When baritone Will Liverman was in high school, his love of opera went supernova during a trip to the Met. "It was a lot of opera, and we were way up in the nosebleeds," he says. "But I was just really shocked and surprised and in awe of how the voices from that stage were hitting me. Even as a high schooler, I was like, 'Wow, this art form has a lot to offer, and it's something that I think I want to pursue.'"
While the COVID -19 pandemic has kept Liverman off the stage since he played Silvio in Opera Colorado's production of Pagliacci in February, that hasn't stopped him from pursuing his passion. He's one of the stars of An Evening With Portland Opera, a virtual concert featuring singers and musicians from Portland Opera productions that were canceled because of the pandemic (Liverman had been scheduled to return as Silvio in a Portland-produced Pagliacci).
"We weren't going to be able to do anything with them, and that just felt so painful," says Laura Hassell, Portland Opera's producing director. "And we were trying to figure out, could we really not do anything, was there a way we
could do something?" Interim artistic director Daniel Biaggi suggested a virtual concert, kicking off a grueling quest to create an event that wouldn't force artists not based in Portland to travel.
An Evening With Portland Opera, which includes arias by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Verdi, called for a sense of unity that would transcend the miles separating performers. "Since we were not able to have everybody in the same room," Hassell says, "keeping it all together and making it sound like music and not like a bunch of people practicing random parts in their bedrooms was quite challenging."
Enter music director George Manahan. A video of him conducting at his home in New York became a guide for the concert, along with recorded piano accompaniment performed by Nicholas Fox—which was particularly helpful for Philadelphia-based mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman, who recorded an aria from Il Trovatore in her living room, rather than go to a studio.
"We just had a baby and we're quarantining super hard because we're really nervous about the virus, especially since we have a newborn in the house," says Freedman, who married her wife, Jackie Freedman, in 2017—their
wedding was officiated by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an opera devotee.
To make sure her voice would be synchronized with the music, Freedman watched footage of Fox on her computer. "It's very different to sing with a prerecorded track than to perform live with a pianist or with an orchestra," she says, adding that she had to "watch his hands and make sure that when I saw his hands move for the next chord, I knew to finish my note and move onto the next note."
Merging the work of the singers and the musicians proved daunting. "None of the cutoffs were together, no one was playing at the same time," Hassell says. Delicate audio engineering was required to complete the hourlong concert, which begins with the overture of Carmen and concludes with "Te Deum" from Tosca. Biaggi says the program alternates between "big picture, grand scale" and "the intimacy of one singer in a close-up."
The premiere of An Evening With Portland Opera on Vimeo and YouTube raises questions about what comes next. Portland Opera has been busy—it's been staging concerts on the balcony of its headquarters, the Hampton Opera Center—but general director Sue Dixon estimates the organization lost $1.5 million during its 2019-20 season due to the pandemic, not counting the $1 million in expenses resulting from performance cancellations (while the upcoming concert is free, donations will be accepted).
Yet uncertainty about live opera's future hasn't stopped the stars of An Evening With Portland Opera from creating. Freedman plans to perform in a Portland Opera production of Il Trovatore scheduled for 2021, and Liverman, whose contribution to the concert is an aria from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, is currently developing a version of The Barber of Seville set in a Black barbershop.
"There are certain jobs where I feel like it's definitely work," Liverman says. "You know, you go in and it's just like, 'This is my 12th Bohème, here we go.' And I feel like the pandemic really put that in check. I mean, you really stop and think about how fortunate we—folks who are able to sing and do it for a living—are."
SEE IT: An Evening With Portland Opera streams on Portland Opera's Vimeo and YouTube channels Saturday, Oct. 17. 7:30 pm. Free