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The masked singers of the U

How an innovative and creative couple made singing safe for opera students in the time of COVID.

Julia Haywood-Breault started hand sewing masks for her family and friends when the coronavirus first swept the nation, bringing uncertainty for all, especially the music community.

What started as a hobby of creating custom masks to include a person’s favorite football team or interest, evolved into reimagining the basic mask pattern. Haywood—dancer, costume designer, creative—sought to improve masks for the wearer, including her husband and opera singer, Robert Breault.

Breault is the director of opera at the University of Utah’s School of Music. Since COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets, it significantly affects musicians like wind players and vocalists. Teaching classes where students are expected to sing for each other was a safety concern. In Breault’s research, surgical masks were deemed ineffective for singers as droplets could easily leak from the sides of the mask.

Breault and Haywood-Breault knew they could do better. With Haywood-Breault’s background in costume design and Breault’s experience as a singer, they researched 30 different masks until coming up with their own version.

Their final product covers the entire half portion of one’s face with extra fabric to be tucked under one’s collar. It’s thin enough to breathe, sing and be heard, but thick enough to be safe. It’s designed for performing only, not everyday wear, as wearers have to air out the mask between performances. The biggest advantage in the design is a bridge inserted to hold the shape of the mask in order to avoid inhaling the fabric while singing.

“When you’re not getting resistance from something so close to your mouth, you can feel like you can really sing out,” said Breault.

The sound quality is impressive, as the mask acts almost like its own mini theatre. Now Breault’s colleagues from all over the country have asked him for the pattern.

All of the U’s opera students have custom masks designed specifically for their head measurements, made by Haywood-Breault, who only asked to be compensated for the materials, which the School of Music funded.

“It’s truly a labor of love,” said Breault.

Each mask took at least four hours to make and was hand-sewn using patterns from eight different wood cutouts that Breault and Haywood-Breault made themselves. For Haywood-Breault, the students’ appreciation made it worth it.

“It is the most amazing mask I have ever put on,” said master’s student James Bobick. “It is so incredible to be able to hear myself when I sing. I have expended all my energy telling everyone I know about Julia’s amazing creativity and generosity.”