SF Opera and UCSF's New Mask for Singers Helps Bring Back In-Person Performances

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Galen Till, Sr. costume production supervisor at San Francisco Opera, demos the new SF Opera / UCSF mask for singers. (Sean Karlin/SF Opera)

Sanziana Roman is a classically-trained soprano who also happens to be a professor of surgery and thyroid surgeon at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).

"I just couldn't bear the thought that I may not make it as a singer," Roman says. "So I went to medical school."

San Francisco Opera (SF Opera) has enlisted Roman as one of a handful of UCSF medical experts to help determine what it would take to bring live opera back.

UCSF professor of surgery and thyroid surgeon Sanziana Roman was on track to become a professional soprano before changing track to pursue a career in medicine. (Courtesy Sanziana Roman)

The group has met every Monday morning on Zoom since last June. And one night not too long after the collaboration began, Roman decided to get creative.

"I had some old masks from the operating room that I brought home," Roman says. "I cut them up at my kitchen table and kind of pasted them together."

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The result was the prototype for a new mask specially designed for singers, and aimed at keeping performers safe as they return to live productions.

Roman's invention has since gone through rounds of testing and further design tweaks. UCSF and SF Opera have filed a patent for the mask, and it's currently being manufactured in the opera company's costume shop as the team searches for a commercial entity like 3M to potentially license the mask to and ramp up its production.

"It was really designed to get singers practicing, working together, and being in close proximity without worrying so much about aerosols," Roman says of her new creation, officially called the VOXCV mask.

Even though COVID-19 infection rates are dropping in California, singing in public is still considered a high-risk activity. That's because of the aerosols that singing produces—fine mists of tiny particles 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.

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, Roman's new mask design has proved to be almost as efficient at filtering out particles as the gold-standard N95 mask. (According to a UC Davis research paper shared with KQED, it filters out 94% of particles; the N95 filters 95%.)

SF Opera Adler Fellow Anne-Marie MacIntosh got to try out and offer feedback on the new singing mask. (Anne-Marie MacIntosh/SF Opera)

San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Anne-Marie MacIntosh, a resident artist with the company, is impressed with the thinking that's gone into the design.

"It has a really nice drawstring at the bottom that goes underneath your chin to ensure again that there aren't aerosols escaping through the bottom of the mask," MacIntosh says.

MacIntosh was able to try out and offer feedback on the new mask, which is made of washable cotton and has plastic boning to keep it off the face.

"And also 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 put yourself and others in danger," MacIntosh says.

MacIntosh unfurls the long flap at the front of the mask, which flops around like the trunk of a dejected elephant. It's not very flattering, in other words. (Roman says the original prototype looked even weirder.)

But MacIntosh says after months of being stuck in her apartment doing rehearsals on Zoom, she can live with the aesthetics.

"We're creating a new trend here!" she says with a laugh.

Other opera companies, like Opera San Jose, have also developed singer masks in their costume shops. The company's general director, Khori Dastoor, says she can see them becoming part of a performer’s everyday toolkit, alongside things like pitch pipes and throat lozenges, well after this pandemic ends.

"If it reduces our risk to get the flu or to get any kind of run-of-the-mill rhinovirus, that will stay," Dastoor says.

UCSF's Roman says masks should be thought of as just one part of a larger solution to enable a safe return to live performances.

"Masks are not the only thing that will be protective," she says. "You have to have good ventilation. You have to have some separation from each other. And you need to have a lot of good testing."

Meanwhile, singer MacIntosh is about to get her first chance to sing before a live audience in more than a year.

Together with a number of fellow San Francisco Opera artists, MacIntosh is ramping up for a series of live outdoor performances in late April and May, held at the Marin Center for a drive-in audience. So she’s getting used to practicing in her new mask.

MacIntosh says rehearsing in the mask isn’t ideal. It gets a little stuffy in there after a while. But that's a small price to pay.

"It's just exciting to get to work with other people," MacIntosh says. "We're going to do whatever it takes to make that happen."