San Francisco Opera streams virtual performance for fans amid COVID-19 pandemic

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KGO) -- If great Operas are built around passion, arrogance, and tragic loss, the year 2020 could be its own script. And members of the San Francisco Opera have ridden the bumps of COVID-19 like a dramatic scene from TOSCA, as the pandemic drove a dagger into their live performance season.

"So it's been so important as we've gone through this pandemic to keep that family together. These are people who have some of the most artistic talents in the world and they're right here in the Bay Area," says general director Matthew Shilvock.

To keep that family together, Shilvock is helping to orchestrate what you could call a virtual second act. Recreating the passion of opera without an audience in their seats, or even performers on the same stage. Instead, they're recording a performance in pieces, to be streamed to opera fans.

"And so singers who are used to singing out in front of three thousand people, now have to find their way on screen," Shilvock explains.

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It's a foreign feeling for pianist John Churchwell and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, who usually collaborate closely. But now, Churchwell will be on piano in one room, while Dixon is on stage in another. The two will be linked during the performance by remote cameras, video, and audio displays.

"I'm really relying 100% on what I hear. Listening for cues, breath, any kinds of information I can get," says Churchwell.

Dixon seems undaunted by the technology as well.

"You know it's just great to be actually performing with somebody," Dixon says. "I'll take it in any way possible at this point."

And possible means a clean, sterile stage Dixon can't share once she removes her mask, except perhaps for the music of beloved colleagues.

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The performance is called Celebrating the Voices of San Francisco Opera. Beyond the stars, it will also include spoken thoughts from the crewmembers as well, an ode to the dresses that were sewn, the sets that were built, and hopes for the shows still to come.

"So we're telling those stories through the designers, the directors, and some special guests," says director Shilvock.

For pianist Churchwell, the script is personal.

"Even being here with the crew to kind of rehearse and plan for today means a lot to us, so I hope it means as much for those who get to tune in and listen to the program," he says.

Turning the struggles of this past year, into a kind of "personal opera," for fans to appreciate.

The Voices of San Francisco Opera began streaming this weekend and will continue through midnight Dec. 6.

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