Some Early Thoughts on Covid-19

As all musicians know, the COVID-19 pandemic has been disastrous for the arts community. With personal gatherings banned, we have all lost months of income with no recourse for unemployment or other aid measures; meanwhile, the future is still very much in question. I was asked to contribute some thoughts to the Cornell Concert Series blog, which you can read here. [It has since been removed, so I have reproduced my essay here.]

What Covid-19 looks like from an artist’s perspective

Lucy Fitz Gibbon is a soprano and the Interim Director of the Vocal Program at Cornell University. She is also on the faculty of the Bard College-Conservatory Graduate Vocal Arts Program and maintains an active performing career throughout North America and Europe.

On Sunday, February 23, I kissed my husband goodbye and walked down to the train platform, headed from Rhinebeck to Philadelphia for a tour with Musicians from Marlboro. I had been “home” in Kingston, NY, for about 24 hours after returning from teaching at Cornell University, and it had already been a busy week: on Wednesday, my husband and I gave a concert at the Yale Center for British Art, and every day previous I had been working for hours with my students in the Bard College-Conservatory Graduate Vocal Arts Program as they prepared for the opening of their spring opera. This kind of hectic schedule was typical for me: a few days here, a few days there, singing and teaching all over the place. Since last August, there had been only two weeks when I actually spent more than five consecutive nights in the same bed.

While on tour, rumblings about the novel coronavirus became more ominous. I’d already been worriedly following the news; my stepmother is Chinese and her elderly mother and brothers still live in Guangzhou. My father, a physician like my stepmother, warned me to be prepared to lose work. Still, I am a generally healthy person and, being a professional singer whose work depends on good respiratory health, I’m also more concerned with handwashing and germs than the typical human being. “Finally everyone else understands how I feel ALL the time,” I joked. Even though I was traveling through a lot of big cities and using public transportation, I felt like I knew how to keep myself reasonably safe. I didn’t eat with my hands, I took care to wipe down my cell phone and computer after being out, I made sure to get plenty of sleep.

But with each day of tour, the prospects began to look more grim: we would try to focus on the music, but in Washington, D.C., the presenter went on at length about how worried he was that the Freer Gallery’s annual Nowruz festival would be canceled; we noticed that usually packed halls were seating fewer patrons; and we couldn’t help but notice that EVERYONE was pushing elevator buttons with their elbows—not just germophobe sopranos. Still, our last concert on March 9 at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was wonderful: after a long string of performances, we were more polished than ever and could share this fantastic music that we loved with an appreciative audience. And none of my concerts had been canceled—yet—even though other musicians on tour with me were fielding calls about changes of date or venue. All that would change by the following Wednesday.

Within a week, I lost all of my performing work through March and April, thousands of dollars of income. An orchestra I was set to perform with in September 2020 tentatively rescheduled their concert for fall 2021. And as the news has become more and more dire, all of my upcoming concerts through the summer are starting to look more and more tenuous. If this extends into August, it will be tens of thousands of dollars lost. And the fall? Let’s just say it looks bleak.

What many concert patrons may not realize is that although musicians have a reputation for having their heads in the clouds (and though sopranos have a reputation for being dingbat divas), we’re actually very hard working, self-motivated, organized people. If we weren’t, we’d never be able to make it in this business! Many of my concerts this season have been on my calendar for as long as three years. So while our careers can seem ad hoc—a week here, a week there—we actually carefully plan our budgets and our lives. I keep a spreadsheet with all of my concerts listed by year, making sure I don’t agree to any two concerts too close together (I need time to prepare in between) and keeping track of my income from all the different sources (in 2019, I performed in approximately 45 concerts over the 52 weeks of the calendar year, almost all of which were with different repertoire). Income can certainly fluctuate, with busy and then fallow months, but since one’s schedule is settled so far in advance, it’s relatively easy to keep track of one’s finances and make smart decisions…

… or so I thought.

I was prepared to lose concerts, but I was not prepared for the emotional or financial prospect of losing six or 12 or 18—or maybe even 24 months of work. I have paid for flights that were supposed to be reimbursed by orchestras, but those concerts have now been canceled and the airlines aren’t picking up the phones. I bought scores and spent hours preparing for upcoming performances that will never happen. I am crushed that I won’t have the opportunity to perform music I love with humans from all over the globe. And each one of those concerts would also have also been an audition, a chance to perform with that orchestra or on that concert series again, a chance for a good newspaper review, a way to keep my career moving as I travel from place to place, year after year. The Force Majeure clause that appears in our contracts means that the concert organizations, orchestras, and opera companies aren’t obligated to pay our fees during a disaster such as this one, and as freelance artists, we can’t apply for unemployment.

But I am comparatively lucky: I also teach. As difficult as it was to say goodbye to my wonderful Cornell students, and as challenging as it is to figure out how to translate our work to an online platform, I am incredibly fortunate to still have the chance to make and share music with these young people, and to have that regular paycheck. Many of my friends had all their work vanish in the blink of an eye, with no recourse in sight. (Some orchestras, opera houses, and concert organizations have offered my friends partial fees, but I haven’t had that happen to me yet.) And not only has the rest of the 2019-2020 season disappeared, we’re all wondering if the concert organizations that hired us for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 seasons will even be afloat in a few years. Does that contract we signed mean anything if the company has gone bankrupt in the meantime? Will we even be performing if WE’VE gone bankrupt in the meantime?

Even in my relatively privileged position, this vanished income means that my pianist husband and I are back to our grad school budgets: certainly no keeping the local economy afloat with take-out or restaurant gift certificates! We were going to replace our car’s worn-out brakes in the spring, but I think we’ll wait until we actually need to drive again. Forget about that Alexander Technique lesson or massage to keep tired bodies primed for action: too much personal contact, not enough cash. We’re good at keeping ourselves entertained, fed, and clothed on a limited budget; we have an enormous library of musical scores and I’m handy in the kitchen and with the sewing machine. And we’ve never been extravagant—our idea of fun is our work, and our big splurge is membership in the Rancho Gordo Bean Club—so we’re trying to stay positive and are treasuring the extra time together. Still, I can’t sugar coat it: the future is terrifying.

If this issue is important to you, please consider contacting your local representatives and remind them not to forget the arts and arts workers as they plan aid packages. The arts will get us through this, if only we can survive the storm.

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