On Saturday, April 30 and Sunday, May 1, the St. Olaf Choir performed two concerts in Salt Lake City, Utah. Their first performance, at First Presbyterian Church on Saturday afternoon, looked normal. The full choir stood, decked in their iconic purple robes, and performed to a tour crowd seated in the pews. Both the choir and the audience all wore masks, the standard protocol for choir performances over the past two years.
The scene looked different on Sunday morning. Not only was the St. Olaf Choir now performing alongside the massive Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square during a live broadcast in the Tabernacle, but no performers and few audience members were seen wearing masks. As well, the St. Olaf Choir looked smaller; 18 of its almost 70 members in Utah opted to not perform at the Tabernacle as a response to the COVID-19 policies.
Jean Parish ’88, Director of College Relations for Music Organizations, informed the ensemble on April 22, they would not be allowed to wear masks while performing with the Tabernacle Choir and the accompanying Tabernacle Orchestra.
“We’d been in discussions with the Tabernacle about their decision for all performers to sing without masks for some time,” Parish wrote in emailed responses to questions from the Messenger. Non-masking has been a practice for the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra for several months; the St. Olaf Choir was told a week before they were set to leave for Utah.
Upon learning that they would not be able to wear masks during their Sunday broadcast performance, many students in the choir articulated worries for their health and the health of other members of the ensemble. As Parish wrote, “Several choir members expressed concern about singing without masks during the tour itinerary walk-through the week prior to departure.”
These concerns prompted Parish and Conductor of the St. Olaf Choir Dr. Anton Armstrong ’78 to offer choir members an option: opt out of the performance with the Tabernacle Choir, or do not wear masks while performing.
Many members of the ensemble felt uncomfortable with this condition, including Payton Slusher – a member of the St. Olaf Choir whose name has been changed to protect their anonymity. They feared dismissal from the ensemble if named.
“We were not told until a week before we leave that we were not going to be wearing masks,” Slusher said. “That is such a manipulation of students and their ability to choose what they do for their own safety. […] I think that it really displays a lack of respect for the students, a lack of care for the students, and it definitely forced me into a position where I do not trust my leaders any longer. I don’t trust [Parish] and [Armstrong] anymore.”
While, according to Parish, the choir’s guidelines have been updated recently in alignment with the campus’s general loosening of COVID-19 restrictions, ensemble leaders have discretion over whether to require masks for performances or not, similar to professors in their respective classrooms. Leaders of the St. Olaf Choir had continued to wear masks during performances, like their concert on Saturday — a major reason why many members of the choir felt surprised by the sudden change.
“While it follows CDC guidelines, it does not bring comfort to the students,” Slusher said.
Chair of the Music Department Kathryn Ananda-Owens was unaware of the change from previous choir policies until Tuesday, April 26, several days after members of the choir themselves were notified.
“That day, music faculty were hearing a fairly steady stream of upset, sad, and scared students,” Ananda-Owens said. “And I, at that point, didn’t have any ability as Department Chair to separate fact from rumor.”
Ananda-Owens continued, “It was the first time I had heard that risk mitigation plans for the run out might differ from the COVID risk mitigation plans for the previous tours. All I knew was that the students were concerned with something having to do with masks, and something having to do with testing.”
Initially when Parish announced COVID-19 protocols for the Utah trip, the school was not going to provide testing for all choir members upon departure or arrival. At the request of students, testing at the College was arranged before the choir’s departure on April 29. After multiple students who had been on the trip tested positive after their return on the night of May 1, testing was arranged for all choir members the following day.
In both rounds of testing, the expiration date on the COVID-19 tests the students took had passed over a month before the date the tests were administered. This expiration goes against directions from the Food and Drug Administration that advise against using expired tests due to their higher probability of giving inaccurate results.
Upon returning from their trip to Utah, more than 12 members of the choir have since tested positive for COVID-19 as of the time of publication. According to Ananda-Owens, this cluster of cases comes shortly after a number of cases appeared in the music department. The music department cases prior to the St. Olaf Choir’s trip to Utah had been reported to Campus Reopening Lead Enoch Blazis and to Ben Miller, the College’s consulting epidemiologist.
This pre-trip batch of cases included “the highest number of music faculty and staff isolating because of COVID at one time at any point in the pandemic,” Ananda-Owens said.
Slusher expressed concerns about the consequence that contracting COVID-19 while on the trip might have on students. “We deserve to excel outside of this choir and alongside this singing in this choir,” Slusher said. “And so, if we get COVID from this situation, we will be forced to get by by getting notes from friends. And by Zooming into classes – having a less productive educational experience than we would have otherwise. And it would be because of the lack of safety protocols in Salt Lake City.”
Alongside concerns about their safety, students addressed concerns over beliefs held by members of the Tabernacle Choir and the affiliated Church of Latter-Day Saints.
“We’re singing with the Tabernacle Choir, who hold views, and have a history of harming marginalized people who are represented in the St. Olaf Choir and in the St. Olaf community,” Slusher said.
Slusher continued, “the St. Olaf Choir singing with the Tabernacle Choir, is sending a message of solidarity with those views. […] We are students, we are to be respected. Our academics are to be respected. Our identities are to be respected. And if all of those things aren’t respected by our leadership, then students will continue to be harmed by this institution.”