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When Opera Entered the Chat

My senses were newly sharpened, hypersensitive to every detail, every breath; in visual and aural close-up, all the notes magnified, things were more vivid than they are in person. What was strange was how, wanting to share my thoughts as constantly and precisely as possible, I began to have a little bit of, well, stage fright. “I’m as nervous about this gala as if I myself were performing lol,” my friend wrote.

We posted screenshots of conversations we were having with others. We praised. We dissed. (“And he’s not even in great voice,” I noted, about a tenor who shall remain nameless.) We watched history get revisited, as Renée Fleming sang Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” from “Otello,” a onetime standard of hers. “OK that knocked me out. Her emotion!!” my friend exclaimed.

His judgment on Matthew Polenzani’s sweet, very dad-like “Danny Boy”? “This is the most heterosexual thing that has ever happened.”

“They are,” my friend concluded of the whole shebang, “really pulling it off!”

Unplanned, shared streams of consciousness like this sprouted when the pianist Conrad Tao played Frederic Rzewski’s fiery variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” in his apartment. (“I am a total fangirl,” a friend I hadn’t spoken to in months came out of the woodwork to write.) They came when the Met streamed a classic performance of “Ariadne auf Naxos,” during which I fielded several threads, for an overall sense of sitting around a cozy campfire warmed by the radiance of the starring soprano, Jessye Norman. When another pianist, Igor Levit, streamed Beethoven sonatas from an empty studio, I marveled to a colleague that the Twitter wags who like to dismiss his artistry were simply crazy. My phone kept lighting up, the music and the texting interwoven, and the art sweeter and livelier for it. The musicians weren’t opposite me on a stage; they were in the middle of a party.

It’s true: Classical music’s emphasis on solo attentiveness and rumination — which sets my professional life happily apart from much of contemporary society — was a little lost. Occasionally I felt like shushing myself. After this crisis is over, I certainly don’t ever want to be thumbing my phone during a “real” performance; just as the tumult of texts has been a respite from the silence and isolation of 2020, focus and solitude will go back to being a respite from the rest of normal life.

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