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, Kyle Albertson, bass-baritone, shared his experience having been at the Metropolitan Opera on the day that it closed. He also shows a lovely bit of advice to all singers to remind themselves why they are artists in the time of a pandemic.
Kyle Albertson, bass-baritone
Interviewed March 20, 2020
TB: So first off, let’s start with something good. What’s the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
KA: It’s sad when nothing immediately pops to your mind... I guess the best thing would have been getting back here to my home, where my wife and our friend (who needed a place to stay) were. Yeah, being able to come home and have a home. I’ll take that as a victory.
TB: So are you quarantining together?
KA: Yes, we’re self-quarantined, just because the fact that both my wife and I had to take planes to get here. With the unknown aspects of how it spreads, we thought it better safe than sorry. So, we’re just hunkered down here in the house. We’ve gone to the grocery store and stuff like that, but at the same time adhering to social distancing and everything else.
TB: Could you give me a little update on where you are in your career, singing wise?
KA: My career until the last week was going very well. I’d started to get some traction with bigger houses in some bigger repertoire, like Wagner. When all this went down, I was at the Metropolitan Opera covering the Dutchman in The Flying Dutchman [Der fliegende Holländer] and was getting ready to sing Angelotti in Tosca. Rehearsals had just started for that when the Met closed their doors. The same way for my wife, she had just gotten back about a month ago from Copenhagen. She was performing there and has been starting to get traction as well. It was a very good time career-wise for us. [Kyle Albertson sings Die Frist ist um from Der fliegende Holländer]
TB: It wasn’t so long ago that you famously flew in and sang Wotan, right? [Dallas News, May 23, 2018]
KA: Yeah that was nuts, I’ll be honest. I was just crazy, but that helped put me on the map a little bit.
TB: You did it and the reviews were great.
KA: I won’t lie, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was so much fun... [Well,] It’s fun afterwards. It wasn’t fun during. But yeah, it was an amazing experience and opportunity to step in. I remember my agent telling me, “This is the stuff of legends, Kyle. Do it.”
TB: So turning to the pandemic, can you tell me a little bit about how you realized that this was going to affect you?
KA: Like I said, I’d been in New York for about two months, working there. Once I started to actually pay attention to the news about the virus, it started to concern me because I knew any responsible company was going to have to take steps to ensure the virus didn’t spread as much. I mean, anyone with a conscience could see in the cards that we were all going to have to make sacrifices. No one was ready to do it, voluntarily at least, in terms of musicians.
The day the Met closed, I was in rehearsal in the morning. We were all there, but none of us... We all...We all kind of knew that it was pointless in a way. [But] we were all there, and we all did our jobs. Then later that afternoon, we found out online that the Metropolitan Opera had closed their doors for two weeks. Now, it’s till August 1st [And now again through December 31st]. At that point, many things went through my head. Number one, am I safe now? Number two, is my wife safe?
It all happened so fast, and I’m the type of person who needs time to think a little bit before I make a decision; process a little bit. So once the Met closed their doors, I called my wife and we talked. She said, “I think you should come home,” but I really needed a couple days to get all the information I could possibly gather out of the situation from the Met and everything before I left. She agreed and so we bought a ticket for Sunday. That gave me a couple days to talk to my agent and talk to whoever I could in the Metropolitan Opera to try to get a sense of how grand this was going to be.
Once the Met had done it [closed for two weeks], I think many other opera companies felt that it was okay and that it was the responsible thing to do. (Which it is.) I do not bemoan the Metropolitan Opera or any other company/festival for closing their doors, it was and is the smart thing to do. It’s the responsible thing to do. It just sucks. There’s no other way to describe it.
I’m veering off your question, but it’s tough to play the “what if?” game right now, because all paths lead somewhere that is not pleasant; especially in the artistic world, because opera and art are viewed, in our culture, as expendable. At least good art. I don’t think Justin Bieber is hurting for cash right now. [Insert laughter] But with things like opera and theater, these are sp... very superficial to most people in the United States. When we don’t have government support as they do in Europe and it’s all donation based, obviously. So, with stock markets crashing and stuff, it leads to something reminiscent of 2008, when the recession hit and many opera companies had to shut their doors just because the donations weren’t coming in anymore. So it’s... it’s tough to play the “what if?” game. To be very honest, I try not to, because I’d drink all day if I did.
But back to your question, sorry. That few days, it was just so much information coming at you so fast, that it needed to level off. Sadly, with messages coming from our government that contradict what the scientists are saying, it takes a level of discernment to go through the facts and really parse together what it means and what needs to be done. That’s why I came home. There was part of me that still hoped the Metropolitan Opera would open their doors on April 1, like they said they were going to, but the reality of it is that they can’t. They were just taking baby steps in terms of cancellation. It all made sense, it was just so bleak to everyone. It wasn’t just the people at the Metropolitan Opera. Like I said, once the Met cancelled, everybody shut their doors, because it was the responsible thing to do.
TB: So one of the things that is difficult to understand about the singing life is when you are working, what logistical support is there from a company for such things as travel and housing?
KA: On a basic everyday gig, minus a pandemic, companies like the Metropolitan Opera will pay for travel. They get you from wherever you were to New York and then wherever you’re going afterwards. So, round trip travel is usually included in the offer, as well as a financial fee for your work. They—a lot of the bigger houses, A houses—do not help with housing. So [for this contract] I got an Airbnb in New York, because I was going to be there for about three and a half months. So it was a long haul and I got my own place—a bit more expensive—but I thought for my own sanity, I’d like a place where I could be alone.
Once the closure happened, the Metropolitan opera was helpful with return travel. Which is very nice. They helped us rebook and stuff like that, if you wanted the help. In terms of housing, because they don’t pay anything, there was no help with the cancellations. But luckily, in this whole situation, many companies are doing what’s right (as opposed to what makes them the most profit) and Airbnb waived all its cancellation fees. Also, the landlord I had was willing to refund me the money for the time that I wasn’t there, which is helpful.
TB: So, I know that you said you were going to be there [at the Metropolitan Opera] for the long haul, about three and a half months. How does this affect your financial outlook?
KA: With just the cancellation at the Metropolitan Opera, I lost $36,000. And at this point, I will not see any of it. I’ve had other gigs cancel as well. So technically I think I’m out $40,000, so financially this sucks. There’s no way around that not hurting. My wife and I have been very, very diligent in our relationship to savings. We have stockpiled as much as we can. We have money in the stock market as well. But we also only have savings and everything else. That’s all we have and at this point that’s what we use.
TB: So then, what would you say is one of the hardest lessons you have learned?
KA: That’s tough. They’re all hard lessons, to be honest. The fact that we’re in a global pandemic (which is enough to induce nightmares), the way it has really made me reevaluate what’s important, and what you can do to help. I’ve not seen anyone so far—at least the people I know—who is completely selfish. I don’t know anyone who’s gone out and bought all the toilet paper. I’ve seen an outpouring of creativity, and I’ve seen an out pouring of concern for everyone else’s well-being. The amount of people that texted me after the news that the Met had closed, just to say they were sorry (or share their own cancellations) was epic. I mean, it was horrifying and amazing at the same time.
But the hardest lesson? I don’t think I can say that because I don’t know, we don’t know when it will be done. That’s the bottom line. I don’t think I can say, “this is what I learned.” At this point, I’m still just trying to get out of bed every day. Sometimes it is so overwhelming.
TB: Yeah, I think that talking about the impact on mental health is very fair.
KA: Absolutely. That’s so scary to me as well, just for people that need to have a professional to talk to, or go see their therapist, or get their medicine, or things of that nature. That’s scary. I’m not immune to that stuff. I suffer from depression. I have for most of my life. I am lucky to have a wife I can talk to. I am lucky that I have friends I can call up. But there are people who don’t and that’s hard.
TB: Drawing off of that, how has this impacted your creative process?
KA: Creativity is a kind of energy. What opera or classical music gave most of us was an outlet for that creativity and this outlet is now gone. I’m still very impressed to see all the people online, posting their videos, or singing, or trying to make other people laugh. That amount of creativity, that just loose energy throughout the world: it’s addictive and contagious. But in a good way.
One of the first things my wife said was, “Well, we’ve got time to make some funny videos. What do you have in mind?” It gives us a little bit of a project for a day when you’re not supposed to leave the house. [Kyle Albertson’s series of Houston NOT Grand Opera, providing comic relief during the pandemic]
TB: Which was a great Facebook post that you and your wife put out.
KA: It’s so dumb, but it’s amazing. Actually, a friend of mine, Alex Fletcher, who is an agent; he and his wife—who is an opera singer— with their three year old daughter, started putting on these renditions of duets. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. It got me off the bench a little bit, like, “Come on, you’re going to make people laugh. It’s something you are good at, do it.”
TB: I know that this is a difficult question to answer, but could you step back and tell me how different your life was six weeks ago?
KA: Well, six weeks ago, I could go to a bar, see a friend and hug them, and... everything’s different now. Honestly, I think that’s what gets me the most. Life, as we were used to it, no longer exists. It has changed and it will change. The world will change. Maybe it will be for the better? That’s my hope; that when we come out on the other side of this, there’ll be a renewed sense of belief in science. We’ll take doctors as seriously as we should and we won’t rely on our information to come from politicians and things like that. I hope that when this is all over, we all look back with extreme gratitude for still being here. That we still have a home and an earth to live on.
Once again, it’s tough to say what this will look like in a month, two months, or however long this takes. We are committed. We do believe the scientists. We do believe that we should be sheltered in place—[though we are] not completely sheltered in place yet, although that will probably come soon enough from the government—but we’re taking it seriously. Besides ourselves, the only social interaction we have is our neighbors, one of which is an opera singer, and we’ll go outside once a day and talk to them six feet away, just to fulfill that need of human interaction. Everything has changed, everything.
TB: So could you tell me some [about how] this may change our musical landscape?
KA: A lot of the cancellations that have happened from opera companies have come from companies who are bending over backwards to help the artists that they had to bail on. Whether it be partial fees, whether it be relief funds, or whether it be rescheduling of the shows, so they can still get those performances and money. Really most of the companies are doing that and that is an amazing thing to see.
My wife was working with a smaller company and they told her, “We have to cancel, but we’re going to get you two-thirds of your fee. Because you came here, you worked, and you deserve the payment.” So, to see that kind of respect and love from companies, I think that is fantastic.
I hope in the future, when contracts are negotiated, that we take a look at that kind of action. I think that’s good for us. Let’s say, in the normal world, you had a gig that got cancelled because of an earthquake or something like that; we should be paid. We worked and we should be paid for that. I hope that opera companies work towards that, and our union—the singer union [American Guild of Musical Artists-Soloist Coalition]—works toward that. That could be a very positive thing that comes out of it. I also think that the unity of it all [means] we’re all in this together; it’s not just one company that cancelled. Like even at the Metropolitan Opera, they just laid off the chorus, orchestra, staff, and everyone else. We’re all in this together. I think that will produce some good things (eventually).
Right now, we’re all just holding on. It’s like we’re on a roller coaster and forgot to throw down the safety bar. So once we get the safety bar down, we can get back to thinking straight and working towards goals. It could be amazing. I’ve got friends who are asking me, “Will you do this video?” Of course. “Will you let me do an interview?” Sure, why not? There’s no reason to stifle creativity. There’s no reason to treat this as if it’s the end of the world. We still have life. We still have an earth. We’re going to continue to operate and we’ll figure this out, eventually. I hope that’s the attitude that comes out of all this.
TB: Addressing one of the things that you do often in talking to younger artists and helping build the next generation of musicians, what advice would you give them?
KA: What I always try to remind young singers is that we all have one specific reason why we do this business. Why we are artists. Why we are creative. It’s individual for everyone. Whether you love the applause or you just love being creative, whatever the reason is you have to hold onto that. I told young singers that before all this COVID happened, and I think it’s even more pertinent now. We are all in a place where the death of the art form is possible. I don’t think it’ll happen, but who knows.
I know I still want to do this career. It’s what I’ve spent my entire adult life working towards and I’m not done. Not done. So in the back of my mind is always the reason I hold onto this career and why I like to do it. Why I feel it is important for society. I would remind every singer—young or old— to think back to that for themselves. Think back. This career isn’t easy, it sucks. It’s hard with the hours and the travel. So you better really want to do this. I would just reiterate that to young singers now.
I think opera will be back. Performances will come back. When all the isolation is over, people are going to want to clamor to go see a concert. To see a movie. To see anything outside of their home. So there will be classical music. I don’t think opera is dead or that it will happen. But... But you have to know if you want it. You really have to know. You really have to want it bad.
B: So, in closing up here, what is your video binge recommendation?
KA: Honestly, I haven’t gotten into a show yet. Because there’s three of us in this household, we’re like, “Well, we need to come up with a series that none of us have seen.” It’s amazing how we say, “Well, what about this?” “I’ve seen that.” So we’re still looking for one. At this point, we’re just watching old movies. Like, we watched Monty Python last night, because you know what? Still funny. Laughing ain’t a bad thing right now. I’ve been on the video game trail the last couple days too.
TB: So what game?
KA: I’ve been playing on my Nintendo Switch. I’ve been going back and forth between racing my nephew, who’s in Iowa, on Mario Kart and playing Zelda again.
TB: Well, thank you so much for chatting with me and sharing your insight.
Kyle Albertson performing “Homeward Bound” with the St. Luke’s Methodist Church in Houston, Texas.
About Kyle Albertson
Renowned not only for his luxurious voice, confidence, and style, but also for his versatility and ability to bring a character to life on stage, bass-baritone Kyle Albertson is taking the business by storm. In his recent début as Wotan in Wagner’s epic masterpiece Die Walküre, in Maestro Jaap van Zweden final performance with the Dallas Symphony, Theater Jones exclaimed, “the most impressive aspect of this performance came undoubtedly from Wotan...his voice masterfully brought the character to life...Albertson’s interactions throughout the performance with his most beloved daughter, Brünnhilde were ingenuously convincing. Coupled with Albertson’s commanding, though endearing, baritone, these moments did not seem like an opera concert at all, rather a fully realized engagement of dramatic and musical interpretation.” The Dallas News called his performance “gripping... I can't recall the opera's final parting of father and daughter so emotionally intense...this high-intensity performance will surely rank as a legend in Dallas musical history.” And the Texas Classical Review declared he “delivered a quietly dramatic presence in his monologue relatively early on in Act II which gradually built up to the final scene three hours later in which he allowed his luxuriant tone quality to resonate at full volume before slipping gently into the mournful farewell aria ‘Leb’ wohl’.” This tour-de-force performance left no doubt that the next American Wotan had arrived.
And arrive he has! Earlier this year, Mr. Albertson made his European debut at Opera Köln in Germany as Frank Murrant in Street Scene and this season he will make his mainstage Metropolitan Opera debut as Angelotti in Tosca as well as covering Sir Bryn Terfel in the title role in their new production of Der fliegende Holländer, created by François Girard and conducted by Valery Gergiev. In addition, he will debut the role of Scarpia in Tosca with Virginia Opera. Future seasons see engagements as Pizarro in Fidelio, Mephistopheles in Faust, Claggart in Billy Budd, Jack Rance in La fanciulla del West, and Jochanaan in Salome.
Albertson’s first foray into Wagner’s demanding vocal universe came in his house début at Lyric Opera of Chicago for their production of Das Rheingold, in which he subsequently performed the role of Donner in Minnesota Opera’s production shortly thereafter. He then went on to cover Greer Grimsley’s Wotan in Francesca Zambello’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen for San Francisco Opera and returned to the Lyric Opera of Chicago for their production of Siegfried.
Recent engagements have also included a house début with San Diego Opera to perform the role of Sparafucile in Rigoletto, a reprisal of his performance as Lieutenant Horstmayer in Kevin Puts’ Silent Night with Arizona Opera, Pangloss in Candide in a return to Des Moines Metro Opera, DeGuiche in Cyrano with Opera Carolina, Sharpless in Madama Butterfly with New Jersey Festival Orchestra, Sam in Trouble in Tahiti with Opera Parallel at SFJazz, JP Morgan in the World Première of Tesla with SoBe Arts in Miami, and Escamillo in Carmen for the Phoenicia Festival.
He first joined The Metropolitan Opera roster for Don Giovanni and returned for five consecutive seasons in their productions of Le nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflöte, Dialogues des carmélites, The Merry Widow, and Manon. With Houston Grand Opera he performed the role of Sacristan in Tosca; with Atlanta Opera, the Sergeant of Police in Pirates of Penzance; Zuniga in Carmen with Dallas Opera; Lyndon B. Johnson in the workshop of David T. Little’s JFK and Bartolo in Il barbiere di Siviglia with Fort Worth Opera; the title role of Sweeney Todd with Syracuse Opera; Lieutenant Horstmayer in Silent Night with Opera San José; Lescaut in Manon Lescaut with Opera Grand Rapids; DeGuiche in Cyrano with Michigan Opera Theatre; Sharpless in Madama Butterfly at Northern Lights Music Festival; Porthos in Les Trois Mousquetaires with Phoenicia Festival; Rucker Lattimore in Cold Sassy Tree with Sugar Creek Opera Festival; and the roles of the Prison Warden in Dead Man Walking, Hobson in Peter Grimes, and the Duke in Roméo et Juliette all with Des Moines Metro Opera.
A sought-after concert artist, a few recent highlights of his concert career include a solo in Bruckner’s Te Deum with Houston Symphony; the bass solo in Verdi’s Requiem with The Händel Society of Dartmouth; Händel’s Messiah with Boise Philharmonic; Papageno in Boston Youth Symphony’s concert performance of Die Zauberflöte at Symphony Hall; a Carnegie Hall début in Rutter’s Mass of the Children and a subsequent return for Kevin Padworski’s Wanderlust; and a concert version of Der Rosenkavalier with Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony.
Mr. Albertson has placed as a finalist in several competitions such as The Gerda Lissner Foundation International Vocal Competition, the George London Foundation Competition, the Marcello Giordani Competition, the Liederkranz Competition, and the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. He holds a Master of Music degree from DePaul University where he studied with world renowned mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, and a Bachelor of Music from the University of Northern Iowa where he studied with David Smalley. He is currently in the studio of Dr. Steven King.