A classical singer pivots during pandemic to bring cheer through parody

In mid-March, Chris Mann found himself staring at a blank calendar.

Since graduating from Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music in 2004, Mann had built a thriving music career in Los Angeles. He was a finalist on the second season of NBC’s The Voice; he had recorded albums and sung on movie soundtracks; and he’d landed the lead in a national touring company of The Phantom of the Opera.

And then COVID-19 happened.

“All of my concerts were indefinitely canceled—I was fully unemployed,” Mann says. “Then I did one of those really stressful shopping trips where you spend hundreds of dollars and everyone is fighting for toilet paper. I came home and put my son to bed, and then really—I don’t know why—I sat down and wrote ‘My Corona.’ I had no plan. I had no expectation for it. I was really just expressing my own frustrations at the time.”

Mann recorded his parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona” in one take on a smartphone in his bathroom and posted it to his YouTube channel. He was stunned when two days later, it had 4 million views. (It’s received nearly 8 million views to date.)

“That sort of changed everything,” Mann says. “The response was unexpected, and I was a little bit nervous. I am known to be quite proper as far as my vocal style. I sing opera. I sing Josh Groban-types of songs. Now I’m singing into a toilet paper roll for millions of viewers. I wasn’t sure what my fans would think.”

True, “My Corona” may have seemed a bit off-brand for the singer known for his “serious” vocal style. But Mann admits his true personality is anything but. He loves to make people laugh, and viewers were connecting to the funny side of Chris Mann in a big way.

He followed up with more parodies, like “Stay Home Vogue,” “Hello (From the Inside)” and “Bored as Hell,” all receiving an overwhelmingly positive response. It seemed people everywhere needed to process, to feel, and most of all, to laugh—and Mann was helping them do that.

“After the first one, I just wanted to keep delivering because I was getting hundreds of thousands of comments from people all over the world who were coming together to watch my videos,” he says. “They were looking forward to that moment of levity because they felt trapped or had lost their job or had a loved one on the front line—you name it. It’s been really beautiful to watch.”

He returned to his serious side for “Thank U Frontline,” a stirring remake of Alanis Morrissette’s “Thank U,” which has 1.2 million views to date. As he shelters in place with his wife Laura and 3-year-old son, Hugo, in their Los Angeles home, Mann is mindful of Vanderbilt’s 2020 graduates, who weren’t able to participate in a Commencement ceremony this month and may be facing a future very different than they originally planned. His words of wisdom are this:

“It’s understandable to feel paralyzed and stuck, but this pandemic isn’t going to take away all you have learned and who you’ve become,” he says. “Maybe it will cause you to think differently about your music, or to reevaluate the direction you were taking. Maybe this is going to put you on a path that is more inspired and way more passionate. Maybe it will take you someplace incredible that you never saw coming.”

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Learn more about the Blair School’s opera program.