2020 will go down in history as an unprecedented year, unparalleled in terms of a sudden change of lifestyle. There is a strong feeling that we have become heroes from a fantasy novel, what is happening to us is astonishing: closed borders, social distancing, narrowing of the cultural field to phone or computer screens. Not even the most imaginative screenwriters have gone to such extremes.
The majority of events in the 2019/2020 season have been cancelled due to coronavirus. Yet many of the past autumn and winter’s achievements have transpired to be very important, and despite all of life’s cataclysms, their emotional and artistic impact can still be witnessed. Let’s try to combine the two halves of the season, which have been split into “before” and “after” the announcement of the pandemic.
The 2019/2020 season gives the feeling of an interrupted flight at peak altitude.
The start of the 2019/2020 choral season was full of internationally significant events; numerous international festivals and competitions were held in Europe; including the following: On Stage organised by Interkultur in Lisbon (Portugal) and in Prague (Czech Republic), 11th International Festival of Choirs and Orchestras in Cracow (Poland), 19th Eurotreff 2019, Wolfenbüttel (Germany), 9th International Competition for Young Conductors, Versailles (France), 15th International Choir Contest Flanders in Genk (Belgium), 8th Canta al Mar International Choral Festival, Calella, Barcelona (Spain), Dubrovnik International Choir Festival&Competition (Croatia), International Chor.com Festival in Hannover (Germany), Young Prague Festival, Prague (Czech Republic), 37th International Choral Festival of Karditsa (Greece), Vienna International Advent Singing Festival 2019 (Austria), International Festival of Advent and Christmas Music, Bratislava (Slovakia), “Romano Gandolfi” International Competition for Choral Conductors in Parma (Italy) and many more.
The non-EU choral world was also full of important events including International Choir Festival Corearte Argentina 2019, Córdoba (Argentina), International Choir Festival Corearte Brazil 2019, Caxias do Sul (Brazil), 4th International Choir Festival “In Anticipation of Christmas” in Saint Petersburg (Russia), 15th Tevlin International Autumn Choral Festival in Moscow (Russia), Corsham Winter School United Kingdom, Voices Without Borders International Festival Choir, Northern Michigan (USA).
In March 2020, various festivals and choral competitions, as well as the premieres of several operas, were about to start all over the world but suddenly everything and everywhere came to a standstill. There was the involuntary but telling shift from real to virtual life. Musicians all over the world (and not just academics) found themselves in the strange situation of almost absolute prohibition against practising their profession. Theatres, choirs, orchestras and philharmonic associations made a considerable effort to stay afloat, to maintain contact with the public. The critical situation which the whole world found itself in profoundly changed our daily lives, forcing us to stay at home to fight the emergency. The choral world also suffered the blow; singers and conductors paid a huge price, since they were obligated to cancel performances and concerts resulting in unquantifiable economic losses and damaged morale.
With the insidious and, obviously, unexpected onset of covid-19, the second half of the 2019/2020 season of the choral, theatre and concert worlds has been irretrievably lost since about mid-March. The cultural sector has had no choice but to go online presenting previously recorded video content or offering live broadcasts over the Internet from stages with no live audience. Both, however, are palliative; such measures can never replace live art since the screen always remains a sort of “wall” and does not allow the flow of living energy between the stage and the audience.
Those most affected during the public health emergency were choirs, who were practically ravaged. Choirs are large groups and are penalised by the prohibition of collective performance; moreover, they cannot sing wearing a mask. However, choirs know how to express their strength, determination and creativity; many have devised new means of singing in chorus: social media, video calls, videoconferences, webinars, digitally edited choral performances.
The lockdown period gave great impetus to the development of the Virtual Choir. The concept of the Virtual Choir is not a completely new innovation; it was launched by composer and conductor Eric Whitacre in 2009, but its popularity has dramatically increased since March 2020 because it was the only way to sing choral music. The Virtual Choir creates a choir by bringing singers from various locations together in a new way with the help of technology. Individual singers record and upload their videos, which are then synchronised and combined into a single performance to create the Virtual Choir.
However, experience has shown that the Virtual Choir is, in any case, just a surrogate and only gives choirs the opportunity to maintain social contact. The technical limitations of the Internet and current software make it impossible for choirs to rehearse together at the same time because they introduce a sound delay of about half a second or more, making synchronisation impossible. It is, nonetheless, possible to draw temporary positive conclusions about the online choir: the opportunity for rehearsals focused on individual work with a single chorister, the creation of new teaching methods, the facilitation of theoretical teaching.
After several months on hold, cultural venues gradually started reopening to the public from June 2020 but choirs remained among the many businesses still paralysed by the coronavirus. Even today, normal rehearsals are challenging, concerts are being cancelled and there is a lack of revenue. In this situation, many choirs are in danger of disappearing. Now all choirs (male, female, mixed, adult and treble, youth, parish, school choirs) are waiting to know when — and above all how — they will be able to resume singing (including rehearsals and concerts) while respecting compulsory social distancing, when a choir is, by its very nature, a group.
The quintessence of choral life in the post-emergency world is: “Choirs fight for survival”. While waiting for the new rules and taking advantage of the summer, some choirs have begun to rehearse outdoors. Rehearsals in enclosed spaces are difficult, as few choirs have rooms that allow them to sing in accordance with the current social distancing regulations; only rehearsals with few participants take place inside, for example, in single sections.
Another serious problem is a financial one; most of the choirs are, in fact, amateur organisations, which often make great sacrifices to finance themselves. With choral work stopped and with no travel or event expenses, choral associations are still managing to survive thanks to company shares. However, if the suspension is prolonged, choirs will have a complicated recovery ahead, also on a psychological level.
Even greater uncertainty surrounds school choirs as they are bound by the coronavirus rules for schools. In most countries it is not clear how the new school year will begin and in some German provinces there is an absolute ban on singing indoors, which is the subject of harsh criticism from the country’s choral associations. In Russia, the decree issued by the health committee at the end of July orders a minimum distance of 4 metres between singers. While for choral scenes in operas, it has been suggested that cut entire scenes be cut.
Despite these regulations, some of which are absurd, the choral world has started to set itself in motion. Parish choirs, who have resumed singing in small groups during services, have found themselves in the best situation. Even opera houses, including professional choirs, are allowed to restart, especially outdoors in compliance with the health rules. In practically all European states as well as in Eastern Europe, some states in the USA, Canada and the rest of the world, the public has had the opportunity to attend musical events again. Today theatre lovers all over the world are looking forward to the 2020/2021 season.
In most cases, the expected opening of theatres is in the autumn but several, for example the New York “Metropolitan Opera”, have already announced that the season will only open on the 31st of December 2020 with a special gala concert. The prospects for the new season opening of Russian theatres and concert halls at the usual times are quite optimistic and the plans for the 2020/2021 season have also been announced by Wigmore Hall in London.
With regard to international choral festivals and competitions, it has been announced that the World Choir Games will be held in 2021 in the Belgian city of Flanders. This is the most important choral meeting in recent decades, which gathers every two years in different parts of the world for the performance of groups and choral experts from over 100 countries. The European Choral Association has also planned the Europa Cantat Festival to be held in July 2021 in Ljubljana (Slovenia). The Deutscher Chorverband has confirmed that the Vokalmusikfestival “Chor.com”, an important European choral meeting with over 30 concerts and 180 workshops, will take place in September.
What are the expectations for the future of choral music around the world?
Choral concerts will be the last to resume after the state of emergency, so choirs and choirmasters have proven to be the most vulnerable. At the moment, the world of culture is paying the consequences of the enforced hiatus; In the UK, for example, many concert associations are on the verge of bankruptcy. Not only were small institutions severely damaged during quarantine, but so too were influential ones such as Covent Garden and The Royal Albert Hall. Despite the serious situation, Europeans are getting ready for the season opening. Both the repertoire and the anti-crisis financial plan must be rethought. In the new reality, theatres and the entire musical and choral world will have to survive with a 30-50% seat occupancy rate. It is clear that even if the situation returns to normal, it will take years to restore the economy of cultural institutions. It will be necessary to find a flexible model when developing repertoires and concerts in order to work under new conditions without losing the audience.
At the moment there is hope that the 2020/2021 season will restart in the real, non-virtual world and that we will return to normal life — musical life included — with the certitude that music must reinvent itself: every great crisis opens up new horizons.
Translated from the Italian by Rachel Russell
Anna Kaira completed her studies at the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music in Moscow (Russia) and at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Kiev (Ukraine). She pursued her musical studies further at the University of Bayreuth (Germany), where she undertook a PhD in musicology on “Choirs in Richard Wagner’s Early Works”, achieving the academic title of “Doctor of Philosophy” (PhD) on the 25th of February 2002. She has taught at various universities in Germany, Italy and Croatia. Over 30 years of concert work she has performed in more than 200 concerts in Italy and abroad (Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Serbia, Hungary) as choirmaster of various choral ensembles. She has participated as choirmaster in 15 international choral festivals and competitions, receiving prestigious awards. She holds masterclasses in choral conducting in Switzerland and Austria. In Trieste she directs the main choir and the children’s choir at the Serbian-Orthodox church in San Spiridione; teaches singing at the “Ars Nova Music Academy” and works as project manager for international projects at the academy; she is a member of the judging panel for the “Ars Nova International Music Competition – Trieste”; president of the “Associazione Amici Gioventù Musicale – Trieste ODV”; member of the editorial committee of the magazine “DIRIGO” and national board member of the “Associazione Nazionale Direttori di Coro Italiani” (Italian Choirmasters Association). She has numerous publications in the field of musicology and sacred music. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org