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 Laura Aikin, soprano, discussed the pandemic and nearly being arriving during Italy’s first wave for a concert. As an avid teacher, her views on empowering the next generations of artists are of particular interest as well as her passion for the act of teaching itself.
Laura Aikin, soprano
Interviewed April 21, 2020
TB: I always like to start off these interviews with something positive. What is the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
LA: The most exciting thing is that I have a lot of private students. Though many are having to take this time off for various reasons. But when I am teaching it tends to gravitate towards a certain theme. And we’re all heading towards the same theme. I do masterclasses with my students a couple of times a month, normally, and we’ve decided to set that up so we can do a masterclass on Zoom. I’m really happy that despite the situation that’s going on somehow it seems the pressure is being taken off of these young singers. And they are not having to suddenly box themselves into something. They’re relaxing into what is their natural instrument.
I have 28 students and seven who are actively working right now. The rest of them are dealing with whatever they have to deal with in their situations. But the seven of us are going to all do a group masterclass later in the week and instead of doing repertoire, we will do the old Italian school stuff. [We decided], “Let’s just do vocalises. Let’s just do bits of arias that support the vocalists that we are doing, instead of cramming the education of the instrument into the ambition of the repertoire.” [Cramming] doesn’t serve the old Italian school anyway—you had to sing six months of exercises before you’re allowed to touch the repertoire. So just taking this opportunity to step back and work on that is quite nice. That’s been the most joyful thing I would say for the last week. And I’m having a great time with my new job.
TB: Would you mind giving a bit of your incredible background in singing and where you are now?
LA: I’m originally from Western New York and I studied music at the University of Buffalo. Then I went to Indiana [University]. I didn’t necessarily want to become a singer. (I wasn’t obsessed with it.) So I got a music education degree, both instrumental and vocal. It just seems like I kept gravitating towards singing and acting. Then eventually a group of singers that were doing a production of Aida heard me singing in a chorus. They pulled me out of it and said, “You’re sticking out majorly. You need to do something.” They sent me off to Indiana and set it all up for me there.
I was with Margaret Harshaw for a while there, which was very unusual for a coloratura. She didn’t work with too many higher voices. Sally Wolf and I were the only coloraturas that she ever had. But she liked my work ethic and she felt there was a certain intensity about how I was working that reminded her of a Wagnerian singer. Then she sent me off to study in Munich. From there I was hired—within my first year of studying in Munich—by Daniel Barenboim to be at the Staatsoper in Berlin.
So, it went really quite fast. It was only a couple of years before I was singing my first soprano roles with Daniel Barenboim. While in American I was being told that there was not much of a chance for a career. But in any case, I was extraordinarily fortunate to get that position. I don’t even think at the time I really appreciated what it meant. I was only 27. It was really an amazing several years.
I was there until I started having Italian bambini with the man that I married. Then I moved to Italy for a while and started my career with all the traveling. My big role was Lulu [Lulu] and a lot more Konstanzes [Die Entführung aus dem Serail]. And all sorts of different things. I was traveling ten months of the year with kids. Really just enjoying having a wonderful career.
I’m 56 now—I have no problem saying that—and things always start to slow down in your fifties. Though there’ve been even more jumps [short-notice replacement jobs]. And I have always loved jumping. So, I have a great manager that manages to keep the career going. She always finds something exciting and I had a really great season set up this year.
I was really excited about a lot of travel and had booked tickets for my kids to travel with me. [In fact,] Just days before everything started to be cancelled, I booked a ticket for my son to go to Sydney with me. Then, we were going to do a big holiday in New Zealand. My daughter was going to Japan with me as well. So now, I have all these flights hanging in the air. Anyways, I am actually quite proud of the fact that even though I am working less than I was perhaps ten years ago, I am still working quite a bit for someone my age and teaching a lot. I teach as much as I can at home.
In late February, I remember we were all having a Sunday family dinner here in Berlin. My ex[-husband] called from Milan and asked, “You’re flying to Venice in two days for your concerts, right?” I said, “Yes, I’m doing a bunch of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Harmut Haenchen at La Fenice.” (I was very excited because this was the third time I had been booked to sing at La Fenice. And the other two times it had always been cancelled because their schedule is quite undependable.) I didn’t even have this [the coronavirus] on my radar. He said, “You do realize that the virus is here in Milan.” His parents were already in shut down but I don’t talk to him everyday.
This was on Sunday and I was supposed to fly to Venice on Tuesday. So this is before anybody is talking about it in Germany. So I asked, “Then you think it is going to be cancelled?” He said that he was sure it was going to be cancelled. The next morning they cancelled it. I thought it was impossible but at that point, it was only for a week. They were already saying that they would do rehearsals on March 2 and concerts on March 3 and 4. So I thought they were not going to let this be cancelled. Even my manager said, “They really want to do it. But we will wait to book the flights until we have some more confirmation.” That confirmation didn’t come.
Then she [my manager] called me to ask, “Some sopranos are cancelling in Torino because they can’t get into Italy. Do you want to do the concerts (Mahler’s 4th symphony) in Torino instead?” I said, “Absolutely. One has to support the art form and you can’t be afraid of this thing.” I was in complete denial. I didn’t know what was going on. My in-laws were closed down in Milan, but I was thinking that I could perform in Torino.
So, I actually got on a flight there, which thank goodness had a stopover in Munich. I think it was March 3, so I got to Munich and as soon as I landed, my phone went off that I had a message from my manager. I knew it was cancelled and it was. They had called me the night before to book me and on the flight there, it was cancelled and the country was locked down. Had I continued that flight, I would have landed in Italy and I would have been put into quarantine. That just shows the degree of how unimaginable this situation was.
I managed to get back to Berlin and started talking more to my ex and my in-laws. Then the pennies started to drop. I thought, “We’re not going to sing for a long time.” They were still performing in Berlin and throughout the German-speaking world. But all of the sudden it seemed very obvious that this was something that was going to go on for a long, long time. Because our art form is all about spitting and so much physical contact. We’re always getting each other sick.
That’s also when I started thinking about the whole idea of finances and how this is going to work out. Like I said, I had just booked a bunch of holidays. But I was also thinking that I was about to do a whole bunch of nice concerts. I had one in Venice. Then I was supposed to do a production in Zurich. Then I had concerts in Moscow, Austria, Sydney, and Tokyo. It was a full season for me. So you plan your finances according to that. Though, I never let my bank account go below a certain level because you never know when you’re going to get sick or something in the meantime.
That started me thinking about what the whole situation was. I also had this going on in Italy where my family was right in the middle of it. My dearest friends and family were crying on the phone to me. I lived in Milan for 15 years and so I saw what was going on. People were fearing not being able to find food. I have a very dear friend (whose son was in school with my daughter) that worked in a grocery store. I spoke with her and said, “You really have the great job now. Everyone else is out of work and you can support your family.” That’s when I thought to myself, that’s the job to have.
So, I took my daughter to her riding lesson, and not far from there, there is a beautiful grocery store. I go there once a week when I drop her off at the school and I do my grocery shopping there. They had a sign that they were looking for people to just do shelving. And I thought, why not? I’m in a very specific situation, in that I’m physically very strong. I’m healthy. And my kids are healthy. We don’t have anybody who is in danger. The important thing that this would do for me is allowing me access to things to support people. For example, my voice teacher who is here [in Berlin], her husband is almost 90, so that is one way I can grocery shop for them whenever they need anything. I also thought this is a good thing because it is going to keep me physically active and I’m not going to sit on my couch and get fat. Maybe, when I go back to singing, I’ll have lost some weight.
So I applied for the job and it is fun. I found that because I’m singing less and doing less opera and more concerts, I’m generally alone or nearly alone. I was really missing the teamwork that being in an operatic production provides. Strangely, going and working in this grocery store where we are a team of three to seven is fun. And there is a lot of team building. As an opera singer, you have to show up and form a team immediately. You find the weaknesses. You deal with them emotionally. And you find some way to make it work. So I have a degree of professionalism and discipline that is working well for the store.
It sounds crazy but it gets me up every morning. And I’m being active and having fun. The funny thing is that those are hours that I would just spend on Facebook obsessing about stupid things anyways. So I can have coffee fast or over four hours. This is like going to the fitness studio (in a way) because there is a lot of heavy lifting and running around. I run nonstop for three or four hours. And basically, all I earn I put into food to buy for my family and the people I’m helping to support. And my health insurance is free as a result because they pay for my health insurance. So there is literally no reason to not do it. I get free food, healthcare, and I’m in better shape.
TB: Getting paid to work out helps!
LA: Exactly. Sure, I may have savings that I can live on. And I’ll be okay for quite some time. But for me, it is also an aid psychologically that I don’t feel like I’m just sitting at home watching my bank account going down, and [that I’m] being productive in some way.
But that being said, I don’t expect that this is something that other people should be doing. That’s why I’m not going to journalists and saying, “Look at the diva in the grocery store,” as some have suggested. No one should feel any pressure to do something like this. First of all, I wouldn’t want to pressure anyone to put themselves into a dangerous situation if they’re not up to it physically. And I think that everybody has to deal with the situation in their own way. This is my way of dealing with it. I look forward to going to work and so do the people that I work with. We are all lucky to have a job. So it is having a positive influence and it extends outwards.
TB: So, how does this support your teaching efforts? Because teaching is also a physical and emotional thing.
LA: The first couple of weeks that I was working, it was hard for me to teach afterwards. I had to get used to the physical strenuousness of the job itself. After two or three weeks, it was not a problem. For me, I’m only available for my students in the afternoon. And what’s great about it is now they’re not making any money either. So I’m teaching for free to keep them going, myself going, and to not forget who we are. That is so much more valuable than [the money] they could possibly give me.
The important thing is that we all keep going. They are closed up with their partners and their neighbors. Those who were gone during the day are now all there during the day. Also, it is one thing to warm up in a space and it is another thing to have that be the only place that you are singing in. There are just a lot of issues. I have some [students] with small children and they can’t have a moment free. If they do get a free moment, they are not going to all of a sudden want to start singing. They are taking a nap, cooking, or something else. They are exhausted.
With all of that exhaustion, it is really, really difficult for people to sing right now. Because for us, our voices don’t finish here [indicates self] they are where we are. Some people are lucky that perhaps they have a courtyard area [they can sing in] but not everybody has that. I have some students that are singing to their neighbors. But not everybody has that.
TB: How has this impacted your creative process as a singer?
LA: I must say that personally, right now, I am not doing a whole lot of singing. I don’t know what engagements I have potentially coming up. I’m grateful that the production that I would be doing in Zurich right now—which was a new opera, Girl with a Pearl Earring—has been postponed. It is now supposed to happen in two years. So that is very good news for that.
One of the sort of guilty feelings that I have about the fact that I’m doing this job is that perhaps it is inhibiting me from pulling out my Schubert Lied and learning some of those. Maybe that is true, though I’m also stuck in a situation where I’m not exactly expanding my repertoire. There is my guilt. I should be doing more of that.
TB: So we’ve talked a lot about where you were and what your life looked like before this pandemic. Could you chat about what you think that the future after COVID-19 might look like?
LA: Yes, there is a part of me that feels like I should just completely step back. And just really exclusively support the young people moving forward. Because I think this is just the beginning. And I think that the online music situation is in itself a failure. Because you can’t have an art form that is dependent upon the quality of people’s internet connections [rather than] what we do to make a recording perfect or have the absolute perfection of a concert hall. Suddenly, we’re letting Vodafone and T-Mobile decide if it is going to be a good performance or not. The balance with ensemble and with communication is just impossible.
I do believe the art form is going to survive because I think opera as an art form comes from a very deep place in the soul [and has] a very high level of musical expression and level of prosaic information. Pop music will never replace what opera or classical music is. There are just going to be people that want something more complex. They want something deeper. So, I don’t believe that opera is doomed in any way.
I think it is definitely going to be transformed in some way. I worry about that. We thought it was bad to have movies on stage. So when they brought this multimedia experience onto the stage that was just so utterly distracting from the human thing that was going on. You are paying more attention to the blinking of somebody’s eye rather than what is actually being sung at the moment. That was my problem with the Lulu production at the Met. For me, it was way too distracting from the media perspective. [It was] Certainly entertaining. But I think from the operatic situation—which I think it is one of the best operas ever written and just perfect—it took away from the music so much.
But now we’re going to be confronted with that. I think that singers who are able to express themselves and feel comfortable expressing themselves in a social media realm will have an advantage. So they will have that advantage, but is that a vocal advantage? Is that a performance advantage? How will those voices then survive when they are taken out of their living rooms and put inside concert halls? What will happen to the art form? Will they say that they want that person anyways and so they put a microphone on them? That is the most amazing thing about singing: the vibrations that you feel in your body and convey to the audience through sound waves so that they’re feeling the same vibrations in themselves. That is the magic of singing without a microphone. As soon as you have loudspeakers involved then it is just different.
TB: One of the things that is clearly on your mind is addressing the next generation of singers and musicians. Do you want to talk a bit about how you see our current pandemic affecting them and give some advice on how to approach this?
LA: First of all, I fear that a lot of them are going to give up. Honestly, there has been a lot of emotional abuse on that path for a young singer nowadays. I’ve been finding that in Europe in the past couple of years. People are trying to make money off of the post-college/pre-professional groups of people with all of these pay-to-play operas. And while people are gaining experience, it is just the people who can pay that are getting that experience (not necessarily the best artists). That is definitely a situation that makes for a lot of emotional desperation on the part of these young singers.
Like I said, I worry that some of them are now stuck in situations where they’re thinking if this is going to be happening for another year [cancellations], I’m just going to get a different job. A lot of people are toying with that idea. That’s very sad. That is one of the reasons that I’m also teaching for free for these few students that I have. My contribution to these few students that I have is just to try to keep them going.
Because we need them desperately. There needs to be the passion there. To move forward, there needs to be the audience. I’m happy to work and goodness knows I do a good Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But audiences want to be inspired by the youth. Everybody wants to see somebody young that is out there breaking the rules or breaking into a situation. That’s very exciting for people.
I try not to be negative about this right now. But at the same time, one also has to be realistic that they [young singers] are very challenged because they have no financial gain from all of this. They’re just putting into it and putting into it. It is hard enough for us that actually have work scheduled. I’m still getting contracts coming in, even though this is going on. For those that didn’t have work beforehand, they certainly aren’t going to have work suddenly because of this. So what is their motivation to keep going? It is hard.
TB: Anything else you would like to say to them?
LA: Just keep going! Keep going. I am telling my students to take this moment; sit back [and] find the joy in singing. That’s been a big theme of my teaching in the past six months or so. Because I’ve noticed that a lot of them were so focused on just the auditions for the young artists programs and picking repertoire that I could tell wasn’t bringing them joy. Now I am suggesting just finding arias that bring you joy. When you [do] pick audition arias, it has to be that no matter where you’re singing them—from a stairway to on stage at the Met—that you have to love it so much that any chance you have to open up your voice and do this, that is what brings you joy. This is what is going to make you be able to get the gig. Not just because you’re ticking some box that you think someone is expecting from you.
So, I am just recommending to my students [that] first of all, let’s let go of all that repertoire. Let’s just work on the instrument and find something that feels comfortable. Then let’s take that gradually and apply that to some different repertoire. I’m trying to keep the students open[ed] up into perhaps seeing themselves outside of these boxes and drawers that they’ve been put into through an audition process that they’ve been going through for ten years of their lives. That is having success and I’m really enjoying listening to them. Every lesson, I just have such an adrenaline rush. They’re joyful. And we’re having a really wonderful time.
TB: What would your advice be to the musical community for getting through this?
LA: Well, I am not entirely convinced that this is the time to reinvent the wheel, actually. The coronavirus is exploding all of these injustices in the world. One has a tendency to want to realign the whole system. I don’t think that is going to happen overnight. I worry that if we push too hard on something like that we might pay a price.
This comes from my own experience—from having at times in my career bucked the system a little bit—and being roundly made to understand that it was not welcome. That you need to just be an Oper Mädchen and just do what you’re told. Don’t change the system too much. I don’t have such a big distrust for the entities that are running the opera companies or are management. I do honestly think that they are trying their best. Every system has its failures. I do believe that there is a certain injustice though.
Someone has just written an article recently where they ask, “Why is it fair that conductors and directors are flawless, and singers are the ones that are always wrong, judged, and belittled?” Everyone thinks of the soprano being a prima donna and everyone’s going to worship her or something like that. But that is actually quite manipulative. Is that the case? Or are they just trying to manipulate you into doing what they want you to do? So there is certainly something wrong with that system. And I think in general, singers could be seen in a more respected light.
One change that I think would be a good change: there should be a movement towards more localized casting. If there is a benefit to all of this, I think it would be to stop this crisscrossing the globe. As much as I really, really love to be flown all the way to Tokyo for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, I am sure that there are also some really wonderful sopranos that could have done it there. So perhaps we can do some more localized hiring instead of this Pokemon-style collecting of artists’ names just for the sake of that.
TB: What would be your streaming recommendation?
LA: Well, what I find incredible is Spotify. I just wander around Spotify. I come up with a composer and just go and listen. It sends me on a journey. I really enjoy the aspect of Spotify that when you start with something it just keeps connecting you to other things.
TB: What piece of music would you recommend listening to right now?
LA: Right now, I’m going through all the Bruckner symphonies. My other plan is that I’m going to start listening to some of these Verdi operas that I don’t know at all. So I’ll be walking the dogs and listening to Verdi’s operas.
TB: Thank you so much for your time and for chatting with me today. It has been a pleasure.
“Sento che dea son io” from L’Arbore di Diana by Vincente Martín y Soler, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Laura Aikin, Diana
Michael Maniaci, Amor
Harry Bicket, conductor
Gran Teatre del Liceu and Teatro Real
Lulu (excerpt) by Alban Bern
Laura Aikin, Lulu
Alfred Muff, Dr. Schön
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
About Laura Aikin
Possessing a range of over three octaves, the repertoire of world-renowned American soprano Laura Aikin embraces works from the Baroque to the contemporary and makes her a most welcome artist the world’s great opera houses and concert halls. She began her career as a member of the ensemble at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin (1992-98) under the artistic direction of Daniel Barenboim where she performed more than 300 times in major roles like Lulu, Königin der Nacht, Zerbinetta, Amenaide (Tancredi), Sophie, Adele as well as the title role in Zaide.
Laura Aikin is a regular guest at the leading opera houses worldwide such as the Vienna State Opera, La Scala Milano, Bavarian State Opera, Opernhaus Zurich, Netherlands Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Semperoper Dresden, Gran Teatro del Liceu Barcelona, Opera Frankfurt, Chicago Lyric Opera, Santa Fe Opera, San Francisco Opera and Metropolitan Opera New York.
In addition to her numerous concert appearances at the Salzburg Festival since 1995, the artist appeared among others as Königin der Nacht, in the world premiere of Henze's opera l’Upupa (Bad’iat), as Blondchen and Konstanze (Die Entführung aus dem Serail) and was highly acclaimed by both audience and press for her interpretation of Marie in Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten in 2012 and for Birtwistle‘s Gawain in 2013.
Being also a sought after concert singer, Laura Aikin performs with orchestras such as the Berlin, Munich and Vienna Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago and Vienna Symphonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the WDR, SWR and MDR Radio Symphony Orchestras as well as with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Les Arts Florissants, Concerto Köln and Concentus Musicus Wien.
She performed with leading conductors as Claudio Abbado, Alain Altinoglou, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Martin Brabbins, Sylvain Cambreling, William Christie, Christoph von Dohnányi, Iván Fischer, Mikko Franck, Daniele Gatti, Michael Gielen, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Manfred Honeck, Jakub Hrůša, René Jacobs, Fabio Luisi, Kent Nagano, Zubin Mehta, Cornelius Meister, Ingo Metzmacher, Riccardo Muti, Helmuth Rilling, Donald Runnicles, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Michael Tilson Thomas and Franz Welser-Möst. An extraordinary experience was Beethoven´s Missa solemnis with Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the festivals in Graz and Salzburg which has also been eternized on CD.
Operatic successes of the past years have included her first Giunia (Lucio Silla) at Gran Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona, Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor) at the Opéra de Montpellier, Lulu in Paris and at the Lyon Opera, La Scala and the Wiener Festwochen in the new Peter Stein production, Rossini’s Semiramide in Naples, Diana (Arbore di Diana) in Barcelona, Marguérite (Les Huguenots) in Strassburg and Marilyn Monroe in the première of De Raaff’s opera Waiting for Miss Monroe at Netherlands Opera. Further highlights include Strauss´ Aithra (Die ägyptische Helena) as well as Mozart´s Don Giovanni (Donna Anna) at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Schoenberg´s Pierrot Lunaire at the Frankfurt Opera, Zimmermann´s Die Soldaten at La Scala, Morton Feldman´s opera Neither at the Berlin State Opera and at the Ruhrtriennale as well as Mozart´s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Hamburg State Opera.
In December 2015 she was highly acclaimed by both audience and press for her interpretation of Emilia Marty in a new production of Janáček´s Vec Makropulos at the Vienna State Opera. An equally huge success was Henze´s Elegie für junge Liebende / Elegy for young lovers at the Theater an der Wien. Highlights of the 2017/18 season are Donna Anna (Don Giovanni) under the baton of Iván Fischer in Budapest, Edinburgh Festival and New York, Schoenberg´s Erwartung in Salzburg, the world première of Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo by Salvatore Sciarrino at Milan´s La Scala and the Berlin State Opera as well as Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus at the Vienna State Opera and performances of Feldman´s Neither in Munich and Cologne.
Recent highlights include amongst diverse concert projects Madame Herz (Der Schauspieldirektor) at Mozartwoche Salzburg as well as the role of Helena in Manfred Trojahn’s Orest at the Vienna State Opera. The 2020/2021 season will also see her return to the Vienna State Opera as Rosalinde in Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus.
Her many acclaimed recordings include Beethoven's Christus am Ölberge with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Schoenberg's Die Jakobsleiter with the Südwestfunk Symphony Orchestra, Respighi's La campana sommersa (Montpellier Opera), DVDs of Lulu (Opernhaus Zurich), Henze´s l’Upupa and Die Entführung aus dem Serail (both from the Salzburg Festival) and Dialogues des Carmélites with Riccardo Muti (La Scala), a solo recording of Songs and Cycles by Rorem with pianist Donald Sulzen (Orfeo) as well as Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge and his Missa solemnis - both under the baton of Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Sony Music). Most recently, a widely acclaimed recording of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus with Laura Aikin as Rosalinde appeared (Pentatone) – recorded with the NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Lawrence Foster.