In March of 2020, with spring peeking around the corner, our world as we know it came to a screeching halt. We received the devastating news that the Ring cycle at Lyric Opera of Chicago would have to be cancelled. Thus began a long arduous journey of life with no live singing in large groups to large audiences. That has meant no work for many artists. Life continues to be a daily challenge for LOSA members financially and emotionally. As musicians, we are born with music in our souls. As singers, our body is our instrument. Whatever is happening in our bodies physically, mentally and emotionally is reflected in our souls, through our voices. Many of us didn’t want to sing, or couldn’t because it was too emotionally difficult. I was one of those people. I am grateful that the church that I sing at every Sunday did not stop allowing me to share my voice with the congregation virtually, and recently in person again. That has been my only source of income from singing for months. After the death of George Floyd, I had a hard time getting to the church on the south side of Chicago. Streets were closed, following a night of looting and destruction. I broke down sobbing during the hymn, “They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love”. I felt so hopeless. Where is love among the fear, anger, and violence?
When the pandemic started, I don’t think many of us thought it would continue as long as it has. We were approaching a time that can be a bit slower financially for those of us in the opera world. A lot of us rely on unemployment insurance for some or all of our income during Lyric’s off season. Thankfully, there was extra money from the government to help those of us with no jobs. Vince Wallace used that extra money to invest in recording equipment for his apartment and turned a closet into a recording studio. Things were alright, as long as that financial aid continued, but of course, it ended when a lot of Americans were allowed to return to work. Not us. Not at Lyric.
I have seen posts from friends and colleagues who feel empty, lost, lonely and devastated. As someone who tries to look on the bright side, I know a lot of people have enjoyed extra time with their families, dinner together, being home with their children at bedtime and spending a lot of time with their pets. With low interest rates, those people who own a home and have some equity, have been able to refinance and do some home improvements.
My good friends and fellow LOSA members Wilbur Pauley, bass, and August Tye, ballet mistress extraordinaire, along with their talented children, have made the most of their extra family time hiking and traveling. But, his life “professionally” has provided “ zilch” for Wilbur. He was contracted by Chicago Opera Theater to perform a Rimsky- Korsakov opera, Kashchej the Immortal. Wilbur expected that it was going to be cancelled, but the creative folks at COT have decided to perform a concert version and film it! Haymarket is another opera company that has donors and board members who are willing and able to finance their survival. “It ain’t live performance, but I’m thankful to have something,” said Wilbur. He also really missed singing in the Grant Park Music Festival. “I really miss seeing and making music with all the folks in Chicago that I never realized I was taking for granted. Then it’s gone.”
“August has miraculously kept her neighborhood ballet school (Hyde Park School of Dance) going, but it’s been a Herculean task- taking the time to work out the technical details of remote learning and cleaning protocols- all for a 60% reduction in enrollment and hourly salaries.” Their son Tye, who has been seen on the Lyric stage in Madama Butterfly as Sorrow, attends a private school. Athena, their middle daughter, continues doing homeschooling. Their oldest, Georgia, is at Arizona State University. Wilbur started driving for Uber at “exactly the right time to qualify her for a FREE degree!” “All in all, we’re still alive. That’s a victory in itself.”
LOSA members have a private Facebook page, which has been a source of comfort for many of us lately. Just knowing that we are sharing a lot of the same feelings provides a new level of camaraderie. We are all at different phases of our careers. Some are just starting out, having finished their first season at Lyric, with so many years of singing on that magnificent stage ahead of them. There are those in their singing prime, missing this time to express themselves to audiences, through their strong voices. Similar to athletes’ and ballet dancers’ bodies, singers’ voices don’t last forever. Then, there are those in the twilight years of their careers at Lyric, like Tom Sillitti, bass, who is not sure that after this pandemic is over, there will be “the possibility of ever walking onto that great stage again, among all the history that I am now part of. It is already feeling like losing a loved one, and not having closure. I’ve been fortunate to be part of the celebrations for so many of my former colleagues as they prepared to leave the profession they loved. But what happens now to those of us who will most likely never experience that wonderful closeness of treasured colleagues, having the experience of preparing your last entrance onto the stage, or the bitter-sweetness of your final bow. I know that time will heal some of these emotional wounds, but there will always be a feeling of something very important and integral to my life being incomplete. Let’s just hope that there is a viable treatment or vaccine soon that gives us just a little more time together on that marvelous stage!”
Life goes on…
Many LOSA members have started to get low on funds and have found other sources of income unrelated to our long and satisfying careers in live opera. Ron Watkins is one of them. He is one of the hardest working colleagues that we have. After 2 weeks of working 10 hour days, aerating lawns, he is already being groomed to be a Lawn Specialist. However, he was recently asked to record 2 songs for Lake Street Church of Evanston, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and “What a Wonderful World”.
After taking time to practice and record those songs, he said, “No matter what else I do, I am an artist.” My colleague Max Wier believes that every employer should hire singers. “We are the most adaptable people, have smiled through the worst, and have worked with every personality type, becoming an expert in a skill that requires the most multitasking than almost any other career path: language, subtext, technique, memorization. Having the skills to survive the environment long enough to have a steady career of any kind- mentally, physically, socially, we are armed and armored with an amazing quiver of skills valuable in several workplaces. We are the definition of self-motivated and team players.” Fortunately, many of us have the ability, passion, and technical fortitude to teach voice lessons, and make recordings. This musical outlet feeds our souls, and helps the next generation of songbirds to find their voices. Once an artist, always an artist.