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 Jonathan Tetelman, tenor, shared his experience of having a full schedule come to a halt. Yet, his positive outlook on solidifying technique and teaching provides hope.
Johnathan Tetelman, tenor
Interviewed April 22, 2020
TB: So what is the best thing that's happened to you in the last week?
JT: That's a hard question to answer, but my mom was going through some health problems, and she is pretty much clear of that now. That has been a relief. And given the circumstances that everybody's going through right now, I'll take the good things and enjoy them. So it is nice to have her feeling good.
TB: That is fantastic news. I am glad she is feeling better. For those who aren't familiar with your quick rise into the professional world, you were at Martina Arroyo's program four years ago, but could you give a little bit of your background and where you are in your professional life now?
JT: I went to the Manhattan School of Music from 2007-2011. I studied with Maitland Peters, and I was a baritone at that time (or a tenor that didn't have high notes [Laughter]). Then I went to the Mannes College of Music, and I started my switch into the tenor repertoire. I found it very, very difficult and immediately quit. So, I had some time off after I finished school there, and I became a DJ and nightclub promoter in New York for three years (enjoying my quarter-life crisis).
Immediately following that, I started singing again. But I took it more seriously, only studying on my own [not in a university setting]. I found a great teacher, Mark Schnaible, and his wife, Patricia McCaffrey. Then I started singing the tenor repertoire much, much better. From there, I got started. And my first opera was at Martina Arroyo's program, as you said, performing Eisenstein. Then it just took off. I signed with an agency, Guy Barzilay Artists, and six or seven months later, I had my first Met contract.
TB: As you said, it has been a quick rise. Wasn't there a gig at the Royal Opera House, where you flew in last minute?
JT: Yes, I was actually on vacation with my girlfriend, Kristine Opolais, and we were in Malta for New Year's Eve. I was headed home through Paris—I had a terrible audition in Paris and was really upset because I don't audition as much anymore. Once you start working a lot, you don't have the 'gift' of auditioning.
So, I had an audition for Paris Opera and checked in my bags and got ready to get on the plane. My agent called and told me not to get on the plane. He said, "Just hold off." I said, "You have 20 minutes. Otherwise, my gate's going to close. I have to check-in." He called me back ten minutes later and said, "Don't get on the plane. You're going to London. You're going to do Alfredo as your debut with Daniel Oren."
I was actually scheduled to make my debut at the Royal Opera House two weeks later, as Rodolfo in La Bohème. But this was a treat and a challenge. I had to relearn the role, [as] I had sung the role once in New York with a cut-down orchestra about two years prior. So, I hadn't looked at the role in a long time. I put it all together within three or four days. I learned the staging, and then a week after I got there, I was on the stage. Actually, today, three months ago, was my debut.
TB: And then there were a string of things that happened from there, right?
JT: Well, from there, I did La Bohème, and then I did a debut in Moscow with Kristine. We did a concert in the Tchaikovsky Hall, which is their most prestigious concert hall. Then I was supposed to do a few things in Italy and some in Dresden, Seattle, and Buenos Aires, but as we know, those are now not happening.
TB: That brings us into our topic of conversation for today, which is the pandemic. So, can you tell me where you were and how you first realized that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to have such an effect on your life?
JT: I was in Riga [Latvia], between work in London and Moscow. And I was talking with Kristine, and we were discussing if I was actually going to go to Italy. I was supposed to go the day after the Russian concert, which was February 26. She was saying, "I don't think it is going to happen." I was also a bit wary about going.
As a singer, you have to front many of the expenses. You have to fly yourself. You have to provide your own room and board. So, I was contemplating whether I should go because I thought it might be cancelled anyway. And instead of going after Russia, I ended up going straight home and cancelling because I could see that the situation was only going to get worse. Unfortunately, as a singer, the only person that is going to look out for you is yourself. I ended up saving myself a couple of thousand dollars of wasted money, and sometimes that is what you have to do.
TB: As you were looking forward to what seemed like a very busy season, it sounds like there have been several cancellations. Where does that leave you with the front-loading of these expenses?
JT: Right now, I'm actually okay for a few months. I was lucky. I had a string of contracts, basically three in a row—two at the Royal Opera House and one in Moscow. Then before that, I was working pretty heavily. I did about five operas in the fall, which is a lot.
But it's not going to last forever. I'm living off my savings right now. For the last two months, I've been paying my rent, buying groceries, and paying my bills off my savings. I can't do this for six months, which is when my next contract is supposed to happen.
TB: In six months?
JT: Yes, in September.
TB: What would you say is the hardest lesson you've learned so far in this situation?
JT: It's important for singers and performers to have some sort of a safety net, I think. Because we don't have 401Ks, we have to really invest in ourselves while also investing in our future. Singers and performers must have a way to save money for events like this because health is all we have. Even if it is not a global pandemic, people get sick. Especially as a singer, if you get sick, you won't make money because you can't perform. So, I think the most important thing is if you can't build savings for yourself, some organization should help people—especially artists—with their financial future. Because stuff is always going to happen that is out of your control.
TB: Could you talk a little bit about how this has affected your creative process?
JT: Actually, it has affected my creative process in a good way. Many people who start really fast don't have the time anymore to really get into the creative process of learning roles and cultivate their performance. Because it is just contract on top of contract on top of contract. In the fall, I was away from August until the end of December, and that is a long period. And I did four different roles in that period. So, you don't have a lot of time while working to sit down and have that creative time and really understand the character, let alone your technique within that character. Because those things change, and it is not the same for everything. Rodolfo is not the same as Cavaradossi. It is the same composer, but those people are in two completely different emotional states throughout the whole opera. So, for me, it has been a nice period of growth. I've learned all of my repertoire for the next year and some music that I just felt like learning.
JT: Yeah, I have learned three roles while being at home for two months.
TB: So, Jonathan Tetelman in quarantine is very active. That's great.
JT: I have a little setup over here with a little studio. And I've been teaching more actually, which is also great for my process of learning. Because it's like when I teach somebody something, it actually reinforces it in myself because then I say it out loud. And I can notice the difference more in someone else than I can myself.
TB: How different was your life two months ago? What did that look like?
JT: Well, my schedule was full. I was in rehearsals six hours a day, six days a week. I was performing in two or three performances a week. I was on a different continent. And I think my outlook on opera and my career was a little different. I think now; I'm a little more focused on the more important things that are happening rather than just being like, "I want this job, I want this." I'm changing my perspective a little by asking, "Is this the right job? And is this something that I can do with the right quality?"
TB: What would you say that you're most grateful for in this situation?
JT: My own health, I guess. I haven't gotten sick. I feel like I haven't gotten anybody else sick too. I am suffering in a different way, but it's not going to kill me. And in this time, that is lucky.
TB: Can I ask where you are at now?
JT: I'm in Manhattan.
TB: So, you're at the heart of it.
JT: I'm in the epicenter.
TB: How does that feel coming from Russia?
JT: Well, at that time, New York was still moving. I still had my contracts for April, May, and June. And everything was on the up and up. Everybody was still out. People knew about the coronavirus, but it wasn't something that they thought was going to change their day-to-day lives.
But then, about one or two weeks after I arrived, that is when it started to get really serious. I usually see tons of people walking down the street. Now I maybe see one or two. New York is a different place now. It's not a city. It's a ghost town.
TB: How do you think that this is going to affect our musical landscape moving forward?
JT: It's hard to say because we don't know what is going to happen. If we are talking about the coronavirus as it sits right now without any way to control it or even get rid of it, I don't think that an opera house can function. Not in the way that we're used to, such as people going to watch a show, mingling, and enjoying the evening. That won't be possible. But if there is some cure or treatment for this disease, it can just go by way of other diseases. But I think that is a ways down the road.
TB: What would your advice be to opera companies and the musical community as they move through this situation?
JT: Well, I don't know if I'm the right person to give advice. I mean, they're just going to have to wait it out like the rest of us. There's not much to do. It is an unfortunate situation. But it is a live or die kind of thing.
TB: As someone who was recently in the young artist world, what would your advice be to young artists?
JT: I would say that you really can't count on a career. I'm not saying that I've made it. But for somebody that has a career, I don't even know if I'm going to have a career. Because it is based on many things that are out of my control, and it is gloomy right now. So, plan for the worst. I'm certainly not saying that people shouldn't sing. I'm just saying that if it works out, that's great. But it might not work out.
TB: So, is this having an effect on the way that you're shaping your next five-year goals?
JT: Music is always going to be a huge part of my life. I tried not to be in opera and not be in music, and it just drew me back in. But, there are other things that I can do. It is just that I don't really see myself being happy unless I have a career in music. So, I'm learning these roles in hopes I get to sing them one day. But it is not a guarantee.
Even when you have a good opera career, you are still not guaranteed anything. You have to do what is best for yourself. And hope that you can achieve the goals—or most of the goals—that you set for yourself.
TB: Thank you so much for chatting with me today. Is there anything else that you would like to add to our conversation?
JT: Yes, I've noticed something that needs to be brought up. I've noticed that this country, the United States of America, really does not care a whole lot about the community of gig workers, including artists and performers. As a person that is a citizen of this country, I pay taxes and am going through financial hardship right now. The government we have now doesn't seem to really want to involve themselves in assisting me. And I find that that's a bit strange.
I also find it strange that I can't even afford my own health insurance. Because I'm now in a financial position where if I want to get Obamacare [Affordable Care Act], I have to pay the premium price, which is $600-$700 a month (which is insane). I see there are more government assistance and programs in places like Germany and even France. Now, those governments are trying to get money for artists from contracts. There's just more support happening in Europe for people like me and others whose job is to perform. So, it is frustrating to be a part of a country that doesn't really want you to be a part of it.
TB: Thank you for sharing that. It is an important thing to remember. In closing up here, what is your video stream recommendation for the pandemic?
JT: Right now, I'm on the trash TV bing. I've already done the Tiger King, and now I'm on Too Hot to Handle. It is one of the worst things I've ever seen in my life. But it's like the best car accident, and you have to watch it. I've also gone back to things like Flight of the Conchords and early Curb Your Enthusiasm.
TB: It has been a pleasure to talk with you today, and I hope that we can hear you back on stage soon.
The New York Times declares Jonathan Tetelman is “a total star.” In the 2020/21 season Jonathan begins with two concert version productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Tosca at the Semperoper Dresden. He will then make his house and role debut in a new production of Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The production is created by award winning director, Christof Loy alongside musical direction by Maestro Carlo Rizzi. Jonathan will make a Verdi Concert Gala appearance with the Copenhagen Philharmonic led by Audrey Saint-Gil. Later in the 2021 season, Jonathan will perform his L'Opéra de Lille house debut in a Live Broadcast of the Zürich Opera production of Puccini’s Tosca. And in the summer, he will return to the signature role of Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème at the Seattle Opera for his final house debut of the season.
On the 2019/20 stages, Jonathan made his Covent Garden, Royal Opera House debut in both role the roles of Alfredo in La Traviata and Rodolfo in La bohème. To begin the season, Jonathan made his debut in San Francisco for the San Francisco Symphony 2019 Gala, performing Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, conducted by Michael Tilson-Thomas. Jonathan also sang concert performances with Dan Ettinger and the Stuttgarter Philharmoniker and with soprano Kristine Opolais and the Stanislavsky Theater Orchestra in Moscow. Jonathan returned to the role of Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca with Teatro Regio Torino, Semperoper Dresden, Warsaw Summer Opera Festival and in Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires. The tenor made another role debut as B.F. Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly with Opéra National de Montpellier and performed the title role of Werther with the Gran Teatro Nacional de Lima.
*Jonathan was scheduled to perform as Rodolfo in La bohème with the Semperoper Dresden, Teatro Regio Torino and Seattle Opera as well as Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca at the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires and with Sinfonia Varsovia in Warsaw. These performances have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In previous seasons, he sang the role of Rodolfo in La bohème with the Komische Oper Berlin for their new production and Live Broadcast by Barrie Kosky and the English National Opera. Jonathan made his debuts as Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, and as Werther with Opera del Teatro Solis in Uruguay. Mr. Tetelman rejoined the Tanglewood Music Festival for their performance of Verdi’s Requiem, and joined soprano Kristine Opolais and Julien Rachlin, in concert, with Würth Philharmoniker in Künzelsau, Germany.
Mr. Tetelman recently jumped in last minute to make his Tanglewood Music Festival debut as Rodolfo in La bohème with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Andris Nelsons then later joined soprano Nadine Sierra for a concert with Festival Napa Valley. Jonathan sang his first Il Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto with the Berkshire Opera Festival and Gulfshore Opera. He was also seen as Marco in Chadwick and Barnet’s Tabasco with the New Orleans Opera. The tenor also made a gala performance as Don Jose in Carmen at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., both Dvorak’s Requiem and Verdi’s Requiem with the Greenwich Village Orchestra and St. George’s Choral Society, and joined the Metropolitan Opera for their new production of Norma. Other recent performances include his La bohème debut as Rodolfo with the Fujian Grand Theatre in China, the Verdi Requiem with the Milan Festival Orchestra, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius with the Orchestra Now, Mozart’s Coronation Mass in his Carnegie Hall debut with the New England Symphonic Ensemble, and Dvorak’s Stabat Mater with the St. Goerge’s Choral Society. Other recent roles for Mr. Tetelman include Alfredo in La Traviata, Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus, and Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady.
Jonathan won Second Place in the 2018 New York International Vocal competition, and First Prize in the 2017 New York Lyric Opera Competition, from which Mr. Tetelman performed concerts at both Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. The tenor was also a 2016 prize-winning finalist in the Mildred Miller Competition, and a semi-finalist in both the Giulio Gari International Vocal Competition and the Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition.
Mr. Tetelman completed the graduate performance studies program at The New School of Music, Mannes College and earned his undergraduate degree from Manhattan School of Music. He was born in Castro, Chile and grew up in central New Jersey.