Two Phones and One Big Experiment

October 15, 2020
Erich Burnett
opera performer being videotaped
Photo credit: Morgan Carder

Oberlin Opera Theater breaks through the COVID wall with an unlikely pairing of comedy and drama.

Jason Aaron Goldberg remembers the invitation because he’d never heard anything like it.

“We’re entering a really weird world here at Oberlin, and I think you’d be great for it,” his former mentor, Oberlin Opera Theater director Jonathon Field, told him in early summer.

The weird world involved planning for an intensive, exhilarating—and safe—year of musical study and performance amid the ongoing pandemic. That meant staging operas complete with no live singing, no live orchestra, no live audience, and plenty of masking and social distancing for everyone involved. In some cases, hundreds of miles of social distancing.

On Friday, November 6, Oberlin will present its first-ever fully virtual opera: a double bill of Gian Carlo Menotti’s frothy comedy The Telephone and Francis Poulenc’s dire drama La voix humaine (“The Human Voice”). They will debut at 7:30 p.m. on Oberlin Stage Left, preceded by a brief discussion featuring Goldberg and members of his cast and crew. The opera will remain available for viewing on demand through November 14.

opera director Jason Aaron Goldberg
Jason Aaron Goldberg
(photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones)

Goldberg himself is just four years removed from his own Oberlin studies, in which he paired vocal performance with an individual major in opera directing. (In his fourth year, he mounted a production of The Telephone in the campus nightclub, the ’Sco.) Today, he is in his third year of studies toward an MFA at the Actors Studio Drama School in New York City.

To Goldberg, The Telephone and La voix humaine—both of which revolve around a woman on the phone—are a match made in pandemic heaven.

“They’re perfectly paired for 2020, but they have not been paired traditionally before,” he says. “Both pieces involve dissociation through technology and what happens when all your communication happens on the phone.”

Premiered in 1947, The Telephone revels in the frustration of a young suitor who can’t get his girlfriend off the phone long enough to deliver a marriage proposal. La voix humaine, from 1958, recounts the tormented final phone call between a distraught woman and the lover who betrayed her. “It’s about the universality of abusive relationships and how you assert your agency as a woman,” Goldberg says.

Thematically as well as musically, there is practically nothing that unifies the two works. It’s a challenge the director seems to relish. Adding to the challenge: He must direct both shows—start to finish—entirely from his apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

And how exactly does that happen?

“My stage manager is my right hand, and my associate director is my left hand,” says Goldberg. “I’m just a floating head!”

opera singer and director consulting virtually
During shooting, Goldberg communicates his direction entirely through Zoom. (photo by Morgan Carder)

That stage manager is Morgan Carder, who performed the same role (albeit in person) in Oberlin’s fall 2019 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the associate director is Charlotte Maskelony, a fourth-year vocal performance major who is efficiently compiling a formidable list of production credits. Both work directly with the operas’ minimalist casts, virtually and on location in a nearby apartment suite coopted by the production for two weeks. Everyone involved is mindful of strict safety guidelines at every turn; each filmed vocal performance, in fact, involves no more than one singer—and is entirely lip-synched, to avoid the dispersal of aerosolized particles in the room. (Vocal tracks and the piano score, performed by vocal coach Daniel Michalak, were recorded separately in Finney Chapel, with all campus safety protocols in place.)

“The key for me has been Morgan and Charlotte: to be able to rely on them, and the way we have had to establish a language of directing very quickly,” the director says. That includes remote instructions and feedback delivered by Goldberg, who can be heard on the set through a pair of speakers but who is seen only through a Zoom screen.

For Goldberg, who is also the production’s video editor, it’s a process that ensures that the final product will be a complete surprise until he receives the separate audio and video tracks at the conclusion of filming.

“It’s a very different kind of working,” he says. “Directing already takes everything out of you, but with this, you can’t make things up on the fly. You can’t just figure it out in the room. You have to have it all planned in your head, like a film, and then just literally execute when the moment comes.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done, but the ingenuity has been amazing. The actors are learning how similar it is being a professional regardless of what medium you’re in. Their process has been strikingly similar, even though the medium has been so different. The tenets of being an opera singer are not just based on when you’re actually there and physically present. Those things do not change, and that’s what they’re learning here.”

As for Goldberg himself?

“I’m learning how important it is to have a really good team in place and how important it is to be adaptable. After this, I’m going to go into a regular show once COVID is over and go This is nothing!

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