Who would have ever guessed that I’d be writing a blog post about this? Years ago, no one had a big enough crystal ball to foresee our current state of world health, yet here we are in a seemingly never-ending pandemic.
One of the main ways opera companies are surviving is by implementing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And one of those measures is mask-wearing.
For an opera singer, this can feel like the ultimate muffler.
Our voices are stifled by these masks, yet they are one of the reasons opera is alive today. That means we singers need to adapt to this new normal as quickly and vocally intelligently as possible.
DISCLAIMER: This is not an open debate on whether or not to wear masks. This blog post is a resource to help singers who are required to wear masks in the workplace.
Let’s just say it out loud. MASKS ARE ANNOYING!!!
As a singer, it kinda feels like a mosquito that won’t go away while you’re in a steam room for just the bottom of your face, dripping sweat, snot, and drool.
You can’t hear yourself accurately, you lack your normal resonance, your diction is all jumbled — it’s a hot mess. Literally.
Now that I got that out of the way, you’re obviously here to get some insight on your mask-singing situation. It all begins with keeping that end-goal in sight, and that end-goal is opening night.
Different Houses, Different Rules
I’ve sung at a handful of opera companies since things shut down in the spring of 2020 and every house has its own rules. Across the board, masks are required indoors (or within 15 feet of an overhang), for all employees (regardless of vaccination status).
Some companies allow you to rehearse without masks, but that isn’t common. Most companies don’t allow you to sing without a mask until you are on stage with the orchestra. So in many cases, there are 2-3 weeks of staging and music rehearsals where you must be fully masked.
Those rehearsal weeks are crucial to me because I use that time to practice how to vocally navigate a role and sing out parts that are still technically challenging for me. I also use those rehearsals to steadily warm up my voice in time for tech week and opening night.
Now a wrench has been thrown in and during many of those pivotal rehearsals. I must now be masked. What do I do to avoid crashing and burning?
The most difficult thing when singing with a mask is losing touch with your voice’s projection. So, the first thing that goes is your confidence because you become unsure of what reality is anymore.
I normally listen to my voice “ping” off the walls of a room to know if I’m projecting well enough. My voice isn’t going forward anymore and it’s sort of splatting and going out in a sheet of sound.
What I tell myself is, once I take my mask off, it will all be ok. You will be reacquainted with your voice and it will take flight.
It’s tough when you’re required to wear the mask until the final rehearsals and the blocking is physically taxing. You can’t balance the physical pacing of the role with the singing because you don’t know what the experience really feels like.
With mask singing, you can’t pace difficult roles easily, so adapting the staging to something more realistic might be necessary since building stamina over the weeks of rehearsal is no longer an option. When I say “change the staging”, I mean backing off from eccentric movements in an intelligent way. Don’t quote me on this 😉 I don’t want to get any hate emails from stage directors.
Keep in mind that once you take your mask off, you can finally understand what your voice does and your confidence comes flooding back. That is the key to mastering mask-singing.
So, you know that singing with a mask isn’t representative of what your true sound is. How do you deal with any outside feedback about your singing? What if a casting director steps into the room and you want to make a good impression?
We are all in this together. It’s like we’re all on a sports team and we’re using the same crappy, deflated ball. Everyone is inhibited by it and the playing field is even.
Since we’re all in the same boat, reassure yourself that the final dress rehearsals and opening night will be your time to shine and impress any director.
Don’t let it get in your head.
All About the Attitude
Have an empathetic, grateful, and understanding attitude while working. The company is doing what they think is best for them and the entire health of the community. They’ve spent (sometimes) millions of dollars on establishing COVID-19 protocols, so be sensitive to your minor role in their endeavors.
They want to do the best they can without going bankrupt or getting people sick. Companies implemented these measures and you as a singer are one cog in their big COVID-19 safety wheel. Your cooperation is a bigger deal than you realize.
If you question their rules hard, you will not come off as participatory. In fact, you will come off oppositional.
Even if the rules don’t make sense in your head, you’re not going to come in and outsmart an entire team who has had meetings on safety protocols for the past months, even years. They’ve spent a lot more time on these rules than the few minutes you’ve had to come up with an idea in a COVID-19 safety talk.
You have to roll with the punches.
If you do have a question, be as gracious and sensitive as possible because it’s a very stressful time for all parties. Everyone is on high alert — especially the COVID-19 safety staff whose job is to keep you safe.
We Must Adapt
I’m surprised how we’ve all adapted to this new way of masked singing. We’re willing to do whatever it takes to keep opera alive because after a year of unemployment, isolation, and online recitals, we know what it means to not have these opportunities. We feel more grateful than ever and truly acknowledge that the arts are a privilege and necessary to living.
The best part is when you take off the mask and you’re finally singing with a full orchestra on a stage with a smiling maestro in the pit. It is glorious and there’s nothing else like it in the world. I can’t even explain…
Keep that end-goal in sight.
Every singer I know hates singing with a mask. But they hate COVID-19 even more.
Artists are used to making sacrifices and this is a tiny sacrifice for a very big reward.
On that note, THANK YOU opera companies for providing a safe environment to create and experience art!!! Welcome to opera in 2021!!!!
**Bonus: Masks I Recommend
Some companies have specific mask requirements but when I get to choose my own mask to sing in, I’m a sucker for the masks with an inner apparatus of about 3 inches (duckbill style) that keeps the mask from entering my mouth when taking a deep breath. Beware: your face might become red because oh boy is it steamy in there!!
Nothing is worse than sucking in a mask before a high note!!
When I’m given a specific mask by a company (usually an N95) I will lightly pinch the nose area of the mask with two fingers and pull the mask away from my face while I take a deep breath. Then I let go and sing normally but directly into the now form-fitting mask.
I also love masks that tie behind your head or have an extra clasp that holds the ties at the nape of your neck instead of your ears. Lots of hours of rehearsing in a mask is so hard on our poor ears. Something to think about …