Opera in the Time of COVID: Fred Plotkin, Author of ‘Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera’ & Opera Columnist for WQXR

By David Salazar
(Credit: Frances Marshall)

“Opera in the Times of COVID” is an interview series in collaboration with photographer Frances Marshall of Marshall Light Studio. We talk to notable figures from around the opera world to get their perspective on how they feel these challenging times may change opera’s present and future.

I think it’s hard to find someone who loves opera as much as Fred Plotkin. In my interactions over the years (though often limited), his passion for the artform comes through every time he brings up a recent performance or an interaction with a certain artist. If you get a chance to catch any of his “Adventures in Italian Opera” videos online (here is one with Sherrill Milnes), you’ll know exactly what I am talking about. This enthusiasm also extends to his passion for adventure and food, which he has also written extensively on.

His love for the arts is everywhere in this interview, with Plotkin acknowledging how this very crisis and its emotional impact can be seen in many of the great operas of the past.

OperaWire: What have you done during this time to keep yourself positive and productive?

Fred Plotkin: I am not a singer or musician, yet my working life has a lot of similarities in that most of my income is derived from appearing in front of audiences in places of public assembly. People buy tickets to what I do so, of course, that means that all of my contracts have been canceled until November.

That said, I have been self-employed since 1991 and, for better or worse, I have learned about self-discipline and time management in a way that enables me to ‘make hay when the sun shines’ but also know that so much is not within my control. That really is the key: manage what you can but don’t panic about that which you cannot control. There is nothing you can do about that. Yes, these are very scary times and I fully understand those friends, colleagues and other people who are depressed, angry or frightened. But I have had many fallow periods in the past and used them to plant metaphorical seeds and do some work every day even if no one is paying me to do that.

In this tragedy, there is also a rare opportunity for people who make things or are performers who want to explore their artistry and interests. I always keep a file of creative ideas that I tell myself I would like one day to take on. Not all of them come to pass but, right now, I have chosen to undertake one of those because, like it or not, I have the time to do it.

I have written nine books in my career and have at least a few more in me. One of them, that I drafted in 2017, is calling out to me now. Each day, for at least three hours, I sit down and write it. For the first time in my career, I am writing a book without a contract (and, therefore, no guaranteed income). But I find that focusing intently on this book, even if it never gets published (though I think it should be!), gives me a break from the stresses of the outside world. Needless to say, when I am writing I do not look at social media or listen to broadcasting of any kind, including music. It’s just me and the book.

I have been through this before. In the months after 9/11, whose events took place in full view of where I live, I was completing my  “Classical Music 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Classical Music.” There was so much grief and struggle in the city and I devoted part of each day to helping in any way I could because I knew people who died and there was so much need. But I took four hours every day to write the classical music book. It made everything else possible.

On April 24, I began hosting a weekly show for Idagio Live called “Fred Plotkin on Fridays.” I will be joined by musicians, by people in the music business, and others who feel music deeply. The organizing theme is inspiration and how we find it in music and elsewhere. My first guest was Thomas Hampson. On May 1 I have Christine Goerke, on May 8 is Ben Heppner and on May 15 will be Julia Bullock. And many excellent people are lined up after that. I think that inspiration is something we must connect with more than ever.

OW: What do you feel will be the greatest impacts of COVID-19 on the opera world moving forward? What are some new developments that you feel are here to stay?

FP: You know that I adore opera, not only as an entertainment but for the emotional specificity and its ability to go deeper into my soul than just about anything else. But it is inherently a live art form and only really works its magic in a theater with singers and instrumentalists performing in that moment while the audience—at least a good audience—gives back the energy and emotion that propels the singers forward.

I fear that, until a vaccine is developed, all performing arts will struggle to return to a fully live, collective experience. This crisis is still all too new and I want to reflect on how the art form can work its special magic in the face of a new reality. When I have some ideas about this, I plan to write about them and perhaps help make them happen.

OW: One of the major developments of this time are the emergence of streaming and connecting with fans and followers more directly via social media. How has this impacted your time in quarantine?

FP: Streaming certainly existed before COVID-19 and it  had mixed success in financial terms for the companies and artists who made them. And it is well-known that in certain cases the presentation of HDs (as opposed to streaming) cannibalized the ticket sales of the companies that presented them. Many people in the metro area of those companies stopped buying tickets to live performances and chose to see the HD transmission.

In terms of streaming to our homes, as often as not, there was a fee involved to view the video and, at times, to listen to the performance in audio form. If a company such as the Vienna State Opera did this, it was newly found income because that theater is almost always sold out. But the VSO has about half the capacity of the MET and strong government funding so streaming (which people all over the world signed up for at a not very steep price) represented an additional revenue source.

OW: What is an outcome of it that you didn’t expect?

FP: What is different now in these pandemic times is that opera companies in Europe and North America are opening their vaults to present existing recorded performances for free. This is a balm in difficult times and I respect their doing it.



OW: What is something that makes you apprehensive about streaming’s sudden preponderance? How can opera companies and artists around the world learn from it moving forward and should it become a bigger part of the opera season experience moving forward?

FP: I don’t know the details of all existing contracts and how they address whether performers will receive any compensation. A real crisis is happening this year in that almost every opera singer and instrumentalist has lost all of their work and, in way too may cases, has lost all of the pay that would go with it. This has a profound impact on their lives and they are justifiably despondent. Remember, most singers do not have endlessly long careers so that every year counts in terms of income not only to survive but to save for the future.

OW: And in your view, is the idea of streaming as a major part of the industry even feasible for all parties (not only companies but artists) involved?

FP: Beyond the financial implications of streaming, there is also the fact that a video transmission of an opera—no matter the size of the screen it is viewed on—is not an opera performance. It is a report from the stage of an opera house just as watching a sporting event on television is a report from the stadium. Someone (usually a director or editor) is deciding what you see and how you see it. And, in the case of opera, even the best audio system cannot replace the quality of sound in a theater.

When viewing HDs in cinemas, at least there is the advantage of a communal audience sharing a moment. Seeing an opera in isolation is dispiriting in ways that listening (on recording, radio or other format) to that opera is not: when you just have audio, your imagination is summoned to picture the singers and performance and how the story is being told.

OW: What are you most excited about doing once the quarantine officially comes to an end and we are allowed to resume a “normal” life?

FP: Travel. It is just about my favorite thing to do because all the pleasures in life can be found when one sees new places, meets new people and experiences new cultures. When we travel the world, we learn more about ourselves.”

OW: Who have been the people you have relied on most to help you through these challenging times?

FP: Giuseppe Verdi, Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz. This is the music I am listening to in this period.

OW: Most people in quarantine are actively engaging with the arts via either music, TV, film, reading, literature. Etc. What have you been watching or reading during this time?

FP: I am spending this period in the home of an elderly loved one to take care of her. She reads and listens to music but watches too much news for her own good. To give her company and to get her away from incessant “breaking news” saying the same things, we make a daily movie date, watching a film on TCM. I try to make it one I have never seen. Recently, I saw a film called “People Will Talk” with Cary Grant and Jeanne Crain. It was made around 1950 but is modern and unconventional in its approach to medical ethics. On another day we watched the original “Godzilla” (1954), a film I had never seen! It was a fascinating exploration of fear and helplessness in the face of danger, but also of the sacrifices made by “average” citizens (who are anything but average) and the courage of scientists.

OW: Speaking more globally about the pandemic, what can the world learn about this experience? What do you hope to see from our leaders (political or even industry) in order to build a better future that enables us to better manage any similar type of situation?

FP: We need a new, more inclusive economic model that provides health care to all citizens. This will allow people who work in the arts to pursue their careers without having to worry before going to a doctor that they cannot pay their medical bills. It will also save lives and improve the quality of life for millions of people who are marginalized. This is a humane thing but also makes financial sense. Wellness means fewer expenses if conditions one can live with are caught earlier and it also means we will have more people who are productive, contributing citizens.

We also need to turn to culture more assiduously to learn from history and about human nature. Through opera, but also literature, music and theater, we can learn about arrogance, hubris and derangement as well as love. Connection to culture gives us wisdom and tolerance as we juxtapose our current experiences with what is described in the art works from the past.

Listening to and watching Violetta expire at the end of  “La Traviata” tells us with heart-rending emotion what it is like to die. When you look at “Manon Lescaut” die alone at the end of Puccini’s opera, you realize what it is like for all of the people now in hospitals to be dying alone because their loved ones cannot be near them. Reading Manzoni’s  “I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed)” helps us understand what happens when plague devastates Lombardy, something we are witnessing again now.

It may sound sappy to say it but I think this collective COVID-19 experience is teaching us that time is so precious, life is fragile and that love and kindness really do contribute to the health and well-being of others and ourselves. I still hear certain public figures as well as read comments by grouchy people in social media who think that selfishness and heartlessness are acceptable. They are wrong! We just have to look at all the sacrifices so many first responders (including cultural first responders) are willingly making and the millions of more people who are victims of circumstance.

In opera, we audiences as well as the performers are regularly asked to do the emotional hard work that we now see millions of people facing. But most opera characters are also quick (apart from “Turandot” and  Amelia in “Un Ballo in Maschera”) to tell others that they love them. Now is the time to connect, to show love and to find courage where we can. And get back to work, whether it is creativity or doing something that will make things better for others.