A Year Without Opera – Singers from Germany, Austria, U.K., U.S. & Canada on their Struggles, Discoveries & HopesBy Ona Jarmalavičiūtė
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.
While 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) shared their thoughts and broke down their experiences in a year without opera.
Germany & 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 that Germany as a country “can and wants to afford culture” and its cultural life has always been heavily subsidized. In May, the 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 established a €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 its swiftness and simplicity. According to baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle, “in Germany, most theatres paid a part (between 50 and 20 percent) 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,” added mezzo-soprano. “There was a ‘Nothilfe’ for my colleagues, who had lost quite every engagement during this year.”
Even British soprano Grace Davidson, after being rejected for financial support from the U.K., received monetary compensation for canceled performances in Germany.
Despite best efforts, most opera projects both in Austria and Germany were canceled. British baritone Edward Grint was in Germany, rehearsing an opera production at Theater Heidelberg. Unfortunately, after six weeks of rehearsal, the show was canceled and was never seen by the audience.
On the other side, most German opera singers chose to work in other European countries. Kränzle, for example, worked in Austria, Switzerland, France, and Finland. According to the singer, “these engagements really made the year financially.”
Baumgartner’s most notable and financially profitable work of 2020 was also in Austria. Even Canadian tenor Josh Lovell spent most of his 2020 season in Vienna, working in the ensemble of the Wiener Staatsoper.
During 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 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. Ultimately, the Canadian had more opportunities to work in Austria than in his home country.
“My Fest contract at the Wiener Staatsoper provided most of my income for the season, as the employees were all continually paid despite the lockdown,” he shared. “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.“
At the moment both Germany and Austria are in lockdown and the situation is still bleak.
The 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 U.K.’s economy thriving.
But the venues usually have little state support and heavily rely on their own ticket sales. Therefore many opera theaters throughout the pandemic have 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 U.K. government finally announced a £1.57 billion rescue package for the arts, culture, and heritage industries, making the biggest ever one-off investment in U.K. culture. This will be made up of £270 million of repayable finance and £880 million grants. Baritone Edward Grint mentions that at the beginning of lockdown he has been able to get government help from the U.K., as well as a grant from Help Musicians U.K. But even with that, his principal source of income during the year has been from his work in Europe.
The baritone describes the situation in his own words: “The U.K. 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.”
Opera theaters in the U.K. were closed throughout the season and opportunities for performing “have basically been non-existent,” added Grint. Both the English National Opera and Royal Opera theaters were paralyzed and opera soloists and ensembles lost job opportunities.
Soprano Grace Davidson is solely a self-employed performer, specializing in the performing and recording of Renaissance & Baroque repertoire. Davidson planned her last season with concert tours in Japan, America, Europe and the U.K. Unfortunately, all of her performance dates in Britain have been canceled since March 2020. “This has been a huge financial blow,” she noted after receiving zero help from the U.K. Government.
She did not qualify for help because “I am in the Excluded group, despite having paid my taxes, national insurance and worked in this business for over 20 years.”
Even her single gig, performing of Handel’s “Messiah” just before the country was hit with a third lockdown, didn‘t replace what had been lost this year.
“It feels desperately unfair,” Davidson added. “Like many of my friends and colleagues, I am also married to a musician and have a young family.“
Then there’s the story of British soprano Lauren Lodge-Campbell, who endured a similar situation.
“The last concert I did before the pandemic was right before the lockdown in the U.K. – 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.“ – Lodge-Campbell shared, before noting that she was also ineligible for the U.K. Self-Employed scheme, as well as for any kind of government support; she did, however receive a £500 grant from Help Musicians U.K.
“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.“ noted the 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.“
U.S. & Canada
Arts and Culture is an $800 billion U.S. industry. But last year all opera productions in the USA and Canada were canceled or postponed.
Institutions started publishing expected revenue shortfall calculations and by the end of March, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it expected to lose $60 million in revenue (that has resulted in its Orchestra musicians remaining without pay since March and some lingering contract disputes hanging over the company). 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 all opera singers in the U.S, and Canada 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 also found organizations that provided him a small honorarium that 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.
“As with most arts communities in the world, 95 percent of live opportunities in NYC and the US were shut down,” Giebler reflected. “But 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.”
As their main field activity, all opera singers from different backgrounds were forced to work online.
Baumgartner mentioned making a living from online teaching as a vocal coach at the University of Bern Switzerland. Grint was also busy last year with online singing and teaching. Davidson continued working with commercial recordings in the London studios for film and television and called 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,” Davidson shared.
The thing that Grint was “lucky enough to pick up” was a recording 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.
Giebler added 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.“ According 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 seven people for release on the internet,” Giebler noted.
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 has released one-hour specials on YouTube each week. The Metropolitan Opera has released nightly streams of old productions every single day since the lockdown in March and has produced a monthly concert series; the Vienna State Opera has done the same for most of the lockdown period.
For now, it is believed to be the only way that musicians will be able to perform.
The year without opera already revealed a perspective of different directions that Germany, Austria, the U.K., the US, and Canada took throughout the challenge.
From this brief analysis, it is obvious that in German-speaking countries classical music is of greater economical and cultural value than it is in English-speaking cultures. As a consequence, 2020 for opera singers from English-speaking countries felt different than it did for those in German-speaking with the massive gaps in income, health insurance, and safety.
Even with “impressive” rescue packages and declarations, the U.K. and U.S. governments did not put forth substantial effort for cultural events to run within safety measures and brushed off the responsibility of liveliness and relevance of the country‘s cultural well-being. According to 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,” he emphasized.
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 opera 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” Giebler warned.
With less differentiation between genres, large opera organizations might begin functioning as media companies, producing entertainment and education driven formats. Giebler noted that the 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 U.K. has been tricky in 2020, and it looks like 2021 won’t be easier,” said Grint. Kränzle thinks it could get worse as “the pandemic is going to create an issue while making future contracts.”
Davidson agrees that concerts next year will look vulnerable and planning for them is complicated, while 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 Grint, it will make traveling for musicians significantly harder and more costly.
“Until the government finds a solution to allow people back into the theatres and concert halls safely, it’s going to be very difficult for musicians in the U.K.,” he noted, a sentiment shared by Davidson who stressed 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,” she declared.
Meanwhile, 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 U.K.
On the other side, there is the glittering hope that the vaccine brings, as it reaches more people. Only after the vaccine roll-out does Giebler “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.”
“We can campaign hard, and hope that as time moves on some simpler solutions will be found,” noted Grint. Lodge-Campbell also expressed being proud of how the arts industry has adapted to constantly changing times.
A 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, with reality still full of dread, but hope for change lingering on in the background.