When Boston began to take COVID-19 pandemic precautions last year, the Boston Lyric Opera had just opened a production of Bellini’s Norma. Closing a production that had been years in the making was a financial and emotional blow to the creative professionals involved. In May 2020, artistic director Esther Nelson turned to a longtime friend of the nonprofit organization to help them determine whether the season could go on despite the fact that traditional performances were out of the question.

Mass General primary care physician Susan Bennett, MD was always a music lover but was not interested in opera, until her daughter was in the children’s chorus of a Boston Lyric Opera production. Bennett helped with the children backstage, and after the show ended, “The music got into my head—it was like it changed my brain.” That was more than 20 years ago, and she has loved opera since. Recognizing that it is an expensive art form to maintain, Bennett became a supporter of the opera the best way she knew how—by donating her time as a physician. 

Responding to Nelson’s question, Bennett and other physicians formed a task force to advise the opera company on how to rehearse and perform during the pandemic in a way that is low risk for all involved. The group includes Mass General’s David Finn, MD, medical director of the Concierge Medicine Practice, David Hooper, MD, chief of the Infection Control Unit, David Kanarek, MD, co-director of the Cardiopulmonary Exercise Lab, Phillip Song, MD, director of the Division of Laryngology at Mass Eye and Ear, and Erin Bromage, PhD, biology professor at UMass Dartmouth. They discuss transmission, rapid testing, and local regulations—based on the latest COVID-19 research—and review information about how other performance groups, sports teams, and Hollywood have navigated pandemic safety. 

Bennet says different roles create different levels of risk, and they determined string players should perform masked, while singers may take off their masks to sing and put them back on between pieces. While flutes and piccolos aerosolize spittle more than woodwind and brass instruments, it is important that musicians face one another, so they implemented shields or booths to enable the important musical communication.

Under the task force’s guidance, the Boston Lyric Opera has created “Street Stage,” a custom-built truck that opens into a stage for pop-up performances by a few singers and a masked accompanist. The small outdoor performances allow ample social distancing for the audience. The opera’s biggest event this season was a recording of Philip Glass’s opera The Fall of the House of Usher at the WGBH radio station studio. Song secured a philanthropic donation that allowed him to offer rapid coronavirus testing to the performers who would need to work unmasked.

“Working together, we have been able to help the opera continue to bring music to the public under these extraordinary circumstances,” says Bennett. “We are so happy that we can use our expertise to ensure this talented group of performers can continue to share their amazing gifts with Boston and beyond.”