Lockdown bytes: Young people make opera in iso

25 Jun 2020

Discover how the COVID-19 lockdown inspired Angus Grant to create a comic miniseries about a group of first-year university students coping with life in isolation, featuring members of Victorian Opera’s Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE).

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Victorian Opera’s Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE) rehearse with Angus Grant in 2019. Photo: Beata Bowes

Chloe James had just started her first year of a Bachelor of Music in Classical Voice when Australia went into coronavirus lockdown. ‘This year was supposed to be my very first taste of university life,’ she says. ‘I was able to get to know a few people in the first four weeks, but that was all cut short by isolation. I really miss meeting new people and the general routine of uni life (even the 7am commute to my Monday morning French class, weirdly enough).’

Isaac Burgess also misses seeing his university friends, as well as Tuesday night rehearsals with Victorian Opera’s Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE). ‘I haven't seen some of my friends since the day isolation started, so I am looking forward to seeing them again soon,’ he says. ‘I also miss rehearsing with VOYCE since it is a great ensemble to be a part of and I enjoy attending rehearsals to sing music together with the whole chorus.’

As well as being members of VOYCE, Chloe and Isaac are two of the young stars in Opera-Bytes, an online miniseries written by VOYCE Director Angus Grant during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

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VOYCE Director Angus Grant. Photo: Beata Bowes

After working with VOYCE members to film a recording of a Purcell choral work from their homes, Angus was inspired to create an original series for young people performed under the restrictions they are facing. ‘I was moved by seeing them making music in their own homes and continuing to live their lives,’ he explains. ‘I thought there was dramatic potential in the situation and even potential in the limitations of the technology. Why not create a piece for them which is about them?’

Opera-Bytes consists of four short episodes about a group of first-year university students dealing with the banalities of domestic life, wrestling with technology and forming new bonds in lockdown. Each episode is performed completely in song, blending operatic singing with Australian vernacular. ‘My schtick is to juxtapose banal domestic language with operatic expression for humour but then occasionally for pathos,’ says Angus. ‘I think the words spag bol, rumpus room, basmati, Polyfilla and spunk have all made their operatic debut.’

Rehearsing under COVID-19 restrictions and figuring out the technical aspects are just some of the challenges faced in creating the series. After Angus composes each episode, the performers are sent a computerised audio track to help them learn it. As there is only one opportunity to rehearse each episode face-to-face with a small group maintaining social distancing, Angus also provides online coaching. The performers are then sent a piano recording and each film their part individually using their smartphone. 

‘This is very tricky as they do not have the other parts to fit in with rhythmically or harmonically,’ explains Angus. ‘They also have to react dramatically at the appropriate moments. Then the magic starts when all these tracks are layered over each other, the images are cropped and edited, and artistic touches like the emojis and avatars are added.’

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Isaac Burgess and Chloe James in Episode 2 of Opera-Bytes

Both Chloe and Isaac have been able to continue studying singing through online university classes but being involved with VOYCE has provided additional opportunities to develop their talents. ‘Creating Opera-Bytes has been super, super fun,’ says Chloe. ‘Angus is such a genius writing something so clever, hilarious and so relevant. Of course, it’s a bit weird recording your part all by yourself without being able to hear everybody else, but it’s all part of this unique new adventure musicians around the world are experiencing. If it’s the only way we can continue to create music together in this strange time, then bring it on!’

Although Opera-Bytes has helped fill part of the void of lockdown, Chloe is looking forward to getting back into university life and seeing her new friends again: ‘I am yet to experience “flirty chats on the tram” or meet my “Hugo from Drama” (haha), but who knows…my university life has barely started!’

By Beata Bowes

Episodes 1-3 of Opera-Bytes are now available to watch on Virtual Victorian Opera.