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 Kristin Sampson, soprano, spoke about how COVID-19 has impacted her life, but not changed her personal identity as a vocalist. Of particular beauty to me was her note to other artists, “You are not alone.”
Kristin Sampson, soprano
Interviewed March 24, 2020
TB: I like to start off with something lighter in this time. So what is the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
KS: It would be watching some of my colleagues’ amazing quarantine YouTube videos; watching them sing with toilet paper rolls on their heads or playing the piano in Rome. I also have a very dear friend, Courtney Mills, who’s been singing songs off her balcony to her neighbors in Rome. We figure out a way to support each other, even through our current circumstances. So that would be a really positive thing that’s happened to me.
TB: Would you mind giving a little bit of your background and where you are in your career right now?
KS: I’ve been singing opera and receiving professional contracts since about 2007. I started out in the resident artist program in Santa Fe in 1999. Then, I was in New York doing resident artist programs straight out of college. I ended up taking over an actual performance contract of Mimì [La Bohème], which was my first professional engagement. Since then it has been my privilege to sing around the world in places such as Australia, Singapore, South America, Chile, Hungary, Germany, and quite a lot in Italy. I’ve had very amazing opportunities to meet people of many different cultures and to share music.
TB: So in talking about the pandemic, can you describe where you were and how you first realized that COVID-19 was going to have an effect on your life?
KS: Certainly. With my particular situation, I live in New York and like others, follow the news pretty regularly. I would say I heard a lot about the pandemic in the fall with its ties to foreign countries, especially in the Wuhan area in China. I was extremely concerned because when there was an issue with swine flu, we were actually doing live broadcasts of Emmeline in Hungary. At the time that that happened, believe it or not, we actually had to replace a cast member at the last minute, due to the swine flu. Everybody travelled from America to Hungary, and we did the European premiere of the piece in a live broadcast. One of my colleagues literally made her debut in the role of Sophie in that broadcast, because the person who was supposed to come had the swine flu.
So, I immediately remembered that [event] the minute I started to learn about COVID-19 and thought that it was pretty serious. I started to make some preparations in December and January. I continued to keep up with it and ordered extra supplies, like gloves and masks. I made it my business to see where it was in the world on a daily basis, to track where the cases were popping up and when they hit American soil.
I would say by the time February came along and everyone was comparing it to what would be a very bad case of the flu, I knew that I really needed to be careful. Because I can never take antibiotics or anything like that. So, I started to make preparations and figure out where I needed to be. I was really talking to my colleagues and what we really thought for how this is going to affect the industry.
To summarize, I would say, November and December, I did a little reading, then my personal preparations in January and February. Now we are in March and I think the world has changed. It is definitely a new life for all of us.
TB: Can you tell me a bit about how this pandemic has affected your professional life?
KS: Well I would say for me specifically, I’ve lost all my jobs. And I’m presuming that the ones yet to come will go away as well. Contracts that involved singing domestically in America—both concerts and roles—as well as European contracts, in Italy [are cancelled]. At this point, I’m hoping to be able to fulfill my contracts for the fall in October, as those contracts have yet to be cancelled. But everything that I have received through August of this year has either been postponed or is essentially in jeopardy. The ones for the summer right now haven’t said with 100% certainty yes or no, but it is presumed as they were supposed to start rehearsals in mid or late March. But as of right now, I’m just going to assume I am out of work until after August.
TB: So I know that there are certain logistics or difficulties that are impacted by these cancellations. Has this had an impact on those logistics for these jobs, such as travel?
KS: Well, just being very honest and upfront, all of our expenses as artists are paid for out-of-pocket with regard to travel. (Unless you negotiate a flight that’s prepaid by the company.) In two of my contracts, flights were prepaid by the company. So, I am very fortunate that I have no out-of-pocket expenses with regard to those contracts. However, there is another one where I prepaid the flight myself and will not be able to get reimbursed for that until the postponement of that engagement arrives, which will hopefully be this coming fall.
So with all of the travel involved with the job and the compensation or fees that we would have received (at least at this point), I would not see any of them due to force majeure, which means when something happens or an act of god that prohibits us from the actual performance, then well you’re just simply not paid. It remains to be seen if one of the other companies will pay a partial fee, but I’m not holding my breath at this point. Because there is so much going on in the world and I don’t know if they would ever have had any ticket revenue at this point, or what their current financial situation is.
But for us, anything that’s out-of-pocket is essentially going to have to stay that way. You don’t get reimbursements until the performance itself. Any contracts where you were supposed to be paid…Well, if you don’t perform, well you’re simply not going to be paid. So therefore, I won’t be paid for about four to six different contracts and opera engagements.
TB: Could you talk briefly about the impact on preparatory fees also?
KS: Anytime you have a role—let’s say it is a role you’re debuting—you have to do all of your due diligence to get it prepared, with lessons and coachings. You’ve got to be able to sing all your repertoire and those out-of-pocket expenses. You look to recapture through what you’re going to receive upon completion of the performance with your overall fee.
I won’t be reimbursed for any of the expenses in preparation of three concerts and two significant operatic roles. And while that doesn’t seem like a big deal—if you have other income coming in, it’s not a big deal—there is no way to recapture this. It puts us in a very significant deficit situation. Unfortunately, my personal situation is a very serious, significant deficit situation.
TB: Can you talk a bit more about how you are viewing your next five years and the issues of financial health? KS: I’ve been fortunate enough to have jobs off and on that were considered day jobs at the same time I was singing. So I do have a degree of savings. But once that is essentially spent through, there is no way to recapture those initial investments until these other singing jobs are either met or the postponement is rescheduled. So, it really does put me in financial peril. There are going to be loans that I can apply for through the AGMA [American Guild of Musical Artists] emergency relief fund. There’s also a new organization called the Soloist Coalition, where they’re trying to help put emergency relief in front of artists who are trying to essentially survive.
For me, it’s the cost of living. It’s the way of paying electricity or to keep your apartment. Manhattan apartments are not expensive, but they’re not cheap. I live in a very modest neighborhood in Inwood. The rent there is not crazy but is not in any way, shape, or form cheap either. So, my thinking down the road will still be to pursue the singing jobs, but financially this is going to take a considerable amount of time. Unless we receive some sort of emergency relief from the state or federal level that can help subsidize our income as we are trying to move forward.
TB: Thank you for sharing that as I know that this hasn’t been easy. How has this impacted your creative process?
KS: Well, I still practice every day. Some people say being a singer is just something that they do as a pastime. But to me, being a singer is my personal identity. It is who I am. So, I just don’t even feel like myself unless I’m singing.
Now, when I heard about the first really significant cases [of COVID-19] and it became very serious, I needed to have a couple days just to catch my breath. But then after that, I found the only way that I could find any type of peace or feeling like myself, would be to sing and practice. So I jumped right into these roles and spent my normal amount of time each day practicing. Because that’s my normal. While we have a new normal that is quarantine, my normal within that context is to practice still. That what makes me feel like me.
TB: So reflecting back on the situation, can you talk about how your life was different six weeks ago?
KS: Six weeks ago, I was running around the streets of Manhattan, not even thinking twice about whether a job would come or go. It was getting ready for this upcoming concert that I have and going through the music. Seeing my teacher for my weekly lesson and going to the gym. It was my normal routine to head to the grocery store whenever I needed to pick up anything. Now you can’t do any of that.
TB: What would be the surprising thing that you’re most grateful for in this situation?
KS: It’s not a surprise to me, but I would say I’m most grateful for my family, friends, and colleagues. As an artist community, they become your family when you are traveling so much. Because you are gone so much, away from your parents, sisters, or sibling, this artist community becomes your home away from home.
Everyone of them [artists] through the social media infrastructure, is sharing where they’re at in life. I feel completely tied to them through Facebook calls, Instagram messages, or through postings where we share our same ideas. It is us still feeling connected. It’s knowing that we will get through this together. I’m not alone. Even though I’m alone, I’m not alone.
TB: So how do you think that this will change our musical landscape?
KS: I do think people will try to figure out a different way to handle the force majeure clause. Through the Soloist Coalition and through the AGMA agreements, people will try to figure out a way so that all of these amazing artists aren’t left to free fall, in terms of their financial stability. I don’t think that can ever happen again. As an industry we need to do better. I would say hopefully, moving forward, efforts will be made to put whatever clauses need to be put into play to ensure that artists don’t feel like they’re suffering major losses and going into such financial debt.
TB: So what would be your advice to younger artists going through this experience?
KS: For young artists, I would say still do what you’re doing to prepare your music the best you can in any repertoire that you choose to pursue. And follow your dream in that way. But I would also put a caveat and say that—from the business side of it—be prepared for anything. When they talk about having three months salary that you can set aside and live on just in case of an emergency, that dramatically comes into play for us as artists. So have even more of a cushion built up.
I would say also make sure to get some sort of health care that’s in the country you live in. If you are in America, you need to make sure that you have health coverage, somehow. If you need to do it through the union or your parents or whatever—if you are a singer—you must have it. Because in the world that we live in now, you may not be able to go see a doctor if you’re ill.
TB: So as we are closing up here, what is your video binge recommendation?
KS: I have to say I probably watch just about everything that you can on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Not too long ago, I found one of my favorite shows from when I was a kid. So I actually watched an episode of 90210 not too long ago, in complete and sheer boredom, to keep me company. It’s just familiar, right?
TB: Exactly. So any closing thoughts before we end?
KS: Yes, don’t give up. We really will get through this. Things are tough financially for all of us. It’s not like anybody’s in that boat alone. And it is more difficult for person X, Y, or Z than it may or may not be for me. But I’m not giving up. We're meant to perform. We were meant to sing. This is what we do. This is a bump. It’s a really bad bump, but it’s a bump. The bottom line is, you’re not alone. Because that’s the feeling as an artist when you are really stuck alone, you really start to feel that way. But you are not alone.
Kristin Sampson, soprano
James Meena, conductor
Ivan Stefanutti, director
Photos from: Opera Carolina, New York City opera, Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, Teatro Goldoni in Livorno, and Teatro Verdi in Pisa, Italy.
Audio from New York City Opera
“Laggiù nel Soledad” from Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West
About Kristin Sampson
Praised by the New York Times for her “bright, sizable and expressive voice,” Kristin Sampson’s 2020-2021 engagements include a debut with Opera Grand Rapids as Liù in Turandot and concerts with New York City Opera. 2019-2020 calendar opened with a featured soloist appearance on the 75th Anniversary Concert for New York City Opera followed by additional performances as Mimì in La bohème with MidAtlantic Opera, a guest soloist appearance with the Mid- Atlantic Symphony Orchestra as well as several additional concert appearances with New York City Opera. 2018-19 performances included concerts featuring the music of composer Jeremy Gill, Mimì in La bohème, guest soloist in the New York City Opera Pride Concert, as well as being a featured artist at the 2019 Festival of Nature at Lake Tizsa in Hungary. Upcoming seasons include the roles of Tosca and Mimì, as well as concert appearances throughout the United States. The 2017-18 season included performances as Minnie in La fanciulla del West with New York City Opera, and at Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, Teatro Goldoni in Livorno, and Teatro Verdi in Pisa, Italy. Her engagements in the 2016- 17 season included her Carnegie Hall debut as the soprano soloist in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, Magda in Respighi's La campana sommersa with New York City Opera, Minnie in La fanciulla del West with Opera Carolina, and her debut at the Festival Puccini in Torre del Lago as Tosca. Her 2015-16 season included debuts at Potenza’s Teatro Francesco Stabile as Mimi in La bohème and at the New York City Opera as Tosca in the celebratory production that re-opened the company. Ms. Sampson is a two-time recipient of a grant from the Olga Forrai Foundation. She has performed in the U.S. with the New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Opera Orchestra of New York, Opera Carolina, Dicapo Opera Theatre, Augusta Opera, El Paso Opera, and the National Lyric Opera among others, and internationally with the Opera Society of Hong Kong, Armel Opera Festival, National Theater of Szeged, Teatro Municipal de Santiago, and Teatro dell'Opera di Roma.