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 Howard Watkins, pianist and Assistant Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, discussed the day that the Metropolitan Opera shut down. He also talked about his response to the crisis, collaborating with Joyce DiDonato for an impromptu concert of Werther. Finally, he demonstrates his love for the craft in his attention to using this time as an incubation period for developing himself and others as artists.
Howard Watkins, Assistant Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera
Interviewed March 24, 2020
TB: I always like to start with something light, so what is the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
HW: The best thing in the last week... I’m trying to remember. I lose track of the days. A week ago Sunday (it’s a little bit more than a week but I’m going to say it anyway) was really amazing. Right when all of this happened I was working on Werther with Joyce DiDonato and Piotr Beczala. We were just at the point where we were going to have the dress rehearsal. The Met actually closed down at our final cover rehearsal, which was the day before the final dress. We were going to open on Monday, so we were that close to opening. [Then] Joyce had the idea, why don’t we just come to her place and do an informal broadcast—Facebook Live—of excerpts from Werther. She decided that she would invite the wonderful harpist from the Met Orchestra, Emmanuel Ceysson. So, Emmanuel came over and the four of us just did as much of Werther as you can do with Charlotte, Werther, a harp and piano.
I think that just because of where we all were emotionally and being so anxious to put it out there, it just turned out to be an incredibly special moment for us as performers. The kind of reception that it got was really rewarding and up lifting. Importantly, Joyce also asked people to donate money as they saw fit, or as they were able, to benefit artists who are out of work as a result of this pandemic. So I don’t know what the final tally was as far as how much was raised, but as far as I know something like 300,000 people saw that Facebook Live video. And then she put it up on YouTube. Another couple thousand or more have seen it there [11,648 views on YouTube as of August 2, 2020]. So just being a part of that was an incredibly special thing. It just felt like an emotional release going into this thing.
That’s the first thing I would say, the second is just being here in close contact. It’s just me, my partner (Jorge Parodi), and the dog right now. Just for us having this time together supporting each other; Cooking together (well mostly him cooking and me watching). But still, that’s been a special opportunity to bond even more. It sounds weird after so many years together, but there are always opportunities for these kinds of things.
TB: That was a really important leadership moment in this experience; thank you for the Werther. So would you give me a little bit about your background and where you are in your career right now?
HW: Sure. I started at the Metropolitan Opera in the Fall of 1998 in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and I’ve been working there ever since as an assistant conductor. As a pianist, I play as a répétiteur during rehearsals, coach singers, play recitatives in the pit, play the celesta or the organ, and whatever is involved or needed as a member of the music staff.
So I’ve been at the Met [for] about 22 or 23 years, something like that. Before that, I did a doctorate at University of Michigan in piano accompanying and chamber music with the great and amazing collaborative pianist, Martin Katz, which was an absolutely phenomenal experience. I really credit him with changing my life; helping me figure out exactly what I wanted to do; and how one can go about doing it. He’s an amazing, amazing teacher, who just really gave me tools.
Going backwards, for five years before that I had a stint playing for dance at University of Michigan. So I played for some dance classes and taught music for dancers. Before that, I did my master’s in solo piano. Even while I studied solo piano, I also did a lot of collaborating and was always interested in that. So I was in Ann Arbor, Michigan for 7 years. Before that, I was at University of Dayton in Ohio. That’s where I’m from originally. So I did my undergrad degree there, originally starting out in engineering.
HW: Yeah, I think I did a year of chemical engineering and a year of electrical engineering before I thought, “Enough with the safety. I have zero interest in doing this. Let’s just go for music and give it a shot.”
TB: So diving into our topic, could you back up into the recent history and talk a little bit about where you were and how you realized that this was going to have an effect on your life?
HW: At first, I heard [about it] in the news, to be honest, with not a whole lot of specific interest about the pandemic. I heard about it as a far away thing in China, and eventually heard about it as becoming a thing in Italy. But it just felt like something really far away that didn’t have a whole lot to do with us. Which is actually a little odd, because I have a summer program in Italy that would have—I’m foreshadowing—taken place from the end of June through the better part of July. And Jorge and I also have another summer program in Tokyo that we’re supposed to go to on May 21st up till June 8th or something like that. So those are obviously two of the big hotspots.
So as this started becoming more and more of a thing, and I started to become more and more aware of the effect it was having not only in China but also in Italy and Japan. I started to pay a bit more attention. There was also the gradual realization that this was going to affect things in the States. At a certain point, those of us at the Met started to wonder, “Are we really going to keep going? How are singers even going to be able to come here from Europe?” Especially once we got to the point that President Trump shut down the travelers from being able to enter from Europe. So I remember at that point, I said, “Uh oh, I think we may be in trouble here, because how are all the casts of the future productions coming up going to actually arrive? How are the singers who are here going to be able to go back and forth?”
It often happens that singers have time between performances, enough time that they can go back to their families or their families may want to come to them. So that night when Trump gave the speech and said that they were closing the borders to Europe, I thought, “This is not good.” I even said to some colleagues, “I don’t know, but this is not looking promising.” Indeed the very next day, we were in the covers rehearsal for the Werther and I got a text from my colleague that said, “This is it.” We were just about to actually start something and I said, “Everybody, I think we’re done. The Met is shutting down until March 31st.” So we all just stared at the ground for a bit and started to talk to each other to figure out what are we going to do? Shortly thereafter, some of the big administrators from upstairs came into the rehearsal to tell us officially what we already knew.
TB: So obviously, you and Jorge live in New York City. So you don’t have the travel logistics to deal with. But could you talk a little bit about the financial impact that this will have on you and your life?
HW: Sure. Just to give a little more background about what I do at the Met: I’m one of seven of us on the music staff who are full-time employees (the rest are part-time). It’s something like 30, maybe 35 people are part-time and then seven of us are full-time. So the full-timers are all—as part of what was worked out—paid through the end of March. And some of those part-timers will be paid through the end of March, the ones who had the biggest presence and the most weeks. There was a certain formula to figure this out. There are certain parallels with what is happening with the orchestra. So all of those people get a couple more paychecks and that’s it. The Met continues medical, dental, and vision insurance that they pay for us throughout the course of this whole thing, which is actually quite a big thing and quite good for them to do that.
All those contracts have force majeure. I’m sure you’ve been hearing all about that from people. They have force majeure or act of god provisions, so arguably one way or the other the Met could simply withdraw all contracts at this point, but they didn’t really do that. So that required a lot of negotiating with the unions. I would add that one of my roles at the Met is as co-chair of the music staff committee. So between myself and Carol Isaac (who is the other chair), we had a lot of back and forth with the Met, as well as emails and talking with the union president, as a part of working with the Met on that whole deal and the structuring of that.
[At this point,] I was certainly aware of what was coming and from my standpoint that’s about the best we could hope for. Financially it isn’t great because it means that the season probably would have ended in the middle of May. So that means that that’s all of April and half of May that those base salary checks that I would have expected to get, I won’t get. We have some other provisions in our contract for other kinds of pay that will probably come later, but maybe not right on time.
I would say that I’ve been fortunate that I’ve saved up a lot of money over the years and so I’m not in a situation where I can’t make it. So we’re not worried about being about to pay bills or anything like that. In that sense, we’re very fortunate. But all the other contracts that Jorge has going forward, they’re pretty much all either cancelled or not looking promising.
All of those singers are out of work. Many of them don’t have that kind of security and the health insurance and whatnot that I have. So this is just an absolutely terrifying moment in opera and the arts. I don’t know how those people will make it.
TB: So how has this impacted your creative process?
HW: My creative process, I would say is structured around the operas that I’m doing at the moment or what I have coming up. So what I expected to be doing at this time was getting ready to rehearse Madama Butterfly, which was coming back for a third revival this season. I was involved in the second [revival] and now I was supposed to come back with Ana María Martínez. We were all very much looking forward to it and I was specifically looking forward to getting into that piece with her and the conductor (who I like very much). It’s something that I already rehearsed and had going. So I was excited to try to find some new layers. I haven’t done Butterfly a ton, so anytime getting to do it is fun. So that’s not going to happen.
I worked on Manon earlier this year, and I was supposed to end the season with Manon Lescaut. So I was very excited about that. And [I was] just kind of digging into it, getting it ready, and boom! It’s not going to happen. That was especially disappointing for me because I’ve only done it once before and was looking forward to this opportunity to not only get to know the piece better, but to have a closer comparison in my mind between these composers’ different takes on it.
I would say that when you’re working on a piece in a production you learn it at a deep level. That’s different than just when you practice it and you learn it on your own. That’s one thing, but when you learn and you’re repeating bits of it with staging with a sense of what the practical problems are, you just learn [it] at a much deeper, different level. So I’m disappointed not to be able to get into that with Manon Lescaut.
So where does that leave me? It leaves me without a goal. Without a goal at this moment. And practically speaking, I haven’t really been playing that much. I spent a lot of time on the computer with the negotiation things that I was telling you about and trying to learn how to use this program—Zoom—that I’m going to be using to do some teaching.
I started teaching/coaching this year at Juilliard. So I am doing some coaching with singers at Juilliard and I have a bunch of them scheduled for tomorrow. So I went through some Zoom training and I’ve been playing with it a little bit. Just to try to get comfortable with it so that we can actually just do the coaching and not have it be a half hour of technology and a half hour of coaching. Just figuring out elements of how do I play in a way that the other person can hear me and still sing. Can we hear each other? How can we be kind of in sync without just being on top of each other? Just silly practicalities, but trying to find a way to still express, and want to express, something in this time.
TB: Do you think that that’s going to play more of a role in your life as a coach?
HW: It’s funny you ask that. That’s a good questions. I do think so, actually. People have asked me before, which we sometime talk flippantly about, “Oh yeah, I’m out of town. Somebody wants to do some coaching. Yeah we could do a Skype coaching.” [Laughter] And we don’t think of that as a realistic thing because of all of the lag. But heretofore, I’ve always thought of that as being Skype or FaceTime. I think Zoom is perhaps, from what I see, a little bit better for those kinds of things. Even if it isn’t, I will have gone through a period of doing this a lot. So I think it will be much more practical and possible to do far away coaching, far away listening, and helping people when we’re not all right there in the same place.
HW: And it also makes you focus on what kinds of things you can work on. Coaching can take a lot of different directions. Your coaching can be about vocal things, about musical things, or about the relationship between the singer and the piano. But the coaching can also be about language, and should be a lot about language and the flow of the language.
So I’m imagining tomorrow there will be a lot of focus on flow of the language, what the person understands about the text, or how they use the language to express different emotions and really being able to dig into that in a different way. Because other things are a bit more constrained than they would usually be. I’m kind of excited about digging into that and that’s going to be something new. So that’s good. I mean, it’s not what we chose to do in this time, but I think it’s something that will be valuable.
TB: Thinking about that in the future, could you see yourself possibly doing a concert via Zoom?
HW: Well, I don’t think so in the short-term, simply because it’s very hard to imagine getting past the lag. Maybe there’s a way to do that. So many people are going to be doing this and I happen to know—I learned this through Juilliard—that there are some connections between people at Juilliard and the developers of this program. So maybe there’s going to be some work on this lag program. So if they’re able to make enough improvements, maybe that’s something that could happen. I saw a couple of links online to Toronto Symphony players playing Appalachian Spring. They did it somehow and it came off really well, so maybe it could happen.
But I would say that for myself, a lot of what we enjoy about live music is actually being there. It’s not only literally hearing the music, but also being in the space; being with other people for real. When we’re doing this technology thing there are always some limitations just based on equipment. No matter how great your computer is, it’s still computer speakers (unless you have really fancy stuff). Most people don’t. I don’t. I think that’s always going to be a bit of a second best. But maybe it will be more of an option than we [previously] thought.
TB: Do you see a danger in relying—as we are right now—on technology?
HW: No, not off the top of my head. I say no, because what’s the alternative? The alternative is nothing. I actually think it really speaks to the power of music and the arts, and the need to express. Within the last couple of weeks, everybody in the United States has so quickly embraced this and just tried to find a way to put it out there. Even if we don’t have concert halls right now—even if we don’t have the ability to do coaching right there—people are still trying to do anything they can to put it out there, rather than put it on hold. I think it’s quite special and quite powerful, actually.
TB: So reflecting back on this experience, how different was your life six weeks ago? HW: Well, it was totally different because—I was just saying this to someone this morning—I have a bit of a routine. I get up in the morning, I go to the Met, and generally have some breakfast. I have rehearsal, which could either be a room rehearsal or coaching in the room. Interacting with my colleagues, talking about music, talking about restaurants, and who knows what. Going to the gym, going out to eat, coming back home, playing with the dog, whatever.
Now, a great chunk of that is not happening. There is no going to the Met. There’s no going on the subway. There’s no interacting with colleagues. I’ve certainly talked to more people on the phone in the last week than I have in the last year. There’s no going to the gym. There is no going to restaurants. So in that sense, my life was actually completely different.
I would say that it doesn’t feel as devastating as I would have imagined that it would, because some of the things that remain feel like they were perhaps the most essential. They still remain. I still have my relationship with my partner. I still have the ability for us to hang out together. We still have time with the doggie. I still can make music. It may be a different way of making music, but I can still make music. I can still enjoy listening to music. It’s actually made me look at some things a little differently about listening to music; hearing some of these online performances. Actually just earlier this afternoon, I heard Isabel Leonard and Ryan McKinny doing a version of “Là ci darem la mano,” from Don Giovanni. One on the phone, one on the other phone in two totally different places. I just love that people are trying to do this kind of thing and make it work.
So that’s wandering off subject, but I would say in all those ways my life is actually quite different in the minutiae of day to day. But in the essential things, it’s not as different as I would have imagined. Now, you made an important point. We’re only a couple weeks into this and one thing that Jorge and I [have] both noticed is that it feels like gradual levels of acceptance. At one moment we’re like, “Well, it can’t be that strict. We can still go to this store, that store. We can still go to restaurants.” We went out to eat a week ago Saturday at a very fine restaurant here in New York, because we thought, “Well, it’s a nice chance and we should probably go before that is not an option.” They told us while we were there that all the restaurants were shutting down the very next day. So it kind of crept up on us and it happened faster than we expected.
TB: So will this change the musical landscape and how so?
HW: Well, yes, it’s obviously going to change the musical landscape. The question is how. And glass half-full me wants to think that people will appreciate more what they’ve got. I’m more willing to fight for opera as an art form. I say opera because that’s what I am involved with. But any arts actually, because museums and everything are all closed down so people are more willing to fight for that and fight for people to understand the importance of that.
Glass half-empty me thinks that there are going to be a lot of companies and organizations that simply can’t come back from this, depending on how long it goes on (if this goes on for the whole summer, into the fall, or something like that). If the economy goes the way that it looks like it’s going at the moment, it’s just not going to be great. Things are not state-funded here in the United States. Donors are going to want to hold onto what they’ve got to some extent. So I just fear that that’s going to make some organizations go under. Or when they come back, they’ll be a shell of what they were. I think it’s already been a really hard time for smaller companies—both opera and orchestras—in the US. And some of these companies do two or three shows a year and they will have now lost one or two of those. That’s not great.
So it’s a very scary, chilling time for everyone; the people running them and the people who are performing in them. I would say one more thing. Everybody has known that contracts have force majeure provisions. Most people have never seen it enforced. And so I’m seeing online a bit of a horrified reaction from people that it actually happened to, where companies enforced that. In particular, the one I know is the Met because that’s where I am. So people were horrified that the Met actually enforced the force majeure clause in the contract. I hope I am not making myself controversial, but they [force majeure clauses] are there for a reason. So I wonder if people are going to seek change in those kinds of provisions, knowing that it can actually happen. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I just think there’s going to be more discussion about that.
TB: So what would your advice be to the musical community right now?
HW: While this is all going on, not to lose track and not to forget the impulse of the thing that made you want to do this in the first place; the thing that made it essential for you to do this. Still tap into that. Practice, play for yourself, and play for other people. Don’t just sit around and be horrified that you can’t go out to restaurants or do whatever it is that you want to do. That at the end of the day is less important, in my opinion, than your gift and your need to express. So just keep in touch with that, so that when this is all over you can bring out your new flower. It’s a bit like a caterpillar. Keep your caterpillar and allow it to do its thing. Then at the end of all of this you’ll have a beautiful butterfly.
TB: I know that you have lived through 9/11, the 2008 financial collapse, and a bunch of other things. So do you have any special advice that you would give to younger artists as they are going through this?
HW: I always find it very important to stay in contact with what it is you want to express and to improve yourself as an artist. That’s always the most important thing. Even more important than trying to go get this job or schmoozing. It’s important to improve your art. Meaning, make sure you have something to say. Work on your languages. Work on your technique. And work on making yourself worthy of purchasing. Then the other things tend to fall in line.
So then something like this happening—something like 9/11—doesn’t change your ability to do that. You can do all of those things still. Those things are independent of the external things that happen. And those external things that happen go away eventually. If you don’t do that, you’re not likely to get things anyway, and certainly not meaningful, long-lasting things. A better way for me to say [it is], it’s just important to work on yourself. Making sure that you’re your best you and I’m my best Howard.
I think that’s important for younger artists to understand. Because when you’re younger and you’re just coming up, you start to get a certain insecurity and almost hysteria that, “I need to get something. I just finished my Master’s and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I need to get something.” So it’s just a slightly different mindset. But I think it’s valuable.
TB: So what question did I not ask you that I should have?
HW: Sometimes I’ve been asked something like, “What do I wish I had worked on more when I was younger?” So for what I do, I don’t think we have enough emphasis on language study here in the US. I guess I’m speaking more to the opera community right now. I think this is a perfect opportunity to get some kind of language program in the amount of time that we are talking about being quarantined. You could probably practically learn a language, so do it.
Get online, get Duolingo. It’s not great but it’s better than nothing. Get any one of those programs and work like crazy on one of those languages. I speak decent Italian and good French. I work on Spanish a little bit and have worked quite a bit on German. I am always constantly renewing those and working on them on Duolingo. I think if I could go back in a time machine and do some stuff again, I would probably work more on languages when I was in school; maybe two hours less of practice [piano] a week, and two more hours of language study.
TB: So what has been your video binge? What have you been watching?
HW: I haven’t really changed. I haven’t really gotten into watching new things. I watch a lot of junk things like Family Guy and American Dad. My guilty pleasure is Supernatural on CW. There are all kinds of movies and things that I have plans to watch and want to watch. But as far TV shows, I will also say I try to avoid getting hooked on a TV show, because I can really get hooked on them.
TB: Any final thoughts?
HW: I would just say as a final thing, people should not let any of what’s going on right now in the world change their dreams. If they have the dream and the desire to do this, then they should still do this. Absolutely. And by ‘do this,’ I mean, make art and put themselves out there to people. There’s no reason why this current situation should cut that off and they should absolutely do that.
TB: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today.
Werther (excerpts) by Massenet
Werther: Piotr Beczała
Charlotte: Joyce DiDonato
Piano: Howard Watkins
Harp: Emmanuel Ceysson
About Howard Watkins
American pianist Howard Watkins is a frequent associate of some of the world’s leading musicians both on the concert stage and as an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. He has performed in numerous recitals and concerts throughout the Americas, Europe, Russia, Israel, and the Far East. In recent seasons, he has appeared in concert and on television with Joyce DiDonato, Kathleen Battle, Grace Bumbry, Mariusz Kwiecien, Matthew Polenzani, Michelle De Young, Marcello Giordani, Diana Damrau, Ben Heppner, Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, Alexandra Deshorties, Lawrence Brownlee, Anthony Dean Griffey, and violinists Xiang Gao and Sarah Chang. Under the aegis of the Marilyn Horne Foundation, Mr. Watkins has performed in recitals and educational residencies in the United States, and he has also appeared in the Horne Foundation gala New York recital.
Mr. Watkins made his Carnegie Hall performing debut in 2002 as the harpsichord recitative accompanist in Haydn's Die Schöpfung with James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus. He has given recitals and concerts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Spivey Hall, Kennedy Center, the Pierpont Morgan Library, the United States Supreme Court, Alice Tully Hall with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the three stages of Carnegie Hall, and the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, Russia. In addition, he has performed with the MET Chamber Ensemble in Weill and Zankel Halls under the baton of James Levine.He has accompanied the classes of such legendary artists as Marilyn Horne, Renata Scotto, Regina Resnik, Regine Crespin, Frederica von Stade, Birgit Nilsson, Shirley Verrett, Håkan Hagegård, Elisabeth Soderstrom, and Josef Gingold among others. A number of his performances have been broadcast on WQXR in New York as part of George Jellinek’s “The Vocal Scene” and the “Young Artist Showcase”, and he has recorded for the Centaur and Prestant labels.
As an educator, Mr. Watkins was formerly the Vocal Arts Program Co-Coordinator of the Tanglewood Music Center, and he has taught at the Aspen Music Festival; the Banff Centre; Meadowmount School of Music; the International Vocal Arts Institute in Virginia, Israel, Japan, and China; VOICExperience in Florida and Savannah, Georgia with Sherrill Milnes and Maria Zouves; and the International Institute of Vocal Arts in Chiari, Italy. In 2015, he was a founding member of the Tokyo International Vocal Arts Academy. Currently on the faculty of The Juilliard School, he was formerly a faculty member of the Mannes College of Music and the North Carolina School of the Arts in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute. He has worked on the music staffs of the Los Angeles Opera, the Washington National Opera, and Palm Beach Opera.
A native of Dayton, Ohio, Mr. Watkins received his undergraduate degree from the University of Dayton, and he completed his Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in 1998 at the University of Michigan. In 2004, Mr. Watkins was honored as the recipient of both the Paul C. Boylan award from the University of Michigan for his outstanding contributions to the field of music,and a Special Achievement Award from the National Alumni Association of the University of Dayton. He is the 2019 recipient of the Lift Every Voice Legacy Award from the National Opera Association.
He is currently a resident of New York City.
Mr. Watkins appears courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.