By Christina Armeni
“It’s a really scary time for artists of any medium,” said Hyattsville opera singer Teresa Ferrara. She was just days away from starting rehearsals for one of her dream roles when the governor initiated a shutdown. She was set to play Gilda in “Rigoletto” with the D.C. opera company, IN Series. “Everything came to a halt,” Ferrara said.
Before the pandemic, Ferrara spent her days at an office job and her evenings and weekends in rehearsal. Any free time she had, she spent practicing or learning music or translating texts. “All singers are basically freelance artists,” she explained.
Most musicians can’t rely solely on performances to bring in a steady income. Having a day job or side hustle is very common, according to Ferrara. But the pandemic has taken away many of those jobs. College Park opera singer Elizabeth Mondragon, who worked for a nonprofit for 16 years, was laid off in May. “A lot of musicians are struggling,” she said.
Ferrara and Mondragon have both been singing their whole lives. “People who are artists do it because it’s something they can’t not do; artists are drawn to express themselves,” said Mondragon. “Not having that form of expression really does something to a person, emotionally and mentally.”
Mondragon serves as the co-director of the D.C. Metro chapter of Opera on Tap, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing opera to unorthodox locations. Most of the venues they performed in before the pandemic have closed or aren’t putting on performances.
Some opera companies are adjusting to restrictions during the pandemic by providing virtual performances. IN Series was one of the first to make the switch. The company produced one of the first-ever fully digital opera performance seasons and has been releasing content since May. Ferrara and Mondragon have both been able to sing and record music for the IN Series during the pandemic.
“To create a recording is far more difficult than singing live,” Ferrara said. “Opera is such a collaborative art.”
Ferrara explained that the accompanist relies on hearing and seeing the performers breathe. The pianist and singer now have to record separately and hope the recordings can be pieced together. Without the immediate feedback of an audience’s applause, it can be difficult to know how a performance was perceived, Mondragon said.
“When you’re creating art, it’s art when you connect with other people, and so it’s hard when you don’t get to see that happening. What we have to remember is that it is happening; we just don’t get to see it,” Ferrara pointed out.
In September, Ferrara sang in person for the first time since the start of the pandemic. IN Series performed outside the Supreme Court to honor the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was known for her love of opera. The singers wore face masks in front of a crowd of mourners.
“I feel very lucky that I’ve had opportunities to still sing,” Ferrara said. “It was so satisfying to actually see the reaction of people to music for the first time in months. To see other people be touched by it is really why you do it.”