Video of past performances or livestreams of current ones. That's how most classical ensembles are replacing the in-person events they are unable to mount at present.
Decameron Opera Coalition, though, is different. Defying the stifling impact of the coronavirus, this alliance of U.S. troupes has created something innovative instead — nine brand-new mini-operas, conceived for online audiences, and focusing on life in the coronavirus period.
These "Tales From a Safe Distance" have been premiering in weekly episodes of two or three operas each, and are available on demand until the end of December.
Of the nine small opera companies involved, three have Minnesota connections.
In a little over 10 minutes, it shows a woman phoning a friend in desperation, panic-stricken by how COVID-19 isolation has magnified her husband's oppressively controlling behavior.
Soprano Katherine Henly is excellent as the abused wife Reyna, and Maria Thompson Corley's emotionally turbulent music and Jenny O'Connell's to-the-point libretto both make a strong impression.
The contribution from Duluth-based Lyric Opera of the North is, by contrast, an endearingly frothy comedy. Set on a balcony with a profusion of self-isolating houseplants, "Everything Comes to a Head" tells a breezy tale of the feckless Basil, who uses the pandemic to dodge committing to his girlfriend, Rosemary.
Marjorie Maltais and Jorell Williams are the joshing, jousting couple, and the action plays out against Ann Gumpper's cartoonish, brightly watercolored animations, with music by Rachel J. Peters and words by Margi Preus and Jean Sramek.
Fargo-Moorhead Opera also takes the comic route in Michael Ching's "Dinner 4 3," which has the fizziness of a Rossini one-acter. Online dating is the subject matter — and the wedge that the virtual world can drive between relationships which seep away when too much screen time is their main ingredient.
Deborah Brevoort's tart libretto is one of the best in the entire series, and its wittiness and ironies are relished by the sparky soloists Kate Jackman, Joshua Kohl and David Hamilton.
Companies from New York, Pittsburgh, Houston and Chicago are among those also contributing operas to "Tales From a Safe Distance," which is based on Boccaccio's "Decameron," a set of plague stories from the 14th century.
Among these, Milwaukee Opera Theatre's "Orsa Ibernata" stands out. Composed by Elizabeth Blood to a libretto by Danny Brylow, it's a riveting portrait of a woman in emotional turmoil when a clandestine love affair falters.
Blood is the soprano soloist, too, and the elaborate fioritura of her folk-tinged, haunting music finds an evocative counterpoint in the woodlands where the opera is set, and in Christal Wagner's imaginative videography.
Just $15 buys you access to all nine operas, and it's more than worth it. The Decameron project does genuinely new things with opera, and has lessons to teach the industry that may well outlast the grim pandemic which spawned it.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.