With announcement of Spoleto schedule coming up, MUSC expert talks performing during pandemic

March 05, 2021
Spoleto Festival USA kicks off I front of Charleston's City Hall on May 24, 2019.
Here's what the opening ceremony of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston looked like in 2019, the most recent year the event was held. It was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. Photo by Leigh Webber

With the announcement of the 2021 Spoleto Festival USA schedule set for April 5, a nationally known expert in keeping performers healthy will likely once again find herself center stage. 

Lucinda Halstead, M.D., an ear, nose and throat surgeon specializing in voice and swallowing disorders at MUSC Health and an associate professor in the College of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, has served as a medical advisor for Charleston-based Spoleto Festival USA for years. She’s also the president of the national Performing Arts Medicine Association.

Headshot of Dr. Lucinda Halstead 
Dr. Lucinda Halstead

Last year’s Spoleto Festival was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not yet clear what form this year’s event will take, when it comes to in-person versus virtual performances. But it is expected to take place. And Halstead has a valuable commodity for those performers: science-based expertise in helping people perform as safely as possible.

“When Spoleto comes, people aren’t going to be fully protected yet with vaccinations, so we’ll look at distancing, aerosols and performance spaces. The density of people you’re going to have and the length of time they’re in a performance space are still very, very important,” Halstead said.

The recommendations will be guided, in part, by a study commissioned by an international coalition of performing arts organizations. The researchers have been releasing preliminary results in waves. They found, among other things:

  • If musicians wear masks designed to accommodate their instruments, with slits for the mouthpieces, and use bell covers for instruments when possible, they can cut aerosol emissions between 60% and 90%.
  • Singers who wear a well-fitting three-layer surgical-style mask dramatically reduce the amount of aerosol they emit. That can work so well that in the case of a soprano singer in the study, masking was 98% effective.
  • A face shield only works at close range unless the singer also wears a mask.
  • Performers should rehearse outside if possible.
  • Indoor rehearsals should be limited to 30 minutes, then performers should leave to allow fresh air into the room before returning.

Halstead has already been using the research, along with her own experience, to advise performers and directors on how to work as safely as possible until the pandemic is over. Rob Taylor, director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, leader of the Taylor Festival Choir and director of Choral Activities at the College of Charleston, said Halstead's advice has been invaluable. “When this first happened, every choral conductor in the country started watching seminars about performing during COVID. Lucinda’s was one of the very first ones.”

Robert Taylor directs a choir, wearing a mask and socially distanced, during COVID-19 pandemic. 
Choral director Robert Taylor works outside with masked and socially distanced performers. Photo by Sarah Pack

Without that expert advice, Taylor said he’d have had to shut down all of his choral singing groups. “She is a leading force in the medicine behind vocal health in the country. We just happen to have her here in Charleston.”

Halstead didn’t set out to become a doctor. “I grew up singing and dancing. I grew up in Los Angeles, where everybody wants to be a triple threat. So that was my background. But I chose medicine as my career and was sort of guided into otolaryngology.”

As she studied, she found mentors. Two of them were instrumental in developing phonosurgery, a procedure that repairs or improves the voice, Halstead said. “One of them was the physician for the Boston Opera. So I was able to see a lot of performers, from people who were singers on cruise line ships to opera performers. That really appealed to me.”

She loved being able to use science to improve the arts. And the volume of that fascination has gone up during the pandemic. “Mitigations do work,” she said. “People can perform safely and see performances safely – if they take all of the necessary steps.”

Halstead is thrilled to see Spoleto return in whatever form it takes. It’s scheduled for May 28 through June 13. “The arts have always been a big part of my life.”

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