By Tim Munro
Amy Kaiser, Director of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, was in shock. “Our performances of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust were going to be one of the high points of the year,” she says. “One of the high points of a musical life.”
The chorus had participated in one rehearsal with the orchestra, but any hope of performance was swept away by the threat of the pandemic. “It was painful,” she says, her voice fraying a little.
After the cancelation, Amy couldn’t listen to Berlioz’s music without crying. “I thought music would be consoling and wonderful. It turns out I can’t listen to music—can’t make music.”
Amy found solace in a single song, Die Taubenpost ("The Pigeon Post”) from Franz Schubert’s final collection. She had not previously known the song, but now found that she couldn’t live without its atmosphere of calm and hope. “I listened to it, sang it, and played it six times a day.”
Amy eventually found acceptance. She quotes the Scots poet Robert Burns, with a passage that roughly translates as, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, leaving us with grief and pain instead of promised joy.”
So how has Amy been spending this time? “I don’t have cable, I don’t stream, I am trying hard to watch the minimal amount of news. I take walks, I talk on the phone, I do some work in the garden.”
Her nerves are closer to the surface. “I got very upset a week ago because my rosemary plant died, and I couldn’t make a recipe. It was very upsetting,” she laughs, “until I realized, that, yes, I could use oregano.”
And Amy is learning a new skill. For a decade she has taught Illuminating Opera, a spring class previewing Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s summer productions. With OTSL’s season canceled, these classes have become radio episodes, produced in collaboration with Classic 107.3 FM.
She feels lucky to have a meaningful project, calling it “a bright spot in the grief that everyone feels about the loss of our musical community, the loss of any community.” She has relished rethinking her talks. “This is my first time working in radio,” she says. “It’s been quite an adventure.”
Oh, and then there is tap dancing. “I’ve been a tap dancer for many, many years,” she says, and is quick to caution that tap is not well-suited to the online world. “Dance classes, musical rehearsals, they’re not meant to be one-on-one. They are communal.”
A three-by-three plywood board in front of a computer is not a dance floor, just as speakers and a computer screen cannot replicate Powell Hall. “What we do is completely dependent on being together, live, with no amplification, no electronics.”
A meow emerges from another room. “There’s one of the tenors,” Amy says. “He’s being recorded—he knows.” Her two cats, Franco and Luciano, are named for the great Italian opera singers, Franco Corelli and Luciano Pavarotti.
When Amy is reunited with her chorus, “it will be a tremendous joy.” She turned 75 in the first weeks of the quarantine. The SLSO Chorus would have sung Happy Birthday to her on stage, but in the silence of quarantine, they instead worked together to offer her a composite video of their home-bound voices.
The 20/21 season will mark another milestone: Amy’s final year as Director of the SLSO Chorus, following her 26-year tenure and five decades in the industry. Before quarantine descended, she had been thinking of mementos to gather, but had failed to gather anything significant. And then she remembered the video.
On this shaky phone video, taken on a whim several weeks ago, SLSO Chorus members enter Powell Hall before rehearsal. They chat, they find their chairs. It is so ordinary that it might ordinarily be ignored. “It’s not a good video, but suddenly it has become a treasure.” The everyday is now precious.
In Die Taubenpost, a pigeon carries love letters to a beloved. “Each day I send her out a thousand times…to my sweetheart’s house.” The pigeon, a “messenger of constancy,” is content “as long as she can roam.”
At this time of confusion, as we stay inside out of concern for and duty to our communities, Schubert’s pigeon offers hope. She travels between us, connecting one person to another, one heart to another.
Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly-behaved orange cat.