Opera Over the Phone Offers Passion in a Pandemic

A love letter fluttered into my inbox last week. “I miss you terribly,” it began. “Each day without you is like a day without breathing.”

The writer went on to lament the pain of separation and spoke of arms aching for an embrace, of love songs written as company during long, lonely nights. Then, a rendezvous: At an appointed hour the following day, I was to receive a phone call and hear those songs sung for me alone.

The email was the opening shot in a playfully ardent and intimate new production of Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte,” a song cycle about the power of music to transcend time and space. Presented by On Site Opera under the title “To My Distant Love,” the concept delivers live and interactive one-on-one performances by phone through July 6. Texts by the playwright Monet Hurst-Mendoza add a touch of contemporary whimsy, and invited me to entertain the illusion that this collection of songs written in 1816 were in fact personally, passionately, pandemically intended for my ears only.

“My love! Is it really you?” The following evening, the voice of the soprano Jennifer Zetlan came through the line, sounding giddy. (Ticket buyers can choose between her rendition, with her husband, the pianist David Shimoni, and one by a baritone, Mario Diaz-Moresco, accompanied by Spencer Myer.) I felt a little self-conscious as she engaged me with questions. How long had it been, she asked, as if appealing to a memory from a shared past. Was I well? Where was I this very moment?

I had worried that the just-for-me performance would be awkward. The prospect triggered flashbacks of unwanted serenades by accordionists and fiddlers playing for tips on European restaurant terraces. And though I was game for playing my part in the flirtatious conversation, I was mindful of the stern warning On Site Opera had sent ticket holders to uphold “a respectful artistic experience for all.” The last thing I wanted was to try something cute that would come out creepy.

But although Beethoven’s songs (to texts by Alois Jeitteles) are about the separation of romantic lovers, they rang true on a different level that night. As I sank into my favorite armchair by the window, the phone pressed to my ear, I thought of how the coronavirus pandemic has separated musicians and music lovers: a relationship fueled by its own intensity, now causing its own kind of phantom pain. A few hours before my call, after all, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center had announced they would stay shut through the end of the year.

In Beethoven’s songs, clouds, breezes and music itself become conduits that traverse the space between two souls. Now, as Ms. Zetlan began to sing, the telephone was the thin line connecting performer and listener. The fact that it delivered the sound with a patina of grainy static only made the music more fragile and precious, the experience more moving.

Yes, Ms. Zetlan’s voluminous soprano often sounded as if squeezed into a tin corset and the piano might have been submerged in water. But what did come through clearly were the graceful melodic contours and squalls of impetuous feeling that give this 20-minute cycle operatic heft.

At a time when the internet is awash in high-fidelity livestreams, On Site Opera’s production offers a brittle, imperfect, yet utterly personalized musical experience. The final stanzas invite the recipient to sing the songs “without hollowness or embellishment, / knowing only longing.” That way, the poet promises:

the distance that has separated us

will give way to these songs

and my loving heart will reach

you, who I hold dear.

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