that family and friends out of state will be able to see me perform,” says Sandie Andres, Chorus President of the West Coast Singers about the group’s holiday show that will be available on YouTube Dec. 19 and 20.
Established in 1983, the group is the third oldest LGBT mixed voices choir; its holiday show has typically been performed in the auditorium at Barnsdall Park with singers donning tuxes and formal wear. “We are excited we can continue to put on a holiday show this year,” says Andres about the 45-minute prerecorded show that combines traditional and inspirational songs.
The community singers – majority of amateurs – have been rehearsing weekly since September and work independently on their pieces. “We do a lot of practice by ourselves,” says Andres. “But if there are parts we struggle with, the director will run it through with us.”
For the final presentation recording, the choir director will put on his engineering hat to edit the individual voices. “He’s relearning how to mix,” says Andres. “Last time he did this, he was turning knobs and pushing buttons. Now everything is digital.”
Andres expects the editing to be done right down to the wire, so when the final performance is up online, “we [the performers] will get to see it for the first time as well!”
Among the traditional carols, the singers will perform contemporary choral pieces including “Heaven Everywhere.” This song, says Andres has the perfect sentiment for the 2020 holiday season.
It's funny how it takes a holiday
To show us how the world could truly change
If we all took the time to really care
There'd be a little more of heaven everywhere