At 12:30 p.m. sharp, Chorusmaster Donald Palumbo walked back into the Metropolitan Opera’s rehearsal room after a scheduled break and delivered a grim message to the chorus.
“You have to go home,” he said.
It was Thursday, March 12, 2020, recalled Derrick Goff, who was accompanying the chorus on piano for its upcoming production of “Simon Boccanegra,” an opera suddenly hanging in the balance — along with all of their careers.
“It was crazy. I went to the gym afterwards and I was working out and I was just lying on the floor, and one of the floor trainers was like, ‘Are you okay?’” Goff said with a light laugh. “It’s just an unbelievable thing to be sent home from work with no…”
He paused, sighing. “It was like, ‘Is this going to be two weeks, three weeks, a year, a year and a half?’ It’s just really unprecedented. It’s something you would have never imagined.”
After canceling its entire 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Metropolitan Opera announced it will remain dark until September — but that hasn’t stopped the music entirely.
Starting Saturday evening, East Hampton’s Guild Hall will revive its beloved, long-running opera series through “Met Under Moonlight,” a slate of past Met performances — starting with “Carmen — Live in HD Encore” — screened in a drive-in movie theater format, explained Josh Gladstone, artistic director of the John Drew Theater.
With an assist from the HamptonsFilm (host of the annual Hamptons International Film Festival), and its arsenal of drive-in movie equipment, the films will play on a 30-foot-tall inflatable screen positioned in Lot 2 at Main Beach in East Hampton Village, which can accommodate 50 vehicles for each three-hour performance.
“Not everybody’s gonna rush to see ‘Carmen,’ but there are those who get it and who will love it and who will love the music of it and will love the novelty of it,” Gladstone said. “What a nice thing to do, what a date night.
“On a Saturday night, you can pack a little basket with brie and a baguette, bring a little wine, nobody’s gonna be flashing a light into your car to see what you’re doing in there, it’s very romantic,” he continued. “That’s the pitch: a romantic date night at Main Beach with a beautiful opera — heartbreaking, gorgeous, sensual. I think it’s gonna be great.”
Preceding each screening — which will continue with “Madama Butterfly — Live in HD Encore” on Saturday, April 17, and “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess – Live in HD Encore” on May 1 — Goff and his partner, Rachelle Jonck, a vocal coach, pianist and conductor, will present three “Behind the Screen” virtual programs on Thursdays, April 1, 15, and 29, featuring emerging singers reflecting on their personal experiences from the Met stage.
“The audience gets to meet people who are in that pyramid of rising to the top, which is really where our hearts lie — helping young singers,” explained Jonck, who co-founded Bel Canto Boot Camp with Goff. “The 20 biggest opera stars in the world don’t need any more publicity. It’s this level singer that’s really breaking out into the opera world now, who really needs exposure and whom, I think, audiences can really attach to and feel like, ‘I was part of their growth,’ which is more exciting, in a way.”
The interactive sessions, called “The Singer’s Process,” begin with Janai Brugger, who will discuss her experience singing the role of Micaëla in “Carmen” at the Met — though not in Guild Hall’s screening — with minimal stage rehearsal, said Jonck, who had helped the soprano prepare.
“I remember very specifically a session that we had the day, or two days before, her big performance as Micaëla in a tiny little room where we went through the entire role with her, imagining where she was on the stage,” she said. “And she was like, ‘I’m really nervous because during this introduction, I have to come down the mountain and I’ve never actually walked down that mountain.’
“How crazy is that? That you’re in a little rehearsal room in New York with your coach, trying to pace out this whole thing that’s going to happen in front of 4,000 people and you don’t get to rehearse it,” she continued. “It’s really crazy.”
Megan Esther Grey and Chanáe Curtis, who do appear in the Met encore screenings as Kate Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly” and Annie in “Porgy and Bess,” respectively, will round out the “Behind the Screen” series — a finale that Anthony Madonna, the Patti Kenner Senior Associate for Learning & Public Engagement at Guild Hall, is excited to see.
“She [Curtis] made her Met debut in ‘Porgy and Bess,’ which is the most riveting new production at the Met in some years, because it’s just a production that’s not done,” he said, noting that it recently won the 2021 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. “From that perspective, it’s something really different for the opera audience.”
By lowering the fourth wall, Jonck said she hopes the series will help bridge the gap between audience and artists, many of whom found themselves jobless and devastated when COVID-19 landed in New York and beyond — herself included.
“In my entire world, I could never have imagined that, all of a sudden, I can’t work. That was an immense shock for me,” the opera veteran said. “The shock of saying that singing is the most dangerous thing you can do was extremely emotional for me, that the act of sound traveling was the same thing as, like, the virus traveling. That really screwed with my mind.”
Her voice hitched over her words. “How is it that something that is as amazing as singing can be so dangerous?” she said. “I still get emotional when I think about it.”
Four days after the Metropolitan Opera closed its doors, the team launched an online practice diary to provide community and inspiration for the singers they regularly coached in New York. That would evolve, first, into the Vaccai Project and, after attracting a community that grew to include over 1,400 singers, voice teachers, coaches, conductors and opera lovers around the globe, they founded the Bel Canto Boot Camp.
And they have no plans to close up virtual shop, even as the world wades back into live performance.
“I’m just old enough to say, ‘What good can I do in the world and what good can I do in my community?’ Jonck said. “I can do way more than just sell my time on an hourly basis to whoever can make it to New York and has the money to spend on me. It’s terrible that something like COVID had to happen to teach me that lesson — I wish I could have learned it in some other way — but such is life, and I feel like I learned that lesson and I am committed to build it into something that will be a positive thing in singers lives, a community for singers to be together.”
While he is slated to return to the MET music staff as an assistant chorusmaster next season, Goff said he has learned not to take any best laid plans for granted. He doesn’t know what the future holds for him — and over the last year, he said he has learned to roll with the uncertainty.
“I think everyone has discovered something,” Goff said, “and I think part of the process for us, and for the singers, is discovering just how important the gift of time is.”
Guild Hall will kick off its “Met Under Moonlight” series, featuring screenings of past Metropolitan Opera productions, with “Carmen – Live in HD Encore” on Saturday, April 3, at 7:30 p.m. at a pop-up drive-in movie theater at Main Beach in East Hampton. The films continue with “Madama Butterfly – Live in HD Encore” on Saturday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m., followed by “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess – Live in HD Encore” on Saturday, May 1, at 8 p.m. To purchase tickets, which are $80 per car, visit guildhall.org.
In addition, Bel Canto Boot Camp will present “The Singer’s Process,” a series of virtual, interactive, “behind the screen” sessions starting with Janai Brugger on Thursday, April 1, at 6 p.m., followed by Megan Esther Grey on Thursday, April 15, at 6 p.m., and Chanáe Curtis on Thursday, April 29, at 6 p.m. Suggested registration ranges from $5 to $35. For more information, visit guildhall.org.