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 Jessica E. Jones, soprano, spoke about the difficulties of being in the midst of a performance when the pandemic hit. This event has had a drastic effect on the career trajectory of many emerging professionals and Ms. Jones’ story represents the difficulty that they have since experienced.
Jessica E. Jones, soprano Interviewed March 25, 2020
TB: I always like to start with something positive. So what is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
JJ: I have started taking up running and some jewelry making again, now that I have more time to do those things. I’m trying to be creative and stay active, self-care in that way. So that has been nice.
TB: So would you mind sharing a bit about your career and your background in singing?
JJ: Absolutely. I’m just beyond the young artist phase in the career. I was in that world for many years and I am now starting to sing more as a principal artist. Both at regional companies and I have had a couple of good opportunities out at Santa Fe Opera. [There,] I got to do a world premiere this past summer as a mainstage artist. I’ve also done one previously with them as a young artist. In 2019, I got a Grammy from that recording so that has really helped me. So, I have a pretty good schedule this year and am right on the cusp of starting to get real gigs that are not under the umbrella of young artist programs. I guess I am an emerging professional artist if you will.
TB: So diving into what we’ve all been talking about over the last bit, could you tell me a little bit about where you were and how you first realized that this pandemic was going to have an effect on your singing life?
JJ: Sure, I was up on a gig in Idaho and I had three engagements up there. This was when the whispering of the pandemic was just getting started. I’m from Idaho, so I was there spending time with my parents. Then the whisperings of the pandemic were starting to sift into our media. We didn’t really understand it. Performances went on and I think they were through mid-February. And people were starting to get a little nervous but no one had talked about how it was going to affect operas or gatherings.
When I got to my next gig, we were in rehearsals and really the first week (as we started at the beginning of March) people started to get very nervous. People had just started to come into the country who were infected. It was cropping up in more than just other countries. So there was a shift. The first week of rehearsals, we didn’t really discuss it that much. It was just sort of, “I wonder what is going to happen.” By the second week of rehearsals, it was decided as a cast—not from the administration—that we were going to stop rehearsing.
This was because people were concerned about being close together with social distancing, which was just coming into play. They [other singers] were concerned about getting back to [their] families. And we needed to make the call ourselves since the administration wanted to push forward even though there were concerns. That was when everything started to really come into focus that we as people—not even as opera singers or artists—have to take responsibility right now, and do the right thing by all of us as humans.
Now, the past week and a half has been interesting. There is still not a lot of clarity as far as this contract. But what is clear is that I will not be getting any of the [performance] fee. This was singing Gilda in Rigoletto and it was a total of seven performances. And so the financial hit from that... There’s hope that two of the performances will happen. I don’t think it will. So the performance fees are gone and there’s not really been much communication, which is the hardest part because there is already uncertainty and financial loss. But then not knowing for sure what exactly that number is, is really upsetting. [See addendum]
I was also supposed to have my Carnegie Hall debut on Easter and that is gone. I am hopeful that maybe I could debut at another time. So that’s not only just a financial hit but that’s one of those things as a singer you really look forward to in your career (if that could ever happen for you). I was feeling very fortunate that that looked like something that might be possible for me in my career. So those are the two major gigs that have been cancelled. I’m still waiting to hear about some mid-summer work but I don’t know that that will happen. Again, I think the uncertainty compared with the financial hit is just all very anxiety-provoking and I think there’s a lot for me personally that is still up in the air. And that’s unnerving.
TB: You also have a unique position as you travel. Could you talk a little bit about that with this idea of uncertainty?
JJ: Yes, I live full-time in an RV with my husband and dogs. I feel really lucky in a way that I’m a bit more adaptable in both my housing and lifestyle as we figure out what we need to do and where we need to go. I also have a spouse whose income isn’t going to be completely halted. Both of those are huge advantages. I feel very lucky to at least not have to scramble to get a job that is something completely different than singing right now. If I needed to, I could jump in and help him with something or do data entry, something like that.
But essentially my contract was cancelled. Right now, I am not being kicked out of housing [because] I have my house with me. So, I don’t have to move. We could just hunker down and not worry about scrambling. That’s a big, big deal. Also, I think that what it will allow us to do is when we decide to leave here, we can go to a place that is perhaps more on the safe side of the pandemic. It’s not like we have to go back to New York or Houston. We have a lot more flexibility in finding out where we want to go. Where do we want to hunker down from here, depending on how things continue to unfold? Where do we want to isolate? What are our priorities? So that’s a huge advantage. People who live on the road nomadically understand that. But it is hard to explain to most people. I do feel really fortunate that I’m already accustomed to this lifestyle right now.
TB: If these performances were totally cancelled, would you and your husband leave Florida?
JJ: Yes, we would leave. However, we don’t have a major need to leave because we have this flexibility. And I haven’t wanted to leave because again, why would I drive thousands of miles just to have to come back? Now, the possibility of the performance happening is, I think, about 5%. I just don’t see any chance of it happening.
But for us, because it is a warm climate, we are in a great place to park. We can self-isolate. We have what we need. So it didn’t make sense to leave right away. I think we will leave in three weeks if we don’t leave earlier. But again there is a lot going on down in Florida. There have not been a lot of containment efforts. There has not been a lot of enforcement for social distancing. So I am concerned that if we do have to go out in public a lot there is a higher chance for us [to contract COVID]. And that is scary.
So, we are sort of torn. We’re in a great setup. But we’re not necessarily in the best city to deal with this. For now, the weather’s good so we’ll stay. We have a yard for our dogs and we’ll enjoy it while we can. And we’ll hit the road when it makes sense and when we have more information.
TB: So turning to the creative side, how has this pandemic affected you creatively?
JJ: Absolutely. It’s been a little difficult if I’m being honest. I’ve been trying to motivate myself to sing and not with much success. Because it feels almost as if music is not as pressing to me. But I still feel sad. And I still feel that I need to sing. But I’m having a hard time getting myself into the right headspace to do so.
I have my keyboard. So every day I try to plunk away. I’ve been doing some videos for people and a couple of little things. But I started to put together a recital program I have to do in the fall and another one that I’m working on for potentially next season. So, I’m looking at those projects to help really give myself something concrete to work towards—music that I feel connected to and that I want to sing—that I feel will get me into a place of love and art. But it has been quite difficult. And I sort of had a block, as I’ve processed this over the last week and a half. I’ve had to really try to allow myself to sing and not feel guilty about singing in this weird time we’re in as humanity.
TB: Diving backward six weeks, could you talk about how your life was different?
JJ: Yes, as I said before, this year has been really exciting for my career. I’ve been looking forward to this gig all year. It is a stellar cast and it’s in two great performance venues. I was a young artist here. And I’ve been brought back as a mainstage artist. It is checking all the boxes that I was excited to be doing and that I’ve been looking forward to. I was feeling great and in a really good place. As we all know, you have a lot of peaks and valleys in the career of opera. And I was in a real peak.
So, to have that gone and to have the Carnegie debut gone, it all seems a little weird to say, but it was just really humbling. It reminded me that what I need to focus on is gratitude for everything I’ve been given and for all this opportunity; to recognize my hard work, and to know that this valley right now won’t last. Even though all those things I’ve been working towards are now gone, it doesn’t change the fact that I achieved them. Even though, it has been really, really difficult because my life does feel so different right now.
It does feel so different than six weeks ago. I couldn’t have imagined this could just be erased; what I felt were boxes that were checked, achievements and momentum in building the next phase of my career. So, I’m trying to stay hopeful but it’s hard. I never could have imagined two critical pieces of my season being wiped out.
TB: One of the things that you mentioned was finding gratitude in this situation. So what are some of the things that you’re grateful for in this experience?
JJ: I am really grateful that I was surrounded by artists, particularly in this cast, that have been in the career for a long time and were so generous. They showed me that I did belong in this echelon of artists and that I was doing well. I’ve worked really hard to just continually build my craft and so that was nice.
Even though it’s gone now and even though I had to walk away from it, it gave me perspective and made me evaluate what it is that I have achieved. Because it’s hard sometimes to not be like, “All those gigs are gone and now my career’s over.” No. You have this skill that you’ve worked on for years and years. You are at a point that is exciting. And you do belong up on stage and you do need to allow yourself to continue to be a voice that is unique and important. So, I’m grateful for that.
I’m super grateful to have a supportive network of people around me. My spouse, my roster, my dogs, and my family. And I’m really grateful that I’m safe. I know that is crazy but I feel like I do have some choice. I’m not forced to continue to go into work. I can make that choice, which a lot of people can’t. So I think having this extra time will motivate me to do some of those other projects, to reconnect with why it is (truly) that I got into singing. And I think that is going to be important for me, as it is developing really amazing recitals and sharing music that I’ve wanted to share for a long time. Hopefully, bringing musicians and artists together is another thing I’d like to do. I think this is a moment where we need to reevaluate a lot of things in this career from all sides. And so I’m grateful for that. I think this moment of pause will force us to change and innovate in good ways.
TB: As you’re an emerging professional just leaving the young artist world, what advice would you give to those who are still in those young artist programs?
JJ: Well, it took me a long time to get into young artist programs. I graduated with my undergrad in 2009 and my master’s in 2011. It was a tough time at the end of that recession. It was very insular, people that were getting hired were really only the people who were very pedigreed and had won big things. It was very difficult to get your footing. So I got into them pretty late.
But what was important was that I never stopped trying. I never stopped going for the opportunities I thought I needed and deserved. And I got into them [young artist programs] not the way I expected. I got a call for my big first resident artist program because they needed to replace someone but I had sung for them five years in a row. I’d always been in the top three but I never got the call. So you have to trust yourself and just continue to sing every day as much as you can. I think that’s another big thing. We get caught up and we don’t sing. We don’t do the work to build our voices. So those are two big things.
Once I got that first resident artist program that led to others, those then led to other things too. So, I think my career could have taken off or not taken off in a lot of different ways. But if you are in a young artist program or if you’re striving to get into a young artist program, just continue to apply. Push yourself. And know that there are so many factors outside of what you’re doing that effect that decision. It’s not because you’re not doing the right thing. Just trust yourself.
TB: Looking at the bigger picture, what would be your advice to the musical community in general?
JJ: I think that we need to support each other in more ways than just contracts and getting to know your cast—not that that’s the way that everyone works. But I think that companies need to be more woven together, whether that is a greater sense of community or through OPERA America. We need to take the things that are working in other companies and apply them. I think that what will happen is a lot of the strong companies who are doing really positive things will be able to make it through this. And others sadly will not.
But what we can do is then say, what are they [companies that are succeeding] doing? How are they innovating? What is happening? We need to come together as a nation of companies and figure this out together, the same thing with managers. I think that they are trying to do that now. This is going to change how they all work together.
Then as artists, I hope that our union becomes stronger. I hope that we have more collective strength because often we feel so disposable and so vulnerable. At the end of the day, we’re the ones that have to get up there and be in front of the audience. So I hope that we can build stronger bonds. I hope that we can really have a richer fabric to our community, so we don’t feel so singular in nature. I think that will make us all stronger and better in all of this.
TB: So what is one thing that most people don’t understand about the COVID situation as it has unfolded for you as an artist?
JJ: I don’t know if there is a really good answer. But again, I go back to the feeling that this year was such a big year—of what I call momentum—in career building. And beyond the financial loss, what I’m most concerned about is this cutting off of momentum. I am worried that I’ll have to start over again. That’s my concern. And I think that’s a normal concern. It’s definitely not unique to me. But that’s the overwhelming factor for me right now. I was finally at this place where I did all that work. And this year I was getting the calls and people were following through. They wanted me to come sing and now they’re all trying to just stay afloat. So where does that put me in my career?
That is the thing that is weighing on me the most right now, besides staying well. I am scared of getting sick. A lot of singers are focused on the career side of it but (god forbid), what would that do to your singing and your career, if you did get sick? So I’m just staying well and focusing on the things I do know about myself that will hopefully help my career down the road.
TB: Well, let me thank you for your honesty and transparency in this interview. Last question, because we are all stuck inside and watching videos, what is your binge recently?
JJ: I never watched 30 Rock, so I have been watching it. It is just so wonderful. I am really, really enjoying that. That’s my big binge show right now and it’s definitely worth it if you’ve never seen it. Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, and all of them, they are so wonderful. But also it feels—as a musician and performer—good to watch the successes and failures of everyone and what they are doing there. It’s reassuring in this time.
TB: It has been such a pleasure talking with you and I would like to thank you once again for your time.
Addendum: December 10, 2020
As the pandemic has continued, there are a few updates to give to Ms. Jones’ situation. In regards to the Rigoletto contract, the remaining two performances were cancelled due to force majeure. However, Ms. Jones received her per diem, which soften the financial blow. Rigoletto is attempting to be rescheduled and the company is attempting to find a date that is available for the cast.
As to her journey as a nomadic singer and living out of an RV, she and her husband have opted to remain in Idaho near family. In finding an outlet for music, Ms. Jones has begun recording an album of original songs, which has grown her talent as a singer/songwriter. As she related to me, “I'm continuing to process and navigate the ups and downs of ongoing unemployment and isolation, some days with great dread, and others with great hope. I still plan on pursuing a career in classical singing, and if I am busy, we will probably go back on the road in the RV together. For now, I am trying not to obsess about outcomes and instead focus on things that feel useful for my creative and musical self with the tools I have, and push outside of my comfort zone in ways that I perhaps never would have considered previously.”
The Santa Fe Postcards Project
“Night” by George Crumb
Jessica E. Jones, soprano
About Jessica E. Jones
Grammy Award Winning soprano Jessica E. Jones is in demand on stages across the country. Critics have praised Ms. Jones calling her “astonishing” “thrilling” and “fabulous.” An artist who excels in multiple styles, her repertoire spans from early music to contemporary opera. A passionate champion of American opera, Ms. Jones recently performed with Santa Fe Opera as Chrisann Brennan in the world premiere of Mason Bates’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (for which she won her Grammy) and was promptly invited back to sing the title role in the world premiere of Poul Ruder’s The Thirteenth Child.
Ms. Jones also excels in the standard operatic repertoire. Recent performances include Musetta in La bohème with both Opera Idaho and Charlottesville Opera, reprising the role of Gilda in Rigoletto at both Florida Grand Opera and Florentine Opera (COVID19) and role and company debuts singing Elle in La voix humaine and Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi at Virginia Opera. Also in demand as a concert artist, Ms. Jones recently joined the Idaho State Civic Symphony for their upcoming Tales from Opera and Literature as well as making recent debuts with Opera Southwest for their New Year’s Eve gala and Santa Fe Opera for their annual Holiday Concerts. In the summer of 2021, Ms. Jones will make her company and role debut as the soprano soloist in Mozart’s Requiem with Amarillo Symphony.
Ms. Jones has performed many other notable roles include Euridice in Orfeo ed Euridice, Musetta in La bohème, Josephine in H.M.S. Pinafore, Elvira in L'italiana in Algeri, Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello, Adina in L’elisir d’amore, Corinna in Il Viaggio a Riems, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, The Governess in The Turn of the Screw, and Beatrice in Daniel Catán’s Il Postino, Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, and Erste Dame in Die Zauberflöte.
Ms. Jones has performed with Santa Fe Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Sarasota Opera, Nu Deco Ensemble, IlluminArts, American Lyric Theater, Utah Opera, Utah Symphony, Eugene Opera, Opera Idaho, Opera Saratoga, Painted Sky Opera, Opera in the Heights, Sugar Creek Symphony & Song, and Crested Butte Music Festival.
A veteran of the competition circuit, Ms. Jones was a district winner, audience favorite and regional finalist of the Metropolitan National Council Auditions and was the recipient of the Donald Gramm Memorial Award at Santa Fe Opera.
Ms. Jones has completed young artist residencies at Santa Fe Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Utah Opera and Opera Saratoga and holds a Master’s Degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Houston Moores School of Music.