When the pandemic is finally off the front pages and no longer front and center in our minds, productions such as Lesson Plan may seem like artifacts or curios of a time many may wish to forget. But for now, this virtual interactive piece from New York-based On Site Opera earns its keep by adopting, playfully sending up, subverting, and finally embracing the conventions and limitations of Zoom-based performance.
Two first-rate singers, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and soprano Laquita Mitchell, add marquee-name luster. Their characters, initially at comic cross-purposes, ultimately converge as warm-hearted advocates for making music however and wherever possible.
Based on Telemann’s comic cantata Die Schulmeister (The schoolmaster), with additional music and libretto by Rachel J. Peters (along with snatches of Puccini and Mozart), this 45-minute Plan takes the vocal masterclass as its premise. The normally direct encounter of master and students takes place here at a complicating distance, with the teacher tucked away in one Zoom window, the manager of the class in another, and the students/audience members (who have paid $30 per device to attend) deployed in postage stamp-sized boxes across the top of the screen.
The piece offers its interactive component in two parts. With their microphones turned on, audience members can sing along in response to the teacher’s instructions. They can also type in comments, visible to all, via the chat function. Each of the six performances (through Jan. 29) was planned to be live, which is to say live on screen.
As the diva Alice Thomas — or the Italianate “Tomasso,” as she pompously prefers — Blythe is in every respect the grande dame in her wood-paneled New York apartment. Mitchell plays Robinetta, a patient, beleaguered administrator and chorus director in her book-lined office at the fictional community college of the emblematically ordinary Middletown, Indiana.
Things go off the rails before the class gets started, with Alice and Robinetta trading remarks before they realize the mikes are on. “From La Scala to this!” Blythe’s Alice laments.
Soon enough she’s leading her far-flung students through scales and more advanced exercises with as much presence as she can muster. “Breathe deeply,” she intones to a recorded score, her widened eyes and bright red lipstick looming close.
“Is this a music or a biology lesson?” one audience member typed into the chat bar during the opening performance on Jan. 21, after Alice’s disquisition on the diaphragm.
The 10-year-old On Site, whose pre-pandemic credits include a Shostakovich outing at the Bronx Zoo, a Gershwin evening at the Cotton Club in Harlem, and Rameau’s Pygmalion at Madame Tussauds Wax Musuem, know their way around Zoom Land. The cyber blunders here — a frozen screen, a blacked-out window, a slide that is supposed to illustrate a musical point and shows a bottle of horseradish instead — are all planned and convincingly pulled off. An unseen but very audible cat gets some well-timed lines. There’s a witty paradox to it all: By making the “mistakes” intentional, Peters, director Eric Einhorn, and their technical team both mock and transcend the medium. You can feel — and see — the little lift it gives the audience when they catch on to the stunt.
While parts of the dialogue are sung to Telemann’s arias and recitative (to rhymed lyrics that are by turns clever and clunky), Lesson Plan reserves its own musical payoff for a sequence of dueling arias and a duet. Blythe, in stirring, pseudo-tragic mode, declares operatically that opera can’t be taught in an hour or on a screen. Mitchell uses her sweet but incisive soubrette’s soprano, over a gentle jazz riff, to defend the musical virtues of Middletown, where the pharmacist plays the clarinet and her choir finds “something sacred together.”
In the end they come together, their differences not dissolved but harmonized in both senses in a well-wrought closing duet. “Sing you humanity imperfectly,” they concur. “Loud and proud, strong and wrong, loud and proud!”