BWW Exclusive: 107 Opera Singers, a Conductor plus Tech Magic Bring Some LIGHT from Moravec, Campbell and OPERA America

Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Federation of Musicians #10-208 Reach Contractual Labor Agreement
The "Light Shall Lift Us" ensemble and conductor
Whitfield. Photo: Richard Sasanow from a video draft

Here's a look at how "Light Shall Lift Us; Singers Unite in Song" for OPERA America) by Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell for OPERA America, a project, featuring 107 opera singers in "a song of hope and solidarity," came together to help raise up the spirits of their communities as we deal with COVID-19.

"One thing I like about this project--this video of the song 'Light Shall Lift Us' by Mark Campbell and me--is that it's democratic: It's not about stars but for all opera singers, lending their voices so that their light will lift every one of us." That's what Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec told me about the project that features his music with the lyric of Mark Campbell (librettist of over 30 operas, including the Pulitzer-winning SILENT NIGHT with Kevin Puts).

Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Federation of Musicians #10-208 Reach Contractual Labor Agreement
Campbell and Moravec

"You'll see [in the video] and hear everyone from familiar names, like Matthew Polenzani, Ailyn Perez, Brenda Rae, Jennifer Johnson Cano, David Portillo, Morris Robinson, Daniela Mack, Alek Schrader, Cecilia Violetta López, Edward Parks and Zachary James, to others at every level of their careers."

While the song by the pair of Americans is original, it is not brand new.

"'Light Shall Lift Us' was written for One Voice Orlando--the benefit concert I helped organize with Opera Orlando, its general director Gabe Preisser and conductor David Charles Abell, in response to the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in 2016," explained Campbell. "I believe that the arts have to help communities deal with traumatic experiences and the benefit championed the infrastructure supporting diversity and understanding in the community."

To create the breathtaking work (which surprisingly lasts less than five minutes), Campbell went to Moravec, who's known for his choral writing expertise (among other skills)--they'd just had a big success with the opera version of Stephen King's THE SHINING at Minnesota Opera--"and I, of course said yes," recalled the composer.

Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Federation of Musicians #10-208 Reach Contractual Labor Agreement
Clockwise: Lopez, Polenzani, Parks, Johnson
Cano. Photo: Richard Sasanow from video draft.

"About a month ago, Paul and I decided that the song's positive message about healing would be meaningful in addressing what everyone----certainly all of us in the opera world, at the least--is feeling today about living with COVID-19. We imagined a performance by a large group of singers [NB: Campbell's "Sleep" chorus, from his SILENT NIGHT, is currently on the Minnesota Opera website, with about 30 singers] and approached Marc Scorca of OPERA America with the idea. He embraced it and we all came up with the name: 'Light Shall Lift Us; Singers Unite in Song' (for OPERA America).

"Ever the showman, I decided we needed to find 100 opera singers or more and began inviting people I knew and others I didn't and managed to get 107 singers onboard in the course of a week," says Campbell. "In the meantime, I asked Andrew Whitfield, from Minnesota Opera, to handle the music direction and Cara Consilvio, a director and producer of opera, film and theater with tech knowledge, to spearhead the video editing."

Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Federation of Musicians #10-208 Reach Contractual Labor Agreement
Clockwise: Mack, Portillo, Rae, Robinson.
Photo: Richard Sasanow from video draft

Simultaneously, Paul asked Peter Lurye, whom he knew from Harvard, to do an orchestral simulation. (For all of us non-pros, that's a sophisticated synthesizer.) That's how the music came to life for the singers to use in making their own videos, with the help of a video by Consilvio and Whitfield.

Not much of the music or lyric has been tweaked since Orlando, says the composer. But that doesn't mean it was an easy project, even after Paul suggested that they team up with OPERA America, the industry-wide organization dedicated to supporting the creation, presentation and enjoyment of opera, and it came onboard.

Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Federation of Musicians #10-208 Reach Contractual Labor Agreement
Conductor Whitfield and some of the singers.
Photo: Richard Sasanow from video draft

For Campbell, "overdrive" not only meant bringing in a cross-section of singers to participate, but also corralling the conductor/music director, Andrew Whitfield, and an opera-theatre-film director Cara Consilvio who also had superior video editing skills. Moravec went to Peter Lurye, a composer-lyricist who also was proficient in musical simulation, and with the skills to make sure that the layering of the 100+ singing videos plus conductor worked as a whole.

Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Federation of Musicians #10-208 Reach Contractual Labor Agreement
Video editor Consilvio

Consilvio admitted that working sometimes 10 hours a day on the project for the last weeks was the perfect antidote to the anxiety so many of us are feeling in the age of COVID-19. "I stopped watching the news and just focused on the work. It was a nice moment not to use worry muscles, but to use muscles to make something beautiful for people."

What was her biggest challenge? "The amount of media was staggering to handle," she admitted. Because, unlike the Met, which had broad video capacity for its "At-Home Gala" a couple of weeks ago, because of its Live in HD series, "our resources are totally different."

"There's a moment where we layer videos of over 100 people on top of each other--figuring out workarounds and reinventing how you do a normal edit, because this was over capacity for my system. So my husband came on and we split the editing between two computers. When you think about putting 100+ videos into one frame and resizing, reframing and rethinking each one, the task is enormous. In the end, the video looks great, but the amount of work was overwhelming."

Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Federation of Musicians #10-208 Reach Contractual Labor Agreement
Music director Whitfield

Andy Whitfield, chorus master and assistant conductor at Minnesota Opera, is the music director--though, he admits, his job was different from what people usually feel that job description entails. He recently did the SILENT NIGHT video for Minnesota Opera's website previously mentioned but, not to be obvious, "this one was way more complicated--with 107 singers vs. only 30."

He and Consilvio did a YouTube tutorial for the ensemble because each singer had to make a separate video that would be combined with all the others into the final product. Some people had done it before, while for others, it was the first time.

Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Federation of Musicians #10-208 Reach Contractual Labor Agreement
Musical simulator Lurye

"It was a challenge--unique to this project--syncing up the visuals, fixing the stereo so they synced on the screen," Lurye explained. For him, the biggest test was to sort through the 100+ videos then layering the tracks. "Sometimes it felt chaotic and seemed like it would burst the limits of my six-year-old Mac. But this is the future of much art-making in the near future: doing it from home. I was struck by the dedication of the singers, some incredibly well known, to the beauty of the music and their desire to make art. You don't always get that."

Lurye did some tweaking of the individual recordings, combined the orchestra and chorus, balanced the mix and made the result believable whether there were singers singing solo or in the enormous mass at the end. A composer-lyricist himself, his experience with orchestral simulation would make it sound like there's an orchestra with all these wonderful singers.

"For me, the biggest challenge was to make the music sound beautiful, without being so slick that the audience forgets that everyone is singing from their own homes," said Lurye. "I'm happy to say that I believe the finished video looks and sounds like that. We did our best to bring the wonderful-ness of the music to this community in isolation."

What's the result like? Take a listen for yourself.

And remember: Keep the music going with your local opera company. Help support them today.

Participating singers:

Javier Abreu, Danielle Beckvermit, Daniel Belcher, Andrew Bidlack, Matt Boehler, Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Liz Bouk, Marnie Breckenridge, Erica Brookhyser, Raehann Bryce-Davis, William Burden, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Leonardo Capalbo, Joyce Castle, Lisa Chavez, Hailey Clark, Sarah Coit, Troy Cook, Sasha Cooke, Olivia Cosío, Tara Curtis, Adrienne Danrich, Joseph Dennis, Mary Dunleavy, Jason Ferrante, Jessica Fishenfeld, Emily Fons, Daryl Freedman, Blake Friedman, Joseph Gaines, Blythe Gaissert, Priti Gandhi, Sara Gartland, Eve Gigliotti, Nathan Granner, Devon Guthrie, Jasmine Habersham, Sam Handley, Roger Honeywell, Soloman Howard, Briana Elyse Hunter, Craig Irvin, Zachary James, Keith Jameson, Jessica E. Jones, Michael Kelly, Maya Kherani, Michael Kuhn, Claire Kuttler, Tesia Kwarteng, Sarah Larsen, Anna Laurenzo, Victoria Livengood, Cecilia Violetta López, Zulimar López-Hernández , Alexandra Loutsion , Daniela Mack, Amanda Majeski, Alex Mansoori, Trevor Martin, Robert Wesley Mason, Aundi Marie Moore, John Moore, Dylan Morrongiello, Brian James Myer, Miles Mykkanen, Luis Alejandro Orozco, Edward Parks, Ailyn Pérez, Dimitri Pittas, Matthew Polenzani, David Portillo, Stephen Powell, Katherine Pracht, Gabriel Preisser, Emily Pulley, Elise Quagliata, Brenda Rae, Zoie Reams, Morris Robinson, Lisa Marie Rogali, Adrian Rosas, Annie Rosen, Jordan Rutter, Christian Sanders, Lucy Schaufer, Laurel Semerdjian, Alek Shrader, Benjamin Sieverding, Jake Stamatis, Dane Suarez, Jack Swanson, Talise Trevigne, Richard Troxell, Maria Valdes, Jamie Van Eyck, Miguel Angel Vasquez, Craig Verm, Yunpeng Wang, Andrew Wilkowske, William Ferguson, Karin Wolverton, Caroline Worra, Matthew Worth, Wei Wu, Adriana Zabala, Jennifer Zetlan.


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