Michael Richardson and Miracle Ogbor are two students performing for the camera in this fall’s opera. 

The pandemic has threatened curtains for the performing arts industry, but JMU’s Opera Theater is ready with a strategy: lights, camera and action. 

Ordinarily, the Opera Theater’s performances would take place onstage, accompanied by an orchestra, in the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts. This semester, singers are forging ahead with a fall production that’ll instead take place on screen. Led by Opera Theater director Don Rierson, opera assistant Maggie Hallauer and a team of talented JMU alumni, an assembled cast of singers is working to bring the Mozart opera, “The Magic Flute,” to life in the form of an indie film. 

To put together the production, singers are recording their parts of the opera individually with the aid of piano backing tracks. Lexington Bowler, the sound engineer and a JMU alumnus who now works for Harrisonburg recording studio Blue Sprocket Sound, compiles their recordings into a single track. 

Leah Finn, one of the cast members and a senior music major, said recording has been a learning curve.

“We’ve been trained to project our voices into a big hall and be able to sing over an orchestra,” Finn said.  

She said singing by herself instead of with her castmates has also proved challenging, especially when it comes to recording her role in a three-part harmony. But she said she’s optimistic that these difficulties will prepare her for future performances and enable her to know the role better.

“I’m just glad to have the opportunity to do anything this semester,” Finn said. 

The cast has just started the process of filming, shooting on campus in sites such as the arboretum, the planetarium and the Forbes Center. The video team features alumni from JMU’s School of Media Arts and Design as well as a professional cinematographer. Rierson and Hallauer both highlighted the filming process as a favorite part of the production so far. 

“It was just interesting to watch the whole thing come together,” Rierson said. 

Hallauer, who generally assists with and manages the schedule for the production, said she’s enjoyed the filming process.

“I think that was my favorite part, seeing the different departments working together to create a super cool artistic piece … working with other people and other artists that I normally don’t get the chance to work with,” Hallauer said. 

This part of the process has also posed challenges, Rierson said. Performers wear masks right up until the moment of filming, when, to keep each other safe, they maintain a distance of several feet from each other. The video crew is experimenting with different angles to create the impression that the singers are standing much closer to each other in the final product. 

Hallauer said safety is one of the team’s primary concerns; everyone involved has taken strict precautions to ensure their health throughout their work on the production. She said it’s been stressful but rewarding.

“I think it’s going to go really well,” Hallauer said. “Everyone’s been doing all of their work outside of rehearsals, and then in rehearsals, everyone is putting their best foot forward, working really hard, and they all want it to be really good.” 

The team has demonstrated admirable persistence and adaptability during the pandemic, a time when the industry is in limbo, as Finn described it, with Broadway closed and opera houses canceling their seasons. At JMU, music studies remain digital — Finn said choir takes place on Zoom — so she said she’s grateful for this opportunity to participate in the performing arts. 

“We’re creative people,” Rierson said. “We want to create these moments for the public.”

Contact Maria Copeland at copelamt@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts, and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Culture.