HARVARD — It figures. This was the first time I’d gone to the opera in months, and I had misplaced my gloves.
No, I’m not talking about those elbow-length satin artifacts called “opera gloves,” now most often associated with period dramas and burlesque dancers. For one, those would have looked quite out of place among the sensible and sturdy New England outdoor-wear that was the de facto dress code for a November Saturday morning performance on a windswept hillside. What’s more, these gloves would have done nothing to keep my hands warm. However, I found easy distraction from the cold in the form of a five-song recital by Omar Najmi, a young tenor and the featured artist of the day for Boston Lyric Opera’s Street Stage.
Like most performing arts outfits around the globe, BLO is not having the season it bargained for. In a COVID-free world, Nov. 14 would have seen the company wrapping up rehearsals for Philip Glass’s spooky “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But the pandemic forced radical revisions to BLO’s programming, and one of the most distinctive components of the company’s COVID-era season is the Street Stage — a stage built on the back of a truck, roomy enough for one singer and an accompanist to perform while maintaining a safe physical distance from each other and the audience.
Virtual offerings are also part of this season; the company is producing a filmed version of “Usher," a conversation series on racism in opera, and more on its new streaming service, operabox.tv. But for months, the company had been bandying ideas for how to safely return live art to the community, said director of artistic operations Jessica Johnson Brock. The company at last bought the truck in August, and its distinctive exterior (which displays the words “BOSTON” and “OPERA” in colorful graffiti block letters) was designed and painted by teens at Artists for Humanity, a South Boston nonprofit and longtime BLO collaborator that connects underserved artistically minded teens with training and employment.
At the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard last weekend, the audience for the first of two performances was small and generously spaced over a wide arc surrounding the truck. Attendees fumbled with pens or touch screens to fill out disclosure forms — had we experienced symptoms? been exposed? or traveled outside Massachusetts in the recent past? We also provided information in case contact tracing becomes necessary. Then we were directed to our individual spots marked with plastic hula hoops on the grass or gravel. A savvy few brought lawn chairs. Jordan Hall this was not.
Masked as they were, it was impossible to see the reactions on my fellow audience members' faces, but up on the truck bed, Najmi radiated joy throughout his short set of arias and art songs. During “Outside this house,” from Barber’s “Vanessa,” wistfulness colored his recitation of the fabulous faraway places that the caddish Anatol promises to show his not-quite-love interest Erika. For listeners and musicians alike, these live performances provide a jolt of revitalizing energy. For performers whose income and career opportunities have dwindled as the pandemic drags, it could be a lifeline.
“Live performance and live music cannot be substituted by something else,” said mezzo-soprano Zaray Rodriguez after performing late last month on the Street Stage to an eager crowd (despite rainy weather) on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
There’s plenty of reason to believe that the Street Stage audience won’t have to accept substitutes. With an electric piano that won’t go out of tune, and the singers lightly amplified, performances should be possible in all but the coldest weather — meaning that the Street Stage should be ready to roll on through winter. The next performances will take place Thursday at the Museum of Fine Arts. Another date is set for Dec. 5 at Lincoln’s deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. More concerts and locations will be announced at blo.org. The company hopes to offer even more from the Street Stage once the weather warms up.
Circumstances are anything but ideal. But for the bulk of 2020, opera lovers' diets have been restricted to a steady rotation of living-room livestreams, virtual variety shows, and archival recordings, all playing out on the same screens, voices compressed into a digital simulacrum of themselves before streaming out of the same speakers. Hearing a human voice again as it was meant to be heard, live and kicking, was akin to taking a sip of rich drinking chocolate after months of Swiss Miss: startling and almost overwhelming in the fullness of the experience.
And though there’s no matching online performances for convenience, that convenience has for many (including myself) become a double-edged sword. It’s easy to get pulled out of the moment by chores, children, pets, social media, or the ever-increasing number of unread emails blinking in one’s peripheral vision. The Street Stage performances are brief (Najmi’s lasted just 20 minutes) and the venues aren’t what audiences are accustomed to. But in their own way, they offer a version of the ritual of going out, a remove from the mundane, familiar home space and into the performance space. If nothing else, they’re an excuse to dress up with this season’s essential accessories — a face mask and warm gloves.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.