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Coronavirus ravages choir

The choir that coughed in January

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Did singing together spread coronavirus to four choirs?

The headlines have been coming thick and fast, and they are alarming.

Outbreaks (some fatal) of the coronavirus among choirs as far-flung as Amsterdam, Washington state and the English city of Bradford have pointed to a sinister possibility: Singing together is a uniquely high-risk activity in the age of COVID-19, and can lead to what the scientists call “super-spreading.”

Why? The answer lies in the physical act of singing itself.

Singers exhale much more air, at higher speeds, than people speaking normally, producing as many as six times the number of airborne moisture particles that are potential carriers of the coronavirus.

These “droplet nuclei” can travel farther than the 6 feet prescribed by social distance protocols, and may linger in the atmosphere for an hour or more, particularly in enclosed spaces.

In these circumstances, how can choir rehearsals start safely again? Are there ways of getting back to live performances that don’t put both the singers and their audiences in peril?

These questions have been nagging at organizations throughout Minnesota, a choral hotbed affectionately dubbed the “Land of 10,000 Choirs.” There are, it seems, no easy answers.

Matthew Culloton, artistic director of the Singers, does not anticipate taking any chances as his Twin Cities-based ensemble tentatively charts its path toward a new normal.

“First and foremost,” he said, “I think that believing the science and medical experts, and acting in accordance with the advice and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], will be very important moving forward.”

CDC pulled its warning

But is the science accurate?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in an era where every “fact” appears fluid and open to contention, there is a lack of clear consensus.

The CDC, for instance, initially posted a warning on its website that singing could contribute to the spread of coronavirus. Then, on May 23, the warning was deleted, an act described by one scientist as “extremely dangerous and irresponsible.”

Who to believe, in the absence of unambiguous official guidance?

Philip Brunelle, veteran choral practitioner and artistic director of the VocalEssence organization, doesn’t have a clear answer to that.

But in the meantime he is advocating common-sense solutions, and a wary approach to the potential dangers of returning to full-scale choral singing too early.

“We are being cautious as we make our plans for 2020-21, our 52nd season,” Brunelle said. “It will be important to minimize large gatherings, avoid close proximity and be mindful of air circulation.”

VocalEssence is planning virtual, online events only for the fall, with the possibility of live concerts from January onward.

Brunelle’s careful approach is one that Kathy Saltzman Romey, artistic director of the 200-voice Minnesota Chorale, broadly agrees with.

“We take reports about the dangers of COVID within the choral setting very seriously,” she said. “But we also need to focus on what we can do now, in this current reality, and embrace this as a time of innovation — an opportunity to explore new modes of communication, collaboration and music-making.”

Romey cited innovations amid the COVID crisis such as online lectures, social gatherings, singalongs, panel discussions, musical meditation sessions and yoga.

These are ultimately no substitute for “the sense of community and connection we feel in live music-making,” she concedes.

“However, we would not have incorporated these online practices pre-COVID, and I am convinced they will inform our work and activity moving forward.”

Giving singers some space

But what of the practicalities of staging rehearsals and concerts? What will those experiences look like?

“Singers will need to be spaced apart ... and audience size will need to be determined depending on the size of the hall,” said Brunelle.

Rehearsals also will look different, Culloton said, “maximizing the use of allowed room space and ventilation.”

He expects to “see large halls and church venues incorporate every-other-row seating, while encouraging patrons from different households to allow for the 6-foot distancing.

“Audience members wearing masks is likely, and also welcome.”

As for the singers themselves, obviously “it’s hard to sing effectively in a face mask, so I don’t at this time see that as a viable option for choirs,” Culloton said. “That’s why waiting for a go-ahead from the medical community is most important.”

Brunelle hopes to hold rehearsals later this summer with the Ensemble Singers, a professional chamber choir within the VocalEssence organization.

“We have plans for them to rehearse in octets, rather than all 32 singers together,” he said. “And for our 120-voice chorus, we are looking to space the group in creative ways, involving not only social distancing but also selecting performing spaces that provide good air flow.”

But will people come?

Will audiences feel comfortable attending choral concerts, when choirs finally stage them again?

No one is certain but the Minnesota Chorale’s Romey is bluntly honest in her assessment of what will be needed.

“I think that the freedoms we enjoyed in our music-making pre-COVID will not fully return until there is a vaccine,” she said.

Culloton agrees. “It is easiest to say that a vaccine will be the ultimate marker in time,” he said, not least because the coronavirus “has instilled fear in artists, patrons and schools about choral singing.”

But Culloton is ultimately optimistic that the Land of 10,000 Choirs will ring with harmonies again, sooner or later.

“Singing isn’t going away, just as bingo parlors, restaurants and sporting events are not going away,” he said. “But it will be different for a while.”

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.