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, Katharine Goeldner, mezzo-soprano joined me from her home in Santa Fe. Not only does she share the reality of being a world-class operatic performer, but shares the unique perspective of working with the Soloist Coalition with the American Guild of Musical Artists. Ms. Goeldner’s work in forming the coalition and helping guide them through this crisis is a testament to her nature as a positive force in the musical community.
Katharine Goeldner, mezzo-soprano
Interviewed March 18, 2020
TB: So, let’s start off with something positive. What’s the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
KG: Oh, the best thing, I guess, is the way artists are pulling together and I’ve got a colleague staying with me. So we’re not totally isolated. Also, I’d say the way the opera company, where I was working, responded and is taking care of their artists to the best of their ability. Probably the main thing is the way this horrible financial disaster is actually bringing soloists together. We’re organizing in a way we’ve never organized before. This is going to have a big impact on future bargaining and collective bargaining agreements with companies. There’s a lot that is in discussion and changes will be made.
TB: Would you mind giving me a quick idea of where you’re at in your career now?
KG: Let’s see. I wouldn’t say that I’m at the end… [laughter] But, I’ve been singing professionally for 32 years? Is that right? Yes, I made my debut in 1988 and I was Fest in a couple houses in Austria and Germany [Salzburg and then Kassel]. At the beginning, I went through the lyric roles and into slightly more heavy roles. Now, I’m doing… I like to call them the ‘sexy mom’ roles. You know? [Laughter] But also, I was doing Larina in [Eugene] Onegin in Palm Beach. I mean, I would say probably the ‘later phase’ of my career, but I hope to sing for another 20 years!
TB: So, could you describe a little bit about where you were, and how you first knew that COVID-19 was going to have such a profound impact on your career?
KG: Oh, wow. I don’t know if any of us quite realized it until recently. I was at home in Salzburg, Austria when it was hitting Italy and things were shutting down, and friends who were supposed to be going to Italy were canceling trips. Then the Austrians were stopping travel between the countries, because Italy is on the border with Austria, of course. I was talking to these doctor friends too, about what do I do? Should I fly for this gig or what’s going to happen? And at that point—this is the beginning of March, only a couple of weeks ago—if you don’t fly… if you have to cancel the gig, you don’t get paid. So, what do I do? Do I take the risks and see how things develop? Because at that point, it hadn’t really gotten going in the states yet. It’s really been in the last week that companies have started shutting down and shutting doors… It’s gone so fast.
TB: So what was it that was mainly affected? What job were you going to and how did that develop?
KG: It was the Onegin in Palm Beach but it’s actually three gigs in a row. Which was my income for the year. I had taken the Fall off, so I could be with my husband in Salzburg. At the beginning of January, I had a couple performances at the Met and a last minute jump in for a concert Aida in Boston and then these three gigs. Now those two gigs in January, that’s my entire yearly income. Palm Beach is going to pay us 50%, so that’s good. But I was supposed to start Butterfly in Atlanta on the ninth of April. Then I was supposed to fly directly from there to Seattle, in the middle of May, for the workshop of a new piece, that I’m involved with as it is being written. Then I was going to go home… So it’s all three of those contracts, boom, boom, boom. Although we have not officially heard from Atlanta, that they’re going to… everybody has to cancel. It’s not safe. Neither for the audience, nor for the performers. Because, if we’re in a rehearsal, we’re up close. We’re spitting in each other’s faces, unintentionally. We’re petri dishes.
TB: So just staying with this for a minute. I want to delve into a little bit about the reality of being an opera singer. So as you’re traveling, what were the logistics that were impacted with this pandemic? Were there flights that were cancelled?
KG: Because of my particular situation of being an American, but a permanent resident of Austria, my flight schedule this year was: flying to Palm Beach, to Atlanta, to Seattle, and then back to Salzburg. So last Friday—when this show was cancelled—at one o’clock, I was trying to make the decision, “Do I go east or west?”
So, I bought a one-way ticket to go to Albuquerque and drove here to Santa Fe. Now, I am waiting to see, because my return flight is in the middle of May from Seattle. When I looked on the Lufthansa website, it’s saying they’re only processing flights up until April 30. So thank goodness, I have a travel agent who specializes in artists and I said, “What can I do if I decide to go home? Do I have to buy a new ticket?” Because one-way tickets on Lufthansa are $3,000. He said, things are changing every day… So, I wrote him yesterday and he said, “well, I can get you on this flight on Thursday, but there are only four seats available.” God, Tim. It is so complicated.
Flights are no longer going into Munich. So, I’m talking with Eddie like, “if I fly home, how do I get there?” Meaning, I could theoretically fly to Frankfurt, and [from there] there are still flights into Salzburg. Or I could fly to Vienna and take the train back to Salzburg. But when, and if, I decide that this is what I need to do, I have to have several days of leeway for the travel agent to find a flight I can get on. It’s so complicated. As soon as I get to Salzburg, then I will have an automatic fourteen day self-quarantine.
TB: As you were telling me earlier, the only reason you can actually get into Salzburg is because you’re a permanent resident, correct?
KG: Correct. Of course, I was discussing this with my husband and my daughter. For me, part of the difficult decision is that I don’t have American insurance. I have socialized medicine in Austria. So we’re going, “Do you go where you’re away from people, like Santa Fe?” But if something happens, I have to pay it up front and then get reimbursed. Or do I fly home, where I have insurance and take the risk of getting sick or exposing my husband to it because I’m taking an international flight?
TB: Not to dwell on this issue, but I’d really like to make sure that I understand it from your perspective. One of the things we talked about was that opera singers need to understand that COVID-19 may have a lasting impact on the respiratory system.
KG: Exactly. That is a big concern. I mean, I literally know people who are doing that suggested test, first thing in the morning. Hold your breath for ten seconds and do you notice any tightness? It’s a big concern. Also, if you wind up going on a respirator and let’s say you recover, is there damage to the vocal cords and your career is over anyway? So many elements.
TB: So, we established there are three gigs for this period. But, does that leave you with housing fees for this? I know that you’re in your home in Santa Fe, but I have heard from singers that housing is also a logistical fee at times.
KG: That’s true, when you sing in Chicago, or at the Met, or somewhere, you have to pay your own housing. However at Atlanta and Palm Beach, one of the benefits is that they provide housing. So thank goodness, I didn’t have any housing bills to pay. As you said, we own our place here, so I had a place to go and family nearby.
But as you say, there are so many people like a friend of mine who was in The Ring in Paris. Of course, everything in France is shut down. All of her income in the next several months was in France. It’s all gone. She had already booked Airbnb’s. So people are scrambling to try and get the money and deposits back. Thank goodness, I’m not in that state, but it is a real concern.
I’m also a New York Area Representative to the Board of Governors of AGMA [American Guild of Musical Artists], by the way, so we are busy. We are working hard with companies and to get some money back, get their housing… Get companies to at least—even if the productions are cancelled—at least reimburse them for their expenses. I’m working on that with houses now. Of course, I’ve also paid my flight, which is supposed to be reimbursed by the companies and it will be. But even these companies have so much to process.
TB: I think that’s one of the things we’re all feeling from this. This is unprecedented. We’re all trying to get through this together.
KG: Yeah, you know, these companies are facing hundreds of thousands of dollars of loss. And a lot of people aren’t thinking about the donors and the patrons. Their investments are tanking right now. So, they aren’t going to be able to bail out companies. I think a lot of them are going to go under.
TB: So, one of the things that we’re talking around is the issue of a force majeure contract clause.
KG: Oh boy, yeah.
TB: One of the reasons why these three gigs are affecting your finances for the rest of the year is the issue where if you don’t perform, the company has the option not to pay you. So, could you talk a bit about this from both the standpoint of AGMA and being a singer?
KG: Well, the union lawyers are going to be talking to all the houses and I mean, they’d like to present the argument that a pandemic is not force majeure. But, nobody’s very positive about that, because every house sees it as force majeure. I think that this is going to have a real effect in the way contracts are written out in the years to come. I think we’re going to wind up getting the force majeure clause out. We’re going to try, anyway, in future negotiations.
We’re discussing a whole bunch of different possibilities going forward. A really popular one is, we want to change the way singers are paid. Meaning, that instead of getting paid at your first performance, which is what happens a lot, that the total fee may be split up by week. Or some people are suggesting that you get a certain percentage of it [the fee] as soon as you sign the contract, so that you have the money to pay for out of pocket expenses. So we’re really looking at a completely different way of fee structuring in the future.
TB: As a professional singer, who’s now looking at the next three gigs being gone, one of the companies did pay you half of your fee, but how does that affect you professionally? Does it have an effect on your overall financial health?
KG: Yes. I’m also (thank all the Greek gods) in a very fortunate position that my husband just retired from forty years of playing in the orchestra in Salzburg. He’s American, but because he started that job in the 80s—the rich 80s—when he retired, he did so with 80% of his pay. So, we’re… we’re not going to be bankrupt. We also have investments. However, I am being an ostrich and sticking my head in the sand, because I don’t want to know how much that’s tanked right now. Because, he just retire and there’s his retirement fund and mine as well.
So a related thing—I hope I’m not going too far off—a couple of years ago, some of the companies—namely the Met, Chicago, etc—categorically decided if your covers outnumber your performances, you are a W-2 and you’re considered an employee. If your performances out number your covers, you’re still an independent contractor, 1099. So this came about because someone had worked at the Met and applied for unemployment, but wasn’t qualified for it. Then New York State said, “Huh, these people should be qualified. They should be categorized as employees, not independent contractors.” So, you’ve got the people who are earning less because they’re covers, on W-2, which means under the new tax law, you don’t get business deductions, such as housing, travel, commission, and meals. So, it’s bad both ways. If you’re earning more money at these houses, you’re still an independent contractor and you get those deductions. However, you don’t have a right to unemployment.
Yet, to make it even more complicated, even if you are a W-2 with these houses, chances are you have not worked enough weeks to actually draw it [unemployment]. So, we’re really having a difficult time with the new tax law, and by this [New York State] decision. It’s a big problem for the industry. You know it would be great to be qualified and get unemployment, if we could accrue enough weeks to get it. At the moment, it’s just out of pocket, but I think we’re also going to be discussing or negotiating about whether we [artists] are W-2s or 1099s, employees or independent contractors.
TB: Thank you, I really appreciate you delving into that and helping us understand where we are right now. It’s so very complicated. So, let’s turn to the creative side. How has this impacted your creative process?
KG: Well, I haven’t practiced for over a week. [Laughter] You know, it’s hard when you… when don’t have a gig coming up, it’s hard to motivate. So, I guess I’m going to put the Butterfly score on the shelf. I don’t need to look at that. I will continue to work on that modern piece on the off, off chance that something happens with it in the middle of May. I don’t know. I theoretically have two recitals to prepare, little gigs here in Santa Fe. One in June is music of female composers, who were victims of the Nazi regime. It’s very interesting. They were not necessarily people who were killed, but who were persecuted.
I’m also teaching. I’m going to be teaching my students in Salzburg via Skype. Luckily, we have a music room. Eddie’s the only one home and I said, “Honey, how do you feel about these three girls, coming in one at a time, so I can teach them from my music room?” Because Salzburg, the home of Mozart, is notoriously anti-musician. Most people cannot practice in their own apartment. So we’ve decided if these gals are coming in one at a time, and wipe down the piano, the light switch, and the doorknobs afterward, why not? There is a seven hour difference, so I teach them in the morning. I figure it’s important for them as well. So they don’t get… The psychological effect of this on singers and musicians in general is, I think, going to be tough.
TB: Very tough. So, drawing back, how different was your life six weeks ago?
KG: Oh, boy. Well, six weeks ago, I had some income. [Laughter] And six weeks ago, you could go to the store. People going to the store. People going to the movies. Now we’re thinking about… I’m going to visit my in-laws down the road. There are going to be like four or five of us getting together. Someone said, “Is that safe for everyone?” Well we’re under ten people, and if we wash our hands and don’t touch each other…. It is a profound effect on everyone, musicians included. Because not only is our lifestyle disrupted, we have no idea if we’re going to have any work in the future, or if our… if the whole industry is going to be gone. We just don’t know. So [we have] doubt. Some people are going down the dystopian rabbit hole. You know, worries about am I personally making the right decision to be where I am? Will I be able to get out? Will I be able to get out of America in a week or two? Will I be able to enter Austria?
TB: So, how have you been spending most of your time since this began?
KG: [Laughter] Funny enough, I have been on Zoom conferences (hours and hours every day) with soloist coalition people. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, we have formed—some of us, who are soloists on the AGMA Board of Governors—have instigated a new coalition organizing soloists. [One] meeting itself was four and a half hours, the rest of us were on for about six hours organizing before and after, teleconferencing with 70-100 soloists and discussing things. Then Monday, we had a board meeting for several hours, followed by a debriefing among the soloists. Then yesterday, I was on for a couple of hours of soloist organizing. When we weren’t actually on calls, we were writing emails, organizing, and putting together social media stuff, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. So it’s been union and organizational stuff all day, every day.
It’s not just me, I’m part part of this group getting this going and listening to colleagues and finding out what is happening. Finding out what impact it’s having on people and finding what relief is available. It’s really been a call to action.
TB: Drawing right off of that question, will this change the musical landscape? And how do you feel it will?
KG: It definitely will. I think it’s a big question. It’s definitely going to change the way soloists are involved in contract negotiations at various houses. You know, we’re itinerant workers. Over the past forty years it’s been hard to actually get soloists involved in contract negotiations, because we’re spread out. But thanks to things like Zoom and Skype, now you can take part in a board meeting in New York when you’re sitting in Salzburg, Austria. So this is going to revolutionize negotiations. Soloists are now stepping up to the plate.
I think a lot of organizations are going to close. They just will not be able to… remain open. We’re going to lose a lot of donors because they won’t have the money. We’re going to have to rethink—people are already rethinking this—live streaming from their living room. I think there will be more live streams and I would not be surprised if, in this next season, a lot of productions are going to turn into semi-staged or just sheer concert performances. Because they just won’t have the funds to put on a big thing. I think it’s going to have a profound effect on how performances are going on in the future.
TB: So, what is one thing that you would like to teach me about your experience with COVID-19?
KG: Oh, I don’t know… Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, like everybody else, right? Check in on people, because I think mental health and isolation is a real problem right now. But it has been wonderful to see how colleagues are communicating and really coming together, not just in the music world but people are checking in on each other. People are being more reflective and less wasteful. I think we’re all watching how much toilet paper we use. [Laughter] Now, you chop that onion and you don’t need it all, don’t throw it away. You might need it later, which is good for the environment. Help each other out, like we have an extra room and a colleague needed a place to stay. “It’s just me here, come on up.”
TB: So, I have just a few more question. What advice would you give to the musical community, right now?
KG: Try not to isolate yourself, completely. Keep practicing. I think we were already looking for alternative performance ideas. People are already creating small groups and basically creating their own gigs. I think we will have to continue with that. I think people are going to come up with some new ideas about how to perform. For instance, I have a friend who is looking at the idea of virtual reality opera. A whole bunch of crazy, new, and wonderful ideas.
I guess the main thing is… It’s hard because you create music with other people. I mean, I know someone who is going to be doing a sort of recital. The singer is in Texas and the pianist is in Michigan, so there’s going to be some of this remote work. But keep practicing and keep looking for new ways to get together and make music.
TB: So what Netflix are you binging now?
KG: On Netflix, I’m watching a brand new one, The Plot Against America. It just premiered Monday and it’s based on a Philip Roth novel. It’s what if Charles Lindbergh had won the presidency against FDR and joined with Hitler and Mussolini. You should watch it. It’s really good. It’s a mini-series, so I think that the episodes are long. I just watched the first one last night.
If you haven’t watched Designated Survivor, you must watch that. I so wish that Tom Kirkman was our president. Outlander because hello, it is Outlander and This is Us, because it’s uplifting, and Picard. We’ve been watching all of those.
TB: Oh, Picard! Yes, Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise, love that. Do you have any final thoughts?
KG: I guess, what I’ve been saying to people—because it’s really easy to fall into deep anxiety and go down this horrible rabbit hole of the end of the world—I keep saying, “We can’t go there.” You have to take sensitive and sensible precautions. Social distancing does not mean isolation. Just be smart, but don’t be paranoid about it.
Katharine Goeldner performs "Liber Scriptus" from Verdi's Requiem
About Katharine Goeldner
Opera News calls her “a natural actress…with thrilling, laser-like focus” and “luminous tone.” Opera magazine praises her “stunningly rich mezzo.” With a career that takes her throughout the U.S. and Europe, the “powerhouse” mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner is recognized as one of today’s finest artists.
Katharine’s performances in 2019 and 2020 included her role debut as a “deliciously slippery,” “snake-like” Annina in Der Rosenkavalier at The Metropolitan Opera, directed by Robert Carsen and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle; an exciting last-minute performance as the Marquise de Berkenfeld in Laurent Pelly’s production of La fille du Regiment, also at the Met, and costarring Kathleen Turner, Pretty Yende, and Javier Camarena and conducted by Enrique Mazzola; a “powerful and velvety” Fricka in Die Walküre in Augsburg; Verdi’s Requiem with the Jacksonville Symphony; and Brigitta in Die tote Stadt in Toulouse and with RTÉ Dublin. Critics have described Katharine’s performances as Ma Joad in Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie’s The Grapes of Wrath as “consistently stunning” and “a perfect marriage of artist and role.” She created the roles of both Jackie Onassis in David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s JFK and Peggy Ophuls in Jack Perla’s Shalimar the Clown. She brings her “marvelous” Marcellina in Le nozze di Figaro back to the Lyric Opera of Chicago in spring 2021.
Katharine’s impressive international career has taken her to the stages of Toulouse, Lyon, Seville, Bilbao, Hannover, Kassel, Monte Carlo, Montreal, Santa Fe, Arizona, Dallas, Paris’ Châtelet, the Salzburg Festival, and the Savonlinna Festival, spanning the mezzo repertoire from the Composer in Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos, one of her signature roles, to more recent portrayals of Amneris, Dalila, Herodias, and Brangäne. Her many roles at the Metropolitan Opera have included the Schoolboy in Lulu (the role of her company debut), Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Ascanio in Benvenuto Cellini, Nicklausse in Les contes d’Hoffmann, Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus and Jane Seymour in Anna Bolena opposite Anna Netrebko in the title role. She has starred as Carmen at Finland’s Savonlinna Festival, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Dorset Festival (UK), Madison Opera, and New York City Opera.
Katharine’s vast concert repertoire includes Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and on tour at Lincoln Center; Shostakovich's Songs from Jewish Folk Poetry with Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now at Carnegie Hall; a DVD of K.A. Hartmann’s Erste Sinfonie with Lothar Zagrosek and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra; Salome in concert with Edo de Waart at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam; Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Georges Prêtre and the Vienna Symphony; Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with Timothy Hankewich and Orchestra Iowa; and multiple performances with RSO-Vienna, Berlin Symphony, Filarmonica Toscanini, Real Filharmonia de Galicia, Prague Radio Symphony, Orchestre Philharmonie de Radio France, and the Basel Sinfonietta, with such distinguished conductors as Sir Charles Mackerras, Hans Graf, Dennis Russell Davies, Michael Schønwandt, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, Marek Janowski, and Adam Fischer.
Passionate about classical art song, Katharine has presented recitals at the Kennedy Center, the Salzburg Mozart Festival, Vienna’s Festival Ravel, the Théâtre du Capitole Toulouse, Drake University, and her alma mater, the University of Iowa.
As a member of the chamber trio The Prairie Song Project, she has commissioned two works for mezzo, flute and piano: Peter Ash’s Paradox and Rory Boyle’s A Handful of Leaves.
Katharine received her Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Iowa. She was extremely honored to be named an Alumni Fellow by the University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2012. She also holds a Magister Diplom/Masters Degree with High Honors in Lieder and Oratorio from Salzburg’s Mozarteum University. Katharine shares her passion for vocal education by maintaining a private studio and presenting master classes for such distinguished institutions as the University of Iowa, Abilene Christian University, The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, Florida International University, Drake University, the University of Northern Iowa, Florida International University, the AIMS institute in Graz, and the University of Miami Summer in Salzburg program.