Opera star Ellie Dehn is used to singing before hundreds of people on some of the most renowned stages in the world, from New York's Metropolitan Opera to Milan's Teatro alla Scala.
Recently, the Anoka native sang a Puccini aria in her kitchen in Edina. It was a singing telegram delivered to a handful of people via a Zoom teleconference call.
As stages around the world have gone dark due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a New York City arts nonprofit has launched a program to generate some income for out-of-work artists. Now you can book a Broadway performer or an opera singer to make a cameo appearance at your next virtual happy hour with a personalized online performance.
The singing telegrams are being organized by Sing for Hope, an "arts Peace Corps" that was started by a couple of young opera singers amid another crisis.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Camille Zamora and Monica Yunus were graduate students in the opera program at the Juilliard School in New York City.
The day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Zamora, Yunus and a group of friends sang on the street at a nearby fire station that had lost firefighters.
"We realized that as artists we really have a role we could play in these times of crisis," Zamora said.
The Sing for Hope organization that Zamora and Yunus later founded enlists volunteer performers to bring art into health care facilities and public schools. It also sponsors artist-painted pianos installed in public spaces throughout New York City.
Recently Zamora and Yunus decided they needed to help performing artists generate income during the pandemic. The virtual micro-gigs they're organizing are called "SingForHopeGrams."
"The artist community is suffering severely. What can we do to support the incredible artist partners who have volunteered their time?" Yunus said. "This is a time to give a musical gift in this time of crisis and isolation."
About 20 professional singers have signed up to perform SingForHopeGrams, ranging from John Brancy, a Grammy-winning operatic baritone, to Telly Leung, who has appeared on the television show "Glee" and performed the title role in a Broadway production of "Aladdin."
"We really do have the incredible fortune of having really top-notch artists who support the organization," Yunus said. "Did I ever think I'd be asking high-level, Juilliard-trained artists to do singing telegrams? No. But you know what? In times of crisis we all need to reframe how we think about things."
A singing telegram given as a personal gift costs $100, which includes a song and some conversation.
If you want to book a performer to boost morale at a virtual work meeting, Sing for Hope has a corporate rate of $250 for a 10-minute appearance or $500 for 20 minutes.
"What's to say we can't gather around the Zoom fire, so to speak, and have an incredible, not easily reachable Broadway or operatic star to join our Zoom meeting and talk a little bit about Beethoven or about the show they're not able to perform live?" Yunus said.
The fees go to the artists and to support Sing for Hope programming.
The Sing for Hope website (singforhope.org/singforhopegrams) lets you specify the kind of song you want and the occasion.
"We try to honor requests," Yunus said.
About 150 singing telegrams have been delivered since the pandemic began, with performances being given as graduation, anniversary, Mother's Day or birthday gifts.
Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of the Acumen nonprofit global venture fund, has used SingForHopeGrams to liven up a recent virtual book tour.
The songs that have been performed have ranged from "Over the Rainbow" to "Lean on Me" to "Revolution."
Hearing a song delivered via FaceTime or Zoom may not be the same as an in-person performance, but how many people have had a Broadway star or an opera diva sing "Happy Birthday" to them?
The performers get more than money from delivering a singing telegram.
"There's an exchange of energy," Yunus said, who pointed out that the telegrams have been the first performances some singers have given since the pandemic lockdowns began.
"Performing artists want to perform," she said. "Our need as humans to connect and share pain, we are seeing that. We are seeing that."
For Dehn, who has had a gig with the Metropolitan Opera and other jobs canceled this year because of the pandemic, being able to participate "is nice because it keeps us singing while we're waiting to see what happens."
Dehn's singing telegram was purchased by Lois Parkinson Zamora, an English and comparative literature professor at the University of Houston and the mother of Camille Zamora. It was bought as a gift to Lois' friend Pat Anderson, an opera fan who lives in San Jose, Calif.
Dehn sang the famous "Musetta's Waltz." It's an aria that Anderson had seen Dehn perform on stage in a San Francisco Opera production of "La Boheme."
This time, however, Dehn was standing in her kitchen in her street clothes with a microwave oven in the background.
Anderson said the performance turned out to be "just luminous."
Lois Parkinson Zamora said watching the song on Zoom brought her to tears.
"It is like having a personal visit from an opera star," she said. "I feel it's a very special way to share love."