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Preparing for the New Reality

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

Joan Patenaude-Yarnell on the challenges and innovation in the future of opera. Watch her masterclass and other events related to the New Era of opera.

In February and March our entire world changed carrying us to “The Summer of Our Discontent.” The abrupt closing down of the performing arts world was part of this reality. The ongoing results are challenging. Singers, dancers, instrumentalists, orchestras, opera companies, arts management, teachers continue to be deeply affected by this unexpected pandemic.

The public, as well, lost the invaluable importance of going to the opera, the theater, the concert hall. Live music was suddenly not there anymore.

“Innovation always comes out of disruption” (Karl Paulnack, Graduation Speech, Bard College Conservatory, 2020)

Facing the Future

Each one of us must face these realities individually and collectively. There are many ways to do this, of course. The most important of them all is to be more dedicated than we ever have been in assuring that great music will be heard performed by today’s artists, be it virtually and/or realistically. Therefore the question for each of us to ask ourselves is: “How am I using the pandemic in order to prepare to take my place as an artist when the new reality begins to move forward?”

As the great stage director Constantin Stanislavski famously wrote: “It is not about you in the art – it is about the art in you”

This important distinction will make the difference between feeling sorry for ourselves or keeping alive the momentum of our art and craft in order to be an important part of the new reality that will, without doubt, come. Music cannot be completely silenced. It is necessary as one of the essential things we need to endure life`s complex journey.

The world cannot do without the comfort and joy that beautiful music brings to us all in one form or another. During history's most terrifying and horrific periods, music always helped to sustain the spirit of the victims – i.e. the Concentration Camps in World War 2, the Civil Rights Marches in the 60’s, the destruction of the Twin Towers, etc. In historical and trying periods of history it was, and still is, the raising of the human voice in song that provides the fortitude to continue.

What would happy events be like without the joy of the wedding march and all the other memorable events in life? Think of how less moving a movie would be without the musical score.

Joan Patenaude-Yarnell with students in Italy

The Classical Singer’s Role

The first sound from a newborn baby is a “cry.” A new parent quickly is able to distinguish between the various sounds a crying baby makes depending on its need: one type of cry is for "it's time for a diaper change”, another for “I’m hungry” – then another for “I want to be held” etc. Therefore the “cry” is the first use of the human voice to express feelings and emotions, long before the baby will be able to say words. The sound of the fully developed classical voice is the most powerful instrument to profoundly express all the dynamics of human emotion. And that is why the classical singer has a very special responsibility.

The “art in you” will help the world to evolve out of this crisis and come back renewed and energized. What will change will be the venue for performance. It will be many-faceted, as we have seen already with the amazing “online” performances – i.e. the Metropolitan Opera Virtual Gala in March. The emotions we felt sitting at our computers, hearing and seeing these great singers performing in their own homes – even from their kitchens - were as powerful as anything I remember for a long time.

How should a young singer, student or professional face this new challenge of performing venues? We will need to be totally dedicated to continue developing our craft – our art – our performing abilities


Here are a few of the many challenges a classical singer is facing:

At this point in time it looks like our large international opera houses will be the last to come back to what they were before March 2020. It is just too dangerous at this point to have so many singers – soloists and chorus as well as the orchestra, stagehands, etc. in such close proximity. The houses cannot financially survive if the audience follows social distancing & the public will surely not endure wearing masks for a 3 hour performance.

It makes sense that smaller works will begin to appear – chamber music, the vast song repertoire, opera with a cast of not more than 2 or 3 singers accompanied by a small group or a piano.

Throughout history, including wars, pandemics, freedom fighting, composers, librettists, writers have all produced important new works. Mozart composed some of his greatest music during such a pandemic. This will happen in our time. Young composers, I am sure, are already at work creating new works that reflect our reality.

The young singer will need to be able to encompass vocally, musically, expressively and linguistically an ever wider variety of musical styles. Music is not merely an entertainment. It is one of the necessities to help us live through all of life’s challenges. Thus the artist is one of our greatest assets as the world tries to climb out of this period in history. It is especially important that each singer & musician fulfill their responsibility in bringing beautiful music to a wide and new audience.

Important New Skills

Singers will need to be technologically skilled regarding the use of microphones and speakers. They will need to be their own technicians, as many are doing right now.

Learning to use the camera and the microphone as your audience is a skill to be developed. The distance between a live performance on stage and the audience is greatly diminished. The audience will see the singer’s face much more clearly and closely. It will be a more intimate relationship with the public. When in a virtual performance the singer, who is used to singing in large halls, must learn to do what the stage actor does when he is making a film. What the camera requires is greater specificity of gesture and energy. We do not change our vocal technique to acquire this new skill.

Positive New Advances

There are some advantages to the inevitable changes that are being developed as we speak. A performer will reach a much larger audience by performing virtually as well as realistically. Many more people will be able to hear great music beautifully sung and played.

Some of these new audiences will find they have developed an appetite for the vast range of classical music, including the works performed in smaller venues with fewer performers. The audiences will be more varied as innovative programming flourishes. Classical music will not be considered only for the “elite.” With the skillful use of YouTube, Facebook, Zoom, etc. a singer in New York is able to reach an international audience.

Imagination & Innovation

There will be no end to the many new and innovative ways we will bring music to the public. The evolution from pre-Covid-19 to post-virus (which may take a long, long time) is inevitable and exciting.

Developing your imagination in many directions will be essential. More intimate venues, virtual, or in smaller spaces will be possible. A personal relationship between the artist and the public will undoubtedly happen. I recently saw and heard a performance of “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” presented on Zoom from Germany with the singer, clarinetist and pianist in their own studios – yet it had the feeling of an intimate musical ensemble taking place in one attractive space.

As well as new and innovative programming, the scope of repertoire a singer may choose based on genre, heritage, etc. is part of this new era.

Most Important Guidelines to Follow

The highest performance standards must always be in place before presenting anything virtually or realistically. It is tempting to put “something” online simply to keep performing. That will not do if the classical music world is to survive in a healthy way. Remember – it is not about you – it is about the music. Well developed technological skills (lighting, sound, visuals ) are required for virtual performances. To start learning about choices of microphones and speakers is important knowledge to have as we continue in a virtual sound world.

Due to the challenge of sounds from various types of speakers, the singer must be able to encompass all the characteristics of Bel Canto singing. It is more important than ever to be sure your skills are well honed in every aspect of your art.

We should use this time to explore new repertoire, new composers, as well as developing a deep knowledge of the long heritage of the classical vocal repertoire, their composers, their interpreters.

Focus of the Masterclass - July 29th, 2020 at 6pm

The focus will be on reviewing the characteristics of the Bel Canto school of singing in a vast choice of vocal repertoire.

Watch Joan Patenaude-Yarnell's masterclass and other events related to the future of opera.

Learn more about the New Era Voice Festival.

Miss a class? No problem! You can access past masterclasses and series here. Learn more about the M Institute for the Arts here.

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