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 Kevin Short, bass-baritone, discussed the onset of the pandemic and the reality from the Metropolitan Opera stage. He has also noted several key elements in teaching and in his mentality to overcome this obstacle.
Kevin Short, bass-baritone
Interviewed July 25, 2020
TB: Thank you for joining me. I always like to start off on a positive note, so what is the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
KS: Well, I’ve done a lot of online teaching. So it isn’t necessarily happening to me, but I’ve had three students that have made significant breakthroughs. It has been very satisfying for me during this period to see students using this time to take advantage of the fact that there aren’t a lot of things to do. So, they are going overboard with their studies and making significant strides. That is the best thing that has happened.
TB: As you already noted before our interview began, you have had a diverse career not only a full-time singer but also a college professor. What would you say is one of the proudest moments that you’ve had in your career so far?
KS: In my career, I would say I am someone that is big on overcoming adversity. I have an athletic background and I went to college on a wrestling scholarship. So, my proudest moments are overcoming obstacles. I think one of the early examples of that was at the beginning of my career, in 1998 at the Winter Olympics. We were performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Seiji Ozawa and choirs were being beamed in from each continent. We had a series of these concerts of the Ninth a whole month prior to the opening ceremonies.
Just before I arrived in Nagano, I caught the flu. It was a flu that was going around the whole Olympic Village at the time. So for two days prior to our opening ceremonies, I wasn’t able to phonate to make a sound, let alone sing. They didn’t bring anyone in, though there were two basses—myself and another. He was supposed to sing the later parts, but I had to sing that whole exposed opening. To make a long story short, prednisone didn’t work. Literally, nothing worked. And I couldn’t sleep because of the sheer anxiety and thinking that my career was going to be over in one fell swoop. This was going to be beamed around the world.
On the morning of the concert and the broadcast, I was able to phonate a bit. But I kept cracking on the high note. When the red light came on and it was time for the performance, the orchestra started and I sang. It came out! I felt so victorious and relieved. As a bass, I don’t do a lot of singing that requires the extreme tight rope walking like a tenor does. But that was one time when I really felt nervous. But I overcame it. I didn’t let the moment become too big. I marshaled my resources emotionally, mentally, and physically. Whenever I encounter those moments and when I overcome adversity or obstacles, that is what makes me proud.
TB: It is interesting that you brought up an encounter with a disease as we are talking about the COVID-19 pandemic. Could you tell me where you were and how you first realized that your life was going to be affected by this pandemic?
KS: I was teaching but I was also involved in a Metropolitan Opera production of La Traviata and was commuting back and forth for performances. I remember [that] our performance of Traviata may have been the last performance they had. Also, I remember when taking bows the first bow we all joined hands, retreated, and then we instinctively bowed with only our elbows touching each other.
I was singing Dr. Grenvil and there is a moment at the end of the opera when I take Violetta’s temperature. I remember being very aware that I should not sing towards Lisette Oropesa, who was singing the Violetta that evening. She also turned her head away from me. This was early March, so we weren’t totally sure what to do. This pandemic was just coming to the forefront of our consciousness in the States. But we were making adjustments even then. That was the last performance before they made the closure decision there at the Met. Then I had Spring break, the third week in March at the University of Maryland, and then also at the Curtis Institute of Music. (I teach at both schools.) After that was the cessation of all classes. We never returned after the break.
TB: This has obviously had multiple impacts on you. First, let’s talk about you as a singer. So we get through the La Traviata performance and then everything is cancelled. Can you talk me through some of the things that were upcoming in your season that have been cancelled?
KS: The first week of May, I was still able to sing a live recording of Porgy and Bess with the Philadelphia Orchestra. That was the absolute last thing. I was scheduled to return to sing with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Elektra. That was cancelled. It was a big contract. Then this summer, I was supposed to be involved in a world premiere opera called Castor and Patience. I was singing the title role of Castor. That was postponed until next year, but I won’t be able to do it because I have a recording in France. This fall, I was also in Fidelio with the Metropolitan Opera. That was cancelled as the Met cancelled their whole fall season. But I’m slated to sing in Romeo and Juliet in January and April.
I did receive a call a few weeks ago about a Messiah with the National Philharmonic in DC. It will be socially distanced without an audience. But that is going to happen because they are building in guidelines for that particular performance and then it will be broadcast.
TB: Then on the other side of this is Kevin Short the professor. You mentioned before the interview having to move online to teach. Can you talk me through a little bit of that transition?
KS: I am sort of accustomed to that. There have been years in the past when I have been out of the country. I have had online lessons with students and often times I have to have lessons with prospective students if they cannot come to the university (including, actually, a couple this next week). It does make it easier when you know the voice and the student. And oftentimes in this format, the teacher is not necessarily seduced by a very reverberant studio. So, I can hear the nitty-gritty.
Though I find that it is far more taxing in this format, I find I give [it] a lot more energy. Physically, I’m trying to make sure that I give more demonstrations. I’m also trying to make sure that there is not a disconnect and that the student is receiving the information as they would in a live setting. So, I’m trying to bridge the gap, so to speak, and that requires a lot more energy. Over time, I think I can find a more efficient manner because we are going to start online this fall. And I have at least 23 students, maybe more. I’m going to have some very long days.
TB: So, there is the aspect of things being cancelled from the professional singer side and then there is the teaching aspect of it. But this also has a financial effect on your life. Could you tell me a little bit about how this has affected your financial situation?
KS: Luckily, my teaching at these institutions has served as a baseline. I’ve been very fortunate. But I’ve lost a lot of money. Fees from the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Met are significant amounts of money. Some of my colleagues that stopped singing in March won’t resume any performing again until the end year.
TB: So reflecting back on this situation, what would you say is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned so far?
KS: I would say that it is reinforcing some lessons more than teaching new ones. It is reinforcing the fact that just about everything in life is hanging by a thread. This existence is very tenuous. We have seen that with certain institutions that we thought were infallible. There are vulnerabilities inherent in just about everything, no matter how powerful. In March, April, and May, the greatest singers in the world were silenced. The great institution, the Metropolitan Opera, was silent.
I’ve always told my students to explore the possibilities and to use adversity. You can be broken by it, but use it to challenge yourself and grow. Nothing in life, I believe, is stagnant. We’re either growing and moving forward, or regressing. So something like this challenge can force someone to retreat. They don’t feel like they want to sing. But this is a challenge that we have to overcome. In doing so, we benefit greatly on the other side.
TB: That goes into my next question, which is how has this situation affected your creative process?
KS: I will say that prior to this, I really felt like a singer that teaches. I enjoyed teaching B.C. (before COVID). After this, I think that the business is going to change in ways that we cannot yet imagine. So, I am thinking of myself as a teacher that sings, rather than the other way around. And what does that mean? It means that it is going to affect some of my choices.
In the past, I was far more content to chase every job. Maybe now, I won’t as much (this was changing anyway as it pertains to my students). They are required to have 14 lessons and most of my students have 14 and then some. I address the need. Going forward, I see that this situation has made it crystal clear what institutions and what professions can weather this kind of uncertainty. Whether that is healthcare, mortuary science, computers, or working at an institution like this. Universities are not going away. I, fortunately, have tenure. So knock on wood, I’m not in fear of being furloughed.
TB: Minus a pandemic, it is July 25. Where would you be and what would you be doing?
KS: I would be finishing up my performances in Cincinnati for Castor and Patience. Then looking to go to Europe thereafter. TB: What would you say is one thing that you’re grateful for in this situation?
KS: The first thing I’m grateful for is my health. My mother has had some health challenges. But fortunately, I’ve been around to address this as the child that was physically—in terms of distance—closest. My siblings are in Baltimore and I am situated in College Park in Southern Maryland. That has been a bit of a godsend.
TB: One of the things that you and I can agree on is that this pandemic is going to have some impact on our musical landscape. What do you think that change is going to look like?
KS: As it pertains to opera, without some of the financial support that institutions here are accustomed to having—they were already conservative with their programming—they will be even more conservative. When I performed in the theater in Basel, Switzerland there were nights when there were more people on stage than there were in the audience. They could afford that because they were funded by the city and the state. I think that we are going to lose a lot of companies. I know that the Met has already made those kinds of changes, postponing some performances and bringing their more popular productions back when they return.
TB: What challenges do you see coming for the next generation of singers? And what would your advice be to them?
KS: I think it is going to be harder and harder for young singers to have a full-time career and make enough money solely in the States like they imagined for themselves. That has changed significantly over the past 20 years and even to a degree in Europe. The wall coming down changed the business a bit. The financial crisis in 2008 changed it. Whenever you have these moments, you can always find wonderful singers that will sing for less. I saw that in Europe, especially when the wall came down and you had these fantastic Eastern Bloc singers coming through that were willing to sing for next to nothing. But I would still advise all American singers to consider going to Europe.
TB: What would your advice be to the musical community at large then?
KS: I would say this again, explore the possibilities. This seems to be the summer of racial awareness and Black awareness. One of the things I’ve said in a couple of my interviews was that, especially companies in urban areas, they have yet to tap into the Black money that is inherent in these communities. I made mention of the fact that I was a student at Curtis and sang with Opera Ebony in Philadelphia in the Academy of Music. [This was] The same season that I also sang with an opera company in Philadelphia. We sold out the performances with Opera Ebony and it was just as well attended as the opera company in Philadelphia. My mother belongs to these organizations like Jack and Jill. There are also groups called the Pyerians and the Lynx; where you have a lot of these professional Black organizations and where there is a lot of money. I belong to one of these fraternities and we had a Zoom meeting three weeks ago. There were 20 people that raised almost $150,000 in 15 minutes. That’s rare.
So, I got an idea and I suggested that if these organizations knew the kinds of voices that are out there, they could be contacted to invite them. For instance, when we had Russell Thomas singing Otello with Washington National Opera if every organization could have known that the Otello singing with Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center was Black and could use their support, I’m sure the numbers would have been absolutely incredible. I really think that is an untapped resource.
TB: First, I want to thank you for this wonderful interview. In closing, is there anything else that you would like to add to our conversation from today?
KS: I would like to add (if this is speaking to anyone) that this is obviously a crisis. This is awful and people dying. But in terms of building your core and who you are inside and rising to the occasion, this moment provides a unique opportunity to plant the seeds for your ultimate success. What we do today has everything to do with what our lives will look like, what our careers will look like a year, five years, and even ten years from now. It is all a chain. And we need to see it as such. We need to project forward and then from there reverse engineer. What am I doing today? What should I do that will bring about the result that I want on the other side?
TB: Last question, what is your video binge recommendation for the pandemic?
KS: I remember in March, watching Ozark. [Chuckle] Other than that, most recently—on the recommendation of one of my students—it was Brooklyn.
TB: Well, thank you once again for speaking with me today.
La damnation de Faust, Op. 24, H. 111 (Excerpts) : Devant la maison "Serenade of Mephistopheles"
Artist: Kevin Short
Conductor: Lawrence Foster
Orchestra: Marseille Philharmonic Orchestra
Composer: Hector Berlioz
About Kevin Short
Versatile bass-baritone Kevin Short is thrilling audiences around the globe in a wide range of repertoire ranging from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, to Verdi's Attila and Don Carlos, and Bizet's Carmen.
In North America, Kevin has performed multiple roles with the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Washington Opera, Seattle Opera, Opera Company of Philadelphia, Canadian Opera Company, Vancouver Opera, Edmonton Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Sarasota Opera, Opera Pacific, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Indianapolis Opera, Utan Symphony, Opera de las Americas, Opera Memphis, Berkshire Opera Company, Nashville Opera, Opera Omaha, Opera Birmingham, New Jersy Opera Festival, Kentucky Opera and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis to name but a sample of the many companies where he's performed.
Making Switzerland his home now for a number of years, Kevin is also coming to the attention of european theaters and has performed at Paris' Opera Comique, Theatre Caen, Grand Theatre du Luxembourg Oper der Stadt Koln, Staatstheater Stuttgart, Theater Aachen, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, Theater Basel, Theater Bern, Theater St. Gallen, and Teatro Nacional di São Carlos in such roles as Attila, Philippe in Don Carlos, Leporello in Don Giovanni, Mephistopheles in Faust, Osmin in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Escamillo in Carmen, Nick Shadow in The Rake's Progress, Figaro and Il Conte in Le Nozze di Figaro, and Porgy in Porgy and Bess.
Important festivals with which Kevin has performed include the Bregenzer Festspiele, Baden - Baden, Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Montpellier, France; Sarasota Opera Winter Festival, the Saito Kinen festival in Matsumoto, Japan, and festivals in Beijing, China; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Granada, Valencia, and Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Kevin also enjoys an active concert schedule and has worked with important orchestras in the U.S.and around the world including the Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony, National Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Detroit Symphony, the New York Pops Orchestra, and the Opera Orchestra of New York. In europe and asia, he has performed with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, Swiss and Italian RAI Orchestra, Radio France Orchestra, Parma Reggio Emilia Orchestra, New Japan Philharmonic, Hiroshima Symphony, and the Winter Olympics Festival Orchestra for the opening ceremonies of the winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. His vast concert repertoire include works by Bach and Beethoven and continue to the late 20th century, including Verdi's Requiem and Mendelssohn's Elijah.
Kevin received his training at Morgan State University, B.S., the Curtis Institute of Music, M.M., and the Juilliard School of Music Opera Center. While attending these institutions he was a prize winner in numerous competitions, but a few highlights include the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, the International Competition for Verdian Voices, the Rosa Ponselle International Vocal Competition, the Bruce Yarnell Competition for Basses and Baritones, the Opera America Competition, the Leiderkranz Competition, and received awards and grants from the Sullivan Foundation, the Shoshana Foundation, and Opera Index.