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Opera Looks To A New Mask To Safely Rehearse Again

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

COVID-19 infection rates are dropping around the country, but singing in public is still considered high risk, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon. So the University of California, San Francisco and the San Francisco Opera have teamed up to develop a new type of mask to keep performers and audiences safe as they prepare to meet again. Chloe Veltman of member station KQED reports.

SANZIANA ROMAN: (Singing in non-English language).

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: That's Sanziana Roman on Zoom, demoing the new mask she's invented for singers. Roman is a classically trained soprano who also happens to be a professor of surgery at UCSF. Roman is part of a group of UCSF medical experts who've been meeting virtually with San Francisco Opera staffers every week since last June to talk about what it would take to bring live opera back.

ROMAN: You have to have good ventilation. You still have to have some separation from each other. And ultimately, you need to have a lot of good testing.

VELTMAN: Roman's new face covering is also part of this effort. She says she prototyped the invention at her kitchen table from old surgical masks.

ROMAN: It was really designed to get singers practicing, working together, being in close proximity without worrying so much about aerosol.

VELTMAN: Aerosols are this fine mist of tiny particles produced while singing that tend to float in the air for extended periods of time. This makes them potentially more hazardous than the larger droplets created by regular speaking, which generally fall to the ground more easily.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A Washington choir practice turns deadly.

VELTMAN: The media has reported on several singing-related COVID-19 outbreaks over the past year, including one in Washington state that left two choristers dead. In tests conducted at UC Davis, the new mask proved to be almost as efficient at filtering out particles as the gold standard N95. San Francisco Opera resident artist Anne-Marie MacIntosh got to try out and offer feedback on the new mask. She says it's made of cotton, washable, has plastic boning to keep it off the face.

ANNE-MARIE MACINTOSH: It has a roll-up extension at the bottom, which you can open up to drink water out of so that you're not having to take the mask on and off in rehearsal and putting yourself and others in danger.

VELTMAN: MacIntosh unfurls the long flap at the front of the mask. It flops around like the trunk of a dejected elephant - not very flattering. But MacIntosh says after months of being stuck in her apartment doing rehearsals on Zoom, she can live with the aesthetics.

MACINTOSH: We're creating a new trend here (laughter).

VELTMAN: According to a recent small business recovery report from McKinsey Consulting, the country's performing arts sector may not return to pre-pandemic operating levels until 2025. Los Angeles Master Chorale president and CEO Jean Davidson says arts groups like hers have taken huge financial losses over the past year and simply can't afford to shut down again, so safety precautions like masking are key.

JEAN DAVIDSON: We're less concerned about being the first back to performance, more concerned with doing it safely, both from a financial stewardship perspective and from a health and wellness standpoint.

VELTMAN: Davidson says the LA Master Chorale is currently testing out a few different masks for use, including the San Francisco Opera's.

DAVIDSON: I think in the short term, we will continue with the masks, if nothing else, for peace of mind.

VELTMAN: In the long term, Opera San Jose general director Khori Dastoor says she can see singing masks becoming part of a performer's everyday toolkit, alongside throat lozenges and pitch pipes. Her company has developed its own mask, as have other groups like the Broadway Relief Project.

KHORI DASTOOR: If it reduces our risk to get the flu or to get any kind of run-of-the-mill rhinovirus, that will stay.

VELTMAN: Back in San Francisco, soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh is getting her first chance to sing before a live audience in more than a year.

MACINTOSH: (Singing in non-English language).

VELTMAN: San Francisco Opera is staging a series of outdoor drive-in concerts, as well as a 90-minute version of "The Barber Of Seville" in the coming weeks, so MacIntosh has been getting used to practicing in her new mask.

MACINTOSH: (Singing in non-English language).

VELTMAN: MacIntosh says rehearsing in the mask isn't ideal. It gets a little stuffy in there after a while. But she says she'll do whatever it takes to bring her music to live audiences once again.

For NPR News, I'm Chloe Veltman in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF ROSSINI'S "THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, OVERTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.