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 David Blackburn, President of NYIOP, discussed the workings of the industry and how this is a time of change. In encouraging that change, Mr. Blackburn notes a willingness to empathize with the other party to be of utmost importance. Furthermore, his work on virtual auditions is paramount to the success of the industry in not only a post-COVID-19 world, but in an increasingly globalized community.
David Blackburn, President and Founder of NYIOP
Interviewed April 4, 2020
TB: I like to start off these interviews on a positive note. What is the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
DB: I’ve gotten to spend an enormous amount of time with my family. It’s been quite wonderful, because my wife is a singer and my son is in school. We are constantly moving. My wife and I talked about this yesterday. I would go and do one thing then come home, and then the next day my wife would leave. It was a period of not being together. That’s been something wonderful; we are literally together all day, everyday.
TB: I know from speaking to you that you are always traveling and from speaking before the interview you are in Zurich. But you don’t live in Zurich?
DB: That’s the flip side of that coin; the fact that we do not live in Zurich. My wife was here working at the theater and by sheer chance, my son and I came because March 6 is his birthday. So because she had performance schedules, she couldn’t get home to us in Italy in time. We came here [Zurich] for what we thought was going to be a four day weekend to celebrate his birthday together as a family. But then we got stuck here because by the time we were due to come back, they closed schools.
We’ve been here already a month. So I guess we are basically stranded from our home. Though this week I was supposed to be in New York actually.
TB: This was the last day of New York auditions for NYIOP, if I am correct.
DB: Yes, April 4th was to be the last day.
TB: Would you mind giving me a bit of your background and where you currently are in your very diverse career?
DB: My background is that I went to school at University of Texas in Austin and then at Manhattan School of Music to be a singer. I was at St. Louis as an apprentice for two years and had a small career. Around 2000 is when that stopped and I went to work for an investment bank for a short period of time. And then I founded NYIOP in 2002. At that point, the concept was simply thinking we would bring casting directors to New York to hear people audition, rather than people having to do audition tours.
That idea, which started as something we thought would help the New York scene, exploded internationally. Since I founded NYIOP, we’ve done auditions literally all over the world; such as, Asia, North America, South America, Europe, Russia, and Australia. We’ve been talking about doing something in South Africa as well. We do these auditions 6-8 times minimum every year.
I helped as a consultant to build a couple of young artists programs, including one in Bologna at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Currently, I’m working to build a young artists academy in Santiago, Chile. I’ve also worked as the Casting Director at Palm Beach Opera for a couple years. After I worked with Palm Beach Opera, I joined IMG Artists for a couple years based out of Berlin, where we had been living.
So I’ve been on all sides of the table. I’ve been a casting director, agent, singer, consultant, and many other things. Yet, I am not any of them. I understand them all and can also float seamlessly between the North American and European markets. I deal with all of these different groups all the time and am in a unique position to hear from all of these people and be included in their conversations as if I’m one of them.
TB: So where were you and how did you first realize that your life was going to be affected by the pandemic?
DB: We have two homes, both in New York City and Southern Italy. The nature of our careers in the opera world means that there is more in Europe than there is in America. So we tend to spend more time in Italy. To start off, I finished a competition with the Premiere Opera Foundation in New York in December . So by the beginning of 2020, we were back in Europe. I had projects in London at the beginning of February and then in Karlsruhe, Germany [I had] a baroque auditions project towards the 20-22 of February.
I first started noticing this happening when I came home from London. I landed in the airport in Southern Italy during the beginning of February. They stopped everyone getting off the planes and took their temperature to make sure that they didn’t have a fever. Anyone with a fever they took aside to do another test. At the time nothing had exploded in Europe. However, it was something that we were afraid was starting to spread. Yet, it was still something that was very much a China and Asia problem on the news.
In Italy though they seemed to have gotten the jump on it because they were already measuring [temperatures] of people coming into the ports; meaning every airport, ship port, or train station; meaning that before you were let out into the general population, you had these tests done. But by the end of the month, it was already starting to take off in the northern part of Italy, near Milan.
Like I said, we were planning life as usual. I had March off because my wife was away from home, singing. Then I was already planning for the New York auditions and then for the Berlin auditions after that. I was also working with a foundation in Chile to develop an academy there, which we were planning to launch in late March and to really start in May. I had planned that I would be in Chile for a couple of weeks in May for that.
Then we came to Zurich for my son’s birthday, fully expecting that we would go back. That’s when it got bad in Italy. We live in the south, which wasn’t hit as bad, but... I was in New York for 9/11 and it is very much the same kind of thing, where you don’t recognize that life isn’t going to move on as usual. It doesn’t seem like it would be such a game changer until you’re in it. Literally everything stopped.
TB: Could you talk about how this pandemic is impacting your business? Obviously, New York auditions were postponed, but what about moving forward?
DB: Well for the moment, all activities have had to be postponed. There are two sides, there is NYIOP and then the consulting that I do. The NYIOP side has had to be put on pause completely. It’s not as if theaters have stopped thinking about casting. At least the ones I have spoken with are still devoting time towards future planning—in addition to all of the changes financially and performance-wise with seasons—in dealing with the virus. While I am not sure how casting is happening, it seems that they are trying to honor those contracts which they have had to cancel by moving those people that had contracts into the near and future seasons.
For NYIOP’s purposes, the biggest issue is traveling. The theaters can’t get to any one place. We obviously can’t get a group together and singers are also not able to travel. So everything’s had to be put on pause because we don’t know when it is going to resume and where it will resume. As someone that deals internationally all the time, I’m aware of the different timelines in different geographical areas as to when people will be potentially coming back and moving.
My consulting side hasn’t completely stopped. In fact, our biggest focus is trying to find ways to move forward with launching because this was the first year for this academy to try to find reasonable and useful ways for what can be done via video; and how to start the steps, assuming that it will be done remotely for the first period at least.
TB: As you said, a lot of places are turning to do things remotely. Is that something that you’re considering moving forward with NYIOP as well?
DB: It’s something I thought about, interestingly enough, at the very beginning when everything started to shut down in Europe. The reality is that the United States came late to the disruption, frankly. Because in Europe, things were already being disrupted. We were planning on coming to New York this week and I had a completely confirmed group of theaters. So that really only ended at the moment that the United States government imposed a travel ban in May. Prior to that everything was still moving forward, though with monitoring day by day whether it was realistic or not. But everything was paused, so nothing to do (yet).
There was a consideration to try to do the auditions via video. This was at the time that theaters could listen in via live video and then the singers could make their way to a place to sing. That became a moot point because the singers couldn’t get to one place. Now there has been a Zoom explosion and it is still a possibility.
The biggest issue is the fact that casting doesn’t really function that way. It may at some point, but right now, video demos have been a nice way to screen people. But it is not really a truly useful tool to cast people. It just hasn’t gotten to that point or level yet. So, while I’m thinking about and working with some people on that—unless people are going to be hired from it—it is not something that is professionally viable. The theaters casting system is not at the point where it would support that quite yet.
TB: So how does this affect NYIOP financially?
DB: What the pandemic does for the company is that there is literally zero income from one moment to the next. Because I have a service-based company—where I provide a service that people pay to take part in that service—doesn’t mean that I don’t still have expenses. However, as many smaller companies that are one person with assistants, I don’t have large expenses unless I’m doing projects which are outrageously expensive. That may mean that I can pivot a bit quicker than some of the larger companies. But I do still have expenses.
The other thing that is a bit difficult is because of the international nature of my business, it doesn’t lend itself easily to applying for the various small business helper funds that have been set up around the world. Because I had a project in Germany—but I am not a German resident or citizen—therefore, I lost income based on the cancellation of a project in Germany. But I can’t go ask Germany for money. That’s a bit frustrating, but I feel extremely fortunate and very thankful for the fact that of the two parallel businesses that I have, one of them is still finding its way forward. Most people in our business sadly don’t have that luck.
TB: So what would you say is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned so far in this situation?
DB: I would like to take that into a broader situation of what lessons could be learned for the opera and classical business. It has become very clear that we need to discuss the way in which our business supports the major subset of its earners, which are the soloists. When an opera is performed, other than in the German-speaking world, 99.9% of the people in any given production are not on a salary. They’re being paid to perform and the nature of our business is such that they were paid a fee when they perform. They can rehearse as long as they want. In the US especially, people are not paid rehearsal fees in most of the theaters. They are paid performance fees. And there has been this sense of not wanting to take a lower performance fee in order to get a rehearsal fee, which would seem like a fair idea to balance out the period of time you’re there. But people work so hard to push their performance fees up that they don’t want to then lower them in lieu of a rehearsal fee, which you can’t quote to somebody else.
I think that there is now going to be a big discussion as to how to better structure soloist fees; talking about how to change the way that people are paid if they’re a soloist and dealing with such things as the force majeure [clause] in contracts. Though every single person has that in their contract, and furthermore, most of the companies have to have it to maintain insurance for their company. I am involved in a number of different sectors across varying geographic areas to see if there is a consensus as to how to do that. And what’s ironic is that, from my experience, everybody has put their finger on the problem. But the solutions are wildly different.
TB: I have two follow-up questions for that. First, what do you see as being a feasible solution? Then on the other side, as a facilitator yourself, what would your advice be to the multiple groups involved in these discussions on how to best move forward?
DB: Let me take the second part first. The first thing I would say is from where I sit, it is at minimum three groups; soloists, agencies and producers—just putting all producing organizations in one group. Those break into subsets quickly based on geographical areas and they deal with it very differently. A German state-funded theater that also has a full-time ensemble of soloists, and a mid-level regional opera house in the United States, literally bear no resemblance to each other in the way they deal with this. Because one is almost wholly sponsorship based and the other is almost wholly governmentally funded. That means you have to ensure your sponsorship in one theater to decide how you’re going to pay out some of the contracts or help some of the artists that have been there.
The governmental side gets into the complications of speaking with the local and federal financial systems. For example, in Germany theaters must speak to the state financial system and determine what they wish to pay, because they are the ones in charge of your funding. As an Intendant [the German equivalent to general director of an opera house] you can’t simply make the decision, “I’m going to pay out to all of my artists because I know they have nothing.” The Intendant works for the government. They have a state job. So it’s infinitely more complicated than some would think.
What I would say is, the providers of the service, agencies and singers, they are currently wholly unprotected. If they get sick, they don’t get paid. If it gets cancelled, they don’t get paid. The presenters are somewhat more protected based on their entities. It is in the interest of everyone to find solution by which all parties feel protected. Because once we do restart, those soloists that have been struggling are going to be frustrated and angry. There will be a backlash from them.
But the lack of understanding of the actual processes gone into by both sides is huge. Singers and agencies simply do not understand the intricacies of what many theaters go through just to produce an opera, whether they’re funded or built on sponsorship. The agencies want to protect their singers and want to protect their income. But what might seem like a fair and feasible solution to them might be a non-starter to presenters. This is the case for all parties involved. Anyone who’s ever sat through a union negotiation for the orchestra, chorus, young artist program, or ensemble—I did, I was the AGMA rep[resentative] for the ensemble in St. Louis when I was there one year—both sides always feel that it is too much. Tensions always rise when they feel like they’re being pushed farther than they can go.
I’m married and I remember that my mother told me when I was getting married that you have to understand that a successful conflict is when you both feel like you’ve given too much. Because by then you’ve probably gotten close to the midway point and are sharing. And that’s what this situation is going to come to from the bits and pieces that I know. There is an expectation that you can change everything in an instant and that’s not the situation we’re in. We’re in a situation that hurts for all of us. Everyone knows that changes have to happen. But the successful ones will only happen when there is a true interaction and discussion.
Unfortunately, what happens too often is that one group comes up with a demands list and another one comes up with their demands list, then they go to the theaters. The theaters realize that they’re being asked for something that they would never be able to do. And then it is as simple as saying no, because it is a buyer’s market. Theaters simply say no and move on, and then we’ve wasted this time. I like to say that we have about a half-a-breath before the pause button is unpushed on our business to try to enact real change. Because everyone knows it needs to be there.
Then finally to get to the first part of your question, what I think is important is I think that there needs to be a way to have an overall communication to broach these things. Opera Europa and OPERA America both exist for this, but are seen as being almost wholly there for the purpose of the producers. I was at the Opera Europa convention last fall and I saw four or five singers. I did see some agencies, but they were there to beg work for their people.
There needs to be some platform for artists and managers to enter into realistic conversation as a whole; not competing against each other to get work for their singers, but as a whole to say that these are the protections that we need in our business. Because there is no such thing as insurance for a singer against force majeure. In my opinion, there needs to be the force majeure clause for theaters, but it must be slightly amended to provide for a basic amount of survival income in the event of a global situation like this. It’s unprecedented in our lives and hopefully it won’t happen again. But we can’t be sure.
For example, normally force majeure is like the hurricane in Houston [Hurricane Harvey in 2017]. The theater shuts down and you lose money. So a singer loses money and contracts. That is going to make it a tight year, but I’ve got the next gig. I might have to temp or whatever, but at least there is ‘the next.’ Something like this literally clears everyone’s income from one moment to the next. So if there could be some sort of wording that even provided something like 10% of fees for the cancelled performances and the actual expenses for travel and housing that have been incurred to the point of cancellation, then you don’t lose money. That would fulfill reasonable protections.
Rehearsal fees would be another way. Certainly singers would love that. But currently agents can’t commission rehearsal fees or per diem, so then they make less money. There is the potential of that being negotiated [between the singer and agent] that they require commission for that negotiation. But those are bigger questions that are going to come out of these questions. The first needs to be catastrophic protection. That needs to be the first step.
Unfortunately people are so shocked and hurt right now. One agency told me that they had lost $150,000 in income already and we are currently in April. Summer festivals haven’t cancelled yet, but that’s starting to happen. There are not many companies that can survive losing that kind of money. Theaters are mostly government entities in Europe, but we’re going to lose some. In America, we’ll lose theaters. I’m sure of it.
TB: Thank you for that, it is a very insightful answer from many sides of our business. Moving into the young artist side, what would your advice be to that group as they are going through this situation?
DB: My tendency is to think that young artists are very much multi-abled people in the sense that they grew up with the Instagram and the Facebook and balancing those tech platforms. So all of those alternate things that you love to do, you need to focus on monetizing. The world is poor now, but those few dollars here and there are not bad.
Matthias Goerne is doing online recitals right now and I think they’re asking seven and a half euros to watch it as pay-per-view. Now I get it, most young artists are not Matthias Goerne. But every time a young artist goes to a summer program, the hit up a million people to beg for money because those programs are expensive. There’s no reason why you cannot organize those types of things yourself. Market them to your family and fan base. And ask for a small amount of money.
It’s too easy to say that you should always have a fallback career. It’s stereotypical to say that you can’t be an opera singer, because you can. But you should constantly keep track of those other things that you can do. Micro-payments might help you pick up some extra money during the pandemic. And who knows, maybe one of your ideas will be the seed that turns into a way that our business changes in the future. We do know it is going to be different. We just don’t know how.
If we start back in July, it will be easier for people to think that this was a hiccup. But if all of a sudden we’re into September, October, or November, that’s not a bump. That’s a shift.
TB: Before I ask my last question, is there anything else that you would like to add to our conversation?
DB: With my work with NYIOP—while it is a business and I work very hard at it—there is an overriding passion of mine to find ways to bring people together and to build connections. So what I see now is trying to figure out what this means when we are all done with the pandemic. I don’t want the world to close up into nationalistic bordered-off markets. The issues that we face are really international. Yet no one is looking outside their own reflex zone right now. That’s my big thing. Finding the big answer means people need to talk to each other and find common ground.
TB: So closing up here, what has been your video binge while you’ve been stuck inside?
DB: We watch movies constantly. I do have to say that literally the day that we moved to this apartment—for which we are infinitely thankful to the opera house in Zurich for taking care of us and allowing us to stay here—I ordered an Apple TV before everything shut down. Because I knew that we were going to be here for a while and we would want to watch a bunch. We saw one yesterday that was very fascinating. It’s a Romanian movie called The Whistlers. It’s about crime drama, but the fascinating thing is that it is on one of the islands in the Canary Islands, where there is a language that is whistling. We also watch Outlander. We are way into Outlander.
TB: Well, thank you so much for speaking with me and for your time today.
Addendum October 2, 2020:
Following our interview in April, there were a few items upon which Mr. Blackburn wanted to give updates. Firstly, The Fundación Ibáñez-Atkinson Young Artist Program hosted at the Teatro Municipal de Santiago, Chile is now in its sixth month. They have been doing a completely virtual program with the young artists being heard by professionals across the globe. The month after Mr. Blackburn’s interview COVID-19 became a prominent issue in Chile. However, they have continued their work online and developed new and innovative ways to provide training.
Mr. Blackburn initiated conversations between agents and managers to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the vocal performing arts. This included both the boutique managers and the large management agencies. As he noted, there was a necessity to bring these and many diverse groups together to form an association where they might speak with one voice internationally on foundational issues across the industry. This has taken the form of information sharing that concerns balance of pay and long-term contract reform. Discussions for this took place over the summer. And on October 1, 2020 they formed the Opera Managers Association International. (http://operamanagers.org)
In terms of theaters around the world that have been opening, Mr. Blackburn is noticing that COVID-19 tests are becoming mandatory at the theaters and rehearsals. Artists are being required to come to the opera house for quarantine early and a COVID-19 clause has come into play allowing theaters to cancel within 24 hours force majeure. This has combined with the fact that fees are about 25% lower than before the pandemic. Furthermore, Mr. Blackburn has encouraged artists to learn a new skill. In today’s reality you must be able to not only sing or act, but to do so on camera. In his view, we have gone beyond the point of only working in theaters. Therefore, audiovisual knowledge of basic skills will be requisite for obtaining work in the field. At least the first round of auditions will be prerecorded, which will be followed up by a second round of streamed auditions.
My part of this story occurs on September 15, 2020 at 4:15 am. I turned on my computer and sat down to listen to a day of auditions with NYIOP, which were hosted in Berlin. Mr. Blackburn appeared on the screen with a bare brick wall behind him and in front of a grand piano. I was immediately struck by the familiarity of the setting. We were told about the set up, which ensured that the auditions would give the best idea of the sound and working of a voice when not able to hear them in person. Then there was a sound off of location in the live chat where we heard locations from Germany, England, New York, and Illinois. The first singer came into the room and announced their piece. Paul Plummer, pianist, began and I was taken back to a frighteningly familiar rendition of our changed world. It was an emotional moment for myself and many others. But as Mr. Blackburn stated in his opening remarks during the auditions, “The future starts now.”
NYIOP Berlin Audition
Catharine Woodward, soprano
Paul Plummer, piano
“Es gibt ein Reich” from Ariadne auf Naxos by Strauss
“Mild und leise” from Tristan und Isolde by Wagner
About David Blackburn
David Blackburn is one of the world’s premiere talent scouts and consultants for discovering operatic talent and making connections worldwide in all facets of the opera industry. With contacts at top international opera houses, festivals, agencies and other presenting organizations, and almost two decades of high-level international presence, few people in the opera business have a wider reach to connect the opera world and to help emerging artists with their careers.
David Blackburn founded and manages NYIOP, which scouts singers and organizes professional opera auditions around the world. Since its creation in 2002, the NYIOP Auditions have brought over 150 opera houses to hear singers in New York City, San Francisco, Beijing, Berlin, Bologna, Napoli and Vienna, and over 30 other cities internationally, on 5 continents.
Mr. Blackburn acts as an artistic consultant to a number of major opera houses and agencies worldwide on casting and collaborations at every level. In the past, he has served in the role of Director of Artistic Administration for the Palm Beach Opera and also as a Vice President for IMG Artists, opening their Berlin office. Since 2015, he also serves as the Chief Consultant to the Young Artist Studio at the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow and since 2019 he is the International Strategic Consultant for the Ibáñez-Atkinson Foundation in Santiago, Chile.
He acts as a professional consultant to the Adler Fellows at the San Francisco Opera as well as for the Internationale Opernstudio of the Opernhaus Zürich, has organized the United States-based auditions for the Paris Opera Studio (Atelier Lyrique), and has taught at several prestigious summer programs including Music Academy International, OperaVIVA, V.O.I.C.Experience with Sherrill Milnes and at the International Vocal Arts Institute in Tel Aviv, Israel as well a founded the Academia della Lirica Italiana in Bari, Italy. David has been featured in masterclasses at Northwestern University, Manhattan School of Music, the Juilliard School for business of opera preparation, among other institutions.
He has taken part on the jury of the National Semi-Finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions as well as several other regional and district auditions, has been invited to the Richard Tucker Foundation auditions, the recommendation committee of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, and the juries of the Competizione dell’Opera at the Sächsische Staatsoper “Semperoper” Dresden, official attendee of the Hans Gabor Belvedere Gesangswettbewerb in Vienna and the Shreveport Opera Singer of the Year.
He holds a Bachelor of Music summa cum laude from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a private student of Gérard Souzay, and a Master of Music from the Manhattan School of Music. During his professional singing career he appeared with the Opera Theater of St. Louis, Portland Opera, Ft. Worth Opera and in concert in many international centers. He has also held positions at American Express, Lehmann Brothers and Credit Suisse.