A Silent Season For Newtown Choral Society
The director of Newtown Choral Society has not seen most of the members of the local choir in recent months. The choir’s president has seen some of the group’s nearly 30 members, but not all at once.
The choral society is officially on hiatus.
By this time in its season — had 2020 not become The Year of COVID-19 — Newtown Choral Society would be midway through its rehearsals for its holiday concert. Mary Andreotta, the director, would have selected the music for that performance, arranged for an instrumentalist, and conducted rehearsals. Simultaneously, NCS President Laura Lerman would have designed the posters and fliers for the annual event, one of two performances the group does each year.
Instead, Andreotta, Lerman, and the other members of the non-auditioned community chorus are spending Wednesday evenings at home. There are no rehearsals taking place each week in a choir room at Newtown Middle School, and no chance for a holiday performance in early December.
This is all due to the pandemic. The danger of having too many people in close quarters for a period of time, especially those of a certain age, is too much of a risk, both women agree.
“I think the youngest member of the choir currently is in their low 20s,” Andreotta said this week. “There are also a few people in their 80s,” she added.
While Andreotta is correct in calling the 60-year age range “pretty amazing,” she is also aware that the older members are more at risk should they contract the potentially deadly virus.
For that reason, she said Monday afternoon, by May or June it had become apparent that a 2020 holiday concert “wasn’t going to happen.”
Lerman said she and her husband calculated that for the choir to gather again as a group, “we would need about 1,300 square feet just to be in the same room.
“When you start singing,” she added, “you’d need to be tens of feet away.”
Lerman also serves as chair of Newtown Cultural Arts Commission. That group made the decision in early June to cancel the 2020 Newtown Arts Festival.
The festival, which routinely attracts upwards of 5,000 attendees, would have taken place September 26-27.
“One of the problems is, if we’re wrong, we’re so very, very wrong,” Lerman said Monday morning. “I’d rather say we were wrong and we should have had it, than have it and be wrong after the fact.”
Thanks to the novel coronavirus — which continues to claim lives, does not yet have a cure, and only seems to slow when social distancing and other precautions are followed — Andreotta does not think it would be safe to consider rehearsals before next autumn.
Andreotta is not alone in that thinking. The Metropolitan Opera in New York announced a few weeks ago that it will remain closed until at least September 2021. Rehearsals will resume, the group stated, when “a vaccine is widely in use, herd immunity is established, and the wearing of masks and social distancing is no longer a medical requirement.”
Epidemiologists have warned that singing in groups can easily spread the virus. In one case, one singer among 60 members of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington state who attended a choir practice in March reportedly infected more than 50 other people, leading to two deaths.
Andreotta and Lerman are not willing to take that chance with Newtown Choral Society.
In speaking with The Newtown Bee this week, both mentioned face masks that have been developed for singers.
Ordinary face masks can restrict singers from opening their mouths wide, and plastic shields can create an echo. Traditional “duckbill” masks can also make it difficult for singers to read their music, since the extended bills often pose a focusing challenge.
In Japan, opera singers have begun using a transparent facial covering with a cloth bag affixed to it. The design enables performers to open their mouths wide, and also prevents droplets from spreading in the air when singing — the latter point being one of the key reasons most singing groups have gone silent in recent months.
The Singer’s Mask, developed on Broadway, claims to offer an adjustable nose bridge and adjustable ear loops among its selling points. Its structure reportedly keeps the mask’s fabric off a wearer’s mouth, another key feature for a performer.
Neither local choral society leader put much weight toward that option, however.
For one thing, Lerman pointed out, “you really can’t sing with a mask.”
While some reviews have praised the specially designed masks for allowing performers to return to the stage, others point out the masks still create either a muffled sound or limit the range of vocals. Either way, NCS will not be looking at using masks.
“It keeps going back to what I say,” said Lerman. “If you’re wrong, you’re very wrong with this.
“We absolutely cannot be on the vanguard. We have to trust the science,” she said.
“It’s too risky,” the choral director stated. “It’s too risky now for everybody, but just the population of this group, it’s in the high risk age range. It’s not worth risking people’s health over it.”