Photo/Illutration A woman in a face shield for singers takes a lesson at Nagoya Nikikai in Nagoya's Mizuho Ward on June 29. (Chie Kohara)

NAGOYA--When the Nagoya Nikikai opera company looked to restart a training program in June, it struggled to assure students' safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Ordinary face masks would make it impossible for singers to open their mouths wide, and plastic facial shields would echo with the sounds of voices around the face," said Kumi Amano, a director of the company. 

To overcome the challenge, Amano spoke with stagehand Yuka Isoda, who designs stage props and accessories as a member of Atelier Yue and had studied vocal music.

"I usually work close to singers so I could understand what is required of them," said Isoda, looking back on that time.

The secret weapon developed by Isoda, 36, consists of a transparent facial covering and cloth bag to prevent droplets from spreading in the air when singing, while it also enables performers to open their mouths wide.

The special face shield currently helps trainees who joined the Nagoya Nikikai in Mizuho Ward here to refine their skills, since its concerts scheduled through the end of the year have been canceled or postponed.

The invention came as opera singers have difficulties in practicing during the novel coronavirus outbreak. Isoda, who has been working closely with performers, expects her brainchild will help lead to the earlier resumption of concerts.

One day in late June, three junior singers, who became the company's members this past spring, took a lesson at a studio of Nagoya Nikikai for a planned demonstration. The mouths of the trainees were covered with the facial gear for singing, not ordinary masks.

The face shield's see-through material allows the expressions of the wearers to be clearly seen. The section below the eyes is stretched forward to ensure space for wearers to breathe easily. The scarf-like fabric hanging from the part beneath the mouth is designed to contain droplets and can be removed so it can be washed repeatedly.

Asaka Ota, 29, one of the trainees, said she found the face protection very helpful.

"I was worried about the delay in the lesson program, but I now can sing while seeing the performance of all other singers and sensing the atmosphere," she said. "All this is owed to it (the covering)."

The trainees using the anti-virus protection performed for the first time at a closed demonstration on July 18.

The training program started in April, but lectures on basic opera techniques and Italian pronunciation were offered remotely in May instead of in-person classes amid the virus spread.

To help restart the in-person training, Isoda completed the covering through trial and error in which the wearer's face can be seen.

The finished product allows for easy breathing, does not grip the temple tightly and prevents droplets from falling off the mouth.

The face protection started to be used at lessons under the training program. Its popularity spread through word of mouth so much that orders currently pour in from singers and choral groups across Japan.

As the covering is hand-produced by Isoda and her acquaintances in charge of stage settings and costumes, it takes time to deliver the product to customers who place high-volume orders.

Isoda said she wants use of her shield to become much more common, given that few stage performances are planned by the end of this year, leaving stagehands like herself with nothing to do.

"Unless actors can start rehearsing, the performances will never become a reality," Isoda said. "It will make me happy if I can contribute to the restart of stage performances."

For purchasing, search for "Atelier Yue" or "singing face shield" on Facebook to send a message to its account.