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Science & Technology

On Site Opera Offers Live Performances Over The Phone For Just 1 Person At A Time

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Performing artists are struggling to find ways to reach audiences during the coronavirus lockdown. Musicians are streaming concerts from their homes. Theaters are trying everything from Zoom plays to radio dramas. And one opera company is trying to reach its audience one listener at a time over the telephone. Reporter Jeff Lunden decided to take the call.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: This is a story of love and separation. Two days before my phone rang, I got an email. And it says, my love, I miss you terribly. Each day without you is like...

JENNIFER ZETLAN: A day without breathing. I long to see your face, the twinkle of your eyes.

LUNDEN: The email is from my beloved. She says she's written some lyrics to songs she wants to sing to me and adds a postscript.

ZETLAN: I've taken up learning a new language in quarantine, so all the songs will be in German. Here's the English translation.

LUNDEN: I waited. Then the phone rang.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

LUNDEN: Hello.

ZETLAN: Darling, is that really you?

LUNDEN: It is. How are you?

ZETLAN: Oh, my love. My love, it is so good to hear your voice.

LUNDEN: After several minutes of kind of awkward improvised dialogue, she sang just for me.

ZETLAN: (Singing unintelligibly).

LUNDEN: Turns out my beloved is Jennifer Zetlan, a soprano who's performed at the Met and with opera companies and orchestras all over the country. And she's married. That's her husband playing piano. And she didn't even write the words. They're by an Austrian doctor, set to music by Beethoven. It's his only song cycle, which translates as, to the distant beloved.

ZETLAN: (Singing unintelligibly).

LUNDEN: The idea for this telephone opera came from Eric Einhorn, one of the founders of On Site Opera, a company that stages performances in unlikely but appropriate places. When the pandemic shut down venues, he thought about how he could still communicate.

ERIC EINHORN: I took a cue from our immersive and site-specific theater colleagues and came across the format of the phone play and bought a ticket to one. And it was wonderful. It was me and an actress, and I was part of the play.

LUNDEN: Then he thought of Beethoven.

EINHORN: This is a piece about not being able to be with your loved one because you're separated for some unknown reason, and you're lamenting that. I got to get on this.

LUNDEN: He hired a librettist to write some dialogue and two couples, each a singer and pianist who live together, so there would be no problem with social distancing.

ZETLAN: (Singing unintelligibly).

LUNDEN: I followed along with the English translation as Zetlan sang, and the lyrics really captured that sense of yearning for another person's company.

ZETLAN: (Singing unintelligibly).

LUNDEN: And after 20 minutes, it was over.

ZETLAN: I'm so happy I got to share that with you, my darling.

LUNDEN: So, so beautiful.

ZETLAN: Oh, thank you - all for you.

LUNDEN: It wasn't quite like being in a recital hall, but it did give me a chance to enter another romantic world in real time with a real person on the other end of the phone line.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden back in my apartment in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.