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 Daniela Mack, mezzo-soprano, shared her story of the pandemic. She talks about an illness that left her unable to sing and after her recovery, the pandemic caused an abrupt end to The Capulets and the Montagues at Opera Omaha. Her passion for the art and dedication to being an artist herself shine through as an inspiration.
Daniela Mack, soprano
Interviewed August 12, 2020
TB: So what is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
DM: Oh, in the last week? If I got that question under normal circumstances, as a singer it might be something big that happened in the last week. But these days, I feel like it is a lot of the little things that make me happy; the very simple things. This last week my five-year-old daughter started school. She has kindergarten virtually, so essentially what I’m doing is still homeschooling. But after such a long period of me and my husband coming up with activities and things to entertain her and help her grow, it’s been nice to have that from an actual educator and to watch the progression from activity to activity. Spending a lot of time with a tiny little human, it reminds me what the real important things in life are. I think for me that has been the nicest thing.
If I think about the last couple of weeks specifically, I’ve had a revamping of my energy, which was—like so many of my friends and my colleagues—low for the better part of the shut down. But I’ve seen a reawakening. I have a few projects that I’m working towards now and they have helped improve my mood these past couple of weeks.
TB: Can we say the big one? Atlanta Opera and their ‘Fest’ contract?
DM: It’s not officially called ‘Fest,’ but we are the Atlanta Opera Company Players. That is definitely one of the most exciting things that has come about from this whole experience. This sort of idea about an American Fest is something that my friends and I have talked about for such a long time and [we’ve been] wondering why nobody has made it work in the States. So I think it is really exciting that Atlanta Opera and Tomer [Zvulun] have birthed this idea.
There are so many of us now, in Georgia. We are recent transplants to Georgia—not necessarily the Atlanta area—but it was a happy accident that that came about. My husband and I were both wondering what the next step was going to be and what we were going to do for the rest of the year since we have no singing engagements, or didn’t until this came about. It is such a wonderful opportunity for all 12 of us singers, who are participating, to engage with our community in a way that I don’t think people do in the States so much.
From the standpoint of a singer, we travel all the time from gig to gig—as you know—and if we connect with the community, it is in a very limited way. There is rarely repeat contact or repeat interaction. The chance for this kind of connection is really, really great and is fueling a lot of creativity from us as well. We are trying to figure out exactly what it will look like and how we will do a combination of virtual performances with actual live engagement with human beings and an audience. All of that is really exciting and of course, we will do it in the safest way; taking into account all the precautions. But it is a ray of hope that we were waiting for.
TB: Yes, it is so interesting and obviously when you are at a gig you get 6-8 weeks—if you are lucky—to engage with that community. But this is a real long-term program.
Obviously, you have done many great things, from the BBC Cardiff World Singer Competition to appearing at the Metropolitan Opera and many other opera companies. But what is the proudest moment that you have had in your career so far?
DM: I had such a privileged experience and the good fortune to sing in so many wonderful places. Two things stand out in my mind. I love London. I have loved London since I was a little girl, and all things Brit. So when I debuted in Covent Garden that was just the end all. It was my ultimate dream. I was like, “I’m done. Whatever comes next is just extra icing on the cake.” So in terms of career highlight, that is definitely one of them.
Then I would say the world premieres that I have done. I have done two of them so far, and the world of modern music and contemporary opera is not something that I thought I would have a chance to do when I was a student. That didn’t occur to me. Two of my favorite moments as a singer have been working on these new pieces that didn’t come with any preconceptions. They didn’t come with any baggage. I could really put my stamp on the roles and they were tailor made to my instrument. Both of them, Elizabeth Cree and JFK were unforgettable experiences and definite high points. I would love to do more of that honestly.
TB: So diving back into the pandemic, correct me if I am wrong, but this began around the time you were at Palm Beach Opera. But can you take me through how you first realized that there was going to be a pandemic? Then how it was going to have such a dramatic effect on your life?
DM: That’s a good question. I’m going to just backtrack a tiny bit before Palm Beach, because my awareness of COVID started earlier. In the States people weren’t talking about it so much early in the year. But it was the end of January when the awareness of what was happening in China was starting to become more broad here. And I got so sick; so very sick. Sicker than I’ve ever been in my life.
I was on a gig and I went to the ENT when this happened. I was in Philadelphia for Verdi’s Requiem, which was my debut (or it would have been). I was so looking forward to it . I had been sick the week before. I had a fever, but was feeling much better. So I went to Philadelphia and I sang the first rehearsal and then I completely lost my voice, which had never happened before in my life. So I went to an ENT and the first question that he asked me was, “Have you been to China or anywhere outside of the country in the last few weeks?” To which I said, “No, I have not. What are you talking about?” So that’s when I first registered that this is a real possibility. I ended up having to withdraw from that engagement, as the doctor I saw in Philadelphia told me that I needed vocal rest and no speaking for 10 days; no singing at all for 6 weeks.
So I flew home and I subsequently cancelled the Palm Beach engagement because I was supposed to be on vocal rest. Luckily, I went to a doctor in Chicago for a follow-up after those 10 days of utter silence and identity crisis as a singer. He said that the first doctor was mistaken and that I needed to start singing again. I still didn’t do very much singing at all for many weeks. And when I recovered, the next thing on the docket was Omaha, which is where I was when we realized that things were going to be shutting down very soon.
In Omaha, we had rehearsed for just under a week and all of us knew that in all likelihood, we weren’t going to be performing. We weren’t going to make it to opening. I think maybe we thought we could do something virtually or modify our original plan. But on the 13th, we were all told to go home. So I packed up my rental car and drove from Omaha back to South Bend, Indiana. At that point, my husband and daughter were in Washington, D.C. He was also on a gig at Washington National Opera and the same thing happened. On the same day, they were told to go home.
So I was driving from one side of the country back home and they were driving from Washington, D.C. back home. It was just absolutely surreal. At that point, we didn’t really know anything, right? We didn’t know how long we were going to be home or how the rest of the year was going to go. I remember being really nervous that week in Omaha. I had just left my family on the other side of the country, knowing that they were going to have to take care of themselves. And here I was in this hotel room that I was frantically trying to clean every time I got home. I was just trying to stay as safe as possible, while in a hotel room by myself. It was a very, very strange and surreal experience.
TB: So tell me a little bit more about the cancellation and then about the logistics. You mentioned that you drove back. Is that a change of plans? Were you going to fly originally?
DM: In terms of how the cancellation was handled, it was handled wonderfully. Everybody at the company is just so kind and genuine. The support that we got was really, really commendable. And I don’t think that everybody across the board in the industry had the same experience as far as that goes. But they really took care of us.
I was supposed to fly home—I think that most people probably flew home—I just didn’t feel comfortable because I’m a germaphobe anyway. So if I didn’t have to get on a plane, I didn’t want to do it. The drive from Omaha wasn’t that bad. I rented a car and actually drove back to Indiana with one of our stage managers, whose family also lives in Indiana. We just packed it up. And we were informed the day before we left that we would be making our full fees. They paid everybody for their work even though we were only there for a week, which was amazing. And it was just such a gift that they were able to do that. I know that it was not easy for them to honor our contracts. But they did, unlike so many other companies. They really set that example and set the bar pretty high.
TB: That dovetails into my next question. We’re sitting here in August, nearly five months later. Can you tell me more about the financial impact? Obviously Opera Omaha has done this amazing thing by paying your full fee. But I imagine that this has had a financial impact on you since then. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?
DM: Sure, I mean all of my work is cancelled (just like everybody else). For me, it hit doubly hard because I had just come off of cancelling my first three engagements of the year. So Omaha was the first paycheck that I got. And I didn’t technically even complete the job. But subsequently, I lost an engagement at the Met, which was a major part of my year’s income.
Then I was supposed to be in San Francisco over the summer. They actually fought really hard and found a way to give us 50% of our fee for that, which really saved us. Because my husband and I, we’re in the same boat. We have savings, but they are not unlimited. So it’s had an enormous impact on our finances.
I think one of the reasons that this opportunity with Atlanta Opera is so wonderful and timely is because Alek and I were racking our brains discussing and making a list of things that are not performing that we can do to make an income. But it is not easy, after spending your entire adult life working in a very specific field, to veer away from that. Like I said, we are very lucky that we do have some savings. I know that many people do not and they have had to figure out immediately how to make life work. I just cannot imagine the stress that puts on people.
When I was growing up, my family had some financial troubles and so I think I stress out about that a lot. I’m very careful with socking away everything that I can. Luckily, we have a cushion but we also have a five-year-old child and expenses. And actually our move across country that I talked about before, we decided to do that very shortly after the pandemic began. We were living in Indiana, because he had been teaching at University of Notre Dame, but we decided that it didn’t make any sense to be there anymore. We wanted to be close to family and now my in-laws actually live next door to us here in Georgia.
TB: So talk to me a little bit about the impact that this had on your creative process. I imagine that has changed a bit as we have gone through this, but can you take me through that?
DM: Well, I think at the beginning of the shut down—when we were all of a sudden at home and finding ourselves with more time or what seemed like more time—there was a big push for increased productivity and to create something out of nothing. Really to spin the situation in a positive way. We did have that creative boost right at the beginning. We made a few videos and experimented with the limits of what we could do just at home. Life just got a little bit more complicated when we decided to move, and when it was looking like more and more things were going to be cancelled.
Speaking for myself, I lost a lot of that drive that I had in the beginning. We made quite a few videos that never saw the light of day and probably won’t. I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. I was just too saddened by the whole situation. It was hard. It was hard to even sing for a long time. I think the drive to be so vulnerable again and to actually use my voice to its full capacity has only been reawakened in these last three weeks. So, it has been a long time of silence.
That said, throughout the entire shutdown I have sung to my daughter. So I have done a lot of Disney songs, lullabies, and just goofing around. But really, really singing with my full voice... I had a really long dry period where I just didn’t feel like doing it. I didn’t feel inspired in that way. Luckily, it is changing, not even because of the prospect of doing live performing again, but just because I do miss it a lot.
I don’t remember who said it to me first, but [there is] a voice in my mind that says that I’m not supposed to be a singer and that my identity is not supposed to be tied to my work so much. I’ve struggled with that a lot over these past few months. I absolutely cannot divorce myself from my identity as a singer and I have come to the realization that that is okay for me. Whatever the work looks like moving forward, I do need to sing.
In April and May, when I was thinking of what else I could do, I was looking at things that couldn’t be farther from this career. I think that I was in some ways afraid of being a singer at that point because I didn’t want to ever feel that instability—and that total lack of control—if anything else ever happened where I couldn’t sing. I wanted to be sure that I could do something and provide for my family. I think the idea of being a singer was just too much of a gamble at that point.
I’ve thankfully come back from that extreme way of thinking. Now I feel more at peace with the fact that I am a singer and that is where my creativity lies. As an introvert and a reserved, shy person, that is how I found my voice. I’m excited to use that moving forward, even if it looks different than it did five months ago.
TB: What you’re saying to me sounds a lot like you had to go through a process of grieving to get to the point where you felt more affirmed with who you are as an artist.
DM: Absolutely. And to a certain extent, I think we’re all still grieving the loss of the way things were. I have grieved losses—human losses—and it’s very similar, in many ways, to that experience.
TB: So what would you say is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned so far?
DM: That’s a great question. They’re all hard lessons these days. I’m a perfectionist, at least in my work. And I don’t like to put something out into the ether that I don’t think is a finished product or as close as it can be. It doesn’t only apply to my work. It bleeds into the rest of my life as a human being, that speaks to the fact that I’m also kind of a control freak. This whole experience has completely trashed that for me, because I realized that in fact there is very little that I have control over.
All of these things have happened to us—are happening in society, in our country—and we don’t have control over that. We have control over how we respond and how we move forward from all of these things. I think I have always intellectually known that, but I have a much better grasp now (having gone through this collective loss). I think I’m better equipped to move through and move forward without trying to control and manage every aspect of my life.
TB: So it is August 12. Minus a pandemic, tell me a little bit about where you would be. What you would be doing? And what would you be preparing for?
DM: Well, my fall season was very light and it just happened that way. The first half of the year was completely back to back and then I was going to have some real time in the fall. I had two concerts, the next thing would have been a Mozart’s Requiem. But I was going to be at home back then—in South Bend, Indiana—taking my kid to kindergarten. That has remained the same. Well, kindergarten is in our living room, so that has not remained the same.
I would have been preparing other music for my next engagements. I didn’t have to relearn the Requiem, so it would have been Girls of the Golden West, which I am working on. But it would have been a quiet, peaceful fall; mainly at home.
TB: Let’s think about how this is going to change our musical landscape going forward. What do you think?
DM: I wish I could tell you. I vacillate between positivity and negativity. Everybody has their moments where they are more hopeful than others. My hope is that companies can really find a way to reimagine the way that they present our art form to communities. I hope that art becomes more inclusive. I hope that people realize how much art is needed and that it becomes more valued by people at large.
When I am not as hopeful, I wonder how many companies will survive. Everybody has taken a huge hit and is trying to do the best they can. But we just don’t know. I think moving forward, a lot of people who perhaps aren’t fortunate enough to have some sort of a cushion to make it through these hard times might leave the business. Sadly, that will be an inevitable outcome.
By the same token, if I think about all the young artists who are trying to break into this business and just want an opportunity to sing, now you have the opportunity to learn and ingest information at a very high rate. People have the time to do that now. And so I think the next crop of young singers—whenever we do open back up—will be informed and will be tech savvy, more so than all of us. They will perhaps have even a bigger hunger to make art together. So that part of it excites me. I am looking forward to seeing how the younger generation comes into this business.
Since all of this happened, I’ve done a couple of master classes and talks online with young singers. Many of them are confused. They don’t know exactly how to make the most of this time. But I think that the drive, the desire, and the spark are still there. That gives me a lot of hope.
TB: So talking about young artists, what would your advice be to them as they’re going through this crisis?
DM: I think the only thing that we can do at this point is to hone our craft. I would tell any young artist to spend as much time as possible with language programs and to take virtual voice lessons. Something I wish I had more time for when I was a young singer was lessons. I had one lesson a week if I was lucky. Then once you start a career and you’re on the road, it is harder and harder to see a teacher in-person. But during this time—if you’re able to do it—I would say invest in that.
The financial aspect of this whole thing has awakened a desire in me to take care of my finances in a more proactive way. We’re not taught as young artists how to manage, really really manage, our finances and get things in order. I think now everybody is having to do that because of the situation we’re all in.
Something that has resonated with me has been going back to music that I learned when I was quite young (the music that really solidified for me why I love the art form). So I would say as a singer, “If there is music that you love, sing that all the time.” Of course, we have to stretch ourselves and we have to learn new repertoire. We have to prepare if we have a job on the horizon or work our audition arias. But when I do get the urge to sing these days, I almost exclusively sing things that I love and really feel passionate about. That makes me tick. So I think we all need things that spark that excitement in us these days (especially these days).
TB: In closing up here, what is your video binge recommendation for the pandemic? You can include Disney, if you want to!
DM: I have been watching a lot of kids movies, which I love for the most part. But when my daughter is asleep, Alek and I have been working our way through Star Trek. We started this endeavor with Next Generation back in October of last year, now we are finally through Next Generation and are on to Deep Space Nine. I don’t have that much time to watch television, though I like to disconnect in that way. I do like science fiction, so if I had more time I would go back to Battlestar Galactica.
TB: Wow, I never would have guessed that. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me and sharing your experience.
Daniela Mack, mezzo-soprano
Alek Shrader, tenor
Allen Perriello, piano
L'amour est un oiseau rebelle
Carmen's first aria from Bizet's Carmen
Daniela Mack - Carmen
About Daniela Mack
Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack leads the vanguard of a new generation of opera singers, infusing her artistry with a mix of intensity, adventurousness, and effortless charisma. Critics around the world have acclaimed her as “outstanding” (The New York Times), “a powerhouse mezzo” (Wall Street Journal) possessing “a virtuoso technique second to none”(The Guardian) and “a voice like polished onyx: strong, dark, deep and gleaming” (Opera News).
Mack’s 2019-20 season includes three house debuts, three role debuts, and a return to The Metropolitan Opera. The season opens with Mack bringing her Handelian expertise to her role debut as Juno in Semele with Opera Philadelphia. She then brings her “fresh, feisty, flawless” (Opera News) Rosina to house debuts at Minnesota Opera and Palm Beach Opera for productions of Il barbiere di Siviglia. Renowned for her bel canto interpretations, Mack adds another role to her repertoire as Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi with Opera Omaha, and then returns to The Metropolitan Opera for her highly-anticipated role debut as Varvara in Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová. On the concert stage, Mack makes her debut with the National Symphony Orchestra for Handel’s Messiah under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, and performs in Verdi’s Requiem with Opera Philadelphia. She closes out the season reprising her role as Rosmira in Partenope with San Francisco Opera, for which the San Francisco Chronicle hailed her “athletic, perfectly tuned coloratura.”
n recent seasons, Daniela Mack made debuts at Royal Opera House-Covent Garden as Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia with Javier Camarena, at The Metropolitan Opera as the Kitchen Boy in Mary Zimmerman’s new production of Rusalka, at Ópera de Oviedo as Sesto in La clemenza di Tito, with the BBC Philharmonic as Béatrice in Béatrice et Bénédict, and at Boston Lyric Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre as Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia. Ms. Mack made her house and role debut as Dorabella in Così fan tutte at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and debuted at Florida Grand Opera in Carmen where she returned in a highly-anticipated role debut as Charlotte in Werther. Ms. Mack was seen at The Santa Fe Opera for her first North American performances as Isabella in L’italiana in Algeri, as Bradamante in Alcina conducted by Harry Bicket, and in her title role debut in Carmen. She was seen at Washington National Opera as Bradamante in Alcina, debuted at Seattle Opera as Béatrice in Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict,and returned to Arizona Opera as Angelina in La Cenerentola.
Daniela Mack has been seen at San Francisco Opera as Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia and as Rosmira in Partenope. She created roles in the world premieres of Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s Elizabeth Cree (title role) at Opera Philadelphia, and in David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s JFK (Jacqueline Kennedy) at Fort Worth Opera with subsequent performances at Opéra de Montréal. She debuted at Lyric Opera of Chicago as the Kitchen Boy in David McVicar’s production of Rusalka conducted by Andrew Davis, and returned to Madison Opera as Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking. She has been seen at English National Opera in a new production of Julius Caesar as Sesto under Christian Curnyn, the first time the opera was produced at ENO since the legendary 1979 production. She also debuted at Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse and LA Opera as Nancy in Albert Herring, Washington National Opera as the Madrigal Singer in Manon Lescaut, Deutsche Oper Berlin and Verbier Festival as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Opéra National de Bordeaux as Isabella in L’italiana in Algeri, and Opera Colorado in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's famous production of La Cenerentola directed by Grischa Asagaroff.
On the concert stage, Ms. Mack debuted with three orchestras under Charles Dutoit: Orchestra de la Suisse Romande in Ravel’s L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges, Boston Symphony Orchestra in L’heure espagnole, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat. She also debuted with the Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk in Rossini’s Giovanna d’Arco under James Gaffigan and performed Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans with Boston Baroque. She debuted with the New York Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 under Alan Gilbert and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve under the baton of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. She performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis with the Washington Chorus, Ravel’s Shéhérazade with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne and Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas with the Sydney Symphony. She also made her Cincinnati May Festival debut in Mozart’s Requiem under James Conlon and in an all-star gala at the Opera Theater of San Antonio.
Daniela Mack is an alumna of the Adler Fellowship Program at San Francisco Opera where she appeared as Idamante in Idomeneo, Siebel in Faust, and Lucienne in Die tote Stadt for her house debut. She performed the title role of La Cenerentola as a member of the Merola Opera Program and made her West Coast recital debut as part of San Francisco Opera’s Schwabacher Debut Recital Series. Ms. Mack was a finalist in the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition.