At the beginning of 2020, Jennifer Cresswell looked forward to the year ahead — and with good reason. As an established operatic soprano, she already had a series of gigs and projects scheduled well into the summer.
Then the pandemic hit.
Like millions of Americans whose careers depended on public gatherings, she faced a challenge. Show cancelations and venue closures forced many musicians to stop performing live. Giving life to the century old adage ‘the show must go on,’ she relied on her passion to perform and inherent resourcefulness to figure out how to transition her work into a socially distant world.
“I’ve been pretty hellbent on not letting things slow down,” she says.
To do so, Cresswell – who is also a doctorate student at the University of Michigan – dove headfirst into learning about technology and online music production. “I got the green screen, and I got the ethernet connection, and turned a little tiny eight by eight room in my basement where I have my wifi router into a studio.
At the beginning of the pandemic, she started with small projects such as taking song requests from her Instagram followers and posting them on her profile. As her knowledge of recording and video editing grew, her virtual projects became more ambitious. For example, she commissioned a contemporary chamber opera and filmed a 75-minute English adaptation of Puccini’s tragedy La Bohème. She has also dipped her toe in comedy with a light-hearted YouTube video in which she sings a famous aria from the opera MacBeth. Rather than singing to ‘King Duncan,’ she sings to ‘Dunkin Donuts,’ and stabs a jelly doughnut at the end of the piece.
“[Musicians] had a choice when all of this hit and that choice was that you could wait until everyone around you could do everything [to put on a production] . . . or you could make the choice to learn how to do all of these things [yourself].
Even though she had all of the tech gear and skills necessary to make a great product, singing online still proved to be difficult. She realized that her online efforts still lacked an essential part of the performance. The audience. “To try and recreate that energy [of a live, in-person crowd] … it was a very rude awakening for me to just realize how much work I needed to do to imagine an audience and build that into the scenery in my mind for each story I was telling. I had to create a fourth wall that didn’t exist,” she says.
Despite all of the difficulties this pandemic has created for Cresswell and her fellow performers around the nation, she is adamant there have been silver linings. In particular, Cresswell treasures the artistic liberty she has enjoyed during the pandemic, a type of creative freedom that was not always possible while working in conventional settings. “One of my least favorite things about being a singer was always that creativity and ownership of artistic output is really limited,” she says. “Everyone is telling you what to do, where to stand, how long you can hold a note. And this last year, that all went away. [During the pandemic] I got to take ownership of what I was doing.”
On a deeper level, Creswell believes this unprecedented time has led her and many of her peers to reflect on their profession and purpose.
“I think a lot of artists and a lot of singers have had to sit with themselves and really think about why they do what they do,” she says candidly. “If it comes from a place where they just have to do it no matter what, then they just keep making their art.”
To keep up to date on the latest from Jennifer Creswell, follow her Instagram page.
Grace Fisher is currently studying vocal performance while working on her first novel.