FARGO — An age-old art form commonly seen on glamorous stages might be more approachable than ever due to innovations spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

From solitary balconies and expansive parking lots to virtual Zoom conversations and live videos, opera has found a way to emerge from the arrival of COVID-19 in new and unusual ways.

At the forefront of this transformation is the group of singers across the nation devoted to seeing the craft thrive within their own towns and cities and beyond.

Acting as an indispensable rung in a performer’s career ladder, young artist programs such as the one run locally by the Fargo-Moorhead Opera with funding from Gate City Bank have taken on increased meaning for the next generation of opera stars unable to perform due to the pandemic.

“Being unable to do the thing you love most with no idea when it may come back was heartbreaking,” says Nathan Haltiwanger, a baritone returning for his second year singing with FM Opera's Young Artist quartet.

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Baritone Nathan Haltiwanger. Special to The Forum
Baritone Nathan Haltiwanger. Special to The Forum

While gathering has been limited, it hasn’t completely stopped these opera singers from fine-tuning their craft.

“My living room has become my recording studio and my laundry room is now my practice space,” says Alicia Russell, a soprano from North Carolina.

Soprano Alicia Russell. Special to The Forum
Soprano Alicia Russell. Special to The Forum
Tenor Gabriel Hernandez. Special to The Forum
Tenor Gabriel Hernandez. Special to The Forum

The switch to virtual opera opens up theatrical opportunities for the craft originally rooted in acoustic performance.

“We have an unlimited soundscape when working with electronic production, and we can create new live sonic experiences with electronic instruments through innovative music production,” says Puerto Rican Gabriel Hernandez, a tenor.

F-M Opera is keeping up with the changes, whether it's through opera collaborations like "Tales From a Safe Distance" as part of the nine-company Decameron Opera Coalition or upcoming productions of "Three Way," set to premiere March 19 at TAK Music Venue in Dilworth, Minn.

“Although there is no true substitute for the exhilaration of live performance, virtual presentations bring art to a world that desperately needs it — now more than ever,” says mezzo-soprano Madison McIntosh.

Mezzo-soprano Madison McIntosh. Special to The Forum
Mezzo-soprano Madison McIntosh. Special to The Forum

Bringing a variety of backgrounds and experiences from across the country, we reached out to the artists to get their insights on life as an opera singer over the past year. Here’s an edited transcript of the answers they submitted.

Q: How has opera adapted to the challenges presented by COVID-19?

Russell: Opera has been adapted in the current pandemic environment with a lot of brainstorming, troubleshooting and creativity to figure out how to make it happen safely.

Haltiwanger: The stories told in operas, while more traditionally seen onstage, are capable of being transferred to other mediums.

From seeing contemporary operas about life in 2020 performed live on Zoom, to classic operas transferred to recordings, the last year has demonstrated how versatile this art form is.

Founded in 2013 to enrich the careers of young opera performers, the Fargo-Moorhead Opera's Young Artist Program brings a group of diverse artists from around the country to the area each year thanks in part to funding from Gate City Bank. Special to the Forum
Founded in 2013 to enrich the careers of young opera performers, the Fargo-Moorhead Opera's Young Artist Program brings a group of diverse artists from around the country to the area each year thanks in part to funding from Gate City Bank. Special to the Forum

Q: Describe one instance when you were able to perform in an innovative way despite the restrictions on gathering indoors at traditional concert venues.

Hernandez: My first performance in 2020 was a parking lot birthday for an opera fan who had been traveling into Manhattan to see productions of lyric theater for over three decades — we all cried!

Russell: This past December, I had the opportunity to sing as the soprano soloist in Handel’s “Messiah” with the Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra in a virtual recording and broadcast.

This piece specifically evokes memories for many that love the performance, and it meant so much more this past year after getting to the end of 2020.

Fargo-Moorhead Opera’s Gate City Bank Young Artist Program brings future opera stars to Fargo for a series of trainings, collaborations and performances. The 2021 class is (from left) stage director David Toro, mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh, tenor Gabriel Hernandez, soprano Alicia Russell, program director and principal coach Neill Campbell, and baritone Nathan Haltiwanger. Special to the Forum
Fargo-Moorhead Opera’s Gate City Bank Young Artist Program brings future opera stars to Fargo for a series of trainings, collaborations and performances. The 2021 class is (from left) stage director David Toro, mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh, tenor Gabriel Hernandez, soprano Alicia Russell, program director and principal coach Neill Campbell, and baritone Nathan Haltiwanger. Special to the Forum

McIntosh: Last month, I sang in the premiere of Theodore Christman’s opera “The Impresario and the Dueling Divas.”

The opera was performed through Zoom so the three singers could not sing together; however, the clever ending made this seem perfectly normal.

The performance also brought together musicians who participated from their own homes in New York, Pennsylvania and Florida, and it was available to viewers around the world.

Q: Why is being part of F-M Opera’s Gate City Bank Young Artist Program important to you as an operatic performer?

McIntosh: This was the opportunity I had been waiting for during this challenging time — the opportunity to make music with other singers in person and to perform for F-M Opera’s loyal audience.

Hernandez: I have the wonderful opportunity of returning to F-M Opera, and am glad to be in an environment where I feel safe to cultivate my artistry.

Getting to know this company, I'm shown that there are people who lead with care, love and guide you to be your best self.

Haltiwanger: It is important to remind people that this art form still exists.

Although this season may look different from past seasons, we are still making art with the level of excellence that F-M Opera always has.

Russell: Being in a state with low COVID transmission along with the company’s attention to safety, I’ve been able to primarily focus on performing without the anxiety that pandemic risks often bring.

This is the first time I’ve performed, collaborated and rehearsed in person in over a year, and this program is such a gift.

Find out more about F-M Opera’s upcoming productions, including “Three Way” in March and “The Barber of Seville,” online at fmopera.org.

In the video below, Russell performs in MassOpera's new opera workshop concert performance of "Freedom Ride."

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net.