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 Lomelí, Director of Artistic Administration at The Dallas Opera and Casting Consultant at Bayerische Staatsoper, discussed the difficulties that he encountered at the onset of the pandemic. Furthermore, his creation of the TDO network and leadership in the social media work for classical arts has been an inspiration.
Photo credit: Lauren Bloom
David Lomelí, Director of Artistic Administration at The Dallas Opera and Casting Consultant at Bayerische Staatsoper
Interviewed July 30, 2020
TB: To start off, what is the best thing that has happened to you this last week?
DL: To be philosophical, it would be the fact that I can spend so much time with my son versus what I would normally be doing. At this moment, I would be traveling in Europe. I was supposed to leave the United States for a full month after July 4 to be in Munich, shadowing at the festival. Then, in Romania and Umbria. Afterward, I was judging a competition in Vienna. So I was not supposed to be with my son that much. That is one of the best things that has happened in this.
Professionally, I think that seeing the network continue to grow—at speed I never expected—is one of the best things to ever happen in my professional life.
TB: I know that you have had a very diverse career, but would you mind telling me about the singer portion that led you into the administration role?
DL: Well, I feel like everything I have gone through is starting to make sense. My story didn't start in music as I am a computer science engineer and have a master's in international marketing. But I was always a singer. Since I was 12, I was a professional singer and dubbed many voiceovers in Latin America for Disney and Fox. I had a pop band when I was 18 or 19 years old, and I toured the country. Then I entered the young artist program at Los Angeles Opera with Plácido [Domingo]. He was the one that discovered me at a dinner and later offered me a wildcard to do Operalia in 2006. I was the first to win both the opera and Zarzuela, and so my life changed dramatically.
Right after Operalia, I went into two years of training at the LA Opera program, and I sang La Bohème with Maestro Domingo. Then, I did the program in San Francisco and was singing a lot. Months after that, I went home to Mexico, and I was supposed to attend a concert by my friend, Rolando Villazón. When I landed, they told me he was sick and that the President of Mexico was attending, and then they asked me to sing the concert.
TB: Can you tell me about your switch to administration?
DL: Well, the administration was not a choice. I got sick and started having a lot of stomach issues and problems with reflux. I did several therapies and treatments. I was at the Mayo Clinic for six months in Rochester, Minnesota. It was not improving, and I could not sing the way I wanted to. Like, between 2006 and 2012, I was singing every day and getting better. But then I arrived at a point where my singing was painful and not always free. I couldn't do it anymore. After two years of battling, in July 2014, I quit.
On July 14, 2014, I joined Dallas Opera as the Artistic Coordinator in Dallas, Texas. I moved my wife and my puppy at that time, and we had incredible luck because we really clicked with the team at Dallas Opera. One year later, I was promoted and eventually, I was promoted to the top artistic job here as the Director of Artistic Administration and also the Artistic Director of the Hart Institute for Women Conductors. When the pandemic hit, I became the Creator and Editor in Chief of the TDO network. It has been an incredible journey where, with Dallas, I've been able to explore my artistic portfolio, social justice and activism, and my business acumen. Everything has clicked into place, and I've been able to express myself with The Dallas Opera.
TB: Diving into the pandemic, can you describe where you were and how you first realized that your life was going to be affected by COVID-19?
DL: On September 1 [, 2020], I got the job in Munich officially, so I knew that I would be moving to Munich on July 30. Because of that, I was traveling once a month to Europe to be in Munich and then other cities. By November, I started hearing Europeans talking about a pandemic and that something was happening in Asia.
In February, I was already incredibly careful with washing my hands on the plane and wearing a mask. I remember on February 14, I came into my office, and I was disinfecting a lot of things. My associate at the time, who is now assisting me with TDO, had some illness that we don't know. She was very sick, so I came in to disinfect the office because my son has a genetic disease. At the time, Italy was getting really bad, and there were talks about quarantining people coming from Europe. Barber of Seville and Don Carlo had both singers and conductors coming in from Europe, so we were trying to figure out what we could do to get them here. One bass was able to get here by just hours before the travel ban was enacted from Europe—we then quarantined him in a hotel till the last day of rehearsal. It was very traumatic, and we knew that something was coming, especially with the way that Italy was closing.
We started rehearsals on March 9, and we were in place helping with social media because the Director of Marketing and Social Media had left the company. We, Annie and myself, love social media, and we were happy to help in the meantime. So, on March 9, we took a selfie with the whole cast, then on March 11, we went to do some filming in the morning during a rehearsal. In the mid-afternoon, around 3:00 pm, I went downstairs to check with Emmanuel [Villaume], who was teaching a masterclass for alumni of the Hart Institute of Women Conductors and a few new donors. We had the orchestra on the stage last night for a late rehearsal too.
I already felt like it [COVID-19] was close. People in New York were getting into disaster mode, and the Met was cancelling a few weeks of work at that time. At about 3:30 pm, I go into my office and see my boss, who tells me to check my email. There was an email from the rehearsal department saying that there was a suspicion that one of our chorus members was in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. This person was being cautious and letting us know that she was going to get tested, but this had not been publicly disclosed. We knew we couldn't gamble. If we were suspicious and didn't act, we could be liable for everything. In an hour and a half, we had everybody out of the building. We suspended rehearsals that day, called everybody, as started bracing ourselves for one of the most surreal periods of our lives.
Since that day, I haven't returned to my office. We haven't had a meeting in each other's presence. We haven't really touched or been in the same space. In the meantime, we created a network that is connecting 10 million people over the past four months. It is those surreal things that have happened since. I remember it perfectly.
TB: Before we talk about the TDO network, can you tell me about the financial impact that this has had?
DL: It is very hard because, to me, the structure of the art form is incredibly medieval. In the United States, we depend entirely on the benevolence and acts of kindness by thousands of donors because every year, tickets cover less and less. Big theaters in America are ruled by unions, such as AGMA and AFM. The contracts have force majeure for acts of god, like pandemics. So, the moment that operations are closed and tickets can't be sold, most of the world decides to go into force majeure: closing contracts and leaving a hurricane of devastation for every performer.
Thankfully, Dallas Opera was very conscious and paid 50% to the first two shows that we cancelled, and then, to Barber of Seville, which was our third, we paid two performances. For those that we couldn't revamp or reuse somehow, we were able to pay some money to them. But there were very few in the category of big theaters who were able to pay. Most of those theaters felt they couldn't create a scenario to pay, and their accounts payable were so big that if they would give a blanket statement of 10% or 20%, they would close. So they executed a force majeure and didn't pay anything. That was really, really hard.
It was hard for opera houses because, for example, in Dallas, we were at a budget of around $20 million. By the time of the pandemic, we had only performed two productions of the five larger ones, along with a gala and another three events. Our fundraising goes along with that because we have dinners, receptions, rehearsals, or an inside panel as we have the season. So, at the moment when we thought we were about to start the big part of the season and make most of our fundraising and ticket sales, we had to cancel.
At the beginning, we kept everyone on, but after a few weeks, we had to let go of people. Now, we're almost 50% of the administrative staff and we all have taken a pay-cut to a degree. It is hard to explain the financial side to singers because they know that we have a $20 million budget and singers fees are around 2-3 million. So, with the employees having around 10% of the budget and then singers, that is about a quarter of the budget. So they say, "With 30% of the season having already happened, you should be able to pay." But that's not the case. We have accounts payable, future rentals commissions, everyone's salaries, pensions, 50% of the orchestra and chorus, insurance, and the debts we already have. So it is very tough in that sense. On top of that, people are giving less because not only have they lost money, but their companies may need a cash influx to survive the pandemic. Now, donors are helping their personal circles, like their friends and families. Their philanthropic dollar is actually landing closer to themselves, or they're giving it to a cure. Because they know if they address that [the pandemic] faster, eventually it will go back to normal.
In the meantime, we are all desperate because we don't have recorded material. The Metropolitan Opera and Europe have a larger archive to turn towards. But the rest of commercial opera in America doesn't produce anything that even smells of digital. The pay discrepancy is also a big issue. I was looking at how much Spotify, YouTube, or Facebook pays, and in the case of Pandora, it pays around 0.0013 cents per stream. So, I watched Dudamel with 26 recordings—most with the LA Philharmonic—which was played about 6,000 times for a total income of $9.17 that month. And this is Gustavo Dudamel with Deutsche Grammophon, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and their PR machine behind him.
We are supposed to pay $200 per player for a recording for us. Let's say we were making a recording with the 50 core players that is $10,000 just for the rights of one digital release if we were to make an audio recording. If we want to make a DVD, I am supposed to pay double. For Dudamel's 26 recordings, technically, there is a $260,000 deficit that he has to make back. How in the world are we going to penetrate popular culture with Spotify or Pandora?
TB: Let's talk about the TDO network then, because, since the pandemic, it is a schedule that is all-week with different creators. Talk me through this project's undertaking and how you gradually built up the programming.
DL: We needed to be very savvy. When I was singing, my idols were Caruso and Pavarotti, but Giuseppe Di Stefano was my personal favorite. There were daring, passionate, and incredibly beautiful. But when I started merging into business, my idols changed. I was always trying to find the people we could build something from nothing. Now, I'm a huge fan of Michael Ovitz, who created Creative Artists Agency. He had an incredible book that everyone should read called, Who Is Michael Ovitz. He talks about having conflicts, feeling the pulse, and following that feeling, which is exactly what we did with the pandemic. We used destiny.
We were at a point where the company was open to change. I'm a huge believer in social media and have a personal passion for a diverse set of things. Before, a lot of people that were in marketing or leadership were not interested in that. So there was a void, and we were daring. My associate and I noted that we wouldn't lose anything, but we already have the know-how. The company was receptive to say, "You have been asking for a chance, and we know that this is not forever, so why not?"
We were normally registering about 2000 [clicks] per post account reach per month on Facebook for the full month before we took over. When we took over the season announcement, we had 38,000. My boss was stunned, but there is actually a science to doing social media. There is content strategy, good marketing, creativity, and ingenuity, but there is [also] science and math that you have to do. So my boss said, "Let's keep going with Don Carlo."
That is when everything happened, and Lucas Meachem was here with his wife. They're big social media influencers in our industry, and they were going to be here for a while because he was in Don Carlo and also in Barber of Seville. Of course, we didn't know that we were going to cancel all of this, so he had rented a house for several months. [After we cancelled,] He called me and offered to do a live stream recital. His wife would play, and he would sing.
At that time, we could have 50 people in one place with social distancing. We put up four cell phones, one with Instagram and Facebook for both Lucas and Dallas Opera. On our end, we had someone answering the live chat, our company manager was there operating some of the cameras, and I was directing the takes from home. We went live and had 50,000 viewers. So, we went home on March 11, and we had a concert on March 16–it was very fast.
Then we launched the very first program called Ask Maestro with Emmanuel Villaume. We also experimented with a singer in the education department. They got 19,000 views, so there was a market for both of them. No one was doing those types of things at that time, and I started to see a lot of conversations in sports, video games, and Hollywood. We got into it very fast. To be a social media influencer, you have to be disciplined and get into people's personal space. You have to be present in their lives constantly. So, I needed to create enough to be in their feed 2-3 times a day, which means 21 posts a week. Only three can be sales or institutional, and everything else has to be original content. We had to create that original content so that once people come here and have their attention, are a trusted partner, and are a community agent, that is when we start the development side. So the leadership team, who had to deal with the cancellations and board, put their trust in us to handle the situation.
TB: What would you say is the hardest lesson you have learned in this situation?
DL: I think one of the hardest lessons is that our art form has some institutional power that doesn't want to buy into the new way of the world. They don't want diverse leadership, social justice on the stage, or diversity in casting. They certainly don't want to make anything digital, except to live-stream something that is happening in the theater. They're not thinking about creating digital products designed for the screen with opera. Or that anything digital could be profitable, and we should pay recording artists for this.
That has been a hard thing because, at the beginning, people from within the organization were questioning, "Will this cheapen the brand? Are we pushing boundaries by saying Black Lives Matter, celebrating pride, and standing for diversity and inclusion? We might rub people the wrong way." We are willing to take that risk because we want to establish this company as a place that is inclusive for everyone. Music is for everybody, and that is how we are as an institute. That has been a very beautiful thing, being so truthful and not being afraid to be who we are.
But that has pros and cons, as sometimes people don't believe that we should be involved in that. And there were people who didn't think we were going to be able to sustain this or understand its relevance for the business. I feel that if you're a performing artist, you must have a main stage, a civic stage, and a digital stage to survive.
TB: What is one thing that you would teach the world about your experience in the pandemic?
DL: More and more, I found what I thought success actually means by living my own truth. The reality is that I'm a techie: I love technological things, and I study. I am now exploring everything VR, and I think that we should invest in VR as an industry. I love social media. I am fascinated by the power of networks and how you can shape conversations.
Mostly, I'm a crazy artist. I love the curiosity of creating and am a creator myself, even if I don't sing anymore. The TDO network is something that I found the closest to my performance experience because it is so personal. This crisis presented the perfect scenario for me to grow into my groove and what I wanted to explore to be philosophical. I found myself with a certain amount of resources, an empty canvas, and people who asked what I could come up with. We started something that could go on for years; it is so surreal and such a teachable moment. When you have your own personal truth and passion for something you believe in, don't compromise in that vision. The public reacts to truthful energy. Our network is connecting with people because we are raw, real, and relevant. We were the first to put two professionals of black descendants in the network for an hour. And that led us into a conversation about race and casting in a very raw and real way.
We want to be holistic. We want to be in the community so that the Dallas Opera feels real. That it is actually a person and an institution that is in touch in so many different ways. The TDO has started actually allowing our true voices as human beings to enhance the platform and power of the opera industry. We can change the world for the better, which is a hell of a happy place to be.
TB: For young and emerging artists, as they are going through this pandemic, what advice would you give them?
DL: Oof! It is survival of the fittest, but it is the reloaded edition. So, you have to find ways to keep yourself available, competitive, ready to go, and with a certain amount of resources to keep yourself relevant. You have to be the most disciplined person on the planet if you want to be an artist and you're just starting, [you may ask,] "Why?" Because it needs you to be. You need to find a way to generate income from your home without becoming a couch potato. You still have to have time to practice, have fitness in your life, and keep yourself artistically inspired to keep the craft going. If you have money set aside, you should invest it in having a real website and creating content that keeps you in the public and casting directors' minds. I am screening talent through YouTube and video sources. So if you're not online, you are not relevant or present. You have to become a salesperson and a content creator for yourself.
It is a perfect time to get your skills up and make yourself the fittest singer you have ever been. You can have a lesson with anyone in the world. For example, if you had a few thousand dollars from a Merola grant, I would take a lesson with Isabel Leonard and talk to Michael Fabiano. Then book myself a conversation with Matthew Epstein.
Content creation is another really important thing. You have to be relevant, and this is a skill you are going to have to develop. No matter if you are a jazz musician, an opera singer, or a children's creator, you will have to connect with your audience via social media. So, start developing a fan base and find out what works. The Dallas Opera is one of the biggest stories in classical music today because 10 million people have seen our content in the past four months. [As of February 5, 2021 the 10 million noted has grown to almost 100 million.] But some girl on Instagram got 3 million views in an hour yesterday. That is how far behind we are as an industry. We don't need to lose quality. We just have to market it better.
TB: Before I ask you my last question, is there anything else that you would like to add to our conversation today?
DL: The post-Corona world is just starting, and we need people that are more socially conscious, truthful, technologically able, and aware of pop culture so that we can become a real team player with society.
Along with that, I am trying to repeal Article 14 of AGMA. It says that only the AGMA houses that are signatories are allowed to hire foreign artists for only leading roles. Everything else has to be cast from American artists with either passports or green cards. I was an AGMA member and I was discriminated against by that rule. When I joined the LA opera young artist program, my American peers could be a Annina in La Traviata. But unless I was going on as Alfredo, I could not sing anything on stage.
The weird thing is that both my American peers and I were asked to join AGMA. We both paid 2% of our fees, and we pay our $80-$100 a year. We also had to pay the initiation that was $500 at the time—now it is $1,000. But this is an almost imperialistic practice that creates an inflated market by trying to protect the employment of American singers from foreign singers. So why should I, as a foreigner, pay the same thing because I can't get hired for anything except leading roles, and I don't have the same rights as every other member of AGMA?
TB: Thank you for that. Last question I give to everyone, what is your video binge for the pandemic?
DL: In the pandemic, I have watched the Zac Efron show, Down to Earth. I also saw Love is Blind because I wanted to apply some of the commercial reality to what we do in the TDO network. I also watched every single episode of Narcos because those guys know how to make a sale. They are ruthless!
TB: Thank you again for talking with me today. It has been a pleasure, and I will look forward to seeing what is next on the TDO network.
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About David Lomelí
David Lomelí joined The Dallas Opera in 2014 as artistic coordinator, and was named director of artistic administration in 2018. He was also recently named casting director for Bavarian State Opera, effective in 2021. As the first manager of Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors, Mr. Lomelí recruited over 400 conductors from more than 30 countries to apply, as well as 50 US women administrators. Before joining TDO, Mr. Lomeli performed as a tenor with many of the world’s leading companies including the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Glyndebourne Festival, Santa Fe Opera, Los Angeles Opera, and San Francisco Opera. He earned an undergraduate degree in computer science engineering at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey in Mexico, and a graduate degree in international marketing from la Universidad Politecnica de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain. He is a recipient of the National Youth Prize in the Arts, presented by the Mexican government, and won first prize in the categories of opera and zarzuela in Plácido Domingo’s 2006 Operalia. Mr. Lomelí is an alumnus of some of the most prestigious training programs for opera artists: the Domingo- Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program at LA Opera, the Merola Opera Program and Adler Fellowship at the San Francisco Opera, and the International Society of Mexican Art and Values in Mexico City.