Corona, Cholera, and Choir Practice Part I
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Opera has endured for over 400 years, and pandemics are nothing new to practitioners.L'elisir d'Amore was composed in the midst of a global wave of cholera, and as pointed in an article by William Everett and Lynda Payne, the libretto contains coded references to that raging pandemic that audiences of the time would have recognised.The heightened military presence in a small village would have been commonplace when soldiers were needed to enforce quarantines.Even the name of the quack doctor who peddles ordinary wine as a love potion is a reference to a popular myth that a plant called solanum dulcamara and red wine, along with a host of other unscientific remedies would ward off cholera.Donizetti lost his wife to cholera in 1835; and he would end up stuck in Genoa under forced quarantine, which delayed a trip to Venice to oversee this premiere of Pia de' Tolomei.
But there was never (as far as La Strega remembers) any suspicion that opera was a vehicle for the transmission of cholera.
COVID-19 is a different animal. In the very beginning of the COVID crisis, lockdowns ruled out mass gatherings, regardless of type. But not long after that, opera, musical theatre, and choirs began to view our particular situation with alarm. As the pandemic spread, the news for singing seemed increasingly bad. In the U.S. and Europe a number of large - and in some cases deadly - outbreaks of COVID-19 were specifically linked to choir practices and musical theatre groups.
The emerging consensus in the media seemed to be that the very act of singing produced more aerosols than speaking, and when combined with a lack of social distancing, that made singing in groups even more perilous. Choir or opera rehearsals were cast as "super-spreader" events, notwithstanding the lack of real proof that the same groups merely talking and socialising in close quarters in an identical room would have experienced a lower rate of infection.
Naturally, it is taking science time to formulate and test hypotheses in order to catch up to SARS-Cov 2 with respect to singing. Most of the research is rightly focused on vaccination and treatement of the disease. However, the Journal of Voice has just released an extremely helpful literature review by a multidisciplinary group of authors that include doctors, scientists, musicians, and voice pedagogues. The recommendations they make are significant in that they are based on what is currently known with certainty about singing with respect to COVID-19.
The authors put their finger on the problem with much of the information that is out there:
"There is a paucity of data about both how SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted by singing and how to bring communities of singers back together safely. The data available about disease spread through vocalisation, most of which preceded the current pandemic, address primarily transmission of the disease through droplets and aerosols and are specific neither to this virus nor to singing."
Since then, results of a study undertaken at Bristol University were also announced today and contain both hope and of caution. This study concludes that volume and ventilation seem to matter more in terms of the amount of aerosol produced and how much remains in the air to potentially cause infection.
However, the conclusions are still preliminary, and don't manage to get round the Naunheim group's observation that lab conditions don't replicate a singing environment very well. Also, the study measured what happens with individuals producing sound in a clean environment, not a group singing in a rehearsal room. A professor in respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester reacted to the Bristol study by saying:
“It is a nice study but not exactly representative of the real whole choir dynamic which really needs further study to truly assess the risk of such large volume synchronised singing vocalisations/exhalations.”
An announced German study will study transmission in a large performing venue, but will be focused less on the singing itself and more on transmission among the audience - still an important consideration for ensuring that performances can take place safety. Importantly, the funds generated by the study will also help to support the country's arts sector.
The information we are getting is ever evolving and necessarily incomplete, often confusing, and requires us to infer similarities between our art form and situations that aren't precisely similar. But it's the best we've got, and Naunheim's group makes 11 recommendations that for now are the best guidance we have on how to rehearse and perform more safely. These helpful ideas should be required reading for all trying to navigate these issues.
The data will keep coming in and this blog will continue to report on the findings as they become more clear. We can at least take heart that modern science, while it moves slowly, is producing better recommendations than solanum dulcamara and red wine!