Last spring, world music artist Lenka Lichtenberg was in the midst of mounting a major multidisciplinary production based on poems her grandmother wrote in Theresienstadt when the COVID pandemic struck and both the Toronto and Washington, D.C., premieres were cancelled.
A multi award-winning, singer, composer and arranger, Lichtenberg found herself in the same position as other performing artists—she was suddenly out of work. Even a year later, COVID protocols restricting live shows and concerts are still in effect with only virtual performances offering artists an outlet to reach isolated audiences.
When Ontario issued another stay-at-home order this past April, Lichtenberg said she couldn’t help feeling pretty blue as an artist. “The new lockdown, the variants, tragic stories from India, Brazil, our own backyards. The one beautiful booking I had for this season, which reignited the creative fire in me, got postponed,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Lichtenberg frequently toured internationally. She’s performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., at Etno-fest in Wroclaw, Poland, and at the Klezfiesta in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She’s released several Yiddish albums, and she recorded sacred Hebrew songs in 12 synagogues across the Czech Republic for the album, Songs for the Breathing Walls, which received a Canadian Folk Music Award.
To overcome the pandemic blues, Lichtenberg decided to create a series of videos, to be released on her YouTube channel on the 1st and 15th of each month for the rest of 2021. She’s calling the series “Purpose and Gratitude”—“gratitude because we’re healthy and okay (she’s married with three children), and the purpose is trying to create a purpose for myself at a time when there is actually nothing happening,” she said.
On May 1, she released the first video in the series, “Ej, duby, duby,” a Slovak folk song collected by the Czech composer Vítězslav Novák in the early 20th century. The song, set during the period when Czechoslovakia was part of the Austrian Empire, is about a girl whose mother wants her to sleep with an army officer. She refuses to obey and chooses the boy she loves instead.
“I’ve had the collection of his songs since I was a kid and I really liked this one,” Lichtenberg said. “His arrangement is really kind of modernist, not one that I actually like, but I like the song, so I wrote my own arrangement.”
The video series is the latest of Lichtenberg’s virtual activities since the pandemic began. Every two weeks, she co-leads streamed Shabbat services at Toronto’s Congregation Darchei Noam and she leads a women’s choir on Zoom.
The choir met while the women were preparing for an adult bat mitzvah at Darchei Noam, a Reconstructionist synagogue. Lichtenberg asked them to learn some songs, so they could sing along with her at the service. After the bat mitzvah in December 2019, they decided to keep the choir going, moving it online once the pandemic struck. To date, they’ve had more than 58 sessions.
Working from home, Lichtenberg has explored some new recording technologies. She’s learned how to edit video, since without income, she said she can’t afford to pay an editor. She’s also learned how to record at home. “If I want to keep progressing with anything I do, I have to do most of this remotely. Instead of inviting people to come to the studio, I send them some material and then they record it and send it back to me,” she said.
One of the benefits of recording remotely is that it’s possible to collaborate with other musicians wherever they are. “It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to ask someone in New York or London, U.K., to record on one of my songs. Now I realize, I can ask anyone, anywhere, because pretty well all of us are set up to record at home.”
The Thieves of Dreams, the largest project Lichtenberg has undertaken so far, is tentatively scheduled to premiere in November 2021. Lichtenberg hopes to premiere the production as a hybrid live and virtual stage show, but the form the show takes will depend on COVID protocols. She also plans to release a double album and a poetry book related to the show.
You can follow Lichtenberg’s series on her YouTube channel, where all the videos can be viewed after their premieres.