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 Joseph Mechavich, conductor, discussed the opportunities for both reflection and community with me. His idea that art is the answer to becoming necessary to a community is truly inspiring for this period of time.
Joseph Mechavich, conductor
Interviewed March 25, 2020
TB: I like to start with something positive, so what is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
JM: [After a long pause] I guess what just now happened... Sort of these moments of silence to reflect on things. To have some clarity of thought and to realize what is incredibly important in your life; outside of this amazing career, and outside of music being amazing, finding what’s important. I guess that’s been a good thing.
TB: Would you mind giving a little bit of information on your background and where you are in your career right now?
JM: I’m a conductor and I mostly work at regional houses. I am lucky enough to be one of the few regional conductors out there that gets to call this a full-time job. I started off on the piano bench as a répétiteur at smaller companies and now have the privilege of working around this country and occasionally overseas. Right now, as a 50 year-old-man, I’m starting to understand a little bit more about what this music-thing actually is. I’m starting to finally get it. [Laughter] It’s taken a long time, a wonderful amount of time, to acquire all the tools of the trade so I can practice this craft. Finally, after doing seven La Bohème(s), thirteen Madama Butterfly(s), and all this new music, I think I’m beginning to understand what my job is.
TB: I am glad you brought up new music because that seems to be a thing that I see you doing constantly, whether it’s Everest, Dead Man Walking, or Moby Dick. Didn’t you help premiere Moby-Dick?
JM: I did the Canadian premiere of Moby-Dick. I conducted it in Calgary and in San Diego. Then I did the new production, the Kristine McIntyre production, in Salt Lake City. So I’ve had the distinct privilege of conducting that epic masterpiece three times.
TB: I think “epic” is a good word for that show as well. So, diving into talking about the pandemic, where were you and how did you first realize that this was going to affect your life?
JM: I think it was maybe three or four weeks ago, when I was conducting Riders of the Purple Sage in Arizona. During tech week, I got sick. I am not a doctor and I’m totally speculating, but it was nothing like I’ve ever had before. We were at a hotel in Phoenix, Arizona, which is by the convention center. At the time I just thought I had a cold, but I don’t know.
So right after Riders closed, I got on a red-eye to go to North Carolina to start Die Zauberflöte. And then that’s when the media reports started to really bubble over and companies started to cancel things. And it was just a matter of time that the Flute production in Raleigh was postponed. Which indeed happened a week later.
TB: So how did that cancellation of Magic Flute effect some of the logistics for you with traveling and housing?
JM: This is small compared to many of my colleagues, but my partner is a painter; so, he was with me in Arizona painting and then he ships all of his stuff in advance. It’s boxes of paint and his primary easel and so we had to wait [for those items to arrive] before we left Raleigh to go back to Philadelphia. So we decided, instead of flying, we would drive home.
We were very lucky. We just had to do some very basic small inconveniences. Nothing like what some of my colleagues had had to deal with.
TB: So how has this affected you financially? Are there more gigs that have been cancelled for you in the future?
JM: Absolutely. Actually, the North Carolina offer was very gracious. They did not cancel the production. They postponed it. They’ve already set aside some dates, which worked for the majority of the cast and for those that are going to be joining those dates, they pay 20% up front. Generous, perfect, wonderful solution. For those that couldn’t do it, there was an individual agreed amount that was individual [to them]. Beautifully, wonderfully executed and handled with so much grace.
This morning, I lost my May gig, which was conducting Macbeth in Milwaukee. [I’m] not surprised. The thing is, as artists, we are used to being lean. Maybe I am fortunate enough to think this way, but we have the privilege of planning and thinking ahead a little bit more. I’m not going to say that it’s not terrifying. It also affects a lot of personal plans that we’ve had.
But I was not stupid enough to think anything was going to be consistent in this business. Because there have been years, [especially the] early years, where there are holes and we had to get odd jobs. I and many of my colleagues have had to do a lot, so I know that it’s not a given. I also believe that—and this is not being Pollyanna—everything has always worked out for the best, personally. My partner and I have the attitude, things will work out. Extra hard work, thinking outside the box, these are all on the table. Because after this is over, the landscape is going to be unrecognizable.
TB: So, you have talked a bit about side jobs and things like that. Can you talk a bit more about how you are handling this financial hit? Because now this is not just March, where we’re looking. This is March, April, May, and, I’m assuming, a little into June.
JM: Right, at this point I am 99% sure the summer will evaporate as well. Large gatherings are just not going to happen. And even if someone wants to have a large gathering, who is going to come because fear will prevail. So those are the two things that are the reality in this, I feel, and that [reality] goes for sports and everything else. Large gatherings in the short- or longer-term are going to be an issue. So, of course, it’s just budgeting and working things out for us.
Like I said before, everything is one the table. Everything’s moving. I’m just making this up right now. Working with our landlady perhaps, and looking at options for rent. That’s probably going to have to happen anyway for people across this country, or at least in certain states or cities. Investigating all the options, trying to streamline, and make things as lean as possible.
TB: We may not be there yet, but what do you feel is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned in this situation?
JM: I don’t know if I’m there yet... [Now,] I think it is the abrupt end to practicing my craft. It’s not even about the money. Like today, I put my music back on the shelf, in the library. Even the study scores for the summer. That was a momentous thing to put the stack away. Usually I have a stack [motions to side], and [now,] it’s not here on the table—I put it away because there’s nothing to do, right? But, I think that is something selfish; I know that there are things much bigger than that.
TB: That bridges into my next topic, which is talking about the way that this has impacted your creative process.
JM: I have hope. I know that eventually in the short- and long-term, people will want to share art. We see that on social media right now, almost desperation. A kind of almost need to get out there and show how important music, the visual arts, and everything else is. You’ve seen all this stuff on social media as well. Here we are as a collective in the world, and everyone is going to art to find peace. Whether it’s watching Netflix, watching an opera, or doing a virtual tour of a museum, everyone seeking the arts. So, how do we activate and plant the seeds in people that, in the future, these amazing gifts that we give to each other through painting, music, literature, etc. are not taken for granted? Art is who we are. It’s how we connect.
TB: Do you have recommendations on how we move on and how we develop [artists’] necessity to our society?
JM: I have to say, I am impressed with a lot of things. But, I think right now, today, March 25, I’m impressed with what Austin Opera’s doing. I don’t know if it’s weekly or bi-weekly, [but] they’re having a recital in the rehearsal room with a pianist and a singer (who I think is from that area.) Celebrating the voice, celebrating the work, celebrating music. It seems local, so that everyone who is from that community can celebrate the organization. It’s important to show your performances and stream them. That’s wonderful and exciting. But I just love that idea of celebrating what Texas is, Austin is, and the art in Austin.
I’ve seen some other companies celebrating [their] staff. I thank you, I get that 150%, but the product, the artist, is what we need to remember. And that local aspect to it—I hate to use that word, I hate that word “local” so much—but, that celebration of what happens in the city that you live in, I think, is very inspiring.
TB: So is that something that you recommend, looking towards community based music?
JM: Just like politics, everything is local. And that’s the way arts organizations, the successful ones, are doing it. You look at the success of Minnesota Opera and what they have done was in their seasonal planning. La Bohème: sure, people go to see that. But, when the new music comes up the patrons say, “I want to go see that.” They trained their audience for the new and it’s a celebration of what that company can do for their community.
That’s what arts organizations should do, they should serve [their community]. Like what Kathryn Smith and John DeMain have done in Madison: their footprint in the community is a celebration of the art. Everyone in Madison knows that there’s the Symphony and the Opera and they can be a part of it. That is so important. It’s not this elitist thing. This is an opportunity to connect, to reach at the grassroots and establish yourself as a company. To make yourself necessary.
TB: So how different was your life six weeks ago?
JM: Oh, there was definitely a sense of security. There was a sense of the ability to plan for the future, of knowing what’s going to be coming up, of being creative and filling in some gaps. Talking with some of my colleagues about [ideas] and thinking outside the box and some other projects that can happen. Planning with Kentucky Opera, the company that I’m associated with right now. Planning for the future, how to fit into the community, what repertoire, and... Now we know that’s going to be turned upside down. Whether it’s the 2008 downturn or a strike, anything can disrupt the fragility of these organizations. And we’re used to that. It’s just disrupting what you know is going to be happening down the road.
TB: So what would you change about the reaction [in our field] to this pandemic?
JM: I mean, we’re in uncharted territory. Because, after 2008, after 9/11, after any act of war in the United States, [during and after] World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and Korea, you could still get together as a group of people. That is now going to be difficult in the short-term. The short-term could be weeks or it could be months, but the short-term is going to be difficult to get an audience together. I need an audience. That’s why I practice my craft. To help transform an audience by showcasing these wonderful pieces of art. T
B: So how do you think this will change our musical landscape?
JM: I will always believe, and I know this is true, that people like to experience things together. People like to go on docent tours in museums and have someone explain to them what’s in the paintings, talk about brushstrokes, and then once they see the nuance everybody goes “Aha!” Whether it’s five, ten, or fifteen [people] on that tour. The same thing is going to happen in the theater. People are going to want to be together after this, just like after 9/11 where you saw, around the world, people went outside and they were connecting. When this resolves itself—whatever that’s going to be [like]—people are going to want to be together in some form. They’re going to want to have a story told that transforms them. That’s who we are [as artists]. We’re voracious. You can only sit on your couch so long and watch Netflix and cry with one or two people. That’s why people go to sports: to cheer and to be part of that kinetic energy. That’s what is going to return in some form. I don’t know what that form is, but it will come back. That’s who we are. We’re social creatures. So there will be a fix.
TB: How do you recommend the musical community embrace that?
JM: To be honest, I feel like it’s so early in this process. I think it’s so early for people at the top of the food chain who are doing budgets and programming. They are still in the numbers. They don’t even know what the numbers are going to look like. I am weird because I’m on both sides of the proscenium, or both sides of the theater. I’m an artist, and I also work as an administrator. So, I think it’s too early to come to a conclusion. People are obviously thinking about it, but I don’t know what anything is. I don’t know what that’s going to be. But I do know that people are going to want to be together. That’s going to be the driving force to solve everything.
TB: One of the things that you do a lot is work with young artists. Whether that is at one of the opera companies that you are working for or at Kentucky Opera. So, could you give a bit of advice to those young artists that are going to go through this very difficult struggle?
JM: This conversation has already started about diversifying your portfolio. About having other skills. And it is not about diminishing one’s need or desire to be an artists, but it’s the reality of the situation. The number of opportunities to practice your craft up until this point have been wafting away. They’ve been evaporating. The idea of even me being just a conductor has been changing. I’ve had the need and distinct pleasure to bring back my fingers and do some recitals. Diversifying the portfolio, that’s the wonderful position that I was in; but, it also extends to what I can do to supplement my income.
Unfortunately, right now, the industries that artists would use to supplement their income are gone. So this is a double-whammy for the non-essential office worker at a bank, accounting firm, restaurant industry, or hospitality industry. It’s gone. I read something by Zach Finkelstein, a very lengthy study about what’s going to be happening over the next 18 months. He [was] talking about “what is the new normal?” The “new normal” is going to be doing more than one thing, which is up to you. Is this a time to do an online class and get some new computer skills? Well, that’s necessary for everything anyway, right? So, this can be an opportunity to investigate some other tools that you can use in your life. But it’s, emotionally, a tender subject, because we, as artists, are so connected [to] the desire to perform and to practice our craft. If you’ve been doing that—for most people—since you were six, you don’t know anything else. So, doing something outside of that means you’re giving up, or feels like you’re giving up.
But that started before this virus. People were talking about this new reality. And actually, the wonderful singer/actors I’ve worked with who were [already] side-gigging are happy as clams. The singer/actors emerging in the recent past are focused on the moment. They’re focused on how they’re going to effectively practice their craft and translate that to the audience. That umbrella of oppression has been lifted. I no longer see in their faces, “How am I going to make the conductor happy? Is the director going to like me?” [Whispers] Who cares? Just do your job! And do it authentically! I digress, but I think it’s the willingness for you to look and see what other attributes you have. How can you supplement your life and still celebrate the art form that you love?
TB: So, in closing up my last couple of questions. What question did I not ask you that I should have?
JM: What I’ve been thinking about the past couple day is—this was in that article—the donor base, the people that fund what we do. How is that going to morph? Are they going to still want to give their treasure and time to an arts organization? Or are they going to move towards social causes? How do we keep them on board. That also goes to companies as well. How do we partner with social organizations to help in this crisis through art?
I know my colleague, Barbara, in Kentucky, is already committed to that. I know a lot of people are cross-pollinating with what they do as well. Some project that can bring donors together and will sort of feed off of each other, artistically and financially. So, just looking at that new landscape.
We saw this during the last enormous tax break: there wasn’t this huge amount of money coming into organizations. Corporations didn’t just dig in and give and that’s certainly not going to happen [now]. So, we’ve got to earn that. And those are the strategic discussions that need to happen. How do we earn the time and treasure of these corporate donors and individual donors? And this is going to impact the new donor set, which is so important, at least in the companies I work with. The people that give $2,500, that medium donor, the $500 gift, this is going to affect them. This is a body of money that organizations have become more and more dependent upon. Not just the big gifts, because they have been evaporating [as well]. That is something that’s super important; how do we engage, keep, and make sure that the opera is necessary to every donor?
TB: One of the things you have done a lot is working with new music, and I think it’s safe to say that we’re seeing more social causes coming across in that medium as well.
JM: Yeah, but we also have to remember we’re an entertainment industry. I’ve been advocating for this for a very long time because of the way we currently feel in this country. We need to remember we have to entertain. People want to see a love story, that’s what they see on Netflix. That’s what they see, they want to go and experience the love story, or the other thing is [they want] to laugh. People are going to want to laugh together. And the stories we tell have to have those components. I think we always risk getting too dark. Because right now, in this world, it’s dark enough.
The museums and the theaters are a sanctuary. A place to cry at a love story, to reignite those basic emotions, and to laugh together. The most amazing thing is to laugh. What I feel as a conductor is when the audience is so silent and their energy is so pronounced in the theater. I can feel it on the back of my neck during those moments. Those moments are what we need.
TB: So not only do we need the social movement, but we need the balance in life. I think that’s quite fair. So to balance this interview, let’s end with something positive. What is your streaming recommendation that you would tell everyone to watch?
JM: The Young Pope and then The New Pope. It’s on HBO. Phenomenal. The director is amazing. It confronts a lot of the turmoil historically that the church has had. It’s really quite funny and beautifully done. It’s so gorgeous to watch.
TB: Well, it has been a joy talking with you again.
About Joseph Mechavich
Conductor Joseph Mechavich’s passion and commitment to excellence in the art form has helped to forge lasting and career-defining relationships with numerous opera companies, composers and orchestras in the United States and abroad. Maestro Mechavich has presided over productions of Porgy and Bess for Deutsche Oper Berlin, Nixon in China for Auckland Philharmonia/New Zealand Opera, Il barbiere di Siviglia for The Washington National Opera, Madama Butterfly for New York City Opera, and Dead Man Walking for Atlanta Opera. The Miami Herald lauded Mechavich’s artistry in a recent production of Werther at Florida Grand Opera: “An astute conductor realizes that Massenet’s music must be as emotive and expressive as the action on stage. Joseph Mechavich brings out the French Romantic’s lilting emphasis on strings and woodwinds in the opening strains and throughout the first act, and pushes his orchestra to full throttle for the tumultuous, dark, and dissonant third and fourth acts. Onstage the tug of war between duty and desire continues to build, while in the orchestra pit, the music heightens the tension.” His 2019-2020 season includes Il barbiere di Siviglia for Minnesota Opera, Everest for Austin Opera, Macbeth for Florentine Opera, Die Zauberflöte for North Carolina Opera, Riders of the Purple Sage for Arizona Opera, Man of La Mancha for Brevard, and Carmen for Kentucky Opera.
In addition to his impressive command of the standard operatic repertoire, Maestro Mechavich is also known for his deep commitment to American opera. Of his Nixon in China at San Diego Opera, Broadway World extolled “The expertise in 21st century operatic repertoire that conductor Joseph Mechavich demonstrated in 2012’s Moby-Dick has surely increased exponentially as portrayed in his rendering of John Adam’s complex score. Mechavich showed great command and sensitivity throughout, both controlling and supporting the orchestra in their task of performing parts that were most difficult and intricate." He is a champion of the music of Carlisle Floyd and Jake Heggie. He has conducted productions of Floyd's Susannah, Of Mice and Men, and Cold Sassy Tree and recorded Wuthering Heights, which is the first recording in a multi-year project to record Floyd's unrecorded operas. Of his recording of Wuthering Heights, Milwaukee Magazine states "but the real star here is Mechavich, who guided the orchestra and voices through Carlisle Floyd’s often tempestuous orchestrations. He and the orchestra painted wonderful sonic pictures, but always in the service of the story and drama.” Maestro Mechavich has conducted highly acclaimed productions by Jake Heggie such as Moby-Dick, Great Scott, Out of Darkness: Two Remain, and Dead Man Walking. In an interview with Classical Singer Magazine Heggie enthuses, “Joey is the very best kind of opera conductor...A real theater man who understands that dramatic pacing is absolutely everything. He’s a wonderful storyteller with baton in hand. He loves singers, loves words, loves the stage, loves the orchestra, and forces collectively to tell compelling stories...”
In past seasons Maestro Mechavich has conducted productions for Calgary Opera, Utah Opera, The Aspen Music Festival, Tulsa Opera, Arizona Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Dayton Opera, Madison Opera, New England Conservatory of Music, Oberlin Opera Theatre, Opera Saratoga and Virginia Opera. On the concert stage, Maestro Mechavich has appeared with the Florida Orchestra, Louisville Orchestra, The Oberlin Chamber Orchestra, Naples Philharmonic, Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Hartford Symphony, Virginia Symphony and the Sarasota Orchestra. In 2010, Maestro Mechavich was named Principal Conductor of Kentucky Opera and currently serves as the company’s Artistic Advisor. A native of Long Lake, Minnesota, he studied at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and the Yale University School of Music.