A Year Without Opera

Singers from Germany, Austria, UK, US and Canada comment on their current struggles, discoveries and hopes

Opera has always been known as the instrument of psychic and social health. But last year it also became a risk of physical health. Just when we needed culture the most, 2020 became a year of pandemic and a year without opera.  Therefore both artists and opera institutions are confronting a crisis of their own. The arts generated a greater percentage of unemployment claims than even the hospitality sector, hundreds of independent music venues have closed. When some opera singers were fortunate enough to hold salaried positions in state-funded ensembles and venues, others found themselves ineligible for government financial assistance schemes. In a time of rediscovering this universal art form, seven opera singers from Germany (Johannes Martin Kränzle, Tanja Ariana Baumgartner), Austria, United Kingdom (Edward Grint, Grace Davidson, Lauren Lodge-Campbell), United States (Brian Giebler), and Canada (Josh Lovell) share their thoughts and break down their experiences in the year without opera.

Germany and Austria

In some countries, the cultural sector has been better prepared to weather this crisis due to decades of heavy state investment and better social protection for performers. Both Germany and Austria launched two new funds: one to pay a bonus to organizers of smaller cultural events, so they can be profitable even with social distancing, and another to provide insurance for larger events to mitigate the risk of cancellation.

It is said Germany as a country ‘can and wants to afford culture’ and its cultural life has always been heavily subsidized. In May German government announced it had earmarked €1 billion for the arts along with significant funding at regional levels. The fund helped get cultural life restarted with venues upgrading their ventilation systems. The Austrian government establishes €90 million Euro Fund for Freelance Artists, providing an estimated 15 thousand artists with 1,000 euros for six months. The help proved to be critical to the survival of culture throughout 2020.

Germany’s freelance scheme was widely praised for swiftness and simplicity. According to baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle, “in Germany, most theatres paid a part (between 50 and 20 %) of the lost income”. German singer Tanja Ariana Baumgartner also had a contract from January to July that she had decided to end already before the pandemic. “Through this uncertainty, we are all paid — by the opera house, but also by the state. The government pays about 80 percent of our wages and then the opera makes up a various amount for each individual.” – adds mezzo-soprano. “There was a “Nothilfe” for my colleagues, who had lost quite every engagement during this year” – shares she. Even British soprano Grace Davidson after being rejected from financial support from the UK received money in a form of compensation for cancelled performances in Germany.

Even with the best effort, most opera projects both in Austria and Germany were cancelled. British baritone Edward Grint mentions a project he had in Germany, rehearsing opera production at Theater Heidelberg. Unfortunately, after six weeks of rehearsal, the show was cancelled and was never seen by the audience. On the other side, most German opera singers chose to work in other European countries. All professional engagements in 2020 went abroad for German baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle. He worked in Austria, Switzerland, France and Finland. According to the singer “these engagements really made the year financially.” German opera soloist’s Tanja Ariana Baumgartner’s most notable and financially profitable work of 2020 had also been in Austria. Even Canadian tenor Josh Lovell spent most of his 2020 season in Vienna, working in the ensemble of the Wiener Staatsoper. In the first part of the year, the theater was required to close and Lovell lost performances of Don Pasquale, La Cenerentola, and Guillaume Tell. Lovell’s contracts outside of Austria – including performances il Barbiere di Siviglia with the Bolshoi Theatre, and La Cenerentola with the New Generation Festival went as scheduled. In June, the Staatsoper reopened for concert performances and the Canadian tenor performed throughout the month, including the final closing gala with the Wiener Philharmoniker and Maestro Armiliato. Before Austria went back into lockdown in November, Lovell still had opportunities to perform – his fall season began with covering numerous roles and performances in Salome. The premiere of Henze’s Das verratene Meer in December was not canceled entirely as the Staatsoper was able to live-stream a single performance. The Canadian had more opportunities of work in Austria than in his home country. “My Fest contract at the Wiener Staatsoper provided the most of my income for the season, as the employees were all continually paid despite the lockdown. I’m very grateful to have had this during this year, as the pandemic has been devastating for art industries and artists all around the world.“ – shares the singer. At the moment both Germany and Austria are in lockdown and the situation is still bleak.

United Kingdom

United Kingdom’s cultural industry is said to be the beating heart of the country. It’s one of the most fast-growing creative industries, employing more than 700,000 people and critical to keeping the UK’s economy thriving. The venues usually have little state support and heavily rely on their own ticket sales. Therefore many opera theaters throughout the pandemic have only received little support. Many small historic venues have simply ended up closing in bankruptcy and culture vultures suggested the arts were not a priority for the government.

Under pressure from a celebrity campaign, the UK government finally announced a £1.57 billion rescue package for the arts, culture and heritage industries, making the biggest ever one-off investment in UK culture. This will be made up of £270 million of repayable finance and £880 million grants. Edward Grint mentions that at the beginning of lockdown he has been able to get government help from the UK, as well as a grant from Help Musicians UK Even with that, his principal source of income during the year has been from his work in Europe.

British baritone Edward Grint describes the situation in his own words: “The UK government has made things as a performer extremely difficult. From closing the theatres, and setting up a cultural fund which rarely seems to trickle down to the freelance performers, to insisting on a 14-day quarantine to any returning from abroad where work was still taking place, to now bringing in Brexit legislation which has seen the advent of requiring interviews, visas, and carnets for previously simple work abroad.”

The opera theaters in the UK were closed throughout the season and opportunities for performing “have basically been non-existent” (Edward Grint). Both the English National Opera and Royal Opera theaters were paralyzed and the opera soloist and ensembles lost job opportunities. Soprano Grace Davidson also shares her experience. She is solely a self-employed performer, specializing in the performing and recording of Renaissance & Baroque repertoire. Grace planned her last season with concert tours in Japan, America, Europe and the UK Unfortunately, all of her performance dates in Britain have been also cancelled since March 2020. „This has been a huge financial blow“ – says Grace after receiving zero help from the UK Government and have not qualified for help since. „I am in the Excluded group, despite having paid my taxes, national insurance and worked in this business for over 20 years.“ – express disappointment singer. Even her single gig performing of Handel’s Messiah just before the hit the proper third lockdown didn‘t replace what has been lost this year. „It feels desperately unfair. – shares Grace – Like many of my friends and colleagues, I am also married to a musician and have a young family.“

The third singer, who also shares that most things she booked in the UK were cancelled last year, is British soprano Lauren Lodge-Campbell. „The last concert I did before the pandemic was right before the lockdown in the UK – at the London Handel Festival in mid-March. In October I was fortunate to perform in a live concert with the English Chamber Orchestra, which was made up of a socially distanced audience and live-streamed. I also performed in the Oxford Lieder Festival, who produced an entirely live-streamed festival.“ – shared singer. Even though Lauren Lodge-Campbell also found herself being ineligible for the UK Self-Employed scheme, as well as for any kind of government support, she received a £500 grant from Help Musicians UK.

„I think that more and more professional musicians are having to turn to other jobs, especially as such a large number are excluded from government support.“ – expresses her worries soprano. – „We are a resilient industry, and I’m so proud of my colleagues, but 2020 was very tough, and a lot of people are not able to ‘weather this storm’ financially without other work.“

US and Canada

Arts and Culture is an$800 billion US industry. But last year in the USA and Canada all opera productions have been cancelled or postponed, by such companies as the Canadian Opera Company, Metropolitan Opera and The Royal Opera. Institutions started publishing expected revenue shortfall calculations and by the end of March, the Metropolitan Opera expected to lose $60 million in revenue. At that time the United States federal government announced a $2 trillion economic stimulus package in the Coronavirus Aid and Relief, which included: “$75 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and $75 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities”. Cultural venues that didn’t fit neatly into categories qualifying for relief were facing the possibility of bankruptcy if forced to keep running at reduced capacities.

About half of opera singers are self-employed and most rely on short-term contracts and one-off gigs. In response, many freelance musicians struggled to make ends meet, worrying about rent and contemplating nonmusical careers. The US had opted to allow freelance musicians to access Pandemic Unemployment, and for several months, even supplemented that with an additional boost. Many grants were also provided by the American Guild of Musical Artists Relief Fund, Arts Leaders of Color Emergency Fund, New Music Solidarity Fund, etc. Tenor Brian Giebler shares having also found organizations that provided him a small honorarium retracted the fee or reserved it for the future. Such organizations as TENET Vocal Artists and Trinity Wall Street opted to honor contract fees, which he calls „a huge blessing“. Early Music America and New Music Solidarity Fund also offered small grants throughout the year.

American tenor Brian Giebler reflects on the situation: “As with most arts communities in the world, 95% of live opportunities in NYC and the US were shut down.“ According to him „other countries have seemingly done a better job at keeping their numbers down to safely re-open a bit sooner. Until the vaccine or herd-immunity really take hold here in the US, I have doubts about the confidence of presenters putting any sort of contract together.“ – describes the singer.

Opera Online

As their main field activity, all opera singers from different backgrounds noted work online. German mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariana Baumgartner mentioned making living from online teaching as being a vocal coach at the University of Bern Switzerland. British baritone Edward Grint last year also was being busy with online singing and teaching. British soprano Grace Davidson continued working with commercial recordings in the London studios for film and television and calls this work the “savior” of the time. “I have managed remote recording sessions in London studios that are safe to record film and video game soundtracks” – shares the singer.

The thing that Edward Grint has been “lucky enough to pick up” was the recording process of a CD for The King’s Consort of Purcell Odes and a few film soundtrack. Apart from negotiating all the quarantine regulations, he managed to keep busy enough. US tenor Brian Giebler agrees that „the only work that has come my way has been in front of my phone to pre-recorded back-up tracks that are then doctored together to be released, again, on the internet.“ Accordant to him, in the US some organizations found ways of prepping music over zoom, meeting up in person after being masked, distanced, and tested. „Last year there were many small recording projects, made by less than 7 people for release on the internet.“ – shares singer.

Professional performing arts companies are also following this tendency – some have released previously recorded productions and live-stream performances. The Royal Opera House had released performances of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera released one-hour specials on YouTube each week. Like many others around the world, Vienna’s opera houses and orchestras are providing broadcasts. For now, it is believed to be the only way that musicians will be able to perform.

2021

The year without opera already revealed a perspective of different directions that Germany, Austria, the UK, the US and Canada took throughout the challenge. They makes it obvious that in German-speaking countries classical music is of a bigger economical and identity value than English-speaking cultures. As the consequence, 2020 for opera singers from English-speaking countries felt different from German-speaking with the biggest gap in income, health insurance and safety. Even with impressive rescue packages and declarations, UK and US governments did not put the effort for cultural events to run within safety measures (as sports events) and brush off the responsibility of liveliness and relevance of the country‘s cultural well-being. According to Canadian tenor Josh Lovell, even today Austria, and in particular Vienna, is a cultural hub not only for music, but for the ballet, and the theatre. “My hope is that by the end of the spring, the country will be able to reopen for the remainder of the artistic seasons and for the summer festivals.” Even though opera in the current times seems like a luxury, people really value it and are consuming its online offerings. Culture as a sector now really binds many people together.

The future of it is often painted with the means of global live-casts, multimedia camera set-ups in refitted venues for fewer local people. „Over the long haul, neither presenters nor performers can sustain a living on the smaller, socially distanced audience sizes“ – adds Brian Giebler. With less differentiation between genres, large opera organizations might begin functioning as media companies, producing entertainment and education driven formats. Tenor Brian Giebler says that creative responses artists came up with to the challenges of the pandemic were inspiring and as ideas could be useful in the future.

When facing the mystery of the future most singers from different backgrounds agree that conditions for artists could stay the same „being a musician in the UK has been tricky in 2020, and it looks like 2021 won’t be easier” (Edward Grint) or get worse if „pandemic is going to create an issue while making future contracts” (Johannes Martin Kränzle). Grace Davidson agrees that concerts next year will look vulnerable and planning for them complicated. US citizen tenor Brian Giebler has heard from several colleagues that „performances for the fall of 2021 have already started to cancel“.

The situation in the United Kingdom is altered by Brexit and, according to British baritone Edward Grint, it will make traveling for musicians significantly harder and more costly. “Until government will find a solution to allow people back into the theatres and concert halls safely, it’s going to be very difficult for musicians in the UK” – shares he. British soprano Grace Davidson also stresses that Covid and Brexit combined have put more pressure on an already vulnerable industry. „All musicians will be facing complications as we try to get back on track“ – declares she. British soprano Lauren Lodge-Campbell doesn’t see how large-scale operas and international touring will be able to go ahead before more people are vaccinated globally. All her work from 2021 onwards is outside the UK.

On the other side, there is the glittering hope that the vaccine brings, as it reaches more people, and can influence the numbers of cases and deaths. Only after the vaccine roll-out „I see the possibility to have a better discussion about when live performances – in the circumstances familiar to us in the past – can start happening again.“ – shares his opinion Brian Giebler. “We can campaign hard, and hope that as time moves on some simpler solutions will be found” – inspires Edward Grint. Soprano Lauren Lodge-Campbell also expresses being proud of how the arts industry has adapted to constantly changing times.

The study, conducted by Fraunhofer Heinrich Institute & Konzerthaus Dortmund in collaboration with the German Environment Agency and hygiene experts, demonstrated that the existing central ventilation system and wearing a face mask would almost exclude the risk of transmission of infectious agents by aerosol transmission in opera theaters. Even though, according to this study „concert halls and theatres are not places of infection“ and governments need a scientifically sound basis for decision making, it is unlikely that there will be a return to public performance at any point soon. Most governments are shutting opera houses down for now till April (there will be no public performances in Germany until Easter). Right now is a tough time to answer the question of the future. It’s hard to stay positive and grounded when 2021 stands as a big question mark, dreading reality and bringing the luring with the hope of change.

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