Opera in the Time of Covid-19: Now and Beyond

Hello dear friends, I’ve been itching to write since I became quarantined in Spain more than two weeks ago but I didn’t want to respond just emotionally.  It’s been a mind-bending experience watching the world change before our eyes, first relative to Asia then Europe and then America and the rest of the world.  No one would have thought only three weeks ago that the music world, indeed the whole world, would become so radically changed.  Every classical singer is effectively out of work.  All the freelancers have lost all their work for the coming months and with that we have come to understand how precarious the life of a freelance classical musician is, especially singers.  Even top singers are concerned about finances.  It is important to realize how insecure our financial lives are!

For private voice teachers like me, it is no different.  Those of us who work mostly with professional singers take a major hit as well.  As these singers lose their incomes, naturally they want to hold on to their resources to be able to ride out the pandemic.  So this is not a happy time for anyone who is a freelancer of any kind. We can go through this driven by our fears or we can be proactive despite our fears.  I chose the latter.  I am a lifelong singer!  I am seeing my best singing happening in this period.  By even current developments I will come out of this pandemic a transformed singer with abilities that I did not imagined when I began my transition to tenor around the time I considered my journey to tenor.  Nevertheless, if I can advise anyone going into classical singing or who is already pursuing classical singing as a career, I will say:

“Singing is not enough!”  

Our careers, like our financial portfolios (if we have any) need to be diversified.  And it’s never too late.  I’ve always taught over the Internet through Skype, Zoom, Messenger, FaceTime, etc. But I have not actively spent time until now to make this a more important component of my teaching.  I had gotten to the level of teaching professionals and imagined that this would be enough.  I’ve also taught serious amateurs!  Interestingly enough, they have regular jobs and can continue to have lessons, even if only VOI (Voice Over Internet).

My focus on professionals and passionate amateurs comes from my disappointment in Academia.  I find that the majority of young singers at the academic level are not aware of the discipline and dedication it takes to become an elite singer and tend to turn away when faced with the rigors of true development.  Instead, they want to hear that they are “gifted” “special.”  The truth is that people will label you special and gifted when you produce results according to their expectations.  That can change from day to day and from the same person.  When I was still singing as a baritone, I auditioned for a very important Young Artist Program and thought I had done an excellent audition.  When I got a rejection letter, I wrote the director and he agreed to have a phone conversation with me.  He said I did an excellent audition but that I do not have a world class voice and that his program caters to world class voices.  Two years later, when I was too old to apply for that program, I made it to the semifinals of a competition and this director was on the jury.  After I sang my round, he found me in the halls and told me I had a world class voice and wondered why I never auditioned for his program.  I told him I did audition for him and he told me I did not have a world class voice.  His response:

“I’m glad you didn’t listen to me!”

In short, we cannot listen to any one person’s opinion about how to run our lives.  My professional students have what they call their Board of Directors.  We all need a few people in our lives with diverse points of views who will tell us the truth, even when we are not of the mind to listen.

“We cannot do it alone!”

So I’ve added a business advisor to my team to help me develop the next stage of my business as a classical singer/voice teacher, or better said, a professional vocal artist.  What was obvious to me just before I met her was that my vision was too narrow.  As singers and voice teachers, we have so many skills that we unfortunately believe only apply to our chosen vocation.  We also have the unfortunate belief that we must focus 100% of our energy on our primary career.  I certainly did!  If we learn anything as a community in this crisis is that we must strike a balance between artistic commitment and our lives, including our economic viability.  I had the awful belief that I would teach voice and sing until the day I die and with that I would always be able to pay the bills.  That is sad!  The fact is I probably will sing and teach until I die because I love what I do.  But the bad part is that I thought that would be enough.

“It might be enough to survive but it is not enough to live!”

Life has many components and economic viability is a part of being a great artist.  In a world that has been converting more and more to a virtual dimension, it is important for us to become aware how we can participate on that front as well.  As an advocate for real opera, I’ve been a little myopic relative to the importance of the virtual world.  After I left academia the first time and did a considerable amount of non-music theater, I was advised to look into voice-over work.  It is something that excited me back then. But just about that time, my private teaching in New York took root and grew quickly. Now, I actually have time to commit to it and I have.  After applying for four voice over jobs, I received positive responses from three of the four companies, based on a two minute reading of a poem I recorded on my iPhone.  I believe there is a future there.  It is also work I can do at home.  I have experience in sound and video software from my work in singing.  One of the companies said they look forward to work with me in the future and that I had a great voice.  They also asked if by any chance I speak Spanish.  Well, I do and six additional languages fluently! So here is one example where my vocal work, my theatrical work, my language work, and my comfort with technology have value on a different platform and I can actually do this kind of work on my own schedule and at home.

“Is it guaranteed? No! But is it worth exploring? Definitely!”

One of my best professional students will take leave from his current singing job to relocate and work as a translator.  He will continue to sing, of course!  Another one writes code for website construction.  I’m sure I don’t know what other interesting jobs my singers do.

My purist tendencies made me focus on students who are as driven as I am, whether professional or serious amateur.  What frustrates me are people who are not interested on disciplined work.  I don’t like to teach students who are just going through the motions.  I don’t need to compromise that part of me.  However, there are ways I can provide instruction to literally millions of people who are avocational singers and even dilettantes.

I have cringed at the many Youtube channels of people claiming to “change your life in one voice lesson online!” But cringing is not enough. Do I have an alternative?

I never even considered I might have something more honest and of better quality to offer to that world.  Well, I am working on a series of online modules that singers can use to educate themselves about the nature of the voice and how to wade through the often confusing information.  Instead of being critical of what others are offering (they serve a purpose to many who are looking for easily digested information) why not provide information for those who are looking for something of a higher quality?

There is a place for everyone in a world of nearly 5 billion online consumers.  That is something worth considering by freelancers everywhere.

All of this, I was able to visualize after a one-hour meeting with the new member of my team.  My business advisor!

More than talk about it, I am also actively doing the work!

One of the things I realized through my first talk with my new business advisor is that I can do better engaging you, my faithful readers.  The world of opera has been changing drastically over the past three decades and it will only accelerate.

“We can come to solutions through our conversations on this blog.  Let’s make this an interactive experience! I am interested in what you have to contribute.”

Since the blog moved from Blogspot to WordPress, many of your subscriptions did not follow.  I am glad that the automatic forward brought you to our new home.  Let us reconnect properly:

Subscribe  to the blog above on the right sidebar with your email address!

© 1 April 2020


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