Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Lyric Opera of Chicago was forced to scrap its season of live performances in favor of filmed online concerts. And in many of those presentations, the featured performers were from the Lyric's Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center Ensemble.
The Ryan Opera Center is an in-demand artist-development program, affectionately likened by one performer as a "glorified internship for opera singers." More than 400 global artists audition each year for about 13 spots in the program which offers specialized language lessons, one-on-one vocal coaching and valuable stage time for singers in smaller parts and as understudies.
But in 2020, Ryan Opera Center performers suddenly had to switch from singing live and un-amplified before thousands in an opera house down to the closeups of a video camera. The next online Lyric concert is called Magical Music Around the World, debuting on March 21 as the Ryan Opera Center's annual gala performance.
A few Ryan Opera Center artists who identify as part of the LGBTQ community agreed to be interviewed about their experiences this past year. Not only do they appreciate the employment when so many other artists have been unable to work, but they are also happy to be in such an inclusive environment.
Texas native and tenor Martin Luther Clark is a first-year ensemble member. Though Clark is still waiting to make his Lyric stage debut, he has been prominently featured in online Lyric performances like Lawrence Brownlee & Friends and Sole e Amore.
"Being in front of a camera and not having the connection with an audience just forces you as an artist to create the energy for yourself," Clark said. "The camera up close catches so many things and it has really taught me to explore more of my image and how I want to present myself."
Clark joked that the online performances gave himself permission to do more clothes shopping. But he's also enjoyed working with Ryan Opera Center music director Craig Terry on repertoire that would play well for the camera.
"[Terry] challenged me to go back to some of my gospel and R&B roots," Clark said. "I found ways of that influencing my classical singing with all the passion and the love."
Also from Texas is mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty, a second-year ensemble member who made her Lyric debut last season in as Laura Verdi's Luisa Miller.
Felty is grateful that the Lyric found a way to safely film these concerts amid the risks of COVID-19. That's because the virus has tended to attack the lungs extremely vital organs for an opera signer.
Felty also liked how the Lyric was able to choose its online content as a response to recent movements that have called for more inclusion. Typically opera companies plan out their season up to four years in advance, so the need for online concerts allowed for the Lyric to explore more diverse areas of the repertoire.
"They've shifted this year to wanting to incorporate the focus on adding more lesser-known pieces by composers of color and female composers," Felty said. "That's a fantastic way to go back in and look at things that were overlooked."
Felty is also happy to know that the Lyric has welcomed and employed many LGBTQ singers before, such as soprano Patricia Racette, mezzo-sopranos Jamie Barton and Jill Grove, and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo.
"This is the first space that I've been out and felt completely accepted and at home with like-minded individuals with similar values," said Felty about the Lyric.
Minnesota native and bass Anthony Reed is a second-year ensemble member who made his Lyric debut last season as a prison guard in Dead Man Walking. Reed is also thankful for the Lyric's welcoming environment, and for all the Ryan Opera Center's great training.
"I'm grateful that I have come up in a generation where the groundwork has been laid for me to be able to live free and proud," Reed said.
For example, Reed highlighted how one of his bosses, Lyric general director Anthony Freud, is not only out, but also married to his longtime partner, freelance dramaturg Colin Ure.
Reed feels blessed that he and the other Ryan Opera Center artists have been able to continue their training through the pandemic. And though he misses live audiences, Reed is glad that the Lyric has found some ways for its artists to perform.
"Opera is not necessarily made to be in close-ups," Reed said. "It's one of the few remaining acoustic art forms. That's what makes it special, but these recording projects have helped us as artists to realize that we have to adapt for the times."
Magical Music Around the World premieres online on YouTube and Facebook at 6 p.m Sunday, March 21. For more information, or to see Ryan Opera Center artists in other online Lyric Opera of Chicago concerts, visit lyricopera.org .