While the world sheltered in place, an online group found a way to reach a new audience, learn new skills, and make money performing.
Emmie and Harry’s is a public Facebook group, set up as an online cabaret venue with a weekly schedule including individual artist shows, open mic, and themed shows of multiple artists from various Opera on Tap chapters. Featured artists have included classical singers, musical theatre performers, tap dance and comedy acts, variety shows, singer-songwriters, and sound healing, among others.
As the pandemic led to closures across the nation, singers watched as upcoming performances and gigs were cancelled or postponed. Many artists turned to the Internet as an outlet. For sopranos Hannah Goodman and Jen Wu, connecting artists and audiences became a priority.mmie and Harry’s is a public Facebook group, set up as an online cabaret venue with a weekly schedule including individual artist shows, open mic, and themed shows of multiple artists from various Opera on Tap chapters. Featured artists have included classical singers, musical theatre performers, tap dance and comedy acts, variety shows, singer-songwriters, and sound healing, among others.
“During the second week of March,” Goodman says, “when the first couple of performances and venues in New York City were starting to shut down, I was having a passionate back-and-forth with Jen Wu over Facebook Messenger. We dreamed of some sort of an online venue to temporarily take the place of in-person ones during the pandemic. Jen and I met in a production of Albert Herring with Utopia Opera where she played Harry and I played Emmie, and the name came to us almost as immediately as the concept itself. I made a post gauging interest from my artist friends and found out that Anne Hiatt and Joanie Brittingham at Opera on Tap had been tossing around the same ideas. We got on a video conference the very next day, and Emmie and Harry’s was born!”
Soon after, Opera on Tap Board Chair David Gordon and Co-Managing Diva of Opera on Tap Portland Sadie Gregg joined. “I thought it would be great for Opera on Tap to showcase our ability to be agile in the way we connect the art form to the audience,” Gordon says.
“I thought it would be cool to build an online venue where there was a steady schedule of artists all over the globe streaming to one enthusiastic audience,” Wu says. “I also wanted to facilitate remote musical collaborations (live, if possible), provide a supportive community space, and help artists get paid. Some of these things are rather challenging and/or expensive technical problems—but it’s exciting to be living in a time where there are lots of people having a crack at solving them!”
Hiatt, president of Opera on Tap, is no stranger to technology in opera. She has produced the world’s first virtual reality (VR) opera, The Parksville Murders, and Opera on Tap is in commissioning phases with composers for more augmented reality pieces.
“Our work made me immediately embrace the opportunities that online distribution has,” Hiatt says. “We learned from our VR experience how we can extend to a broader audience. Having a live audience comment and chat [deepens] the online experience. The interactivity is a key part of it.”
Together, we bring artistic, administrative, and technology experience that helps us to create while venues are closed. The leap to streaming has been a rocky one, full of ill-planned content, issues with tech, poor audio quality, and more. Some artists have stepped back because of the fear of the permanence of the Internet. Still, many artists have been willing to experiment and to showcase their talents.
The impulse to create art online has of course birthed the impulse to criticize that art. An oft-shared Medium article by Nicholas Berger disparages quarantine art, suggesting that we can’t make true art without the ability to assemble: “We come to the theatre to see a part of ourselves reflected back, to feel seen, to recognize that we exist in a community.” Similarly, a friend of mine suggested, rather dismissively, that all online content created during the pandemic was “white noise.”
Regardless of the naysayers, or perhaps despite them, artists continued to create. A Medium response article to Berger’s by Anna Caldwell notes, “Whether you are an individual or an organization, if you have a story to tell you should tell it. If you see someone creating you should give them the space to do so. Perhaps it was meant for you, perhaps it was not. Also, we can’t assume that everything we see posted online is done to create brand value or be monetized, but if it happens to be, we should be happy for that artist or organization.”
But for classical singers the need to create our own opportunities is not a problem solely of the pandemic. “Classical singers must make their own opportunities!” Goodman says. “My number one goal in developing Emmie and Harry’s was protecting the mental and emotional well-being of other artists. We all know how feast or famine this industry can be, even in the best of times let alone during a global pandemic. It is hard to get motivated and hard to create art when your calendar is empty and you’re worried about your next source of income.
“A lot of our performers have told me how meaningful it was just to get booked for a performance date, to have a deadline, and something to prepare for. It has a snowballing effect—it gets the creative juices flowing to find and create more opportunities for yourself. I first got into the cabaret scene myself when I wound up in a rut several years back with no gigs on the foreseeable horizon, feeling down, and doubting myself as an artist. Creating my own solo show from top to bottom was incredibly empowering, and I wanted to channel that experience into helping other artists do the same thing right now. I think classical singers often wait for permission from others to perform when, with a little creativity, they can create their own work and cast themselves.”
I too found creating a solo show to be empowering. I felt compelled to design a program for kids because so many of my friends didn’t know how to talk to their children about how the pandemic made them feel and saw their kids having issues with sleep. My goodnight show, “Dream a Little Dream,” featured songs about feelings, healing, and lullabies.
I now have far less fear about accompanying myself and have gained valuable skills and understanding of video recording technology in the process. When I’ve made prescreening videos, I’ve always been a nervous wreck. Now, I have reliable experience doing them so frequently that I’m no longer worried about getting a bad take.
I was not alone in a learning curve for technology. Gordon notes that he had to learn and refresh many skills including recording, mixing, audio, and video editing.
Gregg says, “I’m thankful to polish up my broadcasting skills with OBS.” OBS, or Open Broadcaster Software, is an open source software for video recording and livestreaming. With this software, a host can livestream introductions to prerecorded pieces acting as an MC for a performance with multiple artists.
Wu advises artists unfamiliar with streaming. “We’re all carrying around incredibly powerful computers with nice cameras and Internet access in our pockets,” she says. “Learn everything you can about the features of the equipment you already have, the types of external inputs and outputs it can accept, and also some basics about lighting and camera angles. Budget time to test every aspect of your setup before you record or livestream.”
In the trial and error process of helping artists livestream in Emmie and Harry’s, we have created a clear guide for artists that help them to have a successful show, both in quality of performance and in dollars appearing in their virtual tip jars. We encourage our artists to share their PayPal and Venmo information on their livestreams.
“What I feel like we’ve been doing with Emmie and Harry’s is sort of an extension of what we do with our bar shows,” Hiatt says. “We have a belief in creating supportive networks for our performers. It’s a group, and we’re creating a community around the artists that participate.
“The warmth that is conveyed through our bar shows is happening in this online format. The networking potential through the group is important for the artists as well with everyone moving online now. There will be cravings for different types of content. We’re figuring out how performing artists will do things differently than in film.”
“This is great to reach audiences who may not have felt comfortable exploring classical music or any music that’s new to them,” Gregg notes. “Opera on Tap has always brought opera to bars, pubs, community spaces, basically [anywhere] outside the concert hall. This is an extension of that and may just intrigue folks enough to come see what the fuss is about when we meet again in person.” We have seen audiences from all over the world, including extended family and distant friends, become part of the regular audience members.
What lies in store for Emmie and Harry’s is continuing to change and grow with the new landscape for performers during- and post-pandemic. For Goodman, “I hope that Emmie and Harry’s will help equip classical singers with the skill sets and confidence they need to continue pursuing independent projects online. Streaming is such a great platform for these projects because it is readily and freely accessible to most artists and it removes much of the overhead of a traditional, physical performance space. I would love to see a post-quarantine future where Emmie and Harry’s continues as a venue in the digital realm, showcasing material made deliberately and uniquely for the livestreaming medium alongside our resumed traditional performance spaces.”
You can join Emmie and Harry’s, as a performer or as an audience member, by joining the Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/emmieandharrys.