For years, music organizations have created concerts based on tradition. And even when accounting for the inclusion of new works and efforts to court new audiences and make use of new technology, the traditions of classical music have stayed relatively the same. What would happen if we were forced to re-evaluate, from the ground up, how we make music, how we engage with audiences and what our values are as musicians?
During the past few months, we have had to do just that. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, musicians were forced to stay home, their gigs canceled and calendars cleared – and music-making as we knew it came to an abrupt stop. Even with livestreamed concerts and videos of prerecorded events, engaging with music has become more complicated. However, some organizations have come forward to embrace the opportunity to make music in a virtual setting with artists all over the world.
There are so many doors that have been locked, and then suddenly we have to find other solutions – that’s really inspiring
One such organization is Quarantine Opera, which CEO and artistic director Marika Schultze founded just one week after lockdowns began. With the idea of connecting musicians across borders and keeping the artistic spirit alive, Quarantine Opera splices together the performances of instrumentalists and vocalists performing well-known selections from operas. The final edited videos are brimming with personality, showcasing musicians performing from their homes while weathering lockdowns. Since launching, the project has gained thousands of followers on Facebook and YouTube, as well as the participation of hundreds of musicians spanning 40 different countries and six continents.
As a startup company, Quarantine Opera has so far received funding from the Arts Council Norway Cultural Fund. Schultze and chief operations officer Théo Nogueira are based in Oslo, but the rest of the staff are as far-flung as their musicians, spanning the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany, proving that creativity can flourish even in the era of social distancing.
Wanting to learn more about the organization, I spent an afternoon chatting with Schultze.
Steven Linville: How did you come up with the concept of Quarantine Opera so quickly?
Marika Schultze: First of all, when things dramatically changed, I become very, very excited. There are so many doors that have been locked, and then suddenly we have to find other solutions – that’s really inspiring for me. How can we engage unemployed musicians? How can we technically make these videos happen? The path to creating opportunities for musicians and structure needed to create Quarantine Opera were very clear.
SL: You’ve got a core group of members who do various things, from maintaining the website to conducting. Did you all already know each other? How did you assemble the team?
MS: Not everyone knew each other. It started when I asked the conductor, Fergus McAlpine, if he wanted to join me. We had worked before together, and normally it’s he who has crazy ideas and brings me onboard. This time it was I who had this crazy idea, and I knew instantly which conductor I could ask.
I posted on Facebook, on different communities, and found the first editor, Birgitte Aarebrodt. We added a producer, Claudia Lucacel, from my network, and then a score mixer, Théo Nogueira, from Claudia’s network. I knew Johan Christian Torsvik Bruun, who served as our grant writer. Since the startup [began] we have swapped some team members and added some more. We have recruited from our direct network, from the musicians that have been part of our productions and in job advertising.
SL: Can you tell me what your producer does versus what your score mixer does?
MS: The producer is the spider in the web, having an overview of all the work and making sure that all tasks are executed. The producer directs who does what and at what time. In Quarantine Opera, the producer is the head of the production.
The score mixer is the one who edits and mixes the audio from our submissions prior to sending it to be added to the edited video.
SL: The Quarantine Opera videos are unique in a couple of ways. You are including both vocalists and instrumentalists, and you don’t take it too seriously. People can see musicians at home in their pajamas singing opera. Why did you choose to go that route?
MS: It kind of sprung from my own fear of recording myself because I put a huge pressure on myself to be perfect, but now the thing I wanted to show was the actual people, not the polished surface of a musician. I wanted to show the musicians in their quarantine situation. That’s what interests me. That’s what I think also interests our audience – there’s something very personal [about it]. You get the musicians behind the music. We want to be inclusive. We want people to feel that they can actually contribute to this. Thanks to our amazing score mixer, even though the sound has very different qualities from the different submissions, he has been able to bring out the best from every submission and make it sound like a really good orchestra.
SL: Thinking about the future, when we hopefully are back to staging live performances, what do you think you will do with Quarantine Opera? Do you hope to continue this? Do you think it will take on a different format?
MS: Well, we would love to do some live performances in addition to online performances. The thing is that we also consider ourselves to be an environmentally friendly solution to opera performances in the future. We don’t know how long [the pandemic] will last, even though borders are opening up and a lot of people are going back to work. It will still take much more time before a normal opera performance can take place. But we are still in this other huge crisis – the climate crisis. We might find that flying all across the world will be less possible. Therefore, we also want to retain a global connection through music.
We actually see that there is a future in the format that we have. It has not only to do with the quarantine, but also creating a community around opera – a social platform.
We actually see that there is a future in the format that we have. It has not only to do with the quarantine, but also creating a community around opera – a social platform. We have a Facebook group, called QOmmunity, where we invite all of the musicians that have been a part of our productions. We have regular activities for the members, and it’s a social group where the members can [chat with each other]. Our vision is to expand further to include whomever wants to join, and we hope this network will last even after the pandemic is over.
We want to inspire people to connect through opera, making opera cool again. The opera audiences are getting older and older, and it’s an issue to get young people into opera. It’s about sparking some interest and then hopefully we can be some kind of opera ambassadors so that young people will attend [live performances].
SL: What do you think has been the most uplifting or inspirational aspect of this project?
MS: All of the submissions. We try to be as inclusive as possible and have thus far only had to exclude a few submissions due to unusable recording quality. We are thrilled by all of the people that put their heart and soul into making these recordings and sending them to us.
When people give us feedback that this is so uplifting and this makes them interested in opera, it’s been overwhelming. People feel that there is hope. There is something we can do – we can create things. And that music is really what can bring us together. You can connect through this. It’s the universal language.
SL: Are there skills that you think we should be teaching future musicians?
MS: I think entrepreneurship should not be underestimated. Without that mindset, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. From what I’ve experienced, the general focus for an opera student is on fitting into the established opera market, a market which is heavily traditional. I fully understand why this is important in a highly competitive field. However, I think it can be more balanced [by] encouraging and supporting creativity and new thinking, which is necessary for developing the art of opera further. Along with this comes the need for tools to turn ideas into a reality.
Now more than ever, we can see how fragile it is to not have this entrepreneurial mindset in your toolset, ready to spring out when times suddenly change as massively and abruptly as they have this year. Many other types of artists use their creativity to shape new approaches; why shouldn’t opera singers do so, too? Besides the extraordinary situation we are in right now, we also have the issue of the regular opera audience getting older and smaller. We must reach out to the younger generations much more, and always review the relevance of what we are doing in a contemporary context instead of relying on status quo and thinking that the art form with its traditions will survive no matter what.
SL: Thank you for your time today. I’m looking forward to seeing your future collaborations.
Thank you for reaching out to learn more about our project. Hopefully you’ll be able to submit a video for us in the future!
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
A special thank you to Justin Collado for transcribing the interview.