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 Hannah Ludwig, mezzo-soprano, spoke about the impact of the pandemic on her singing life but also about her drive to assist her colleagues who are struggling with mental health issues due to the pandemic.
Hannah Ludwig, mezzo-soprano
Interviewed May 9, 2020
TB: What is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
HL: I got two grants this week, so that is two more than I thought I would get. The first one was from 30 Amp Circuit, which hasn’t been publicized. The gentleman who runs it is also the founder and CEO of Ropeadope Records in New Jersey, but they have a national following. It was a very short application. I applied on Monday and within 30 minutes, I got an email asking what I did and to send my recordings. All of a sudden there was money in my PayPal.
HL: I had a really nice conversation with them over the last couple of days. They seem to really want to help musicians of all different backgrounds and genres. I was apparently the first classical musician that applied.
Then this morning I got an email from a program I did back in 2015 when I was still training called, Classical Lyric Arts. They have two sections, one in France and one in Italy, and Glenn Morton runs the program. They decided to use their funds that would have gone to their next summer of training young singers to support their alumni. So they sent me a grant this morning to help out, which was really nice. They didn’t have to do that. I haven’t done anything with them for five years, but they just felt that that was an important thing to do. So, it is nice to feel supported by these organizations.
TB: There is a community that we’re seeing come together and help support artists through this. Would you mind giving a bit of your background and where you are now?
HL: Before all this started, I was working full time as a professional singer. I did my undergrad in California at the University of the Pacific. Then I went directly from my undergrad to Philadelphia to attend the Academy of Vocal Arts. I graduated in 2018 and since then, I have worked with Opera Philadelphia, Annapolis Opera, and the Dallas Opera. I’ve made several symphonic debuts with the Colorado Symphony, the Columbus Symphony, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And I also had notable performances with Teatro Nuovo and am very close to their organization in New York.
I’ve been talking with a lot of my colleagues throughout happy hours with AGMA about this too. But there were a lot of U.S. singers who were just about to make a significant step in their careers. For me, that was making my international debut at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, singing the alto solo in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. That is not going to happen anymore. So that was very traumatic to lose because it was going to be very significant and I had been looking forward to it for a year. The day I got the call to sing it, I ordered the music. and I had been studying it for a year because it had to be the most perfect performance.
TB: So could you describe where you were and how you realized that you were going to be affected by the pandemic?
HL: Two months ago, I had just finished a jot doing Anna Bolena with Baltimore Concert Opera. But I had done the Tenor Viñas competition in Barcelona back in January and while I was there, there was news about the virus. I remember being there and them talking about what they were going to do with terminal two at Heathrow. I had to make a connection at Heathrow to get back to the United States and it was alarming. Then, I thought that this might affect international travel for a while and I just put it in the back of my head.
Then fast forward to March, I had gone to New York and done a concert and an audition there. After I came back from New York, I was talking with my manager quite a bit, but we were still doing business as usual. It wasn’t until March 11 that I started to see the cancellations rollout. Suddenly, I realized that I wouldn’t be doing my church job on Sunday. My manager even posted something on the 13th that said, “I have just lived through the two worst days of my career.” And what she meant by that was just the number of cancellations—that was when I knew this was really bad.
At that moment, I thought I was okay because I was in the middle of a scheduled break. Per my schedule, I knew there was a break between Anna Bolena and when I would sing at Teatro Colón and my contract with Teatro Nuovo. So I figured it could be worse because I knew I had work later. Maybe this would all be cleared up by that time, as there were three months between my gigs. But the longer that this went on and by the second week of April, I knew this wasn’t going to happen. But still, when I got the final correspondence from Teatro Nuovo that was pretty heartbreaking because I learned the whole piece already which was Maometto II. I was really looking forward to that because it is a fun role and also an insanely athletic character. And I was very proud of learning it.
The Teatro Colón contract was a little significant because I didn’t receive any information from the opera house. But I had been following the news about Argentina and once they announced that they were closing the country for four months from international travel, I knew it was over. It was still pretty heartbreaking even though I expected those two to be cancelled. It still hurt because it was something I planned on doing.
I have always done the best in my ability to fill all my contracts. I have never been fired from a contract. So to work so hard at something and lose it from a virus... Well, everybody’s affected. I know people who have lost way more than I have in terms of their income. But it is still very hard to deal with.
TB: When were these two major cancellations to have taken you through in terms of dates?
HL: Teatro Colón was supposed to be June 7-12 and then I was coming to Teatro Nuovo late, which we had agreed to. I was going to arrive on June 15 and stay till July 15.
TB: Basically that takes you through the mid-summer. So how does this affect your financial health going forward?
HL: It is pretty substantial. That was two-thirds of what was going to be my expected income for the year. So I had to really look at my financial situation and ask how am I going to do this? Because I don’t have a side hustle. I don’t have a part-time job, though you could say my church job is part-time. And they have been great. Actually, they still are paying me through June 7, which they don’t have to do. They are even paying me for the dates that I had written I was going to be gone. That is First Presbyterian of Philadelphia. They are really nice. I applied for Unemployment Insurance and got rejected immediately, that way I could apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. I still have yet to figure that out. Again, I pretty much spent this entire past week just applying for grants. I can’t even tell you how many I have applied for since this began.
I am really doubting my fall work is going to come to fruition. I am assuming that worst-case scenario, I’m not going to get back on stage until next year. I’ll just have to figure it out. Right now, I can pay up to a certain point on my own, and support myself and my partner. But there will come a point—unless I do get some additional funding—that I might have to look for something else. But during this pandemic, I don’t know where to start in terms of finding work. And I think that there are a lot of musicians in that situation now because we don’t know who would even want to hire right now.
TB: Drawing on this situation so far, what would you say is the hardest lesson that you have learned?
HL: That’s actually a hard question because it has all been hard. I think the hardest thing is just to accept that you have to sit in what is happening. And that you can’t work through it and try to make yourself busy. Because that is what I try to do, just fill up everything. For me personally, it has been very hard to actually ask for help. Because I am very self-reliant. I take care of myself and don’t want to bother people. For a while, I didn’t even want to apply for grants because I thought other people needed them more than I did. But there comes a point where you just have to [recognize] you’re in that situation too. You do have to ask for help.
It’s been hard to ask my family for help. Because both of my parents are quite a bit older. My mom is planning on retiring in four years, luckily, she’s still employed right now and can work from home. But I don’t want to take money from them at all. It is just a different way of living right now. And I had to take a step back and realize, I actually do need to ask people to help me out.
TB: Thank you for talking about that side of this situation. How has this impacted your creative process?
HL: It has impacted it pretty significantly. My colleagues will describe me as a workaholic. I just like to work. I like to practice. And I love my job. I love that part of the job when I can sit here in my office and work. A lot of people have posted that they can’t even pick up their instrument during this time. I’m the opposite. I have to pick up my instrument. But I guess now, it has been impacted because there used to be a reason or an end goal to practicing and preparing my pieces. I wasn’t really learning a lot of things for fun. I was learning them because I had to do it. Because that was just how my schedule was. Now it’s like, “I guess I’ll learn Norma.”
I have had a lot of talks with my partner about this because he’s been on my case (even before all this happened) about learning to practice with a sense of mindfulness and practicing things a bit more gently. As opposed to, I have to learn this right now. So that’s been an adjustment, to practice so that I have fun learning it rather than needing to learn something. Because otherwise, I am going to lose my mind.
TB: So ten weeks ago, give me a snapshot of what a day in your life looked like.
HL: I can tell you that was in the middle of my gap time. So that is the time that I would be in between contracts. I would be in New York about two to three times a week. Getting on Bolt Bus—that is my typical to and from transportation—and probably having coachings 2-3 times per week. I would also have a lesson once a month with my teacher in New York.
If I wasn’t going to New York, I would be working on music, answering emails, and talking to my manager. I’m just very active, very on the go, and barely in my apartment. I’m very schedule oriented. So, I would plan out my schedule months in advance. Like, this day is when I would go work with this person, this day I need to be home, etc. Now, I don’t do that anymore.
TB: So this gap time is really when you would be preparing for the next role. Has this made that next step difficult?
HL: Yes. Because first of all, I feel that I can’t go and work with my coaches and my teacher. The ones that I do work with have all decided that they hate working over Zoom. So I don’t even want to bother them with that. But also in terms of finances, I really can’t afford to pay for coachings and lessons right now. Because I don’t know when my next gig is. I know that there are a lot of singers who feel that way right now. I think those who are in young artists programs are very, very lucky right now. Because they are still getting coachings and lessons via Zoom, but that is also paid for by those organizations.
I’ve been out of training for two years. I was paying for everything out of my own pocket, which does put a damper on preparations. I’m not so concerned about taking that time away because I know that my technique is solid and my regimen is very solidified. But it is something I’m not used to. I’m used to constantly making sure that everything works and sounds good.
TB: How do you think that this is going to change our musical landscape?
HL: In terms of the musical landscape, I do like the live streams. I think that that is actually going to be very beneficial to organizations because they’re free. So now, you are reaching a wider audience and more people are aware of opera. I am hoping that it does assist artists with more digital access. I have had to make several videos and pieces of content for organizations and it is very difficult. I’m not used to that technology. I’m not used to using an external microphone and having to back up 15 feet. I’m loud. I know I’m loud. So you put a mic in front of me and everything goes haywire.
But even watching the Met Gala a couple of weeks ago, I heard that there were some that were equipped for it. And then there were some that were not. And you could hear that it didn’t really work with what equipment they were using. To me, that is not opera. Of course, that is what we need to do in order to reach our donors and make art. But overall, that is not what we do. Our whole lives are spent in training to be amplified over an orchestra without a microphone in a large space. So to confine it is ironically claustrophobic. And I really hope that does not become the normal thing.
Once we slowly start to open things up, I am happy to make social media content as a way for companies to include a cheaper option. But this new thing of doing an act via Zoom doesn’t work. It’s not organic and it doesn’t produce the same sound. You don’t get that same feeling, which is very important and integral to how we perform.
In talking to some of my conductor friends—before we go into anything staged—it is going to be a lot of chamber work because that is going to be the easiest thing spatially, instead of having a full orchestra. I’m fine with that and I love doing recitals and chamber music. My partner is an oboist, chamber musician, and orchestral musician. So, I’m happy to do Bach with him! But I do think it is going to change a lot. In talking with my union representatives, they’re saying the only time we’re really truly going to get back to normal is with a vaccine. And we don’t know when that is. So for the moment, it is online.
TB: So with one of your cancelled performances being international, would you feel comfortable traveling internationally right now?
TB: When would that change for you?
HL: Probably with a vaccine.
TB: That’s fair. So do you think that having that more community-based singers will become common?
HL: Yeah, I think they are going to have to. There was an article (I think it was in Opera Wire) a couple of weeks ago that was about how the Met is going to have to deal with its season as most guest artists are from overseas. So how do you do that? Do you hire local singers? At the community level, I think there is going to be a lot more interest in making sure that whoever is local is participating in those organizations as much as possible.
So it is going to have to be community-based for a while. Because singers are saying that they aren’t comfortable flying internationally without the vaccine. But it is also just impossible to travel internationally right now. As I said, Argentina closed its borders for four months. They’re not going to let international flights in until September, maybe. The United States and Canada are very limited. I can’t tell you about Europe right now. But it is going to be pretty nationalistic for a while, in terms of how we run our companies and orchestras.
TB: Let’s turn to another side of you and the work that you have been doing during the pandemic. One of the things that you saw was a lack in the field of mental health care. Would you talk a little bit about what you saw and the actions that you took?
HL: Initially when this all started, I was in the middle of a break between my contracts and I didn’t think I was going to be affected at the time. However, I saw all of my friends and colleagues being affected and it was devastating. I saw posts that worried me in terms of how people were feeling, how people felt that they had lost their purpose, and how they felt that this is the end of opera forever. That was very frightening. And I was crying every time I opened up Facebook because I saw my friends suffering. I wanted to do something and I didn’t know what to do except to be sad.
It was actually Alex (Dr. Alexandra Stratyner, psychologist) who contacted me about a week after this all happened. She and I know each other because she and my partner have been friends forever. (They went to kindergarten together back in Scarsdale, New York.) She contacted me and asked if there is any support she could give. I said, “To be honest, I don’t think anyone in my field is thinking about mental health right now. I think they are thinking about their finances. But they really need to be thinking about their mental health.” And she replied that she wanted to try to offer some kind of services or resources but she didn’t know how to do that.
We came up with the group, Freelance Performers and Mental Health, mainly as a way to put some resources together and do maybe one talk on mental health. As we realized that so many artists don’t have these resources or know of them all, we decided we should have a resource guide and people that can connect with freelance performers. Alex specified that it should be geared specifically towards freelance performers as this is such a unique position as they are all self-employed. But also, we are probably the last people that are going to be able to come back to our jobs.
The mission of our group is to provide mental health support and services to that specific community of performers and entertainers. We have it in our disclaimers, ‘This is not therapy and this is not a diagnosis service’. It is purely resources and information that we can provide to people who need it during this time. We do have a support group. And that was one of our first goals. We had our first meeting in April and it was successful. So we decided to do those once a month.
TB: And a lot of people have been using this as a resource to help them get through the situation. So on behalf of the community, thank you. Turning back to the pandemic, as you are not far away from having been a young artist, what would your advice be to them to get through this?
HL: I would say it looks very bleak right now but take all of those coachings. If your organizations are still giving you coachings and lessons, be diligent on those—and language sessions! Once those sessions are over, make sure that you’re still reiterating, this art form is not going to disappear. The internet has proven that because there are so many people making too much content for people to think that it is going to die.
Also, look at your finances and make a plan. Save your money. Now is not the time to think, “Well, I have my stipend.” You don’t know how long you’re going to have that stipend for. Your company may pay you your stipend now, but by the fall they may say, “We can’t do it.” That is an actual reality.
TB: In closing up here, I have two more questions for you. First, is there anything else that you would like to add to our conversation from today?
HL: The biggest thing to reiterate is that this is a very, very upsetting and traumatic time for performers and performing arts organizations. We don’t know when this is going to end. There is no light at the end of the tunnel at the moment. And we feel abandoned by society and the arts.
Some people are asking why they should support the arts right now. Well, look at what you are going to in quarantine. You are going to Netflix, YouTube, and books. You are utilizing art to get through this pandemic. So of course you should be supporting the arts that need it because you’re not getting through this otherwise. And classical music is the same thing. I was reading this morning because I like to get up in the morning and read to clear my head. Spotify has a ‘classical focus’ playlist and I keep thinking of how many people listen to that at their desk job. But they are probably not thinking about how much they rely on that to do their job.
So really think about how integral the arts are to life and how it is getting people through this even if you are not an artist. You rely on them. You just may not realize it.
TB: As you noted, we’re all relying on the arts and our video binges. So what is your video binge for the pandemic?
HL: We’ve done a lot. We already went through American Horror Story and Castle Rock. Right now, we are on season four of our Star Trek: Next Generation binge.
TB: Well, thank you so much. I think the only thing left to say is live long and prosper!
January 15, 2021
Since our conversation in May, Ms. Ludwig has continued her advocacy for mental health in the performing arts. Along with Dr. Stratyner, they have continued support groups and developed a significant database of mental health resources, which can be accessed here: Mental Health Resources.
In addition to her advocacy, Ms. Ludwig has found several opportunities to perform and created many more. In October, she performed Rosina in Barber of Seville at Opéra Louisiane. This was a socially-distanced performance and abridged version of Rossini’s opera. Ms. Ludwig has also recorded several of Benjamin C.S. Boyle’s compositions that will be released later in 2021. In creating and adding to the art world, she has performed and streamed two recitals with soprano, Alexandra Nowakowski, and pianist, José Meléndez. Finally, Ms. Ludwig was nominated by Opernwelt Magazine as the 2019-2020 “Young Artist of the Season.”
On January 24 and 27, 2021, Baltimore Concert Opera and Opera Delaware will combine forces to present “Songs from a Distance.” This recital features Ms. Ludwig, mezzo-soprano, and Laura Ward, pianist, in a socially-distanced and streamed performance. Her artist’s note eloquently explains the nature of the recital.
“Songs from a Distance” is one perspective of a performer in crisis. Based on observations over the time in the pandemic, this program is designed to reflect the impacts on a performer’s mental health, their community, the city in which they reside, and the loss of loved ones and friends.The separation between performers and the stage means a loss of their purpose, spirituality, and passion. In addition to the performance, this program will provide mental health resources and sources to donate to artist relief funds.
More information on this performance can be found here: https://www.baltimoreconcertopera.com/spotlight-ludwig-ward
Photo of Hannah Ludwig, mezzo-soprano and Laura Ward, piano.
Courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.
About Hannah Ludwig
The New York Times calls mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig “best in show” and further exclaims “Her tone chocolaty and large, yet with focus and agility, she captured the integral aspect of bel canto...expression emerging from a long, intelligently shaped musical line.” In the 2020-21 season, she will return to Teatro Nuovo for a third Rossini role debut with the company, Calbo in Maometto II—originally scheduled for last season—and will join the Bochumer Symphoniker for her international debut in a solo program of bel canto repertoire originally written for the castrato fach. Her scheduled performances of Szymanowski’s Stabat mater with Gianandrea Noseda conducting the National Symphony Orchestra have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will be scheduled in a future season. Last season, she sang her first performances of Giovanna Seymour in Anna Bolena with Baltimore Concert Opera and returned to Dritte Dame in Die Zauberflöte in her company debut with Dallas Opera. Unfortunately, debut with the Orquestav Filarmónica de Buenos Aires at the Teatro Colón Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde was also cancelled in the wake of COVID-19.
Her other recent role debuts in the bel canto repertoire include Pippo in La gazza ladra and Isaura in Tancredi with Teatro Nuovo, Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia with Annapolis Opera, and Alisa in Lucia di Lammermoor with Opera Philadelphia. On the concert stage, she sang her first performances of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky with the Colorado Symphony and Mozart’s Requiem with the Columbus Symphony, both under the baton of Rossen Milanov, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Flint Symphony Orchestra.
Ms. Ludwig is a 2018 graduate of the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts, at which she sang a host of roles that include Isabella in L’italiana in Algeri, Charlotte in Werther, Maddalena in Rigoletto, Fricka in Das Rheingold, Azucena in Il trovatore, Komponist in Ariadne auf Naxos, Dritte Dame in Die Zauberflöte, and the Nurse in The Demon. With the Aspen Music Festival, she performed Ursule in Béatrice et Bénédict conducted by Johannes Debus and Sesto in La clemenza di Tito led by Maestro Jane Glover. Her other recent concert appearances include Handel's Messiah with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as well as Mozart's Requiem and Forrest's Requiem for the Living with MidAmerica Productions at Carnegie Hall.
She recently won second place in the 2018 Loren L Zachary Society for the Performing Arts Vocal Competition. She has received encouragement awards from the James Toland Vocal Arts Competition, Jensen Foundation Vocal Competition, Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Gulf Coast Region, and the Licia Albanese-Puccini International Vocal Competition. She is also a grant winner of the Giulio Gari Vocal competition.
Prior to attending the Academy of Vocal Arts, Ms. Ludwig received her Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance from the University of the Pacific. She received further training from the Aspen Music Festival, Taos Opera Institute, Napa Music Festival, and Classical Lyric Arts in France.