No Stage, No Problem: CSUN Opera Lets the Music Bring Them Together for a Virtual Performance


Update: May 13, 2020: The third CSUN Opera video, a performance from “Suor Angelica” by Puccini, is available to watch.

Update, May 4, 2020: The second CSUN Opera video, a performance from “Suor Angelica” by Puccini, is available to watch. 

It took almost half the year for CSUN graduate student Edris Foroughi to rehearse the complex vocals and the Italian lyrics for his role in the CSUN Opera’s production of “Don Giovanni.” So when he and the entire ensemble heard the devastating news that the performance was not only postponed but canceled, he still found a way to perform. Fully immersed in his character Pasquariello, the title character’s manservant, Foroughi substituted a live audience for a camera, and a special stage prop for a roll of toilet paper.

He wouldn’t be alone for long in this effort to turn the heartbreak around.

Inspired by Foroughi’s resourcefulness, CSUN Opera music director Mercedes Juan Musotto saw the video medium as a platform for her students to come together and showcase their months of hard work. On April 4, Musotto posted on YouTube CSUN Opera’s virtual performance of the catalog aria in Giuseppe Gazzaniga’s “Don Giovanni” — one of the songs that the CSUN Opera rehearsed for their canceled March show — with each musician in their solo recordings, performing in unison as if they were all together on stage.

“Nothing replaces a stage performance,” said Foroughi. “But I was excited to have at least a little piece of [performing] this opera in my memories. We’ve turned this sad situation into a positive thing.”

Musotto thought of a collective performance when she found Foroughi’s video on Facebook. Following the toilet paper challenge trend on social media, Foroughi sang the aria a cappella and theatrically poured his emotions onto an unraveled roll of toilet paper, like it was the incriminating list of the names of Don Giovanni’s many mistresses.

Musotto researched digital tools that she could use to link the separate parts of the musical ensemble into a cohesive unit and purchased video editing software. Then, she contacted her students and invited each to send recordings of themselves playing their instruments.

The students were thrilled and jumped right on board, Musotto said. “They said, right away, ‘Yes!'”

While working remotely didn’t hamper the enthusiasm of the team to gather, she said, the challenges of the virtual mode quickly surfaced when it was time to connect the pieces.

On their first attempt, Musotto played the aria tune on piano and sent each member of the CSUN Opera the recording for them to follow. But unable to physically conduct the orchestra in one space, Musotto said when she combined the recordings, the product was out of sync and out of tune.

Giving up was not an option. Musotto remedied the issues by adding a metronome click and playing the cello to accompany her piano recording to unify the tempo and the intonation, respectively.

This time, it worked.

The innovative thinking of CSUN Opera stage director Maurice Godin also helped the performance come alive. The singers, also actors in an opera, had to look like they coexisted in the same physical space to tell the story well. With the idea that the singers’ recordings would be edited side-by-side, with only the edge of the frames keeping them apart, Godin orchestrated some movie magic. He directed Foroughi to pass the “list” (the roll of toilet paper) off to his left, disappearing for milliseconds off-screen before singer Agnese Gallenzi would pick up another roll from her right. The result was a clever illusion of two performers interacting with the same prop on the same stage.

Now with more than 2,000 views and a special mention from CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison in her Friday update, the CSUN Opera’s performance has brought positivity far beyond their circle.

Musotto said students in the CSUN Opera that weren’t able to perform with the group have reached out to her, asking to join future performances. And those performances are coming. Musotto said, with the support of CSUN music department chair John Roscigno, that she, Godin and the students are hard at work to put together virtual performances for the other two opera numbers they rehearsed to perform live — the finale of “Don Giovanni” and a tune from the opera “Suor Angelica.” The CSUN community can expect these before the semester ends, Musotto said.

“We’re using computers to put this together, but to have the music underneath and the fact that we are all making the same music, putting together one project, makes it feel very special,” Musotto said. “It feels like things are the same, even though we’re not [physically] together because we have the music there to unify us.”

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