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 Gabrielle Clutter, soprano, discussed the outbreak of the pandemic during her final year at Boston Conservatory and the impact that it has had. She offers wise advice on looking beyond yourself to the needs of your community. Finally, Ms. Clutter gives an update to her life as it has progressed through this period of time and how she has returned to the stage.
Gabrielle Clutter, soprano
Interviewed March 18, 2020
TB: Let’s start off with something good. What’s one of the best things that has happened to you in the last week?
GC: Just being able to be around my family again. I wasn’t expecting to be home in Des Moines until May, so that was nice. I was supposed to sing the Governess in Turn of the Screw, which was to premiere next week. But because of school cancelling and doing an audition, I had to quarantine and my school wouldn’t let me come back. But it was amazing to be able to FaceTime all my colleagues and watch their Sitzprobe, because they did more of a Wandelprobe instead (as their last hurrah). So it was amazing to see the whole cast come together in that way. They had so many faculty and friends in the audience. That was amazing to see as the last big performance.
TB: So tell me a little bit about where you are in your development as a singer.
GC: So right now, I’m finishing up graduate school at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. And I’m in my last semester. I’ve been auditioning for summer programs and this summer I’ll be an apprentice artist with Des Moines Metro Opera. I’m waiting to hear back from a couple of year-long [young artist programs] but mostly I’m just starting my career.
TB: That’s so great to hear with Des Moines. So diving into the pandemic, can you describe where you were and how you first realized you were going to be affected?
GC: When It all started happening, I was in Boston. But it didn’t feel like a big thing until it started spreading everywhere. Within the last week of school, there were so many rumors going around that we were going to close for another week and our opera would be cancelled. But then we rescheduled it for April. After that, we heard that Harvard closed down for the rest of the semester and moved to online classes and a couple of other universities followed suit. There were a lot of meetings that our faculty were going to and while it all seemed ‘hush-hush’, we all knew the answer was that we were probably going to follow Harvard’s lead as a community.
It was really hard hearing the news when it happened and when our school closed down, because everything before that happened was another piece of the puzzle. For example, Monday we got this big email that said if you are going to New York or California you have to quarantine yourself for 14 days. So, I had my professors and friends asking if I was going to keep my audition in California and what would happen if I was unable to sing Turn of the Screw? It was a crossroads for me and we weren’t sure if school was going to cancel or if I should go to this audition.
The next day, we had our opera rehearsal cancelled. They said that it had nothing to do with the coronavirus, but why would anyone cancel a rehearsal when we are two weeks from the show? That doesn’t make sense. So, it was a lot of added stress, talk, and uncertainty.
It was also really scary because in coming back from California, I didn’t want to put my roommates at risk as we live in such a small apartment in Boston. And I read so many articles that I was having a panic attack before I went. It wasn’t until I got off the plane that I was finally able to relax. California was very empty but it wasn’t as scary. I feel like I saw the beginning of it in Boston, then the effects in California, and now I am seeing it in Iowa.
TB: That is really interesting how you have seen all of these hotspots. Talk to me a little bit about the mind set about deciding to get on the plane and do this audition.
GC: It was really difficult. I had a lot of talks with both my entrusted friends at Boston Conservatory and my voice teacher, opera director, one of my conductors and our director for Turn of the Screw as well. Because I wasn’t sure what to do and Boston Conservatory and Berklee had been putting out travel warnings and quarantines since March. So, I asked them what to do and my professors said the chance of school getting cancelled was very high and that they would not want me to miss this opportunity to audition in front of this panel.
It was hard because it felt like a part of me shouldn’t go because of the coronavirus. Because I thought, “What if I risk it and spread COVID-19 to so many people in Iowa? What if I’m patient zero here?” (Though there were already cases in Iowa.) And especially since we had our Sitzprobe on Friday that I was supposed to do. I was supposed to take a red-eye flight from California to Boston to be able to make that happen. And as they decided to close down school, I emailed a couple of my mentors and asked what their thoughts were about closing down school and if I should plan to sing at the Sitzprobe or not. I definitely didn’t want to put anyone at risk. They noted that they would be sad not to have me here, but that I should not come. So that really sucked. The night before my audition I think I cried for an hour because of the situation. Because it has been such an amazing project to work on the Turn of the Screw. And once you get in a show you become a mini-family with your colleagues and friends. It just feels like a part of my experience at Boston Conservatory and especially with that opera is unfinished.
TB: So, [on March 12, 2020] you went to this audition, then tell me a bit about what happened after that?
GC: Afterwards, it was a lot of figuring out what to do with my plane ticket because I was originally supposed to go back to Boston. But since I couldn’t sing the Sitzprobe, I called my parents and they wanted me to come home as school was cancelled and I had computer etc. It was a lot of trying to figure out how to get back to Iowa and luckily, we found a plane ticket for Friday morning. But I had to spend an extra night that I wasn’t planning on staying in California.
There was a lot of confusion on where I was going next and why. I feel like a big part of me wanted to go back to Boston. My whole reason for being out there was school. But with school being cancelled and I don’t have a full-time job out there, there was no reason for me to go back. The school is completely shut down. There is no way I could go into a practice room and practice at all. So, it came down to where I would feel most safe and comfortable, and that is Iowa.
TB: Are you in quarantine now?
GC: No. I am hanging out at home though. I haven’t really left much besides to go get clothes, because I was only planning on being in California for two days and then going home. So, I went out and got clothes and that is the only time I’ve left. But it has been about seven days since I’ve been in California and I have’t had any symptoms show up. But I’ve been keeping to myself and mainly staying in my room. However, my mom has been babysitting my two baby nephews, and I haven’t been able to hold them, just in case. It’s been just a lot of Netflix.
TB: I know, we are all catching up on our Netflix right now. Turning to the financial side, could you tell me what this situation means for you as a young artist?
GC: Since I’ve been in school, I haven’t had any outside projects and have been especially focusing on Turn of the Screw. I don’t really have any gigs lined up besides Des Moines Metro Opera. And they haven’t cancelled their season yet.
But it has been hard to justify paying for my apartment in Boston when I’m not going to live there. Especially, since the job that I had at the conservatory was working on all the social media for the opera department, so now my main source of income is out for the semester. I’m very lucky that I have parents. And I had loans taken out to help me cover costs of my apartment and living, so that I could focus solely on my master’s degree.
Though it is hard thinking about how we have switched to being online—which is amazing that we’re still doing everything like that and I am very eager to see how it works out— it is not the same as being in person. I feel like, with this degree you have to have that in person reaction. Not just to be able to hear correctly, but to work and be surrounded with all your performance-based classes.
So, it is hard to feel like I’m still paying my tuition and not getting the full experience that I should be getting. I don’t think it will hinder my performance, because I’ve gained so much in the last year and a half at Boston Conservatory alone. It is just hard to justify the financial costs now. Hopefully, I’ll be getting back to Boston in a month when things calm down, but that is still a month where I can’t sublet my apartment, etc. It is hard to think how much money I’m losing out on. But in the realms of staying safe and keeping the curve down, it hasn’t affected me as much as other artists that I know.
TB: That is something really important to note. You have made a significant financial commitment in being at Boston Conservatory. Obviously, we are all playing catch up to being online. However, as this is your last year at Boston, this has had to leave you with a certain lack of fulfillment on completion of this degree?
GC: Yes, but first, I am really proud of my conservatory for taking these preventative measures. As much as it is difficult, it is better than the alternative. Because once one person gets the flu at the conservatory, it just runs like wildfire. I can’t imagine what would happen with the coronavirus and it is better to be safe than sorry.
However, it is really difficult. I watched all of my friends and the people that I’ve gotten close to—because my class is a class of 10 or 12 people— do their last day of classes. But I was unable to be with them since I was flying back. It was difficult to see that I wasn’t finishing with everyone. Yet, they were all very inclusive and would FaceTime me and send me videos. One of my friends actually photoshopped me into the last day of school picture, which was really funny because it was me in my Halloween costume.
It definitely feels like it is going to be incomplete. But I know that I’ll be able to see everyone again soon, and see my professors and colleagues once everything calms down. No one could have foreseen this. But it is better to be safe. And I’m glad my conservatory is following the lead of many others and being safe.
TB: So thinking about this whole scenario, what is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned so far in this situation?
GC: I think the hardest one is just to be patient and also finding out how I can still further my development as an artist while in isolation. I’ve never done online classes before and sometimes I find that when I come home, my mind decides to go on vacation and just hang out and relax. So it has become, “I’m back home, but I still have so much work to do.” It is figuring out how to stay motivated and to keep working on my craft, as tempting as Netflix and Amazon Prime are (especially since Disney Plus just released Frozen 2). I’ve been trying to dedicate at least two hours a day on singing, language study, or history. So, it has been challenging trying to keep my focus. When I’m in Boston and I’m out and auditioning, my motivation to get stuff done and to work really hard has just skyrocketed. When I come home, I can sleep for 25 hours and still be tired. So, those would be two of the hardest things.
TB: Tell me a little bit about how you’re staying creative during this process.
GC: It has been a little challenging, but it is been keeping up with arias and other things. Because I feel like when you go through conservatory you’re focusing on the opera or on the other five classes you have. There is such a limited amount of time to focus on what you’ve always wanted to accomplish. So right now, I’m seeing this as a time that I can focus on my language skills that are a little behind. I’ve been doing Duolingo and trying to clean up my French, German, and Italian. Then I have been trying to figure out other projects such as, if Drake University comes back in April, I have spoken to Professor Leanne Freeman-Miller about assisting her. Because I am one of those people that needs to be busy. If I don’t have those tasks, I won’t be motivated to do anything.
I have also been figuring out the things that I have been putting on the back burner because I’ve had classes and rehearsals that have taken priority. So it has been amazing to have two new arias that I am going to be focusing on. One is in Russian and another one is more bel canto. I don’t often sing bel canto repertoire, so I am excited that I have this time to do all this research on bel canto singing, before moving into the aria. My biggest factor in singing is keeping my mind moving forward instead of being stuck in one place and realizing all of the possibilities that I have just being here without as many responsibilities.
TB: What is one thing that you could teach me about your experience from COVID-19?
GC: Just to stay positive is the biggest factor. I feel like that last week of school and prepping for that audition, there were just so many highs and lows. There were times that I felt like I could take on the world and that this virus was not going to affect my community at all; and then the devastation when everything was cancelled and trying to figure out what the next steps were. So, it is staying positive and realizing that as bad as this is, it is better to be safe, proactive, and aware of everyone else rather than just yourself. And keeping busy! I think right now a lot of people are trying to figure out how music comes into play in their communities. So, stay positive and hone your craft, because you never know how the simplest song can touch someone and keep their spirits up through this crazy time.
TB: You are in a unique position as you are finishing your master’s degree and getting ready to go out into the world. So, do you think that this pandemic will change your generation of singers?
GC: I think so. I feel like our generation has been very aware of what’s been going on in the world. We are also growing up in a time where American opera and opera in general is becoming a feature on the biggest stages. We’re seeing stories that are not just the main ones, like La Bohème and Le Nozze di Figaro, and those classics that always are done. We’re seeing that there are stories being told about American Soldiers suffering from PTSD and Breaking Waves. Our generation is very socially aware and wants to be active artists in helping spread these stories. That is my big thing, to share those stories. And our generation is figuring out how we can do that and survive on artist salaries.
I feel like art in general is such an uncertain field to go into, let alone in the coronavirus. We’re used to never knowing where our next gig is coming from and never knowing why it might be cancelled. And as much as it has been difficult, it has been amazing to watch the whole community get together and take advantage of sharing resources and research. There are all of these ways to find support if you’re struggling and needing help. Ten years ago without social media, there would have been fewer artists getting that help.
TB: What question did I not ask you that I should have?
GC: I think the biggest thing would be, “How are we going to get the community back together once we can all leave our houses again?”
I feel like there has to be a big 48-hour performance experience or something grand like that. For me, personally, I wish we would be able to come back together to perform Turn of the Screw. Because we had all the costumes ready, our orchestra sounded amazing, and I had so many friends in the pit that just spent hours in the practice room. I would hope that there would be a way to make up for all the lost time.
TB: You mentioned earlier that you were getting caught up on your Netflix. So, what is your binge recommendation during our self-isolation?
GC: Mainly I have been watching movies lately. My mom and I have been watching movies that were nominated for awards this year. So, we watched Jojo Rabbit, 1917, and then Knives Out. I definitely suggest watching all of those movies and then one TV series I watched recently was called, No Tomorrow.
TB: Any final thoughts?
GC: Wash your hands! [Laughter] And my biggest thing has been thinking of others before myself. I don’t get to see my grandmother that often and she’s only a half hour drive away. All I’ve been wanting to do is go and see her. But I don’t want to put her health at risk. So, as much as it sucks not to be able to go out and do fun things, it is better in the long run to think of others. Just be safe and keep up with hygiene.
TB: Well, thank you for chatting with me and sharing your experience.
Addendum: November 2, 2020
Since our interview in March, Ms. Clutter’s life has had many updates that she wished to share. Ms. Clutter’s grandmother was one of the biggest forces in her life, which has influenced her love of music. Unfortunately, she passed away due to natural causes. Luckily, this was not COVID-19 related and as Ms. Clutter mentioned to me, “We were able to bring her back to her farm house and she was surrounded by family.” And further, “My last words to my grandma were, ‘I love you. I’m going to your piano room to practice playing in alto clef for my aural skill course.’ To which she responded, ‘I love that’ with a smile on her face.”
This was a difficult period of time for Ms. Clutter, even without the complications that COVID-19 has had on her life. Yet, she notes that in her final exit interview with Professor Johnathon Pape of Boston Conservatory that she began thinking back an how grateful she is to have studied both there and at Drake University. These individuals have provided a support structure that she is able to lean on to this very day. Furthermore, Ms. Clutter mentioned the many times that music has played a role in that healing, such as performing in Glory Denied, the talk backs at Boston Conservatory, and performing “Os Justi Meditabitur” at Drake University.
As mentioned in her interview, Ms. Clutter was an Apprentice Artist at Des Moines Metro Opera. While they transitioned to a virtual season, they prioritized training their young artists by providing sessions on topics ranging from Russian diction, to vocal health, the opera business, and so much more. Furthermore, during this period Des Moines Metro Opera continued to provide lessons and coachings for their young artists.
Ms. Clutter moved back to Boston where she finished her apprenticeship with Des Moines Metro Opera. Additionally, she has returned to singing with the North End Music & Performing Arts Center for their Opera from the Balcony series. In the future, she looks forward to working with Boston Opera Collaborative for their music video series. Finally, Ms. Clutter was accepted to compete in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions this year. She notes that the webinars by Melissa Wegner and Brady Walsh that have explained the process of online auditions and given resources have been immensely helpful.
“Sull’aria” from Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart
Gabrielle Clutter, soprano
Martha Hellermann, soprano