September 02, 2020

From "Ryan Opera Center From Home" to "Ryan Opera Center At Work"

As Lyric’s artists and administrators began to work from home in March, following local and state COVID-19 safety guidelines, the music temporarily stopped and the void was felt by all. But there will always be a space for the power of music and the artists who create it, and Lyric’s Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center Ensemble demonstrated this by jumping into gear and launching the “Ryan Opera Center From Home” series. From their homes, Ensemble members captured moving arias and fun classics with personal recording devices while listening to accompaniment recorded at home by Ryan Opera Center Music Director Craig Terry and 2019/20 Ensemble Pianist, Madeline Slettedahl. The compiled videos were shared on social media and in emails to Lyric’s patrons, lifting spirits and reminding Lyric audiences that the music is far from gone.

Soprano Emily Pogorelc, pianist Craig Terry, and The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center Ensemble and staff perform "Italian Street Song" from Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta.

Now that safety protocols allow for limited in-person collaboration, Lyric is making the shift from “Ryan Opera Center From Home” to “Ryan Opera Center At Work.”

The transformation started in June, when Lyric’s COVID-19 Safety Officers and Committee laid out comprehensive protocols for certain staff, company members, and guest artists to enter the Lyric Opera House for work. This essential work included recordings for Lyric concerts and the start of socially distant and safe coachings, recordings, and lessons for Ryan Opera Center Ensemble members. New backstage cleaning processes ensured that the cleaning crew could focus on critical areas, including the large rehearsal rooms backstage at Lyric, where the Ryan Opera Center setups were staged.

In these large rehearsal rooms, the space has been divided into two sections, separated by plexiglass in the middle. On one side is a piano (which is cleaned multiple times daily, depending on use) for the assigned pianist, such as the Ryan Opera Center’s 2020/21 Ensemble Pianist Chris Reynolds, to accompany Ensemble singers during their coachings or recordings. On the other side of the protective barrier is space for the singer. In some cases, a laptop and accompanying state-of-the-art microphone are set up for remote instruction. Ryan Opera Center Director of Vocal Studies Julia Faulkner makes use of this system to teach Ensemble members from home, in order to limit the number of people in the room. The arrangement works smoothly, thanks to the diligent work of Lyric’s Technical and Information Technology Departments. And of course, everyone who enters the Lyric Opera House is required to wear a mask until they begin singing.

The setup in Zollie and Elaine Frank Rehearsal Room, backstage at Lyric, allowing for the Ryan Opera Center Ensemble to work.

As there are no other artists currently using Lyric’s backstage areas, each Ryan Opera Center Ensemble member has been given their own dressing room that can be used as a practice room to prep for coachings and recordings. This extra space allows them more flexibility and plenty of dedicated practice time outside of their homes.

Every Ensemble member has felt the joy and simultaneous hesitancy on entering the opera house to resume their regular training. Here are some of the observations made by returning and new 2020/21 Ryan Opera Center artists about “getting back to work:”

“Now that we've been coming into the opera for a few weeks, it's starting to feel routine again. At first it was a little scary because I hadn't been to the Loop in months. I decided to get there by bike. (It was nice to have a personal dressing room where I could shower after my eight-mile bike ride!) The setup [in the backstage rehearsal rooms] is such that we are really far away from the pianist. It took a few weeks to coordinate pianist and singer, but it's starting to get easier. The best moment so far was filming the For the Love of Lyric virtual concert. We recorded our individual sections in the theater, and to hear my voice ring in the space again was fuel to keep working toward the future. We will get to sing on stages again, and I can't wait until that day!”

Second-year Ryan Opera Center bass Anthony Reed 


“As a first-year member of the Ryan Opera Center, beginning to work in person at Lyric was initially very surreal. It was also just overwhelming to drive downtown for the first time after I arrived in Chicago! I was so excited for my first coaching, and it felt bittersweet. It was tough at first to be separated by an entire room full of space and a sheet of plexiglass, but it was amazing to hear the sound of a piano in person and to collaborate after months of singing on my own over Zoom. I feel very confident that Lyric has taken every precaution to care for each of its employees during this time, and I feel safe going to work. I’m also incredibly grateful to have access to my own little dressing room to escape the monotony of working from home every day, as well as the opportunity to work with Craig and Chris in person under the given circumstances. We singers in the Ryan Opera Center are probably some of the luckiest in the nation right now.”

First-year Ryan Opera Center mezzo-soprano Katherine Beck

Ryan Opera Center Ensemble pianist Chris Reynolds and tenor Martin Luther Clark backstage at Lyric.

“It was invigorating to start working in the opera house! I've always liked the idea of having separate spaces for work and living. Traveling to the theater not only gets me out of my house, but also into a structure to organize my day and ensure productivity, which I need to keep me motivated. Practicing in a space other than my apartment has always felt like a luxury and even more so in these times. I fight a lot of self-conscious thoughts, thinking neighbors can hear my tedious woodshedding of difficult phrases over and over. Oh, and the nerves just spike every time there's a crack on something new that I'm working on! Having a designated dressing room at the opera house with your own bathroom and acoustic piano is the perfect practice setup. To have that creative space sealed off from the world and personal distractions is invaluable as an artist. At times, I wish I could stay there all day.” 

First-year Ryan Opera Center tenor Martin Luther Clark


“Being able to practice/sing in person at Lyric Opera of Chicago has been wonderful! After my first coaching there, I was teary-eyed, I was so grateful to be making music in person again for the first time in four months! The entire team at Lyric Opera of Chicago has made us feel extremely safe to come into work with a regular health checklist and protocols. I am very thankful to the Ryan Opera Center for giving us the opportunity to work both remotely and in person!”

First-year Ryan Opera Center mezzo-soprano Katherine DeYoung


“I was a little hesitant to entertain coming into the theater in the beginning. But Lyric went above and beyond, making sure that we have our own dedicated room where we could control the cleanliness, safeguarding socially distanced rehearsal spaces, and tightly regulating who was coming in and out, as well as where they were going. Being able to practice, rehearse, and record in the building has become something special and dear to me. When states decided to quarantine, I assumed that it would be quite a while before we were able to collaborate in person, and I consider myself extremely lucky to be among the few who are able to do so again.”

First-year Ryan Opera Center baritone Leroy Davis


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