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 Beth Clayton, mezzo-soprano and integrative performance coach, discussed her views of mental health and creation during the difficult times of the pandemic.
Beth Clayton, mezzo-soprano and integrative performance coach
Interviewed June 26, 2020
TB: Let's start on a positive note. What is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
BC: I would say it is that our tomatoes started bearing fruit. They are still in the green state, so even though I am from the south, we are not frying them up. An acquaintance of ours encouraged us to jump into the Victory Garden state of mind. That has been a really interesting focus for the last three months.
TB: Because you have such a diverse background, would you mind talking a little bit about what you have done and are currently doing in the performing arts?
BC: Absolutely, I enjoyed a very active performance career for well over 20 years on the operatic and symphonic stages, primarily in the US but also internationally. I'm a visceral performer, and I love this art form and always will. I say, "Once a singer, always a singer." But there was a yearning in me to do something beyond that because I always felt a therapeutic nature within myself. Even when I was on the job, I tended to be the counselor-in-residence. I tended towards empathy and problem solving, and I just finally listened to that a bit more.
A few years back, I decided to pursue another master's degree. I have a master's degree from Manhattan School of Music and went to SMU in Dallas for my two undergraduate degrees in both voice performance and music educations. My college teacher was Barbara Hill Moore, who was a big proponent of NATS, as was I. We had no choice but to be involved, and now I am glad I was. But beyond that, doing another graduate degree later in life was an interesting feat itself. It was a low-residency degree at Antioch University, so much of the course work was online, which is ironic for where we are today.
I wanted to do a master's degree in clinical mental health counseling because no one [in the mental health industry] really understood what a singing career looks like, and I wanted to do this to serve our population of artists. My biggest experiential wheelhouse is in the vocal arts, but we're all artists, and there are so many crossovers with theatre, recording artists, and the writing arts. During the course of my degree, I constantly had to explain what our industry looks like. Most artists I spoke with (including myself when I previously saw therapists on occasion) concurred that they have to spend 99% of their time explaining what it is they do rather than getting the help they need immediately.
That became my mission and goal: to back up my experiences with a solid degree in the same line within the hierarchy of the psychological arts. It is not a Masters of Science; it is a Masters of Arts. So, I have been doing distance counseling via Zoom and building up my practice, which was always designed to be online.
TB: Before we talk about the psychological aspects of the pandemic generally, I would also like to acknowledge that you have had your own story during this pandemic. So, where were you, and how did you first realize that your life was going to be affected by the pandemic?
BC: I'm married to Patricia Racette, who is a very well-known soprano. We are very out about that, and it is pride month, so we are even more out. We had always been two separate households going in two different directions for many years. Part of the other reason for my making the decision to do this career choice was so that we could also travel together even more.
I was with her in Europe when this happened. She was singing at Opéra Monte-Carlo in January and February. By late January, we saw what was happening in China full force but still had the attitude of wondering: can this really touch us and how much will this impact us? I don't feel ashamed of that, but there was such ignorance to which we were all party.
We were there and getting quite nervous in February because we were 15 minutes from the Italian border. The virus was starting to come our way, and there were already attitudes from the younger generation that we noticed even in Monte Carlo. For example, one of my friends, who was also Pat's cast member, has some asthmatic problems. She always wore a mask to and from the theater because the pollution in Monte Carlo is just horrible with all the Lamborghinis buzzing around. And she was insulted by millennials on the street, saying, "The virus isn't here yet. What's wrong with you?" Even though her choice had nothing to do with the virus, it was her personal health situation. I think of those stories in circular layers as we now have so much more information.
We didn't fly back to the United States until February 29, and we were just on the cusp of being able to fly to New York. We took a quick pause and got back to New Mexico because my father was about to undergo open-heart surgery—that got in just under the wire. I flew there [to my father] in early March because we didn't know what the impact would be, and I was there for about ten days.
As I flew back home to New Mexico, the first job was cancelled. Ironically, it was a job that Pat and I were going to do together for a future project. So, as I was on my way to the airport, the call came in, and that project was over. I got home then, and we have been here ever since March 12. We have been looking at each other, saying, "This is the longest time either of us has ever been in one place since we lived at home with our parents."
TB: First, your father is doing okay from surgery then?
BC: Yes, he is quite well. It has been a relief because, had his surgery been postponed another 10-12 days, we are not sure that it would have been considered essential.
TB: I am so glad he is doing well. I think it is pretty safe to say that this has been one of the most traumatic events for the arts. Could you talk about how you see this waterfall of cancellations affect performers?
BC: It is devastating in every sense of that word. There was so much shock and awe when it first started happening. Every day it was, "that job is gone, that program is cancelled, that concert is not happening." There is so much grief in it. I have been talking about grief so much [lately]; it is one of the topics that was a big part of my internship study with how children deal with grief and loss. As performers—even before a pandemic—there was already a certain amount of grief built into what we do. Because you grieve the loss of range as you get older, you grieve when a job is over as you miss the community of family that was created, and you grieve not being able to be at home when traveling for a job.
Now, there is this sort of "flip-grief" because you're forced to be home somewhere. For some, that has been a blessing, especially for those at a certain stage in their careers, who may be financially secure and/or may welcome the chance to be home with family and children. That is a bonding issue and an opportunity to sleep in your bed every night, where you wouldn't usually get to do that and be with loved ones. There is the flip-side of that, too. Whether heterosexual or homosexual, there are couples who function best because they spend time apart. There are all of these dynamics that come into play that aren't the typical processes.
I feel compassion for artists at every level. Some are in the twilight of their career and not performing as much. So if these things are cancelled, they evaporate and won't likely come back. A few may be rescheduled, but it is not like being furloughed or losing your job temporarily. Then there are those in the 'go' period of their career. The pandemic means a huge financial loss for them because they're in their big earning years. It also means a loss of momentum, and there may be great projects that have been planned for 5-6 years, and you just don't get to do them.
Beyond that, there has been a lot of reckoning for young artists—artists at the beginning of their career, those who are bursting out and suddenly... full stop. They are stopped in their tracks at a really exciting time when they are just starting to build their artistic identities. Most young artists don't have any money! If they are lucky, they may make a bit of money in some of the training programs, but they are now also having an identity crisis. "Am I supposed to be doing this? Can I still do this? What does this look like?" The grief and uncertainty are huge proponents of anxiety for so many people, so to even wonder if you are going to get to do it at all is just devastating.
The word "essential" has been introduced into our society. And while I completely agree—we want to thank the essential workers—it puts performing artists into the "non-essential" category. There is something very damaging in that in terms of cataloging oneself as non-essential. The arts have always had to fight for their place globally, especially in America. Now, to have that in jeopardy and have that message programmed into many young artists... Many components were already there in this industry that have only been exacerbated and amplified due to the circumstances.
TB: I really appreciate how you talked about the fact that these circumstances already existed and that they have become increasingly more uncertain. Could you talk about some things you would encourage a young or emerging artist to think about during this period?
DC: I think it has been a time to re-evaluate. I always encourage people to put things in a sifter and realize their strengths. [For example,] If you never sing again or go into a different industry for whatever reason, you should take time to acknowledge how many skills you have to be a performing artist, especially on the operatic stage, which is the ultimate multitasking. Remind yourself how amazing you are to have all the skills to organize your time, learn roles, memorize those roles, sing in other languages, and translate the score. You learn how to do self-care to take care of your body because your instrument is always with you; it teaches and integrates all of those skills.
This is a little bit of a pause, and maybe a lot of a pause for our specific industry because I think it will be vaccine-contingent before it really takes shape again in public. That is my opinion. We are all just trying to take in new information and assess it as best we can to be cooperative and also creative.
We need to remind the younger artists to find opportunities at this moment. I've made the suggestion to some young artist programs, and many are already doing this: tell younger artists that if they had a role assignment, keep it on the hot plate, for example. Because it may have been a smaller role because you are at the very beginning of your career, but when things do go [again], you want to have [that role] ready to go. Also, choose a dream role that you envision yourself singing and take the time to learn it. It may be five years down the road, but why not grab it and have control over it? Because you never know—you might have a sudden opportunity to say, "I'm ready to go." Give yourself the focus and have a goal.
Because a lot of artists function on the "working-towards-rehearsal-for-this-project," they are always working with that goal in mind. So, to have a rug ripped out from under you feels like free fall. Try to counteract the anxiety of that by recreating these goals. Even if they may not have a tangible home yet, they can have a tangible home in you as you do them and apply yourself to them. Because artistry is a never-ending pursuit, and there is that ever-present push for perfection or at least betterment. So rather than allowing these walls to box you in, allow the walls to provide stability. We need safety. We need shelter. We need food. We need the reality to balance [us] so that we're not delusional about these things and that we don't lose hope.
TB: So what you are saying is by having these goals, you are actually combating this feeling of anxiety or uncertainty in order to remain in control of a few things in the career of an artist?
BC: Yes, exactly, and to have the feeling of productivity. Productivity is a really important concept for artists because sometimes they feel that it is not enough and that there is nothing tangible to hang onto. They've also been dealing with—not to beat the "essential" thing too much —feeling waves of guilt for doing what they do. They see so much death and loss around them and feel that they don't have an essential skill.
We have to allow people to grieve and to be sad. I would say this in any circumstance: your grief is your grief. Whether it is this pandemic or otherwise, it is personal, and it is yours. You are entitled to have it, and you are entitled to work it out your way, in your time, and without guilt, shame, or judgment. Easier said than done, but it takes compassion, patience, and self-love.
TB: There seems to be an issue for artists thinking about their expression as essential and having an obligation towards creation. Can you talk to me about your view on this?
BC: We've seen an absolute explosion of virtual expression because it has that double-edge. It is real expression. Many artists are trying their best to do what they can and keep producing, producing, and producing. There are great things about that, but there is also the possibility of a backlog of that, especially with the operatic voice. Bless those young artists doing workshops and masterclasses from their living rooms and bathrooms and not having the proper equipment. We don't all have the TV-studio style equipment in our basements! Built-in speakers and internal mics aren't really geared towards the operatic voice: compression is horrible, and it can't really represent the overtones and all of the full contingencies of the instrument. Despite these technological challenges, many singers are—by necessity—forging forward to keep viable in the industry.
Others I talk to have said, "I don't feel like singing. I don't feel like producing." You have to listen to that, too. There are enough of us in the world to keep producing and keep the artistic possibility alive. It has been an opportunity for more seasoned artists with larger catalogs of work out there to be appreciated again because many performances have been re-streamed and made available to the public. The artists in them are not being compensated for those broadcasts, but the bigger picture is that art is still getting out there. Beauty is still out there. The distraction and fulfillment for the audience is a gift as well.
TB: As someone who deals with the mental side of performance, what is one thing that you would change about the reactions to the pandemic?
BC: I would have liked to be more aware sooner. Let's all be part of the community together and work with a common goal of being healthy, respecting life, and listening to science. We are artists, but we are also scientifically minded people. There is a lot of information to be learned, and you can apply it in a creative and beautiful way.
It is like one of those futuristic commercials for the vocal arts where we are going to look back and say, "How could a human ever drive a car?" My big reaction would be to have your recording studio ready to go and be creative in your space so that you are ready to do the most representative presentation of your own personal art that you can offer. Keep art alive. Artists have always been part of a worldwide community, and that is something that I find—from a psychological standpoint—interesting because of how we seek community.
TB: How would you advise singers who are moving through this shifting landscape as someone who has dealt with and works with grief and the grief mentality?
BC: Part of it is to give yourself a break. Take a step back and allow yourself to feel wherever you are on that grief spectrum. If you're really feeling like you need to take a break from using your voice, then do so. In terms of voice, sometimes there is nothing better than taking a month-to-six-weeks off where you don't sing. It doesn't mean that you can't read your favorite book, do some research, or be in touch with the art form itself.
Or maybe you really need a big pause, so you focus 100% on things you could never have if the circumstances had been different. Do you have to separate what I can do that I absolutely would not have been able to do had this not happened? [It's] the silver lining theory: trying to find some positive aspects without being delusional, asking, "What are you going to look back on and be grateful for? Did it take you to a different place in your creative process?"
There are opportunities to not let it be stagnant in whatever form that means to each individual. Just like anything else, it is exactly like your voice because it is as individual as your thumbprint. That is what is so beautiful about the career and the voice; no one sounds like you. Even if we live in an industry where comparisons are made, the truth is no one sounds like you, and that is a gift.
TB: How do you think this will change our musical landscape going forward?
BC: It will be vast, and the financial impact will be huge. I'm not any kind of economic expert, but I think certain companies won't come back from this. I hope that it will allow a coalition of regional areas that might be able to form new institutions in their own right.
We also have these spin-off companies like On Site Opera and other smaller institutions that are so creative. They work with smaller budgets, which is far more feasible going forward. Creative and minimalistic productions will continue to be important due to budgetary concerns. But it will also streamline our stories—pun intended! It will be a different level of involvement.
I don't know what is going to happen to the biggest of the big because I can't quote the exact statistics on how much revenue is actually made from ticket sales. I know it is always a surprising number as it takes so much other money—donations and grants—to make it happen. I hope that there is some sort of reweaving of the economics because [now] if theaters have to be reconfigured, it may become a permanent loss.
I can imagine that singers—because it was such bad news for the singing industry that this was airborne—are already thinking about being tested before rehearsal processes and performances. Hopefully, that would be alleviated when the vaccine is available and accessible for everyone. I think it is going to look very, very different.
TB: What would be your advice to singers in the musical community as they are going through this process?
BC: That is a tricky one because as a solo artist—there is a whole other platform talking about how chorus singers are being furloughed and have had that loss of income and productivity—you have one power. You can say yes or no to a job. You are not planning the season (some high-level artists may have some input). For the most part, artists are at the mercy of what companies do.
This is not my original idea, but I heard some UK colleagues discussing it. For solo singers, I think their contracts should be laid out so that there is compensation during the rehearsal period. Because it is a risky business if you are waiting until the performances to be paid and the performances don't happen. This has happened to so many people during this pandemic. It has happened for years and years for other reasons, like a family emergency or health issue. It would be a safer and more respectful incentive for singers to have some percentage of their contract value during the rehearsal period. It would make it that less devastating if they could not do the performances for some reason. That would be a big change in the industry if the contracts were laid out in such a way.
And god forbid that there were ever health benefits added to contracts for gig-work, which didn't even have a name before this pandemic. The gig economy has made its way into our vocabulary now, and people know what it is.
TB: Is there advice that you would give to the young and emerging artists as I know most everything has been cancelled until 2021?
BC: Ironically, it is not that different than what I would tell them anyway. It does feel a little more necessary in that it needs to be explained in more detail because they don't have that comparison to what it was like before—some may have been in a young artist program or have had an apprenticeship. Still, for many, this was their first 'big summer gig' or year-long young artist program for the fall of 2020.
First, start building your team. Your team needs to be people who tell you the truth—not your fans. I'm quoting Pat when I say that. But I would advise to keep it small because one of the hardest things on an emerging artist is all the advice they get from many directions. There is such a thing as too much information! Being a young artist, we have to take ourselves apart to do all of this, which is the learning part and all the things that aren't negotiable in terms of preparing music: pitches, rhythms, and proper diction aren't debatable. But then there is the matter of style and the act of putting it all back together.
We live in an industry where too many things are taken apart sometimes. Maybe the conductor, the director, the voice teacher, the coach, the person doing PR suddenly have an opinion, and those opinions can converge all at once! So I encourage young artists to listen with discernment and be sure that they, through their own sifter, decide who is on their team.
Incidentally, I call myself a performance coach, and I think that that team building is a really important thing to learn because artists get so overwhelmed with trying to get everything "right" and trying to please everyone. It is also a reminder: this will forever be a subjective art form. You are not going to be for everybody; everybody will not be for you. It takes that risk and belief in the power of your own thumbprint, as it were—the belief and passion in what you have to say.
TB: Thank you for chatting with me and for all of your thoughts on our situation. Lastly, what is your video binge recommendation?
BC: Little Fires Everywhere with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington is just a wonderful series. Especially for the LGBTQIA community, we just watched a really fun mini-series called Vida, which had three seasons on Starz. And I have not seen Hamilton, but I will be subscribing to Disney+ in order to watch that on July 3, not that they need me to plug that!
TB: It has been a pleasure getting to talk with you today. Thank you so much.
About Beth Clayton
Mezzo Soprano Beth Clayton led an active solo career for over twenty years, singing over fifty leading roles with companies both in the U.S. and abroad. Particularly known for her interpretation of the title role of Carmen, she also created a number of roles in world premieres, including John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, Lembit Beecher’s I have no stories to tell you, Howard Shore’s The Fly, Carlisle Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree, and Deborah Drattell’s Lilith. On the concert stage, she made appearances with leading orchestras ranging from the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra to The Israeli Philharmonic. Her discography includes the Grammy-nominated recording of The Mines of Sulphur as well as Five Songs of Bernstein with The Minnesota Orchestra. She holds two Bachelor’s degrees in both Voice Performance and Music Education from Southern Methodist University, a Master’s of Music in Voice Performance from Manhattan School of Music, and most recently a Master’s of Arts degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Antioch University. She combines her performance experience with the platform of total mental well-being in a private practice geared towards the specific needs of performing artists. In her practice, she works both with individuals as well as provides consultation for some of the country’s top training programs, including the Ryan Opera Center, The Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program, and the Houston Opera Studio and was recently featured in the September 2020 issue of Opera News.
She resides in Santa Fe, NM and New York City. Ms. Clayton was a finalist in the Metropolitan National Council Auditions in 1995, a Sullivan Grant recipient, and went on to do further training in The Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program followed by a year in the Houston Opera Studio. She is a native Arkansan.