What I Learned from Making an Opera on Zoom

Like many artists, the pandemic first affected me personally through a wave of cancellations. Initially, it was all of the work I had for March, then through the end of May, and finally all the way through the summer. These cancelled productions represent years of work and a huge chunk of income. Along with the cancellations came the first dire predictions of a post-COVID world—that the arts would be the last industry to open up. Soon my colleagues began experimenting with moving their performances to Facebook Live, but to me it didn’t feel like quite the right solution to maintaining live performance in the face of physical distancing. It reminded me of one of the discussions we have in the history of electroacoustic music class I teach at SUNY Purchase: how people first adopt new technologies. At first, we try to map older practices onto new technologies, even when they aren’t a good fit.

This is what I saw with the livestreams: our traditional modes of live performance are not a good fit for the new world we find ourselves in. Rather, as we continue to create live performance in the months ahead, we must seek new modes of performance that actively engage with the technologies we’re using.

To explore what this new medium might afford, I once again joined librettist Rob Handel and director Kristin Marting (with whom I’d created the techno-noir opera Looking at You, a piece that featured live data mining of the audience) to compose a musical experiment. The result was called “all decisions will be made by consensus,” a short opera performed live over Zoom. The performance was also livestreamed to HERE Arts Center’s Facebook page as part of their #stillHERE series.

We chose to work with Zoom as it had the best onboard audio settings for a ready-made teleconferencing platform with video, it allowed multiple performers to be in the same performance space, and it also allowed us the most interaction with our live audience. One of the challenges of livestreaming is that the performers don’t have the same sort of connection with the audience, but on Zoom the cast can see who is present. Additionally, its webinar platform had built-in permission levels that are different for actors and audiences (which comes in handy for security reasons, as I’ll discuss in a bit). There are open-source platforms like Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) that offer more flexibility with regard to the visual output, but these platforms require more setup on the performers’ end than we wanted to ask them to do. Additionally, we did not really have a budget for sound, set, and costumes, so we were working with what people had in their homes.

As we continue to create live performance in the months ahead, we must seek new modes of performance that actively engage with the technologies we’re using.

Working with Zoom

Once the decision was made to use Zoom, our first step in creating the piece was to do a series of audio tests. Zoom has the ability to share just audio directly from a computer, as it would during a screen share, but without the visual of the screen. I had done some experimenting on my own and found that I could play audio directly from Ableton Live (the digital audio workstation (DAW) I used to create the piece) through the Zoom interface. The benefit of doing it this way is that there’s a clearer audio signal.

In the audio tests, I wanted to see what the variability in latency was between listeners. I was controlling the backing tracks from my apartment in the Bronx while Paul An, one of our cast members, called in from New Jersey, Kristin was listening in from Manhattan, and Rob was listening in from Pittsburgh. For the first audio test, I asked Paul to count along to a four-beat pulse. We quickly discovered that everyone was experiencing the relationship between Paul’s voice and the beat differently—I heard Paul’s “one” lining up with the fourth beat while Kristin heard it on the first beat. What this meant was that each audience member would have a different experience of the audio. And it makes sense, if you think about it. We each have different internet connections with different speeds, and the distance from the sources of the audio (Paul in New Jersey and me in the Bronx) to the listener will vary.

My task, as the composer, was therefore to create music that would work with this variability. This also meant building the variability into the libretto. Rob wrote a script that was structured around the idea that there would be sections where multiple voices would be overlapping and sections where a solo voice would emerge. There is also a lot of repetition built into the text, with the understanding that it will probably be incomprehensible during the overlapping sections, but will have moments where it emerges into clarity.

I structured the piece as an aleatoric score. The word “aleatoric” takes its root from the Latin word meaning dice and just means that it has some element of chance built in. The chance elements in the score included the rhythms of the singers’ vocal lines and how those vocal lines lined up with the underlying accompaniment.

The six singers were instructed to sing the lines in the box, in their own rhythm. When they heard the next cue, they moved on to the next section of the score. I triggered the cues and changes in the backing track in real time, based on how many repetitions of the lines I heard.

We rehearsed the piece over Zoom. Much of the early rehearsal process was dedicated to adjusting the sound. Before it began, I asked the singers to do some specific things to increase the quality of the audio:

  1. Pick the right room. Ideally, they would be in a mid-sized room without too many parallel surfaces. A small room would create a good deal of slapback from the walls. A large room could have a lot of echoey reverb.
  2. Prioritize soft goods. Soft goods, like carpet or drapes, help absorb some of the room sound, especially if the space is larger.
  3. Find the best microphone to use. The onboard microphone on a laptop is typically better than the microphone in Apple earphones or the microphone on a phone or tablet. With each singer, we went through a process of checking their voices with a number of the microphones they had to determine which would work best for our purposes.
  4. Adjust the compression settings. Zoom and other teleconferencing programs like it are designed to help pick up the sound of the speaker and to eliminate background noise. But this type of compression and noise suppression is not helpful for musical sounds. In the advanced audio settings in Zoom, we did three things: 1) Turned on the button labeled “show in-meeting option to enable original sound.” Once in the Zoom, we had to click “turn on original sound” each time. 2) Disabled suppress persistent background noise. And 3) Disabled suppress intermittent background noise.

Zoom has the particular quirk that whoever is playing audio from their computer won’t hear it the way a listener would. To address this issue, we added Drew Fleming to our team as a sound consultant. At the start of each rehearsal and before every performance, we did a great deal of sound checking with Drew to make sure we could hear everyone equally well, and that no one was overloading their microphone. Again, we were working with the gear that people had in their homes, so a lot of this process involved changing the mic input levels on the computers themselves (on a Mac, you can find this setting in System Preferences /Sound /Input Level).

Once we had the audio settled, we began to rehearse the staging for the piece. For Kristin, this meant figuring out how to create compelling stage pictures with little at her disposal beyond the Zoom grid itself. We began with a series of video tests, similar to what we did with the audio. Step one was to make sure we had enabled two important settings in the Participants panel: “follow host view” and “hide non-video participants.” These settings fix the audience view to the host’s setting of gallery or speaker view and hide anyone who has their video turned off rather than displaying their name.

The blocking for our opera consisted of entrances and exits triggered by turning the cameras on and off, and of fixing direction of gaze so that it looked like we were looking at each other. However, we quickly discovered a couple of specific challenges:

  1. Panelist view does not look like audience/attendee view. Kristin solved this problem by using a separate computer to log in as an audience member so she could monitor the stage picture.
  2. There is no way for the host to control the order of people’s boxes in the grid. The solution that Kristin found is that Zoom creates the order based on when people turn on their cameras. By specifying when each person turned their camera on, we could be sure that everyone was “looking” where they were supposed to be. This was often counterintuitive for the performers, as they too could not see what the audience was seeing.
  3. The picture looked different if you were watching on a tablet, phone, or Chromebook than if you were watching on a laptop. We addressed this by putting viewing instructions on our event page and by making a preshow announcement with viewing instructions before each performance.

The final piece of blocking included the strategic use of the virtual background feature in Zoom. Kristin also acted as the set and costume designer by creating backdrops and outfits to suit each person’s character, again working with what they had at home.

In addition to the actual staging of the piece on Zoom, we had to address how we were going to deal with our audience. We were trying to balance the conflicting desire for the audience to have a socially engaged experience against the need for security. With the increase in public-facing Zoom meetings, there has also been an increase in “Zoombombing,” where negative actors enter the meeting and try to sabotage it by posting harmful content. We wanted to make the piece as accessible to the public as possible by posting the Zoom link on social media, which meant having a higher level of security precautions than we might have needed if we had asked for preregistration or provided a password. These security precautions included disabling the ability for anyone but the host to share their screen, disabling the whiteboard function, disabling the chat function for audience members and only allowing answered questions to appear publicly in the Q&A function. And as it turns out, these precautions were prescient, as we did have a number of trolls attempt to hijack the performance by posting negative comments in the Q&A. Fortunately, none of our audience could see what they posted, and the trolls soon grew bored and left.

The final piece of the puzzle for us was how to allow the audience to applaud at the end of the piece. We did this by individually turning their microphones back on at the end and holding up “applause” signs. It was not the most efficient way of doing things, but it served its purpose.

We were trying to balance the conflicting desire for the audience to have a socially engaged experience against the need for security.

Thoughts for the Next Iteration

While our experiment was very successful, there are some things I would change for our next foray into online performance. One of the most important things we artists can do to prepare for continued distance models of performance is to set ourselves up with some good basic equipment for audio and lighting. There are decent USB microphones and ring lights that don’t require a lot of setup in order to work. But I also think that theatres interested in moving to commissioning online performances could think about reallocating a portion of their production budgets to providing better gear for their casts. For a portion of what a live theatrical production would cost, a theatre could send lights, backdrop, audio equipment (including a good microphone and an audio interface), and costumes to their actors.

I would also experiment more with the broadcast platform. We decided to have the main performance take place on Zoom and to stream directly from Zoom to Facebook. This meant our Facebook livestream had the Zoom logo branded on it and that we didn’t actually have total control over what it looked like (it was slightly different than what was seen in the Zoom itself). As I mentioned before, OBS is a platform that allows more control over the images you send out and also more options for what that image may look like. In a future iteration, I would spend more time experimenting with OBS, Streamyard, or another of the various streaming platforms available to increase the visual options for the piece. However, the trade-off of both of these platforms is that the audience is not in the performance room with you—they can only experience the performance on a livestream platform like Facebook, YouTube, or Twitch. This, of course, opens up another huge conversation about what the future of the audience experience will be like: Do we want them to chat with each other, even though that may distract from watching the performance? Is it necessary to see their faces or is seeing their names enough?

The most important thing that we artists can do is to advocate for building these online platforms ourselves. Because Zoom was not created for live performance, some features we would have liked to have—such as the ability to mass unmute attendees so they could clap—simply weren’t there. Further, the webinar function of Zoom that we used was only available to us due to a generous business account that HERE Arts Center received from the Howard Gilman Foundation. This type of account may be outside what a non-profit theatre can normally afford. Finally, a platform created by theatre artists for theatre artists would be more likely to have an equitable role in the theatre ecosystem than a publicly shared company whose main motive is to generate revenue for its shareholders. But that’s a topic for another essay.

As we think about how to continue creating theatre in this historical moment, I urge us all not to think of the online environment simply as a poor substitute for live theatre, but to imagine how we might develop a new performance practice better suited to our current circumstance. And perhaps we will be able to continue creating the beautiful, the strange, and the profound in the process.

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Very helpful! Wondering if you know about the Bard/Fisher Center production of MAD FOREST, directed by Ashley Tata. Used Zoom quite brilliantly.