Michael Fabiano & Cast of Canceled Monnaie ‘Carmen’ Pen Open Letter to Belgium’s Prime Minister

By David Salazar

The cast of the now-canceled production of “Carmen” at La Monnaie has written an open letter to the Prime Minister of Belgium.

The letter, penned by tenor Michael Fabiano and co-signed by other cast members, placed the blame for La Monnaie’s closure on the government and noted that the decision to limit theaters to just 200 people at a time was inconsistent with science and unfair in light of allowing looser restrictions for restaurants and gyms. He also spotlighted the important of music for mental health, the irreperable damage being done to artistic careers as a result of the closure.

“This is an unnecessary, disastrous decision and the result of the Belgian government’s unequal and unbalanced position on health and safety. Your citizens as well as visiting artists and workers are being irreparably harmed and this must change immediately,” reads the letter.

Following the offical cancelation last week, Fabiano took to social media to denounce the decision and call on political leadership in Belgium to show support for the arts.

Below is the original letter in full:

Dear Mr. Prime Minister De Croo

Dear Deputy Prime Minister Vandenbroucke

My name is Michael Fabiano.  I am an international operatic singer.  I also run a national organization in the United States that works directly with thousands of teachers, students, artists, and school administrators to provide in-person subsidized music lessons.

Until four days ago, I was performing Don José in Bizet’s “Carmen” at your national theater, La Monnaie. I had the distinct privilege of standing on stage with over a dozen remarkable artists and vocalist colleagues who were all thrilled to be performing this treasured opera here in Brussels.

General Director Peter de Caluwe informed the entire company that he was shuttering the theater and our production due to technical difficulties associated with the ongoing international crisis. This was clearly a decision he did not want to take and we all deeply sympathize with him for the difficult position put on his shoulders by the Belgian government.

I am writing to you, with the full support of my stage colleagues, because this is an unnecessary, disastrous decision and the result of the Belgian government’s unequal and unbalanced position on health and safety. Your citizens as well as visiting artists and workers are being irreparably harmed and this must change immediately.

Here are some of the ways that is occurring:

1)The risk of people not having access to music in their lives is enough to impair mental health and personal discipline.  I have experienced this firsthand in my organization in the United States, which is why we have gone above and beyond to ensure both children and adults have access to in-person music instruction even if that navigation has proved difficult.  Significant studies have shown that the risk of people not having music in their lives is grave enough to impair mental health and personal discipline. All of your citizens should have the opportunity to attend important cultural performances that they have looked forward to for many months during the pandemic.

2) Contracted artists  like our cast of Carmen, are being subjected to enormous pay cuts and career suspensions in a period where we have lost huge sums of employment and career opportunities.  Younger artists here performing with me have lost a critical international debut, that could be a make or break career moment, and are faced with insurmountable debt because they will not receive the paycheck they were anticipating.  Unlike workers in other sectors, for artists like us, it’s all or nothing.  If our performances are cancelled, we receive no pay for our rehearsals, countless hours of practice and preparation, and housing and travel expenses of which we receive no stipend or compensation. Fixed administrative and monthly workers inside the theater and in other cultural sectors meanwhile do not face that similar reduction in salary and emotional difficulty of the artists who are ultimately on the firing line in front of the public. To be sure, all culture workers should be compensated fairly and well. Arts and culture is after all a necessary social good.

3) Policies inconsistent with science constantly move the goal posts for artists with no end in sight. Arts workers are largely vaccinated.  We have to be because it is a matter of our livelihood.  We know that the vast majority of citizens hospitalized with COVID-19 are not vaccinated and we know with scientific certainty that vaccination mitigates the effects of the virus. Individuals who have continually followed governmental guidance, adhered to local and national law, and practice safety and mitigation measures should not be subject to oppressive and career hindering safety rules that are now demonstrably not needed for vaccinated individuals. Draconian policies like isolating full populations of orchestra or chorus members if in contact with a Covid positive person, even though they have complied with all vaccination requirements or maintaining a ten day quarantine for Covid positive individuals, are serially behind the international curve and that outdated information was the one of two principal arguments to close our theater. It is my understanding now that the federal government has eliminated the isolation mandate if a vaccinated individual was in contact with a Covid positive person. It is a fine but insufficient step. As we see in other EU nations and the United States, quarantine has been reduced to 5 or 7 days for individuals who test positive. To be sure, this simple change would ameliorate much of the difficulty facing our artistic administration.

4) Music and theater are the most democratic institutions in the world because culture allows for the free and open debate of all citizens without restrictions and it is essential for them to be protected.  At a time when the world needs more connection, not less, it is a fundamental obligation of the state to make art and culture work for the good of all. Culture builds bonds between unlikely allies; culture that gives us the will to hope for a better future for our kids. Culture ensures that society knows where we came from and where we’ll be going. Without it, society is lost.

Gyms, saunas, and bars are open with limited restrictions on movement but a theater of vaccinated, tested, and masked people has to be capped at 200 seats when there are nearly 1,200? Where is the equality or logic in this policy congruent to other business sectors? On whose advice, on what science is this based? Where is the advice from your cultural minister and why isn’t there a stronger advocacy for culture?  Cutting cultural work as a measure of safety throws away the keys to democracy and hinders your own mandate. Yours is a society that has been home to amazing art and culture for centuries. Belgium’s contributions and commitment to all cultural endeavors  command deep respect and admiration around the world.

Some of my colleagues and I have had the honor to sing in other international theaters at times during this crisis. All theaters have taken on the burden of hard work to keep their doors open even when there were outbreaks. Your administration has kneecapped La Monnaie with capacity limits and serially poor guidance for those who are vaccinated and how they can be safe. It is a terrible shame and is disrespectful to the arts and arts workers for all they contribute to the social good. To force a leader such as Peter de Caluwe into this position is unjustified for the reasons stated above.

Belgium can be a hero to us all. You can lead us into glory. Create a new policy that protects workers and concurrently keeps the doors open without forcing unnecessary debt on the theater. Promote new, young, and terrific artists that are to be featured in our production of Carmen and deserve their moment to shine after such a terrible two years. If Madrid, Paris, and London can maintain open and full houses to the public during this crisis, certainly Brussels can too.

Please be our hero now. We need your resolute leadership more than ever. Overturn this unnecessary shuttering of La Monnaie and be our champion.

I remain ready and willing to speak for the arts, culture, and my colleagues with you or your administration and stand in solidarity with my arts worker colleagues.

Thank you on behalf of my colleagues who join with me in making this appeal to you, today, Monday, January 17th.

Sincerely yours,

Michael Fabiano

Stéphanie d’Oustrac

Elsa Dreisig

Jean-Sébastien Bou

Jean-Fernand Setti

Louise Foor

Claire Péron

Guillaume Andrieux

Enguerrand de Hys

Pierre Doyen