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Fleeing the Gilded Cage

If you're interested in opera, you might know the face of the 34-year-old baritone Will Liverman. This fall, it gazed out from posters and websites advertising the reopening of the Metropolitan Opera with Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard — the first staging of an opera by a Black composer in the company's 138-year-old history — in which Liverman played the lead, and had a rousing success.

For Liverman, it was a great way to come roaring back from a pandemic shutdown that he once thought might destroy his career. In March 2020, opera singers, like all performing arts professionals, suddenly found themselves facing weeks, then months, then whole seasons without any income at all. Liverman had been an up-and-coming singer for several years, had performed at the Met, and had just been announced as winner of the Washington National Opera's Marian Anderson Award. Now, he was signing up to take digital marketing classes online, in search of another way to make money.

But the shutdown also meant Liverman had time to devote to some of his "passion projects," things he'd been working on for a while but, due to the grueling schedule of traveling from city to city singing opera for a few weeks or months at a time, hadn't been able to finish. He finally recorded a long-planned album of music by Black composers, Dreams of a New Day, released in February 2021 to considerable acclaim; it has since been nominated for a Grammy award. He was also able to focus on his own opera: The Factotum, written with the DJ and producer K-Rico (a friend from high school), is an updated take on a piece Liverman has sung often, Rossini's The Barber of Seville, now set in a Black barbershop and suffused with Black musical styles. The Lyric Opera of Chicago, seeking projects for its young-artist program while regular performances were suspended, seized on The Factotum; it's had two workshops with the company, and there's talk of a full production.

And even the Met Opera spotlight was a byproduct of the way the shutdown upended everyone's plans. Usually, the Met schedules productions years in advance — but with its season cancelled, and wanting to respond to 2020's nationwide police-brutality protests and broader reckoning on race, it moved its planned production of Blanchard's opera to an earlier date, and set about casting with unprecedented haste. Liverman learned the main aria in a day, sent in a tape through his agent, and was cast by the end of the week.

"All these events, it wouldn't have happened any other way," Liverman says. "There's no way Lyric would have been workshopping a piece of mine. The pandemic had to happen. George Floyd happened. People were looking for different stories. The moment called, and we were ready."

He isn't alone. As devastating as the pandemic has been to lives and livelihoods, a number of opera singers have found themselves emerging back into live performance with careers in better, more interesting places than they were when the shutdown began — not least because, in the absence of routine, they were able to move outside the straitjackets the opera field tends to impose on singers.

"During this period, I've seen my colleagues become insanely creative," says the star soprano Christine Goerke, who during the shutdown took on an entirely new role as associate artistic director of the Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit, while continuing as an active singer. She adds, "It's given all of us permission, in a way, to step way outside of the box."

"The most innovative time was when we all had to sit at home and had no resources," says the soprano Karen Slack. "No fancy company, fancy building. You were home on the phone, on your computer, with your earbuds." She adds, "It was the artists who kept opera relevant."

Even without a global shutdown, an opera career is tough. In the United States, opera singers are freelancers: Regardless of how famous you are, you don't have the luxury of a regular salary or job security. You have to perform to get paid, and pay isn't even that high until you make it to the top. Expenses are high, though, from traveling and finding accommodation in different cities to the voice lessons and coachings, costing upwards of $100 an hour, that are considered essential even for major stars. Zach Finkelstein, a tenor who in 2019 started a blog called The Middleclass Artist to address the harsher realities of the field, wrote a provocative piece called "Million Dollar Voice," in which he crunched the numbers to demonstrate that preparing for a full-time singing career costs a million dollars and leaves many artists in the red.

It used to be you'd be afraid to take a teaching job or administrative job, because it signaled that your career was over.

Opera singers face a lot of other constraints, as well. Just learning how to project your voice to the back of a 3,000-seat theater, without amplification, while mastering the stylistic intricacies of music decades or centuries old, is challenging and in some ways restrictive enough. Over the years, the field has developed a whole lexicon of "dos" and "don'ts" that get drilled into young singers, including strictures about how to look and dress. Goerke, in her new capacity as administrator, recently made waves on Facebook with a post saying that singers should be able to wear whatever they wanted to auditions. It may not seem like a controversial opinion, but she got hundreds of comments from grateful singers, and pushback from a few who felt this was opening the doors to disrespecting the music.

And contrary to the popular perception of the capricious diva, even veteran singers rarely have much artistic input into the operas they perform; they're expected to follow the dictates of conductors and stage directors precisely. "You end up feeling like a cog in a machine," says the mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson, who in 2016 co-founded a company, theVictory Hall Opera, partly to address this very issue.

"What happens with all the rules about how you sing early music, Baroque music, is it puts people in boxes and you become so afraid to try different things," says John Holiday, a countertenor. "When in fact, the Farinellis, Senesino, or any of the castrati" — the great stars, that is, of the Baroque opera stage — "I really believe that they were rock stars because they did what the hell they wanted to do. They got on the stage and they did what they felt fit them."

Ironically, it took a global catastrophe to help some singers today regain that sense of individuality. Across the opera field, artists deprived of live performance opportunities began spreading their wings in ways great and small. The baritone Ryan McKinny started making humorousYouTube videos, and went on to develop a whole auxiliary career as a filmmaker, creating classicalvocal films foropera companies and starting his own paid streaming channel,Helio Arts. The baritone Stephen Powell conceived and recorded an album, Why Do the Nations, on which he, a former piano major, accompanied himself. The mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges became a social activist, appearing on panels, inmusic videos, and even in a promotional campaign forConverse sneakers.

"I started to think of myself and everybody around me as a creator, a creative person," says Kathleen Kelly, an operatic coach who during the pandemic found herself doing everything from conducting to appearing on camera as a character in an opera, Interstate, whose libretto she co-authored.

"It's like the Wild West," says the baritone McKinny. "There's a ton of experimentation, which feels so different from what I'm used to in the opera world, in which you're supposed to do it a certain way. I've very much enjoyed the freedom."

"I think the pandemic just illuminated me being myself, and not caring if people were going to like it," says the countertenor Holiday. "I felt so free. I felt like I was soaring, like there was nothing I couldn't do." With his planned Met Opera debut postponed by the pandemic, Holiday entered as a contestant on NBC's The Voice — and made it to the finals. (His Met debut finally took place this December.)

The pandemic wasn't the only devastating event that forced artists, and everyone else, to reconsider their work and their role in society in 2020. When Karen Slack, the soprano, had the idea early in the shutdown of streaming a weekly talk show, called #KikiKonversations, from her kitchen table, she didn't imagine it as more than an end in itself. But the conversations quickly grew popular. And then, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis.

"I cannot go live on this platform I created and not talk about how this affected me," Slack says now, reflecting on how her show changed in the following weeks. "I started having tough conversations about race, all the things we'd always talked about privately, especially gender inequality. I had no idea that people who were influential in the industry would have an idea what I was doing. [But] my phone started ringing to be on panels."

Since then, the Portland Opera has named Slack an artistic advisor, and the Banff Centre in Canada has made her a co-director of their opera program. She was one of three recipients this spring of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, celebrating outstanding achievement by artists of color. And she's begun designing and curating programs of her own, notably#SayTheirNames, a collage of song and word honoring Black women social-justice pioneers. Slack is a graduate of the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music and has had an active career for two decades, but says this is the first time she's felt able to call the shots.

"I'm in a place now I always wanted to be," she says. "I don't know if I would have been able to even verbalize it before the pandemic. I knew what it looked like, but I didn't know if anybody would give me the chance."

Slack was far from the only Black singer to find herself effectively cast as a spokesperson as footage of the Floyd killing and resulting protests remained in the news for months. "Everybody in the pandemic was forced to watch it," says the star tenor Lawrence Brownlee. "You couldn't look away. So, people wanted to talk about social issues. Colleagues who are running companies were saying, 'I can't ignore this.' " Brownlee, who also started an online talk show during the pandemic — The Sitdown with LB — saw all the more demand for his "Lawrence Brownlee and Friends" concerts, presented online by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Philadelphia and others.

Mezzo-soprano and activist J'Nai Bridges performs in the Global Citizen Concert, a socially distanced event at the Hollywood Bowl, in June 2020. Bridges says she knew she had a voice for activism pre-pandemic, but never "really had the opportunity to use it, without fear of retribution."
/ Daniel Anderson
Daniel Anderson
Mezzo-soprano and activist J'Nai Bridges performs in the Global Citizen Concert, a socially distanced event at the Hollywood Bowl, in June 2020. Bridges says she knew she had a voice for activism pre-pandemic, but never "really had the opportunity to use it, without fear of retribution."

With work on pause, singers also had more time to think about how they wanted to respond to the moment. When the Los Angeles Opera approached J'Nai Bridges about giving an online recital, she proposed instead — with some trepidation — hostinga roundtable of leading Black singers, including Slack and Brownlee, about their experiences in the field. The frankness inspired by the Zoom format and the singers' established friendships led to a substantive discussion of the everyday racism encountered by some of the industry's biggest stars.

For many listeners, the exchange was eye-opening. "I'm still getting messages from companies about how powerful that talk was," Bridges says. "I know the power that I possess now. [There's] an activist voice in myself which I've known that I had, but I haven't felt like I really had the opportunity to use it, without fear of retribution."

At the same time, Bridges is not alone in finding this kind of activism exhausting. "I've taught as much as I can," she says. "We all just have to do the work. Of course I will continue to be a voice for equality, for equity. But I also want to just get back to what I signed up for."

Therein, of course, lies the $64,000 question, as opera companies and the rest of the performing arts lumber gingerly back to life after months of inactivity: Just what is "going back" going to look like? Are any of these changes in opera — the bursts of creativity, the new initiatives started by performers, companies' embrace of more diverse thinking — going to stick around?

Some attitudinal shifts are already visible. "There seems to be a little more room for singers to be more than just singers than there had been before," says the baritone/filmmaker McKinny. "It used to be you'd be afraid to take a teaching job or administrative job, because it signaled that your career was over. Now that's changed." Among those new multi-hyphenates is a wave of Black singers tapped to serve as artistic advisors and partners: In addition to Slack at the Portland Opera, shutdown-era appointments include Liverman at the Virginia Opera, the tenor Russell Thomas at the Los Angeles Opera, and bass-baritone Davóne Tines at the Philharmonia Baroque orchestra in San Francisco.

I think some people in this industry are very, very ready to go back to the way things used to be. It will be for those of us who understand the importance of not going back to keep pushing.

The fall of 2021 has been a time of stock-taking. Artists who swore they wouldn't get back on the treadmill are confronting calendars that are as busy as ever, and not necessarily liking it. Companies are offering a wider and newer range of music than before — the Met has mounted two new works, Fire Shut Up in My Bones and Matthew Aucoin's Eurydice, in the space of a few months — but are also facing diminished ticket sales. The pull of tradition and familiarity is strong. "I think some people in this industry are very, very ready to go back to the way things used to be," Slack says. "It will be for those of us who understand the importance of not going back to keep pushing. We will need support."

And if traditional venues and productions aren't bringing in audiences, it could be an ideal time for singers to step in and help create new solutions, using some of the creative energy that came to the fore in the past two years. The Victory Hall Opera company's inventive response to the cancellation of its planned production of La traviata was a moving documentary film called Unsung, for which the director and company co-founder Miriam Gordon-Stewart stitched together smartphone video footage of the cast to create a powerful illustration of what singers were going through during the pandemic: the second jobs, the forced moves, the question of whether to continue a career at all.

Now, the company wants to find ways for artists to continue their self-determination. "We've been trying to draw attention to the lack of singer leadership and empowerment and agency within our art form for a long time," Brenda Patterson says. "[This] seemed like a moment where the things we had been stressing about were suddenly on everyone's radar." Victory Hall has spearheaded a think tank of professional singers, called SINGTANK, which had its first in-person summit in September: a chance for singers themselves to talk about the shape they would like their art and their careers to take. The group's next objective is to create a set of best practices to present directly to opera companies, including thinking about harnessing the kind of creativity that has come to the fore in the past two years.

That creativity has already given a powerful boost to the careers of some singers — like Will Liverman. Even before the run of Fire Shut Up in My Bones had finished, the Met hired him to play the title role in Anthony Davis's opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, slated for the fall of 2023. In 2022, he will take on the leading role in the 50th anniversary production of Bernstein's MASS at the Kennedy Center. His calendar is crowded. But his attitude has changed.

"My track was just so different before the pandemic. I feel like I have more of an ownership of creativity, not waiting for permission to do things," he says." And while he's happy for the offers coming in, "at this point, with the pandemic, a lot of us feel it's a day-by-day thing. You can't predict the future with whatever new crazy variant that has yet to be released."

Still, he says, "It feels really good to be back at work. I'm never taking it for granted again."

Anne Midgette is the former classical music critic of The Washington Post.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anne Midgette