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Mission Control

New Orleans Opera Stage Manager Emily Barber’s newest role is COVID-19 compliance officer.

By Sue Strachan

Emily Barber, Covid Compliance Officer.  Photo credit, Dylan Trần.

A year ago, Emily Barber had just finished a successful run of performances of New Orleans Opera Association’s Carmen and was contemplating future productions.

A year later, much has changed.

Instead of ensuring opera singers hit their marks on stage and props are where they are supposed to be, Emily is now stocking PPEs, creating social distancing, and sanitizing props and areas for Opera on Tap – In Our Yard! series of outdoor concerts held at the New Orleans Opera Women’s Guild Home on Prytania Street.

It is a new position at the opera, and it was a natural evolution for Emily.

“Being a stage manager involves a lot of duties and responsibilities,” said Emily. “Making sure production is running fully, everyone in communication. I am the liaison between several different departments.”

Essentially the “mission control” of an opera.

When the opera postponed its season, they still wanted to keep live opera in the city, where it has been performed since the 1790s, making it the oldest one in the U.S. to regularly do so.  The New Orleans Opera Association was founded in 1943.

And that’s where Opera on Tap – In Our Yard! and Emily make a difference.

Opera on Tap – In Our Yard! is a variation of Opera on Tap, a longtime program – and a favorite — that brings opera out of the theater and into sometimes unorthodox settings, such as a bar.

The difference and name change came about because the concert series moved to the yard at the Women’s Opera Guild’s beautiful 19th-century home.

The first concert Oct. 24 was “Sing It Sister!”, celebrating the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. On Oct. 31, the concert was “Sinister Saturday!”, featuring music about witches, fairy-tale characters and other creatures.

Emily was prepared.

“I had to familiarize myself with all guidelines relevant to our event,” said Emily. “This included guidelines from AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists) and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), as well as local guidelines.”

She then implemented them for the concert, which held only 100 people due to local guidelines.

“I ensured there were appropriate traffic patterns for guests’ entrances and exits, enough sanitization stations present, bathrooms were being cleaned between every use, and all present were not only COVID symptom free, but also staying socially distant and masked,” said Emily.

“We also changed and disinfected all equipment being used by singers between each person.”

The opera had a team of four, including Emily: One on bathroom duty, one monitoring the entrance gate and taking temperatures, and the third changing and disinfecting equipment for the singers, with Emily supervising to make sure everything was in compliance at all times. 

Artistic Director, Robert Lyall with Director of Production, Sarah McCall as temperature monitor. Photo credit, Dylan Trần.

The opera also made sure to have at least twice the amount of PPEs than everyone present at the venue.

“Another large concern was making sure our singers could perform without having to use masks,” said Emily. “Following the AGMA union guidelines, we needed four feet of social distancing behind and on the sides of each performer, as well as 15 feet in front of them. This is in addition to making sure the event was taking place outside.”

Because the event was so small, Emily was not hired as the stage manager, but as the COVID-19 compliance officer.

It makes sense.

“As a stage manager your first priority is safety, after that is the integrity and running of the production. I’ve taken courses in both physical and emotional safety, so shifting my brain to health felt natural,” said Emily.

“The big hurdle was making sure I knew exactly what the new health expectations were since our world is now changing so rapidly.”

Emily emphasized that because a COVID compliance officer has a lot of moving parts, the position should not be combined with any other one.

“This not only is an AGMA union requirement of the position but is also important for the health and safety of all,” she added.

This training as a COVID compliance officer will prove important for the opera – and Emily — going forward, when productions move back indoors. AGMA’s COVID compliance playbook contains guidelines that ensure performers and audience safety for both inside and outside performances.

“Once opera General Director Clare Burovac and I started talking about next season,” said Emily, “she wanted to know that I was trained as a COVID compliance officer so I could be there for smaller events, and still have the knowledge in my back pocket when I am the stage manager for a large production and the opera hires a separate COVID compliance officer.”

“The health and safety of all our performers, staff, and audience is our number one concern at this time,” said Burovac.  “We want to continue to provide musical performances to our community, but not at the risk of endangering anyone’s health.  That’s why Emily’s position is so vital to us right now.”

 “Clare and I thought it was important to everyone in production and the audience,” said Emily.

This knowledge is something she will bring to the Chautauqua Opera Company in Chautauqua, located near Lake Erie in northwest New York State. The opera, founded in 1929, is North America’s oldest continuously operating summer opera company. She is the stage manager there during the summer.

It’s a schedule that works for Emily, who was in the vocal program at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) and graduated from Loyola University with a bachelor’s degree in music in opera performance. She started as a performer – a spinto soprano — but realized that it wasn’t for her and made the switch to stage manger.

“Being a stage manager makes me happy,” said Emily. “I am still in opera, a field that I love, but not the center of attention.”

Emily Barber preparing microphones between arias at the Opera on Tap Halloween concert, Sinister Saturday. Photo credit, Dylan Trần.

Her favorite operas to work on are modern ones, pointing out a production of “The Ghosts of Versailles,” for which she was the stage manager two summers ago at Chautauqua.

Emily’s favorite traditional opera is Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”: “The music is so incredibly beautiful, and the plot is so gut-wrenching.”

The opera is planning a new season in January 2021, and Opera on Tap – In Our Yard! will continue with two spring concerts, “Shakespeare” and “Travel the World.” Dates to be finalized soon.

Opera patrons can rest assured Emily will be there either monitoring the performances as the stage manager, or as a COVID compliance officer.