Rehearsals for Boston Lyric Opera’s upcoming production of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” don’t much resemble what the cast and crew were used to in the pre-COVID era. Performers leave their masks on, except when they’re singing, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows any opera singers — they fiercely protect their voices. Another difference: The team only has one day for tech rehearsals at the venue, the Leader Bank Pavilion in the Seaport, before opening night on Oct. 1.
And when it comes to any rendezvouses between the opera’s ill-fated lovers, director Giselle Ty has to get inventive.
“I had to ask, ‘Are we allowed to have a kiss onstage?’ ” Ty said in a phone interview. “Something normally that you wouldn’t have to check. It took a couple of e-mails, and I’m not allowed to have a big sloppy kiss onstage!” Thankfully, Ty said, the singers can still touch.
Initially, BLO had planned to stage “Cavalleria” at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater — the site of its doomed “Norma,” one of the first productions canceled in the wake of the then-nascent pandemic — directed by Sarna Lapine, who helmed BLO’s shattering “The Rape of Lucretia” in 2019. But as several circumstances changed, including the rise of the Delta variant, leadership realized that wouldn’t work out and searched for a venue that could safely accommodate an orchestra and chorus. The open-air Leader Bank Pavilion provided the solution, but Lapine didn’t see a way to enact her vision for the production in that venue and stepped back.
Ty, who was assistant director for BLO’s 2016 production of Massenet’s “Werther,” came on this summer, along with two new principal singers: soprano Michelle Johnson (Santuzza) and baritone Javier Arrey (Alfio) replaced J’Nai Bridges and Alfred Walker, respectively, after the two withdrew for unrelated personal reasons.
Johnson, a graduate of New England Conservatory, has never sung opera anywhere like the Leader Pavilion, which generally features popular artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Counting Crows on its marquee. But she was feeling the can-do spirit in a phone interview between rehearsals. “The cast and the crew here are so hungry to just jump in,” she said. “You can just throw anything at us, and we’ll be like ‘OK, no problem!’ ”
For many of those involved, including both Ty and Johnson, this is the first “big shebang,” as Johnson put it, since the pandemic started. A typical staged “Cavalleria” features a large chorus of villagers who bustle around the stage — attending church, drinking in a tavern, and providing a lively, dynamic backdrop to the central conflict. But because of COVID safety, the chorus will be on stationary risers, distanced from the principal singers, and three dancers choreographed by Levi Marsman add visual and kinetic accents to the large stage.
“I never thought I would need so many mics, but I am so comfortable with amplification,” said Johnson. “Bring it on, because we’re definitely going to need it in the pavilion!”
For Ty, who is Asian American, it has been a refreshing change to walk into the rehearsal room and work with a cast and crew that represents a greater diversity of backgrounds and experiences than what she remembers from “Werther.”
“I think people make art to change and move people,” said Ty. Experiencing the stories that we see onstage “is also a way to practice empathy collectively.”
That doesn’t mean empathy is automatic — especially in opera, which Ty described as “the last to move” in the cultural sector. In the ladies room at one “Werther” performance, Ty was surprised and saddened to overhear a patron complaining that a few of the children in the ensemble “didn’t look like European children,” she recalled. (Most of the principal performers for “Cavalleria,” which is set in Italy, are not white.)
“Institutionally, it seems that BLO is making an effort. The room is completely different,” she said. “That’s not to say that the work is done. But it’s to say that change doesn’t happen by accident, because if it happened by accident, it would have happened already.
“I hope in the future, BLO audiences won’t be dwelling on [what the cast looks like],” she continued. ”They’ll have moved on to more interesting questions and comments about the opera.”
She hopes the “Cavalleria” audience leaves thinking about living in the present moment — something most of the characters in the opera fail to do. “How are we the destroyers of our own chances at love?” she said, distilling the central question of the opera. “You have to be able to see the person for all their good, bad, ugly and sexy and attractive … and if you don’t, you’re in love with a mirage.”
There’s just one thing about this particular production that has Johnson feeling a little off kilter: the fact that “Cavalleria” is being performed without its usual counterpart, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s similarly tragic and violent “Pagliacci.” It has become operatic custom to perform the two one-act operas together, in a verismo double bill often called “Cav/Pag.”
“It kind of feels incomplete … but who knows, we might have some surprises,” said Johnson. “I’ll just leave a little cliffhanger.”
BOSTON LYRIC OPERA: CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA
At Leader Bank Pavilion, Oct. 1 and 3. 617-542-4912, www.blo.org.