FARGO — To abide by COVID-19 safety regulations, Fargo-Moorhead Opera performers recorded their vocal tracks for “Barber of Seville” in advance, then staged the show, out of sequence, in front of cameras instead of a live audience, lip-syncing while wearing masks.
There was nothing “normal” about the show, which the FM Opera will start streaming on Monday, April 19, but getting back onstage was a welcome return for the performers.
“It was a whole new set of challenges,” says Hilary Ginther, who plays Rosina. “At the same time, it felt like riding a bike because being part of a production felt like home.”
Like so many others in the opera world, the mezzo-soprano has been unable to perform as the coronavirus pandemic has closed down shows around the globe. Singing, in particular, is considered a health risk as the disease is spread through infected droplets from the mouth.
“It never entered my mind that my professional career would be a health hazard,” says Ginther, who was in FM Opera’s Young Artist Program in 2014 and returned to star in “Carmen” in 2019. Still, she was happy to abide by safety guidelines.
Performers were tested numerous times during rehearsals and daily in the final week leading up to the filming. Singers also rehearsed wearing surgical masks and used see-through masks during filming.
The production was filmed by Click Content Studios, which is owned by Forum Communications Co., the owner of The Forum and InForum.
“Singing an opera in a mask is a whole new challenge,” Ginther says, adding that masks not only affect how singers breathe, but also how they control their voice.
Not being able to see another performer’s mouth or full facial expression can also leave other actors at a disadvantage during rehearsals.
Benjamin Taylor, who plays Figaro in his FM Opera debut, says during rehearsals he would look for indications of facial expressions, like the wrinkle from a smile or a little mustache peak out that would come with a frown.
“You find little cues and patterns to work with,” he says. “On one hand, it’s freeing because you focus on the music and staging.”
“I was trying to communicate with my eyes real hard,” Ginther says. “Once we could see faces, it was so much easier.”
To record the soundtrack, the musicians played on one end of a church with the singers on the other end, behind plexiglass shields.
“The orchestra sounded like they were a football field away,” Ginther says.
The space between the singers and instruments created additional obstacles and vocalists then had to listen to the recording, as imperfect as it may be, to learn to lip-sync to the recorded version.
“It was tough. I’m not a drag queen, I don’t lip sync,” she says from her home in Denver.
Joshua Kohl, who plays Count Almaviva, is getting used to lip-syncing. Since the pandemic started, this is the third opera he’s pre-recorded and filmed.
“Once you can focus on acting and not singing at the same time, you can relax a little,” says Kohl, a Fargo resident who last performed here starring opposite Ginther in “Carmen.”
One thing all actors had to deal with was a filming schedule that required scenes to be shot out of sequence, rather than from beginning to end.
“It’s interesting to go through your characters’ arc out of order,” Kohl says.
Taylor likens filming out of sequence to his time as a kid building computers.
“It was fun to build these pieces,” he says from his home in Pittsburgh. “It was fun to see how TV actors do their jobs. It’s a different pace and I think that helped me be faster-paced with the music and finding what the director wants from the character.”
To Ginther, all of the oddities of putting a show together this way add to the charm of the production.
“A lot of it seems like live theater, because it’s not perfect,” she says. “I’m very proud of what we put together. I’m just sad we won’t be able to hear the audience react. I hope they laugh as much as we did. I had a blast. Being without theater for a year makes me appreciate it all the more.”
If you go
What: "Barber of Seville" by Fargo-Moorhead Opera
When: Online streaming on demand begins Monday, April 19
Info: Tickets are $20; visit https://www.fmopera.org/barber-of-seville