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  • Schyler Sheltrown

Uncharted Territory

When our country was struck with COVID-19, I can't imagine I was alone in my fear of what was going to happen. We had never experienced anything like this. It was impossible to ignore my horrifically sad Social Media feed. Artist after artist announced cancelled gigs, outlining the financial devastation they were facing because of it. The most famous opera singers, with their feeds normally full of travel announcements, hotel rooms, and chandelier-laden opera houses, were now sending videos from their homes, in various types of sweat pants and pajamas. A sickening thought came into my mind: Is this the end of opera? In a desperate attempt to get a grasp of everything, I tried my hardest to liken the Coronavirus outbreak to whatever major event I could: 9/11, the 2008 market crash and subsequent recession, my post-graduate meltdown. But, once I was honest with myself, I finally admitted this:

We were, and are, in uncharted territory.


As far back as I can remember, I've always had a wild imagination. There is something comforting about allowing one's mind to wander to a different place and time, practically another world. In more recent years, I've discovered that this may be a coping mechanism to deal with traumatic or stressful situations. Whatever the reason, I found myself trying to day dream. I sat at my piano - although I couldn't sing, I could at least get my music library organized. The score on my piano, Lysistrata by Mark Adamo looked at me lustfully. I let her sit - I wasn't even sure if I'd be singing the role this summer, plus my stressed-out chords were not up to the big sing of Aphrodite. I pulled the rest of my scores off of the shelf, attempting to organize them alphabetically by composer, then by major work. Puccini, Strauss, Handel, Moore, and Mozart all flicked by. I even found my Monteverdi Vespers score from college. Surrounded by piles of books, I began to thumb through the pages. I remembered a few words from Joyce DiDonato. This isn't a direct quote, but it was about how music has this incredible ability to take us back in time, not just to the characters within the story, but also to the composer who wrote the pieces, and subsequently, to all of the artists who performed these works over time. I felt my shoulders relax.


The first opera, (Dafne, the music of which is now lost), was composed in 1597, with the first fairly successful opera, Euridice, performed only 3 years later. We're talking about 400 SOLID years of opera. Four HUNDRED, people. And that's not even including all of the magnificent work done up to that point, which led to the creation of opera.


I didn't know a whole lot about pandemics - the only few I could remember were the Spanish Flu in 1918 and the Black Plague in the 1300s. I found an excellent article from The Guardian by Ed Prideaux about how, much like today, music was used then as a coping mechanism to get through quarantine and isolation. In a separate article, I read about Encrico Caruso's delayed debut due to the Spanish Flu in Ann Arbor, MI (which, opera buffs know, clearly did not stop him from an iconic historical singer). Needless to say - name a pandemic, and there was music, along with the survival and adaptation of music.


We are seeing this today in full view. Although circumstances are dire, music is adapting. Opera Grand Rapids has been incredibly inventive in this regard. They managed to pull off a beautiful video recording of Scalia/Ginsburg, and found a way to honor their ticket buyers as well as their artists by providing a password protected link. This allowed for an exclusive experience. Watching opera from the comfort of one's home is not new, but it has been reserved either for Met Opera on Demand or through free live streaming services. Now, smaller companies also have the luxury of providing this service to their patrons, which means more opportunities for ticket buyers AND for artists.


Now, there are a lot of things that have just straight-up sucked about this pandemic for artists. Cancellations announced via Social Media before notification of talent, companies claiming force majeure even when they shouldn't, and just, like, f***ing force majeure in general. (HOW MANY OF YOU WERE LIKE ME AND SCOFFED AT THAT VAGUE LITTLE CLAUSE? UGH, WHAT FOOLS WE WERE!) It's not like it's always been great and this was just one little hiccup in the suck-ery of being an artist - far from it. This was merely the final straw. I myself even thought that this might mark the end of my musical pursuits! However, I was encouraged by the work of The Soloist Coalition, who worked tirelessly (and continues to do so) to approach companies about solutions to issues that had been stirring for years. Severe under-payment of young artists, nepotism, sexual harassment/assault, working conditions and hours, and many more issues were brought to the table. And, the leadership of these companies were finally all at home, so it was the perfect time to meld minds, reflect on what hasn't been working, and rebuild something totally new.


I'm not sure what the future of opera is, exactly. I can say where it was heading before all of this started, and it is certainly in the direction of smaller, more intimate settings. Large operas are expensive, and the opera career is expensive to pursue. Many performers work full-time jobs in various non-music industries. Local opera companies have become more popular - they allow for less rehearsal time, less travel, and smaller budgets. Choirs are functioning via Zoom, Skype, etc. I have no doubt that, whatever happens, music will survive. Opera will adapt and change, but it will survive, and, based on the conversations happening among opera-goers and singers...it will thrive.


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