HUNGER GAMES SARAH NOBLE TALKS TO YOUNG SINGERS ADJUSTING TO
OPERATIC LIFE IN THE WAKE OF COVID
We’ve all heard the announcement. A member of management steps sheepishly in front of the curtain to announce that the star is sadly indisposed and unable to perform. The groans subside, the understudy triumphs, and the show goes on. The machine of opera keeps whirring. But what happens when the whole industry is indisposed: when the threat of sudden and devastating illness forces not just one singer to withdraw, but entire seasons to be cancelled and companies to shut down?
The coronavirus pandemic has left even artists at the top of the profession reeling, as engagements have evaporated and government support schemes have passed them by. But perhaps most worrying is the fate of those at the very outset of their careers: singers negotiating the already perilous transition from conservatoire to full-time earning who have been left in limbo, waiting to discover what form opera will take in a post-Covid world and what their place in it will be. A year on from the first lockdowns and cancellations, I spoke with 13 young artists, mostly UK based, about their experiences in the pandemic so far—and how the unprecedented challenges of the past 12 months have altered their perspective on the business. (Some names have been changed.)
‘At the beginning of March 2020,’ says the bass Eugene Dillon-Hooper, ‘life was going brilliantly.’ With everything going to plan, this was to be the year he made singing his full-time career; with eight months of work already contracted, ‘I wouldn’t need to top up my finances with a second part-time job.’ The soprano Mimi Doulton was also feeling confident when the pandemic hit: ‘I had finally reached a point where I had back-to-back opera contracts from February to October.’
Like so many of their colleagues, by the end of that month they’d seen virtually all their engagements cancelled or postponed. They were grateful to companies that were able to offer partial fees in compensation, but both were obliged to take other work to make ends meet. ‘I was fortunate in that I was still in work in a pub that decided to furlough its staff,’ says Dillon-Hooper, ‘so I still received some income for the following six months.’ Doulton relied on a portfolio career to fill the gaps: ‘I was already working part-time as an administrator for two charities, but since the pandemic began I have designed a couple of websites, run online choral workshops, done gardening jobs for neighbours, taught English and beginner German … my tax return will be an interesting read!’ Hanna-Liisa Kirchin, a mezzo-soprano based in London, was among those eligible to access the UK government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. ‘I have been fortunate to receive a small amount of support from the SEISS grant,’ she says, ‘although if you work it out in detail it is hardly anything.’ But, she adds, ‘I know so many people who have received no support at all, and it blows my mind, and makes me incredibly sad.’
That’s a sentiment shared by Doulton, who has been involved throughout the pandemic in campaigns to change SEISS laws which she believes put early-career freelancers at a particular disadvantage. ‘SEISS beneficiaries had to have filed
Opera, May 2021