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Life's not a Cabaret ... right now

Singing in a choir is immensely satisfying, creative and a rich source of community and friendship, but singing also emits a stream of potentially lethal, virus-rich droplets, which has forced the valley’s many choirs to get creative.

Some are still planning live concerts, but with rigid rules for spacing and masks, while others caution that’s just too risky until the pandemic is reined in, likely in a couple years at the soonest.

Members of the Siskiyou Singers are “really suffering” without in-group rehearsals and social contact, but, says Director Mark Repert, his board chose a no-risk policy.

“We really want to be safe and make sure we take no chances at all,” says Repert. “Some people think singing outside is safe, but our board said it’s not, and we’re not trying anything in person until maybe next spring.”

Finding Zoom inadequate for syncing audio and video, the tech-savvy Repert is exploiting new apps and programs to produce virtual concerts, with Soundtrap Digital Audio Workstation to mix audio recorded individually at home, then mixing lip-synced video with Movavi software.

In one charmer, a dozen singers do a send-up of “Life is a Cabaret,” but they croon, “Life’s not a cabaret right now. It’s time to stay away (distancing and washing hands) ... and if everyone’s participating, we will be celebrating” when it’s over. It has had 1,200 views and can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wdpayu55rf8.

Repert and his singers were shocked by the two deaths and 52 cases from an unrelated March 10 choir practice in Mount Vernon, Washington — and by the stay-home order from Gov. Kate Brown a few days later, he notes.

“It made us very nervous. Their last night and our last night together were the same night. We shut down when we heard that story. We’re being very careful, because even one death is way, way, way too many. You’re considered at-risk if over age 65, and the majority of us are over 65.”

Choirs may sound heavenly, but they are considered “super-spreaders” of the highest order. Studies show “the explosion of air with force that is part of singing is the worst possible situation for COVID,” Repert says. “That report made choir directors crazy upset all across the nation. We’re trying to find our way now, and I’m praying and experimenting to keep to the rehearsal schedule every Tuesday, virtually, as much as possible.”

The mid-March ban on large groups was “devastating” and spelled an end to rehearsals, says Director Michael Morris of Rogue Valley Chorale, so they mounted songs on Facebook. “But that wasn’t right for the Chorale. It took a lot of time on the back end and was extremely expensive for one three-minute song.”

Although masks seemed “an abhorrent idea,” Morris says the sound was good enough, and they sang in small group, recorded for Southern Oregon PBS with extreme distancing, 12 feet instead of six — getting permission of health authorities and staging it outside at historic Hanley Farm, using plentiful anti-viral spray and being there as short a time as possible.

“Everyone was very excited about singing in a large group, where everyone enjoys participating, and we’re able to share it with others,” he says.

“Eventually we’ll get back to what we’re familiar with,” says Morris, “but I feel it will be a long period. Anything past two years for a performing arts organization is devastating. As time goes on, it gets harder and harder, not just financially, but keeping up interest in participating in the manner they’re comfortable with and not feeling the restriction of PPE.”

Jodi French of Southern Oregon Repertory Singers says she and her husband, director Paul French, have been following the latest research on aerosols, and the findings were “worse than we were expecting” so that “venues will be urged to have their ventilation tested in very specific and complex ways (with) air exchange relative to space, height, time and number of people.”

The pandemic is “traumatic for us, because all we like to do is sing together and for audiences,” says Richard Seidman, executive director of Southern Oregon Repertory Singers. He says the company is lean, with reserves, low expenses and no office, so they’re “in a fortunate position to weather the storm for a long time.”

The Repertory Singers reaches its fans on its website and YouTube channel and plans four virtual concerts in the coming year, with clips of past performances, interviews with composers, and solos or duets by members posted every other week.

The word on live performances, Seidman notes, is studies are showing a 20-foot distancing is required for singers, “so we see no way for performances indoors or even outdoors, and we’re likely not performing until there’s a vaccine.”

Singers are more than a choir, says Repert. “Singing is a big part of life, and it’s a family. And that family will be back someday.”

Annette Lewis, a voice in the Siskiyou Singers, Rogue Valley Chorale, Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Choir and for many years in the Rogue Valley Peace Choir, bemoans the blow to her singing community.

“A definite friendship develops among people,” says Lewis. “The words are meaningful to everyone, in a psychological and spiritual connection. Till we can look forward to getting back together again, there continues to be this hole in the heart.”

Lewis ticks off a list of choirs facing tough choices this year: Siskiyou Singers, Rogue Valley Chorale, Rogue Valley Peace Choir, Southern Oregon Repertory Singers, Rogue World Ensemble, Southern Oregon Sound Chorus, Rogue Valley Harmonizers, Jefferson State Choral Coalition.

“In addition to these, most schools — elementary through university — and most churches have one or more choirs. These organizations involve several hundred participants in the valley. What are these groups doing now? What is their plan for the future? We want and need their sound.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Rogue Valley Chorale during a filming session at Hanley Farm for a planned December concert broadcast. Courtesy photo / Michael D. Davis
Members of the Siskiyou Singers perform "Life's NOT a Cabaret" on Zoom. Courtesy photo