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 Clinton Smith, conductor, talked with me about the fascinating part that he played in the vaccine trials and his hopes for the arts as they are moving forward.
Clinton Smith, conductor
Interviewed July 16, 2020
TB: I always like to start off on a positive note, what’s the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
CS: Tomorrow is my eighth anniversary with my husband. That’s a nice little bright spot; that and the discovery that the Moderna vaccine is looking really good. I’m a member of the phase one trial. The results are really good in terms of antibody levels and people’s robust response. Those are two great things that have happened this week.
TB: Your involvement with the vaccine is really interesting and I promise we will get back to that. As a young up and coming conductor you have been working with Santa Fe Opera, Florentine Opera, Minnesota Opera, etc., but can you give me an update on where you are in your career?
CS: For slightly less than a decade, I primarily worked with a couple orchestras. I had an orchestra job in Minnesota and then Seattle. I’ve since pivoted to full-time opera conducting in this country. Part of that decision was because I love the opera so much and part was because my husband got into medical school at Emory here in Atlanta. We had to relocate from Seattle and that pivoted us in an all new direction. In terms of what is coming up, the whole industry is on hold at the moment and it’s anybody’s guess. We’re all just waiting for good news from the scientific world.
TB: So, let’s talk about the pandemic. Can you go back in your history and tell me about where you were and how you first realized that you were going to be affected by the pandemic?
CS: I remember hearing about the coronavirus spreading slowly from abroad and this was in February. By the time that it started to affect me, it had started to affect everybody in this country. It was mid-March and I was in production for Cendrillon with Opera Birmingham. We had just had our Sitzprobe with the orchestra the night before and it was great. It was just magnificent music making. That orchestra there is phenomenal and we had an amazing cast. The very next day was when the company decided to cancel the rest of the production. We were two weeks into a three-week process.
TB: So then something you already alluded to, any idea on when the next job will be?
CS: I have a recital coming up with Opera Orlando. I’m looking forward to it because, frankly, it’s getting me on the piano again. Also, I get to make music with a couple of singers who live here in Atlanta. We’re going to be recording next week to broadcast in September for part of Opera Orlando’s fall lineup. So that is what I am working on now. But that’s it.
TB: Can you talk about the financial impact that this has had on you and your family?
CS: I’ve always been a cheapskate my whole life and I have saved quite a bit. In the beginning that gave me comfort, but then the stock market went to 35% of what it was in late March. So I started to become very nervous. I knew I would be okay for the rest of the year if everything was cancelled. It wasn’t going to be comfortable, but it was going to be okay. Then the stock market crashed and we didn’t hear any updates about the unemployment situation with regards to independent contractors.
Soon though, Nancy Pelosi came through for us and Georgia worked really hard to get Pandemic Unemployment Assistance on their website. That’s really, really helped to calm my anxiety. In the meantime, the stock market has come back and my savings is there again. It’s remarkable. In any case, because my husband and I live such a frugal lifestyle, we’re going to be okay.
He’s still working as a graduate student and getting paid his graduate stipend. Actually, he is doing COVID research as he is an infectious disease scientist. So it has been a fascinating time for both of us to experience this together. He is working harder than he’s ever worked and I am hardly working.
I’ve actually been running a small baking business out of my house selling fresh-baked bread and cookies in my neighborhood. I’ve made a killing doing that and it has been a lot of fun. I went from never having baked anything in my life to baking 80 loaves of bread a week. It was my husband’s idea. He said, “I love to bake bread. Why don’t we turn this into a neighborhood business?” All of a sudden, we were making more money than I would have made on a weekly stipend at Santa Fe Opera. Then he gets roped into doing COVID research, so he didn’t have anymore time at the height of our demand... So now, I have to learn how to do it. I’m still doing it. Actually, I delivered bread and cookies earlier today. The demand has waned significantly and I’m a little relieved because it was difficult to churn 80 loaves out of a single family home kitchen.
TB: That is fantastic. So what would you say is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned so far in this situation?
CS: I think the biggest lesson is for people who are independent contractors—particularly in the arts—to have more cash on hand. So many of my colleagues are in far worse positions than I am. And through no fault of their own. I’ve been diligent about saving money, but I must say that I think having liquid cash on hand (six-month minimum) is a hard lesson that I learned. I will have that cash cushion going forward.
TB: One of the things that is unique about your situation is your husband is working in COVID research, so he is one of the frontline superheroes in this pandemic. But was it sometime around early June you decided to take part in this research as well? Talk me through some of that.
CS: I think it was some time in May that I actually started... But here’s the scope of Moderna’s trial; there are three phases. Phase one is the part that I’m a part of and there are three subsets to this phase. For the first subset, they just published the results in the New England Journal of Medicine [July 14, 2020 “An mRNA Vaccine against SARS-CoV2—Preliminary Report]. Those 45 participants received either 25, 100, or 250 micrograms for the mRNA vaccine. The second subset, which I am a part of, received 50 micrograms. And the third subset will receive 10 micrograms. What they are trying to do is pinpoint the best dose. And they’ve already announced that they’re going to use 100 micrograms in two doses for their phase three trial. So that is the background of the trial.
My husband was actually the one that talked me into it. He said, “I’ve done a lot of mRNA research.” That article that just came out in the New England Journal of Medicine cited one of the papers that he was a co-author on, because he did mRNA research in Seattle at the University of Washington on the flu virus. He believed that it was going to work and that mRNA vaccines are safe. Basically, if you have a typical virus vaccine the protein or inactive part of the virus may have a side effect. But with mRNA vaccines, it’s a much slower and steadier build up of antibodies.
TB: So you received the vaccine. Talk me through a bit of your mindset and then some of the initial results?
CS: Well part of doing it was because it was there. My husband said, “It’s going to be safe. It’s probably going to work. You might as well get paid to do it.” So that’s what I went into thinking about it. Then I thought, we’re also all so powerless right now and this is one thing I can do. I can’t donate millions of dollars to arts organizations or fellow artists, but I can try to be part of the thing that will bring our industry back.
As for results, Hans and I knew them before they published this week because he and a team of people created the antibody tests that all of Emory’s healthcare system is using here in Atlanta—something like 13 hospitals. So he tested my blood himself. He poked my finger and I bled on a little test slide. He took it into work and spun it down. He actually texted me, “It doesn’t look like you have any antibodies... Oh, wait! It’s in another column, you have a ton of antibodies.” That was a very exciting day. And a week later Moderna officially published that all 45 participants created a robust response to the vaccine at all dosage levels in the New England Journal of Medicine. That’s great news for all of us.
TB: That is so amazing. Thank you both for your work on that vaccine. So, it is July 16th, minus a pandemic, where would you be and what would you be doing?
CS: Today is Thursday, so I would be in staging rehearsal for another couple of hours for Santa Fe Opera’s premiere of Huong Ruo’s piece, M. Butterfly. I was slated to be the cover conductor for this piece and I got to work on Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen in 2014. I was really looking forward to bringing his piece to life again this summer because he’s a brilliant composer. So that’s where I’d be. And I’d have another six weeks out in Santa Fe.
have to tell you, I’ve lived many different places, but I’ve never been where I was based for the summer since high school. It’s been a couple decades since I’ve spent a summer at home. And Georgia in the summer is not great. [Laughter]
TB: I hear Santa Fe’s nice though.
CS: It is magnificent.
TB: Let’s talk about looking forward in our industry. How do you think that this pandemic is going to change our musical landscape?
CS: That’s a good question. A lot of people are dabbling in virtual media, but I don’t see that sticking around frankly. None of the singers I know really like these Zoom recitals. Being involved in music means being around and connecting with other humans. It’s just the nature of the business. It’s not something we can do remotely. So I don’t know how much it will change our industry.
If anything, it will make it more necessary and meaningful. We’ll take less for granted by going to a concert hall and seeing a live performance. I’m no expert, but I have a feeling that concerts and opera performances will feel much more special.
TB: What challenges do you foresee for the next generation of artists? And what would you recommend to them in overcoming those challenges?
CS: I have a feeling that this pause in the industry is going to affect a lot of people who are currently starting out, just getting a foothold, or finishing school. A lot of people will quit and a lot of established artists won’t make it. It will come down to finances and what they want their life to look like. I have a fear that we’re going to lose a lot of artists as a result of this. It will make some room for other artists. But it’s unfortunate because it will boil down to someone’s financial capabilities of staying above water.
TB: So how would artists be best served preparing themselves for when we hit that unpause button?
CS: I think young singers in particular need to spend as much time as they can studying language. Languages that they’re going to sing soon, and then languages that they may sing in the future. That is something that you can do on your own. You don’t need to pay a coach to do it if you’re diligent. Obviously, learning new roles, practicing your piano skills; there are a lot of things that can be done as an artist.
Even with conductors, most of our work is sitting and studying scores or playing the piano. My husband jokingly said, “I need to come up with some fake contracts from companies you want to work at and mail them to you so that you will work on operas that you want to learn.” So there are a lot of things that artists can do in the meantime to get ready for the unpause button.
People don’t like to talk about money, but I love to talk about money. I would say my biggest piece of advice to fellow artists is to know where your money goes and make sure you have a cash cushion.
TB: So maybe taking a step back and doing some financial planning and figuring out those things?
CS: It’s the best way to survive in this business when the work comes and goes. I call it realism. My husband calls it pessimism. I’ve always prepared for the worst case scenario, and guess what? We’re living in the worst case scenario. It is happening. People need to think and talk about their financial health and make sure it is just as solid as their artistic skill set.
TB: So before I ask you my last question, is there anything else that you would like to add to our conversation?
CS: I have great hope. That’s something that we’re all missing right now. Even though I’m a pessimist at heart, being married to a virologist and seeing the results I’ve seen with his work on vaccines—not just the one I’m a part of, there are many in the world happening right now—we’re going to be okay. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Eventually, America does the right thing. We’re going to come out the other end of this.
TB: Last question, what is your video binge recommendation?
CS: We like Cold Case Files and serial killer documentaries... We like all that stuff. So that’s what we’re watching right now; that and Queer Eye.
TB: Well, thank you again for talking with me.
"Sleep Chorus" from Silent Night
Clinton Smith, Chorus Master
Minnesota Opera Chorus
World Premiere by Kevin Puts
Commissioned by Minnesota Opera
Madama Butterfly (excerpt)
Clinton Smith, conductor
Minnesota Opera main stage final performance
About Clinton Smith
Clinton Smith's 2020/2021 season includes conducting Atlanta Opera's new production of Der Kaiser von Atlantis and a virtual recital for Opera Orlando's Summer Concert Series. His 2019/20 season included debuts at Florentine Opera conducting Le nozze di Figaro and Opera Birmingham conducting Cendrillon. He returned to Dayton Opera to conduct Cenerentola, and Tacoma Opera to conduct L'elisir d'amore. He spends his seventh summer on the music staff at Santa Fe Opera playing continuo and covering music director Harry Bicket's performances of Cosi fan tutte.
Mr. Smith’s recent conducting credits include Charlie Parker's Yardbird at Atlanta and Arizona Operas, Pagliacci/Pulcinella at Opera Orlando, Il barbiere di Siviglia at Dayton Opera and the University of Michigan, Le nozze di Figaro at Tacoma Opera, Alcina at Fargo-Moorhead Opera, Turandot, Norma, and Hansel und Gretel with Pacific Northwest Opera, The Mikado for Kentucky Opera, and Noah's Flood with Opera Las Vegas. He has served on the music staff of Santa Fe Opera, Juilliard Opera, Minnesota Opera, Atlanta Opera, Portland Opera, Kentucky Opera, Ash Lawn Opera, and Skylark Operas and has included the preparation of over fifty operas in German, Italian, French, English, Czech, Russian, and Mandarin.
For four seasons, Minnesota Opera engaged Mr. Smith as cover conductor and chorus master, where he led main stage performances of La traviata and Madama Butterfly and covered the St. Paul Chamber and Minnesota Opera Orchestras in over 20 productions. During 2011, Mr. Smith conducted a workshop and prepared the world premiere of Kevin Puts'’ opera Silent Night, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music. For Minnesota Opera's New Works Initiative, Mr. Smith prepared workshops & performances of Douglas J. Cuomo's Doubt, Rick Ian Gordon's The Garden of the Finzi Continis, and the North-American premiere of Jonathan Dove's The Adventures of Pinocchio, as well as Dominick Argento's Casanova's Homecoming and Bernard Herrmann's Wuthering Heights.
Previous positions include assistant conductor and chorus master for San Francisco Opera's Merola Program, assistant conductor for Glimmerglass Opera, music director of Western Ontario University's Canadian Operatic Arts Academy, guest coach at the National University of Taiwan, music director and conductor of the Franco-American Vocal Academy in France, the Austrian-American Mozart Academy in Salzburg, and the University of Michigan Life Sciences Orchestra. Born in Texas in 1981, Mr. Smith holds degrees in orchestral conducting from the University of Michigan and piano performance from the University of Texas at Austin.
On equal footing in the orchestral world, Mr. Smith recently concluded a collective nine years as music and artistic director of both Orchestra Seattle/Seattle Chamber Singers and the St. Cloud Symphony, conducting over 60 orchestral, oratorio, chamber, pops, educational, and holiday concert performances. While music director of OSSCS, he saw subscriptions double and worked in tandem with the managing director to double annual fundraising events. Among his many accomplishments include conducting seven to ten subscription concerts a season, creating a chamber music series, annual Messiah performances, and partnering with numerous cultural and educational organizations including the Hong Kong Association of Washington, the Seattle Chinese Arts Group, German Consulate, Cornish College, and Seattle University, to name a few. He launched a composer competition which premiered a new work annually, and a concerto competition to showcase local talent. His carefully curated programming focused on locally relevant themes, and explored an enormous breadth of musical styles and genres.