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Mixing it up

by Blake Hill-Saya

I think we all have questions about what the new normal will be as classical singing, performance, opera and theater are all trumpeting their return to the stage. Will we all just forget this year of artistic drought like a bad dream and fall into our old patterns and prejudices? Will we let our advocacy for change refreshment and inclusion dissipate after a season and in the shuffle to remain solvent? These questions are applicable to organizations and individuals alike. One thing seems certain, however: the appetite for live music is ravenous and tickets are selling rapidly for events all the way into the Fall months. We have a tremendous opportunity to reconnect and redefine ourselves in this moment of absent hearts arriving in our audiences - fondly open for now.


All the singers I know are giddy with anticipation to work and to be of service in every way they can as opera and classical concert seasons rebuild. The lines seem to be more easily blurred where genres have previously been verboten to cross-pollinate. For instance, Festival Opera is launching an online recital series entitled “Mixtape” on May 30th specifically focused on intimate and eclectic recital programming. Their initial offering features a favorite of Festival Opera and the Bay Area classical music scene, the effervescent soprano Shawnette Sulker. Sulker is also appearing on Festival Opera’s recently launched podcast "Behind the Mask" to discuss the process behind "Mixtape" as well as her own life and career perspectives. These kinds of programs are offered in response to a new level of audience engagement. The pandemic has increased public curiosity about performers and their lives as well as given them permission to enjoy content on their own time and in new formats. Somehow breaking out of the structures that classical music has been traditionally been associated with has freed performers and audiences alike to have a more complex and modern conversation.


I remember at the very beginning of our national lockdown life the first few intrepid artists that posted performances live from their own living rooms: a soprano singing at her own piano; a baritone reaching through the lens from the confines of his NYC apartment to touch our hearts; a husband-and-wife duo singing love duets as the world raged in chaos outside. Those first few offerings then became a deluge of content as everyone started posting performances from nearly all contexts and ensembles formed from living rooms across the globe in such inspiring ways. Some were even featured as part of the Biden/Harris Inauguration Celebration. We made ourselves heard. We made it work. We overcame the distance, and we served those hearts that needed us to heal them. Now we have a new genre, the “made for streaming and online delivery” concert and there is still so much more potential this window into classical music provides. Imagine a recital series to serve as a restorative resource specific to each and every hospital, prison, or corporate entity.


Will offerings like these cut down on live attendance in the theater? I suppose my answer (in the form of a question) would be: did MTV and the music video genre cut down on live concert attendance, or did it become an independent genre that builds the desire to see and hear even more live?


Eclectic and intimate concerts are not necessarily new. The famed New York Festival of Song used to be one of the most sought-after tickets in the city. The program curation, flexible talents of the singers, and the delightful surprise of audiences made each concert an event not to be missed. I remember with fondness my few performances of similarly genre-flexible recitals with the Southeastern Festival of Song, in which we did everything from cowboy songs to the Beatles to Brahms. We enjoyed making our own arrangements in rehearsal. That kind of creative license to perform and to stretch in every direction is so restorative for the voice, the artist and for the soul.


The biggest takeaway from genre bending and the new online portal for content delivery is, in my opinion, the power inherent in coming off the classical pedestal and meeting audiences where they are - in their living rooms, at their desk, in their hospital beds with songs they know the words to as well as ones they have never heard. We meet them with an inclusive yet excellent agenda for connection.


I hope there is a place for flexibility and our deep desire to work in every direction as artists in this new paradigm. I hope there is not a return to rigidity, elitist tendencies and ivory towers. If there is, then let’s keep pushing back and keep reminding our audiences that classical music can be and is fundamentally about connection with THEM. We can all find something on this splendid ride through the magic of art and imagination. I know now, more than ever, that there is room on that mystical reverie for every heart and mind to be met, nourished, embraced, and dazzled.

MIXTAPE | Episode 1: Shawnette Sulker & Zachary Gordin


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