By LEE J. KAHRS
BRANDON — “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
That quote by Pablo Picasso on the importance of the arts to any society seems as relevant today as it ever has, the dust of everyday life growing exponentially during an unprecedented global pandemic.
Two people in Brandon have decided to reject that notion and promote new digital performance outlets for artists as live events are postponed worldwide, from the season at the Brandon Town Hall to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
The level of creativity seems only outmatched by the need to connect in a time of great physical separation.
Two arts outlets have sprung up in Brandon, illuminating just how creative people handle crisis and overcome obstacles to performance. One is bringing together professionals from far and wide, the other is fostering local talent still honing their skills.
Social Distance Opera
In spite of the challenges posed by COVID-19 social distancing rules, there are stories out there of businesses on the brink of expansion, or offering a new menu, or hiring more employees.
Brandon’s Barn Opera is one example. The nonprofit, with its partner the Compass Center for the Arts, was granted its Act 250 land use permit on March 19, the day the first two COVID-19-related deaths were announced in Vermont. Two days later, Gov. Phil Scott suspended much business in Vermont and discouraged non-essential mass gatherings of more than 10 people. Social distancing became the new norm, and building an opera house in an 1861 barn was suddenly not the main focus of Barn Opera founder and tenor Josh Collier.
“Yes, we had to postpone our season,” Collier said. “But we aren’t stopping working. There are things we can do from six feet apart. We’re still keeping on. We are not alone in this. It’s poor timing for everyone, but if there’s a chance for a tiny bit of unity in this, then it’s done its job.”
What Collier has in mind, and what he has been working on for the last two weeks, is “Social Distance Opera.” The idea came after Collier himself lost an opportunity to perform in Europe this summer.
“A lot of my artistic friends have lost a lot more than I have,” he said. “I live with my family, I have space to run around, I have a lot of artistic outlets. Ultimately, I am incredibly privileged, but some of my friends don’t have that.”
So Collier thought of a way to help his fellow artists: Singing opera from a social distance and beyond, recording the tracks separately, and then putting it all together electronically and playing it for the world. Donations will be gratefully accepted, and all the money raised will be split among the artists who have signed on to the project. There are 57 opera singers on the project website, socialdistanceopera.com, and Collier and assistant director Nick Tocci have cast seven operas virtually. They are “Don Giovanni,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Il Tabarro,” “Swar Angelica,” “Falstaff,” “Gianni Schicchi” and “Street Scene.”
“We have people in Ukraine, Austria, the Czech Republic, Berlin, London, Chicago, Australia, and the West Coast of the U.S.,” Collier said. “There are no geographic limitations. If you’re six feet away, you might as well be 6,000 miles away.”
This opera company has signed up musicians and singers. Here’s how it will work: Seven pianists are recording the background of the coal scores of the opera. Then, the singers cast in the opera will get those recording and record their vocal roles over the piano tracks.
“All these tracks will be edited by an audio engineer for the finished product,” Collier said.
Social Distance Opera will release one recording per week starting this summer. Teasers will go out in the weeks prior to the release with videos of the starring singers, who will also be available for question and answer sessions with viewers via video conferencing.
“The goal is to humanize these singers,” Collier said. “You will get to know them. They will lead guided discussions so people can be involved in the process.”
Also on the website is the “Donate” button guest can use to make donations to the artists. There will also be social distance opera presence on Instagram and Facebook.
One notion driving Collier in this project is the fact that the arts are not considered essential, even in times of peace and relative calm.
“I was thinking that in this country, when things get tough, the arts are the first thing to go and the last thing to come back. The arts are not considered essential, and they should be. They’re considered entertainment, which is not accurate.”
Collier did some research and found that in the course of human history, at no time has there been a month without a single, public, live performance in the world.
“Do I think this project is going to be a long-term project?” Collier asked. “No, I don’t, but in 20 years when people look back. It would like people to see there were at least artists trying to find a solution to an existential challenge.”
Not all of those who are creating outlets for performance are performers themselves. Colleen Wright, who is an administrative assistant to the Brandon Recreation Department and a very involved Brandon resident, started a different performance outlet online: “Virus Performers” on Facebook. Her son, Shannon Wright, is 17 and a singer with a wonderful tenor voice who has performed at a number of local concerts and talent shows.
He is one of many teenage musicians and artists in the area. Due to the pandemic, school is closed until the fall. All the spring concerts and one-act shows at local elementary and high schools are cancelled. In addition, the entire Brandon Town Hall performance season has been postponed, and any local concerts are also cancelled.
On Virus Performers, kids have been making video recordings of themselves singing and playing instruments, then posting the videos on the Virus Performers Facebook page.
“I started this as soon as school was canceled,” Colleen Wright said. “The kids who are performers are having a tough time because all of their events got canceled. This gives them the opportunity to learn a song or write a song and perform without judgment in a positive environment.”
That sort of environment is cultivated within the walls of the area schools, and Wright wants to extend that into the virtual community.
“It’s a learning experience and it gives them something to do within the confines of their house,” she said. “I wanted to continue to see these kids get an opportunity to perform, and I hated to see kids not able to perform what they were working for.”
Residents of Brandon and the surrounding area seem uniquely suited to performance. It’s not just kids anymore. Adults have also gotten in on the performance venue, posting video of themselves singing and playing instruments.
“There’s a huge amount of talent in this town and across all age groups,” Wright said. “Where else could you have a three-year-old and a 70-year-old performing in the same place? That doesn’t happen in all towns.”
And beyond the performance aspect, Wright said the Virus Performers Facebook group offers community.
“I think all the kids who are in quarantine are missing their friends,” she said. “There’s no prom, there’s no graduation. These are tough times to be a kid. It’s not fun. The thing with Brandon is that you never have to look far for entertainment.”