The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic Abi Levis, mezzo-soprano, talked with me about her contract that was abruptly ended and the currents of change that she is feeling in the vocal performing arts.
Abi Levis, mezzo-soprano
Interviewed March 16, 2020
TB: So, first off, let’s start with something positive. What’s the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
AL: Well, I just received a honorarium check for a concert that was cancelled. It’s not the full fee. Originally, I was to jump in, [but] I wasn’t even [originally] planning to do this concert. I hadn’t planned any travel or anything around it. This company always takes care of that for us. When this performance was cancelled they still gave us each $1,000, which, when I saw the check, I actually burst into tears because it felt really good to be respected that way and to have that burden eased a little bit.
Also, I was on the road for six weeks and would have been almost nine weeks, had this concert not been cancelled. And my husband and I were apart, but I’m home with him now. That’s an upside for sure. I really missed him, and we were starting to hit our wall of being apart for so long.
TB: Could you tell me a little bit about your development and where you are in your career right now?
AL: I’m 32, I’ll be 33 in about a week. [Scoffs] Happy birthday to me. I’m just starting to become an established artist. I’ve done two young artist programs: I was a young artist at Utah Opera and also at Los Angeles Opera. Then I was also Stipendiat at Deutsche Oper Berlin, which is somewhere between a first-year Fest contract and an opera studio. It’s basically a really cheap Fest that the [opera] house doesn’t have to pay so much for because it’s also subsidized by a scholarship program. But I did twelve roles in one year, so a young artist program it was not. So, I’ve been doing full-time freelance [singing] for three years.
I wouldn’t say that I’m new on the scene, but I am still making debuts. Especially, if the house is a “step-up” from the last house I worked at. But, I also do recurring performances with companies, so not everything I do is a debut. I am a lyric mezzo-soprano, so I sing anything from leading roles to comprimario roles depending on the contract.
TB: So why did you decide to go into the operatic field?
AL: I like singing opera and I was good at it. I went to a conservatory for college and was pretty one-track-minded. I knew I wanted to be in the performing arts in high school, [but] I wasn’t sure if that would be musical theater or opera. I didn’t get into any musical theater schools, so I became an opera singer. [Laughter]
That choice was made for me and I’m really glad it went that way. I like it because it combines all of my interests: foreign language, history, literature, theater, and music. All of it is really in there for me and I think it’s an important art-form for people. It’s always been problematic, as far as keeping it afloat, because it is a very expensive art form to produce. So that’s one of the things that I’ve always kept in mind as I’m trying to stick with it. If you look at the history of opera, that has always been an issue. A field where it is always on the precipice of failing. This isn’t new. It’s not a new worry, despite any recent changes in the economy. I think it is exciting and thrilling to try and take a really old art-form and make it feel new or to see what we can do with it.
TB: So diving into COVID-19, can you describe where you were and how you were first affected by this?
AL: I was working in Rennes, France and we were rehearsing La Clemenza di Tito and I was singing Annio. I started hearing about it backstage from my colleagues like, “Have you seen what’s going on in Italy?” We had just started hearing that Italy was canceling performances, this was mid-to-late February. So we were in tech week for our show and we kept hearing rumors about it, such as “That’s going to be bad because the force majeure in our contracts will be enforced for sure and a bunch of artists are not going to get paid.”
As that week progressed, we started hearing more and more stories about how La Scala was closing, Florence is closing, Milan is closing, and all of these major houses were shutting down. Then we opened our show on March 2nd, in Rennes. We had four performances and, again, there were no concerns. No one was getting sick or anything outside normal, common colds. And even then, I didn’t see anybody who was ill. It just didn’t seem very prevalent during that week of performances in France.
Then we had a week-long break before we took [the show] to Nantes, which is another French city very close to Rennes. During that week, it became very clear that things were getting worse in Italy. I was working with two Italian singers and they were asked to not go home during their time off to Italy, out of a concern that we would not be able to get them back for the performances in Nantes. It feels like a decade ago, but starting March 10th, we got an email saying basically, “Don’t leave France. If you are traveling, please do not go to Italy or any high-risk areas. We want to make sure we get you back.”
Then each day we started hearing more and more about bigger houses closing. I think it was Wednesday of that week, we found out that congregations of 1000 or more were banned in the country of France, which did not affect us. Our opera house has 800 seats. So, we got an email saying, “We’re going ahead.” I heard that about a lot of French houses who were following the rules from the government; but, they were not going to overreact. If they could go ahead with their normal lives, they would.
On Friday, we got the news that that congregation ban had been dropped to 100 people, and that’s when they told us that we were cancelled for the foreseeable future. We were supposed to rehearse the day after that and open on Sunday. So basically, my shows were cancelled less than 48 hours beforehand. I already had a [return] ticket booked, I rebooked immediately and left France about 19 hours later.
TB: So you’ve been back in the States for how long?
AL: I got back on Saturday night, my flight landed at about 6:00 pm. So, it will be 48 hours today.
TB: Never a dull moment. So can you talk a little bit more about the logistics side of that?
AL: Well my companies (Angers-Nantes Opéra and Opéra de Rennes), they do not arrange travel for the artist. The artist arranges it on their own and submits receipts and—at least in my contract—I was given a travel stipend. It was not enough to cover international travel, but the amount of money I was making, not the contract itself, would have balanced that out.
As it stands, with how much I had to pay for travel and then rebooking international, transatlantic travel (I live in Los Angeles, California), and then also housing, which was not covered, I stand to have already lost about a performance fee. So out of the nine performances I was contracted to do, I would have made eight performances worth of profit or income. We only performed four shows. So, I’m looking at really only being paid for a third of what I was contracted for.
TB: On the logistics side, could you talk about the reality of the housing situation as an international singer?
AL: As an international singer, some houses will provide you with housing or help finding it. Saying, “We have donors that we know and love,” or put you in a long-term hotel. Probably 60% say you’re on your own. So when I was in Rennes, I actually staying in an Airbnb for about a month. That cost me about $1200 to rent there — [a] little efficiency studio, very comfortable. Then when I moved to Nantes, I was only going to be there for about two weeks. I am extremely cheap and fiscally minded, so when it comes to housing—if I have to find my own housing—the first thing I do is try to find either a family member or friend who lives in that area. I was very lucky with Nantes that a friend of mine is a singer/songwriter who performs in France a lot and he had friends there who were more than happy to put me up.
Originally, I think they were going to charge me a very low rent because they don’t really need the money. I think it was going to be around $500 for a month, so they probably would have prorated that down to like $100. But, having met them, I was very lucky: they were extremely kind people. They have not said anything to me about paying them. And they were feeding me, which was not part of the agreement.
This particular housing situation was in a very wealthy home that had servants’ quarters. It was a very old building and the servants’ quarters had been redone and modernized. So, I was basically living in an in-law apartment. I had my own kitchen and about two bathrooms to myself. It was like luxury apartment. So, I was very, very lucky. When I got to Nantes on March 10th, a week ago, they were already aware of the situation and were saying, “It’s very likely you’re going to be cancelled.” They were taking care of me emotionally. They very much adopted me and were saying, “Come have wine with us.”
But, that’s a reality for a lot of singers. We have to find housing and if we don’t find housing, we have to find an Airbnb or a long-stay hotel that might have a kitchen in it. Because most of our gigs are a week or more. So, you don’t want to be eating out constantly when you’re on a gig because that’s expensive. Being able to cook your own food is really important.
TB: So we’ve talked about the travel and we talked about the housing, but one of the other things that has been impacted by are the loved ones around us. So how has that affected you? It had to be stressful watching this whole situation develop.
AL: Yeah, it was scary. I think it was Wednesday morning that the travel ban was announced or it would have been Tuesday afternoon in the states. Where Trump made that first announcement that travel to and from Europe was going to be banned starting on Friday. I was asleep when that happened, because it was already night time in Europe. I got woken up at 6:30 am because my phone was dinging like crazy. It was my husband, my mother and my friends back in America, who were saying, “Abi, have you seen this? Are you going to be able to get home? You’re going to be stuck in France. What are you going to do?”
Of course, then that got amended and we found out that it didn’t apply to American citizens. But that was scary because I was suddenly thrust into a position of, “This travel ban is being enacted, everything is up in the air.” I didn’t know what was going to change in the next 24 hours and my job hadn’t been cancelled yet. So, it was another two or three days before my job was cancelled and I was free to go. But I was faced with the decision between do I stay here and do my job for the next ten days and maybe not be able to go home for longer because it might get worse, or do I pull out, go home now, and just eat the loss. And it would also make it impossible for my colleagues to do the show, because we didn’t have covers.
I made the decision to stay, do my job, and wait. Because if it was going to get worse, then they were going to cancel our performances and I’d go home anyway. I was just hoping that the ban wouldn’t become more stringent. And I was lucky. I do know people who are dealing with cancelled flights and are stranded over there. It is a lot.
The beautiful thing though was that, the minute that happened, not only was I getting dings from my friends in America, I was getting dings from my friends in Europe. They said, “We know you’re over here. You can come stay with us, we have an extra room.” I think at least four of my friends said, “Get over here. I’ve got whiskey. If you’re stuck, you’re not stuck.” So I was really, really moved by that. Even my host family said, “If you’re stuck here, you stay here. Don’t even question it.” And I’d only known them for three or four days.
TB: That is one of the beautiful things about this situation, it seems to be uniting the arts community. Although, it is terrible as well.
AL: It really is bringing out the best in a lot of us and bringing out the fire in a lot of us too. People are mad. And we should be. That was a good situation for me, but emotionally it was hard, and it was something I had to talk through with my husband and family. I have a father back home in Maine who is elderly and not doing particularly well. So, if I was going to be stuck in Europe for another 30 days, I didn’t know what I was going to do really.
TB: Can you explain a little bit about the financial side of why you decided not to leave France immediately? You mentioned not letting your cast mates down.
AL: If I had pulled out and the show had to be cancelled because I left, then force majeure would have gone into effect for them. They also would have been out of work, which isn’t fair to the artists that I work with. [Force majeure is] if the show was cancelled for things that are sort of out of the control of the company. An “act of god”—like an earthquake, a global pandemic, a tornado, a massive storm—means they don’t have to pay us for that one night or things like that. It is pretty standard that if we don’t perform for whatever reason, whether it be our choice, our issue, orforce majeure, we don’t get paid.
That’s the thing that is scaring a lot of us. We have put in time. We have put in money. I had to pay to house myself for a month over there. I had to pay to fly over there. And now I will not be compensated for half of that.
I want to clarify quickly: I do not know what will happen with my contract right now. It has only been two or three days since we got the news. I have not been informed. My agents are dealing with that. They are overwhelmed dealing with force majeure issues right now for all of their artists. I do not know what Opéra de Rennes is planning to do. I have contacted my agents and asked them to ask specific questions. Whether it would be a partial fee, or covering my housing and flight, or if they’ll pay us our full fee. If they’re planning to reschedule, or are they going to pay for my travel and housing? Because there’s not going to be much point in me going back over there to do it if I have to pay another three grand to just survive.
TB: But not only is there an expenditure for travel and housing, but there is a lot of work that you have done before the first rehearsal takes place, right?
AL: Yeah, we have to learn the role. We are expected to be memorized upon the first day of rehearsal. That’s true even with most European contracts now, unless you’re a Fest singer or something. I put in hours at home and I’m working at my piano. I deserve to be compensated for those hours that I put in. It’s hard work.
In some cases, I have to go to a professional and pay that professional to make sure that the work I’m doing is okay. I can’t hear myself singing. Much like when we hear ourselves on an answering machine: we’re surprised that that’s what we sound like. So, I need to have an extra set of ears. And that extra set of ears wants to be paid. So, I incur the costs of [my] time and actual money [from vocal coaching, etc.] before I even set foot in a rehearsal.
That’s another big thing: this is not an easy or cheap profession. It’s not like I just show up, they teach me the music, and I sing pretty. I spend hours memorizing, translating, and working on my character so that the level of art that I’m putting out is adequate for the audience That’s another big thing: this is not an easy or cheap profession. It’s not like I just show up, they teach me the music, and I sing pretty. I spend hours memorizing, translating, and working on my character so that the level of art that I’m putting out is adequate for the audience that I’m performing for. You’re paying for a ticket to see the best people in the world, to see professional singers, and I have to make sure that I’m earning my fee.
TB: So through this process, what’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned from this situation?
AL: How vulnerable singers are. Well, I don’t know if I am learning that lesson - I knew that already. We’ve always been a very vulnerable group in the arts. And I’ve always known that our union is fairly weak when it comes to protecting us. So, it’s hard to see that play out in real time. And also really hard to see that play out for literally 99% of us.
Every opera singer in the world is unemployed right now. Every opera singer in the world has lost money. I don’t know a single one who isn’t just praying that this blows over in a couple weeks and that we can maybe salvage one more contract for the season. All of us are scared and all of us are really worried about what we’re going to do. I have it better than some right now, but if it gets any worse... To be very blunt, I think I’ve lost about $15,000 worth of income. That was just from the cancellation of the contract in Nantes. This was biggest contract of the year and I lost five of the nine performances. Because I’m paid per performance, I lost more than 50% of my fee or my income.
TB: So how has this experience impacted your creative process?
AL: Well, I didn’t practice yesterday because I was too sad and jet lagged. I needed a day off. I am planning to practice today and sing. I actually practiced the minute I got the email that we were cancelled. I was waiting for it all day. I knew it was coming, [so] when it came, I had already warmed up [and] I was like, “Well, I’m going to make hay while the sun is shining.” I went and practiced and, honestly, it made me feel better.
My creative desire, my belief that we will come through this on the other side, has yet to be diminished. That might be hubris - I don’t know - but I’m a fairly optimistic person anyway. I’m also a doer, I need to keep myself busy. So, I’m going to start learning recital music and see what I can do with that for a while. I’m looking into other things like blogging, talking to people like you, and advocacy for the singing community in the arts community at large. Seeing what I can do there. All of that is in infancy stages, but I think this is a really interesting time for all of us.
A lot of us are looking at this as a silver lining. Like I said, people are mad, and things change when people are mad, and good things [can] come out of that, I think. We’re starting to mobilize and I think people — like Zach Finkelstein, who is blogging a lot right now about the companies who are paying, despite force majeure — I think those people are really important, and they’re starting to get noticed. The New Yorker has quoted Zach and more newspapers are going to start picking him up and picking up what’s going on for us because it’s huge. Broadway went dark, that’s unbelievable. A lot more of us are going to feel it too, because a lot of us were falling back on the service industry, saying, “Well my show got cancelled, I can go wait tables.” Now New York City has closed bars and restaurants. My creative energy is being funneled that way, hopefully.
TB: Do you have any projects that you want to mention?
AL: I love art song and it’s a big part of my career anyway. I definitely want to do some more of that, and it’s not like those made a lot of money to begin with. So, I might as well hold relief concerts for very small venues. Right now I’m under pretty solid quarantine because I was in Europe, so, I can’t really do much; but whatever I can do from the comfort of my own piano bench, I will do.
TB: So, rewinding a bit, how different was your life six weeks ago?
AL: Very different! I mean, I’ve always worried about advancement in my career. I’m always looking to level-up or to find new connections, and always networking. About six weeks ago, I was going to France to make my French debut and I was ready to do as many auditions as I could while I was there. That’s gone. I managed to do one audition before houses started to close. I had one audition cancelled completely and two other possible auditions clearly aren’t happening. An agent I was talking to was supposed to come see me in Europe so that I could maybe secure European management. She can’t come now because there’s no show to see. And there were a few other people who have casting power who were going to come to see those shows.
So, I feel a significant gut punch to the momentum of my career, which is very important for where I am in my career right now. Going back to one of the first questions you asked, I’m in a position where I was a somewhat-known entity, but I’m not, say, Jamie Barton—who also suffered contract losses. She’s a celebrity already and I’m not. Some of the younger generation behind me, they aren’t picking up steam yet. They will probably benefit from this, from companies who are hurting financially and [will] want to pay for cheaper, eager labor. So that’s the difference I’m feeling most of all, the loss of momentum. Which is just frustrating because it’s like, I was set to coast for a little bit... and nope. [Laughter]
TB: So what would you say is one thing that you’re most grateful for during this experience?
AL: My colleagues, without question. People have been checking in on me almost daily, it’s amazing. It’s not just been people with whom I’m really close. It’s been people who were acquaintances and are now becoming really close friends. They’re like, “I was in France too. Are you okay? How are you feeling with the differences between being home and being in France?” Everyone’s reaching out and it’s been incredible. I’ve always loved how supportive everybody in this community has always been [and] I’m really grateful for how it is radicalizing a lot of us. I think we’re going to see a lot of changes, and I think those changes are going to start actually protecting the people who do the art-form instead of the institutions themselves. Those institutions wouldn’t exist if we weren’t here to make the music. So we need to be protected.
TB: So what is one thing that you would like to teach the world about your experience with this pandemic?
AL: Keep calm and carry on. Follow the instructions you’re being given to the best of your ability. Whether you’ve hoarded toilet paper or not, you will have to go to the grocery store. But like I said, be vigilant. Obviously we want to slow the spread, but panicking isn’t helping anybody.
I’m not scared of the coronavirus, I’m really not. I’m not scared for myself. I’m scared for those who are at high[er] risk. Those people need to be protected. But it's not the coronavirus that scares me. It is the reaction that I’m seeing to it. It’s the panic. It’s the selfishness. That’s what is going to kill us.
TB: Will this change the musical landscape in the future and how so?
AL: Oh, absolutely. I think we’re going to lose a generation of singers. I think my generation of singers will become the lost generation. A lot of us don’t have the staying power yet to survive this. We don’t have the funds to survive it. So many singers are going to be forced into bankruptcy. We’re going to be forced into day jobs. We’re going to be forced into long-term financial solutions that will further keep us from the stage.
If you’re working a day job, you don’t have time to go and do audition season in New York. You can’t afford to fly to New York for two weeks and do all of that. It’s the long-term that’s going to be a problem. I think we will lose a lot of singers between 30 and 40, who just couldn’t survive this or couldn’t come back from it. That is a shame because we have a lot to give.
We were born out of the last financial crisis and have learned to adapt. We are some of the most adaptable singers around, I think. We’re really innovative. We’re really good at this and we are necessary to help sustain the business. That’s going to be a really sad outcome of this. I do think a lot of us will go into arts advocacy because we’re upset and things need to change.
So, I think over the next five years, we’re going to see some sweeping changes in the way contracts are executed, the way that opera houses are structured, and in the general infrastructure of this business. That’s great, because our business is notorious for being very slow and very resistant to change. We’ve seen that with the #MeToo movement and our business’s reaction to it. So, I think it will speed up, the change will speed up. But, I do think we will lose a generation of important artists.
TB: Interesting. That’s a very good point.
AL: I also think the landscape will change, in that a lot of opera companies aren’t going to be able to come back from this. A lot of opera companies are going to fail. So, I think the occurrence of smaller [companies] that were already starting to pop up—Heartbeat Opera, Loft Opera, Pacific Opera Project—those are going to become more frequent and more prevalent, which is great.
TB: So what question did I not ask you that I should have?
AL: I guess the questions I would ask or add to would be [the fact] that, like most artists in my generation, I also have student loans. That’s another reason we’re not going to be able to come back from this. A lot of us are in consumer debt [because] we put money down hoping that, as our careers started to take off, we would be able to pull ourselves out of debt. We are particularly vulnerable for that reason.
That would be a question I would add if people are willing to talk about that. I’m still $20,000 in student debt. I’m ahead of the curve on my payments, so I’m safe for a while as far as going into default. But a $15,000 hit was not something I needed. For those who are not ahead on their payments, the hit they’re taking means they will [eventually] default on their loans.
TB: So what is your Netflix binge recommendation for the pandemic?
AL: My husband and I decided to cave and watch Love is Blind right now. We are also going to try and get to Better Call Saul. I think the new season just dropped. I’m finishing up a re-watch of Mad Men and we are considering a re-watch of Breaking Bad. We also love Letterkenny when we want to laugh, and Schitt’s Creek.
TB: Thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Following our interview on March 16, 2020, Abi noted that she had hence lost upwards of $50,000 worth of contracts due to the pandemic. This has had a devastating toll on many such artists, especially in her emerging artist category. Fortunately, in reimagining their upcoming season, Fort Worth Opera has created a space for artist-driven programming in the digital world. Their Festival Artists Online project will feature Abi in collaboration with many other exciting artists. [https://www.fwopera.org/festival-artists-online]
"Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ya" - traditional Abi Levis, mezzo-soprano from "This Land is Ours", a Mirror Visions Ensemble program
About Abi Levis
Named "Debut Artist of the Year" by the Joy in Singing Foundation, Abi Levis has appeared as a soloist with the Toronto Symphony, the Handel and Haydn Society, Florida Symphony, Philharmonia Baroque, Portland Baroque, American Symphony Orchestra, Utah Opera/Symphony, Opera Parallele, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Philadelphia, The Dallas Opera, and Ars Lyrica Houston. She is also a prize winner of several competitions both at home abroad, including the Klaudia Taev Competition, the William Mattheus Sullivan Foundation, the Classical Singer Competition, the Gerda Lissner Competition, and the William C. Byrd Concerto Competition.
A native of Portland, Maine, Ms. Levis holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music, the University of Houston, and Bard College. She has completed residencies at Utah Opera and Los Angeles Opera and currently resides in Southern California with her fiancée and three awesome step-children, and a small zoo of animals.