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 Strickling, soprano, joined me from her home in St. Thomas. Her experience with having an opera cancelled and turmoil with returning home from New York City, especially drew me to her story. In addition, she offered a unique viewpoint in musician’s ability to collaborate that is compelling in these trying times.
Laura Strickling, soprano
Interviewed March 16, 2020
TB: Laura, thank you again for joining me today. Starting off light, what is the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
LS: I got to come home. You know, obviously, none of us want to lose our work, but I have a three year old and so being away from her as I watched the world crumble was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. Because of where I live, I’ve experienced a lot of really strange things over the last couple of years and just to be away from the people you love and that one person on the planet you’d do anything for…. Not being able to be there, in case you needed to be, was really, really difficult. So as much as I was sad to not put on this opera, I wanted nothing more than to run, run home.
TB: Can you tell me more about where you were?
LS: I was in New York and I live in the Virgin Islands, on the island of Saint Thomas. That was part of my stress for the week, I can’t just choose to drive home. So before I even got on the plane last week to New York, I said to my husband, “Is there a chance they’re gonna start grounding flights? I mean, should I be getting on this plane? Will I be able to come back?” This was before the grumblings, the very first inkling. But because again, I’ve had some bad experiences with hurricanes, Zika virus and all these things in the last few years, I react to things early. My husband said, “you do this, it’s your job. You’ve got a contract. You don’t want to let your cast down.” So even before I left I was nervous and then got to New York, and I said to a couple people, “you don’t think they’re gonna start grounding flights do you? Because I can’t just drive home.” Two days later, Trump grounded the flights to Europe and that’s when my stomach started hurting, you know. Just this “can’t go away stress.” I love New York, but I don’t want to have to stay there for the indefinite future because I can’t get home.
TB: That makes total sense. So backing up, could you tell me a little bit about where you are in your career right now and how you’ve gotten to this point where you are a traveling artist?
LS: So I have a different story than most singers. I did my undergrad and grad in vocal performance, but then quit singing for four years and had a career. I put my husband through law school, we lived in Morocco and studied Arabic for a year. I just never thought I was going to be a singer again. I’d put away that part of myself. When we got back from Morocco, I had this chance to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was 29 years old, and I didn’t quite know. I could have chosen to do anything and my husband said, “you were always supposed to be a singer, you should do that.” Obviously, it’s not quite that easy, but I did start taking voice lessons again, and entered competitions, and built a network. Here nine years later, I’m a singer again. So the career that I built and the network I built is in oratorio and art song. Which is great for me, because it’s where my passion, my strongest passion, for the work lies.
Also, I do have a family now and so it makes it possible for me to be home more often. I will have frequent trips where I’m gone for a week or a little more than a week, and then home for a week, things like that. Also, it works with our childcare, and it works well with my husband’s job. So I feel pretty lucky in that sense to have built a career that actually is the kind of life I want to live as a singer and as a human. Longest answer ever!
TB: Well, I’m always nervous about getting people to talk, so you’re great. So, I know that you said this was an opera job. So, which opera was it that you were heading into?
LS: This was The Parting by Tom Cipullo. That’s where the intersection is, because I do so much art song and because I’ve worked with Tom Cipullo over the years, we have this great relationship. He wrote this opera role for me last year, we premiered it in San Francisco and Seattle, and then this year we’re doing the New York premiere. So it is actually the first opera I’ve done since coming back to being a professional singer. And, again, a longer rehearsal time and a lot more people depending on me to do my job. So, I’m looking around thinking “I would just like to go.” If it was a recital, and it was just me and a pianist, which it is a lot of times in my career, I would have made the call, “Hey, let’s go home. You and me. We don’t need to be here. This isn’t for us. Sorry about the money, I’ll figure out a way.” But this was a cast, and a crew, an opera organization that runs on a shoestring budget, a composer I really, really, really adore and would do anything for, and everybody’s depending on this thing happening. So I didn’t… I didn’t want to be the one to say let’s not do this. And you do feel that, you know how much everyone is going to suffer as a result of this decision. There’s a lot of stress related to that as well.
TB: It sounds like it was really important especially as it was written for you and something you have done with the composer. So could you talk to me a little bit about where you were when you realized, “Okay, this is going to end. I need to go”?
LS: I was kinda there at the very beginning. But I was like… It wasn’t my decision to make and it wasn’t my place to pull the whole thing down, right? So I just had to trust that the people around me would make the best decision for everyone and they did. It was Thursday night, we started rehearsals on Sunday. We had two musical rehearsals and one staging rehearsal. And… and then it was done. The shows were supposed to be in two and a half weeks. So you know, I think they made the decision on par with when everyone else was making the decision. It was the same day that the Met decided to close, so I think they went along with the industry.
TB: Tell me a little bit about the logistics that were impacted for you? I know that there’s the issue of travel, obviously. Was this treated as international?
LS: No. Well, just to New York but technically the U.S. Virgin Islands is not international. But we are a separate customs zone. So when we leave the Virgin Islands, you have to go through customs to leave. The airlines tend to treat tickets to here as international tickets. They pick and choose which policies to make it international and which to make it domestic. That was part of my stress, because it wasn’t like I need to get on a plane to get to… California. It was like I know, if they’re going to decide some place is outside the net, we tend to be those people, the territorial Americans. So there was a lot of… stress. I mean, I’m just going to keep using that word, stress.
TB: So then, was there housing that was provided to you? I know a lot of opera companies use patron housing…
LS: They had offered to try to find me patron housing nine months ago, when we were working on logistics. Just to be comfortable, I had decided to look for a sublet on my own. I wanted my own space and I lucked out. A singer friend was supposed to be in Germany for a month, and I sublet her apartment. So, I lost… I lost that money, but because it was a singer to singer sublet, it was not as big a hit as say if it had been an Airbnb. You know, there is money lost there, but it’s not… It’s not to the level that it’s debilitating.
TB: And wouldn’t you rather give your money to somebody in the community?
LS: Always. And in fact, I always have better experiences renting from other singers than I have renting from strangers through even Airbnb. It’s just singers… we really look out for each other. When I lived in New York, I lived there for five years, I sublet my apartment whenever I was gone, so it’s a network I’m familiar with, and it’s a network I’m comfortable with.
TB: So, I know it is difficult finding balance in your career being home and traveling. Could you talk to me about the impact on those around you? On your husband and on your mom and dad?
LS: Yeah, so my parents live in Chicago, and I’m from Chicago originally. They had come to St. Thomas, two weeks ago to stay here with my husband to help with childcare. Because when I am gone for a week or two, my husband’s an A+ solo parent. She goes to school during the day and he picks her up at night. He… really, really goes the extra mile, but when I am gone for a month, that’s a long time to be doing it alone. So my parents, they’re retired, they had the flexibility to come down here and to be honest, who wouldn’t want to spend March in the Virgin Islands rather than Chicago, if you can do it?
So they were already down here and that was the big conversation. Should we put them on the first plane back? Because there’s certainly the concern that if they… the longer they stay, the less likely it is they’ll be able to get back in the foreseeable future. My father is actually a diabetic and my mom is a recent cancer survivor, so they’re both extremely high risk in their 70s. And I was… I had a major moment before leaving the apartment in New York as to whether or not I should even come back. Because coming back, if I’ve been exposed, I’m bringing it back to my family. And I just… I really, really struggled with whether or not to come back. But ultimately, we just decided it was what we should do. And so far, so good.
I don’t have any symptoms. Everybody’s fine. You know, my toddler’s, being a toddler as they do. It’s… everyone seems fine. My husband is an attorney, he’s going to work. He has an office with a door. So he’s practicing social distancing and that’s what we’re doing. You know, I think all of us are finding a way to be as mindful about how we’re coming into contact with people. I’m personally not going to go to the store for a couple weeks. I’m just going to stay on our property because I have the luxury to be able to do that. But so far, I think we’re doing okay.
TB: One of the things that I want to make sure we identify and talk about is what you were saying about coming back being as much of an issue as this outbreak. Because you’re in new York City, you’re in one of the biggest parts of this pandemic. So what I’m hearing you say is that coming back home was almost as big of a decision as anything else in this situation.
LS: Yea, I didn’t sleep the entire night. Like literally, did not sleep the night before I was supposed to be on the plane the next morning. I was just laying there staring at the ceiling, worrying that by going home… that was the wrong decisions. I had a thermometer, kept checking my temperature. I did all the things I could do to make the smartest decision I could make given all the information we had at hand. But there’s no question that I really, really struggled with that decision.
TB: So drawing off of that, what would you say is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned through this situation?
LS: I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet. You know, there’s still so much to be known and all of us go into any contract work with the best intentions. I signed this contract a year ago. I didn’t know what was going to happen. And I also feel like everybody, at least in my corner of the world, seems to be making the best decisions they can with the information they have, and really trying to put others in front of their decisions. “What does this mean for everyone else?” And that’s… that’s actually been really encouraging.
I mentioned briefly earlier that we lived here during the 2017 hurricanes in the Virgin Islands, and we lived here during the Zika epidemic. I was pregnant during the Zika epidemic. So time and time again, I have been in a situation where I was dependent upon my neighbors and they were dependent upon me. That was one of the biggest reasons I wanted to come back here. I do fear because our hospitals are still in a very compromised position since the hurricanes. I don’t think that they have the… I know that they don’t have the capacity to deal with a real mass outbreak. But I do trust the community, and when I think about the people I want to be around me in a problem, like my parents my family, and friends on the island, I think… I think this is the right place to be.
It’s interesting, I was talking to a friend here and I said, “you know, when the hurricanes happened, we knew that it was just us. And as bad… truly apocalyptic as it was here, it was… we could all jump on a plane and run if we needed to, or if we had to.” Like there was a calm somewhere else. But we don’t have that sense this time and I feel like the entire world is getting this glimpse into the trauma that we went through two years ago. I’m hoping that on the other end, that we all emerge with a sense of strength and community… and maybe even a little bit of triumph, like we did this together.
TB: That’s really beautiful. Could you tell me about how this has impacted your creative process? Or if it has?
LS: [Laughter] Well, I haven’t made much art in the last three days since I got home, I’ll admit. I do have these big projects coming up that I haven’t announced yet that no public performance can affect. I’m working with many, many composers to make it happen. And knowing that nothing about this can slow that creative collaboration, I’ve been walking on air about this project for months now.
TB: That’s really good to hear that you have something that you can work on through the pandemic. I’ll be interested to check back with you and see how things progress.
LS: It’s not announced but I can tell you. It’s called the “40@40” project, and I’m commissioning 40 songs for my 40th birthday. We’ve been talking about it for the last month and a half, 40 composers who have been influential in my life, but I won’t say who’s involved yet. But it’s exciting people who I really respect and I was thrilled that they said yes. There’s a publishing company that signed on to publish it all, as an anthology and we’re going to make a CD. Hopefully, we’re going to have performances, if we ever get to perform again. You know all of my soprano friends pulling together to do a big soprano project based around these songs. It’s long-term planning that was already in the works that isn’t affected by well… this right now.
TB: That’s a really good way of looking at it, you have these short-term projects and then you have these long-term, not only passion projects, but passion plus your creative side too.
LS: And the collaborative side. Because I do mostly chamber music, art song, oratorio, I’m a collaborator at heart. So anytime I’m pulling artists into the same space to make music or make art together, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
TB: What is something that you could teach me about your experience from COVID-19?
LS: Wash your hands! [Laughter] But seriously, I guess, everyone needs to think outside of themselves. Let’s collaborate. We’re musicians. Let’s collaborate. Let’s keep doing it in every way, not just in our musical work. But still wash your hands and collaborate from six feet away from each other.
TB: So what do you think will change with the musical landscape in the future? Will this have an effect?
LS: I’m a pretty optimistic person. I do fear that some of the smaller companies and maybe even some of the bigger ones will have financial difficulties that make it impossible for them to operate at capacity in the near future. But I also believe that at all times, but especially when times are hard, people need art, and they need that kind of human connection that we artists provide. And so, I don’t know how all of us are going to move forward saying this is how I pay my rent for the the near future. But I do believe that… we will continue to make art in every way we can, and that, maybe we’ll have to figure out the money part as we go. I don’t run an organization, so I don’t feel like I have the experience or the skill set to tell you, “here’s what we should do guys,” but I do know a lot of really smart people, who will work on that and, again, collaboration. We keep up our end, hopefully, they’ll be able to keep up their end.
TB: I think that’s probably one of the best things about this, it’s teaching us to collaborate again.
LS: Yeah we saw that this week. Isn’t that just crazy? I was telling my sister… her friend group on Facebook is completely different than mine. She works in the corporate world and lives in the suburbs and we just have completely different networks. So her Facebook feed was “corona light.” Because I have so many artist friends whose lives were being cut at the knees over and over and over, mine was doom and gloom from the beginning. I was an early adopter of panic for my own reasons, but I do think we were the frontline of seeing the economic impacts. I think that the rest of the world will follow suit, unfortunately.
TB: So what question did I not ask you that I should have?
LS: [Laughter] What’s my favorite song?
TB: Alright, what is it?
LS: [Laughter] Because I do so much art song, it’s always the first question for me; “what’s your favorite song?” I actually have an answer, it’s Alfred Bachelet’s “Chère Nuit” and this was his one hit wonder. The only reason that this song became famous at the time was because Nellie Melba was the most famous soprano/woman in the world at the time. She came through Paris and he played it for her and she loved it. So, she took it on tour all over the world and everybody loved it and it got published. It’s still in publication today. It’s just this like, the sexiest French song ever written. The words are, “Dear night, you who bring back to me my tender lover, arise and make shine again the dawn of my love.” So, you know everything seems dark right now, but I’m waiting for the light.
TB: One more question, what opera should we all stream?
LS: Oh my gosh! I really want to see Porgy and Bess! They need to stream that! I was in New York three times, but none of them were times when it was playing and I know so many people who are in it. I want to hear it so badly! Please, stream it! I want to hear Akhnaten too. That was one of the ones that I needed to be there in person, because you just need to feel the music in your bones and it’s just not going to be the same on the computer. But I’ll just get a glass of wine, sit back, and put it on the big screen.
TB: Turn it on, turn it up, and off we go! Thank you so much for joining me today.
About Laura Strickling
Laura Strickling was praised by The New York Times for her, “flexible voice, crystalline diction, and warm presence.” Celebrated for her work on the concert and recital stage, she has performed at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, National Sawdust, Trinity Church on Wall Street, Washington National Cathedral, Tanglewood Music Festival, Ravinia Music Festival, the Opera America Center, Mexicoliederfest, Liederfest in Suzhou (China), and the Afghanistan National Institute of Music.
Her concert soloist engagements include Messiah (Handel) with the Indianapolis Symphony and the Richmond Symphony, at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center with DCINY, and at the Kennedy Center with the Metropolitan Chorus, Gloria (Poulenc) with the Asheville Symphony, Mass in c minor (Mozart) with the Richmond Symphony, Cathedral Choral Society, and Berkshire Choral International, Stabat Mater (Dvorak) with Berkshire Choral International, Ein Deutsches Requiem (Brahms) with the Bel Canto Chorus of Milwaukee and Chorosynthesis, Luonnotar (Sibelius) and Les Illuminations (Britten) with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (Barber) and Les Illuminations (Britten) with Mexicoliederfest, Gloria (Poulenc) with the Asheville Symphony, Ninth Symphony (Beethoven) and Carmina Burana (Orff) with Choralis, Requiem (Mozart), Credo Mass (Mozart), Dixit Dominus (Handel), Gloria (Vivaldi), Lord Nelson Mass (Haydn), and Mass in C (Beethoven). Her performance of Mozart’s Mass in C minor and Exsultate jubilate with the Cathedral Choral Society was broadcast by WETA, and her performance of Poulenc’s Gloria with the Asheville Symphony was broadcast by Blue Ridge Public Radio.
A devoted recitalist, Laura Strickling curated The New Music Shelf Anthology of 20 contemporary art songs for soprano. She is on the roster of the Brooklyn Art Song Society, and has appeared with the Chiarina Chamber Players, Lyric Fest of Philadelphia, Joy in Singing, Trinity Concerts at One, the American Liszt Society, Baltimore Lieder Weekend, the Half Moon Music Festival, Concerts on the Slope, Art Song at the Old Stone House, the Brooklyn New Music Collective, SongFusion, and Vox 3 Collective, was a featured performer at the 2016 New Music Gathering, and presented a radio broadcast recital of American art songs on “Live from WFMT” in Chicago with pianist Daniel Schlosberg. Laura and pianist Liza Stepanova were Artists in Residence in December 2016 at the Yellow Barn Music Festival, where they presented a program of Granados and modern songs in Spanish, including the world-premiere of Ciudades del Porvenir by Reinaldo Moya. She has presented guest artist recitals at the University of Georgia, Mercer University, College of William and Mary, Mercer University, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame University of Maryland, Pittsburg State University, McDaniel College, and St. Mary’s College. A specialist in new music, she has collaborated with composers Libby Larsen, Tom Cipullo, James Matheson, Juliana Hall, John Musto, Reinaldo Moya, Daniel Felsenfeld, and Glen Roven.
Ms. Strickling created the role of Fanni Radnòti in the World Premiere of Tom Cipullo’s opera The Parting with Music of Remembrance in Seattle and San Francisco. She is an alumna of the Berkshire Opera Company resident artist program, where Opera News praised her performance of the Dew Fairy in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, "Laura Strickling offered the creamy, clear, younger-sister-of-Eva-Pogner instrument ideal for singing the role over full orchestration." She appeared as Pamina in the Metropolitan Opera Guild's touring outreach production of The Magic Flute. Ms. Strickling’s operatic roles include Countess Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro), Cleopatra (Julius Caesar), Mimi (La boheme), Dinorah (Dinorah), Elvira (L’Italiana in Algeri), Josephine (H.M.S. Pinafore), Gretel (Hansel and Gretel), The Dew Fairy (Hansel and Gretel), and Micaëla (Carmen). She created the role of Muriel in the world premiere of Thomas Benjamin's The Alien Corn with the Peabody Opera Theater.
Her recording of James Matheson’s Times Alone with Yarlung Records was hailed by MusicWeb International for, “shapely, nuanced voicings and emotional urgency...a striking directness.” New Voices, the Billboard Classical Top-Ten-selling CD including her recording of Glen Roven’s The Vineyard Songs with pianist Michael Brofman was acclaimed by Opera News, “Laura Strickling’s lovely diction and warm, clear sound bring attractive immediacy to this cycle.” She can also be heard on the “New American Song @SongFest,” CD, performing Jake Heggie’s Edna St. Vincent Millay with pianist Dimitri Dover, and on The Garden: Songs and Vocal Chamber Music of Tom Cipullo, performing the landmark song cycle Of a Certain Age with pianist Liza Stepanova. Her upcoming recordings include her first solo CD project of American art songs with pianist Joy Schreier, and the new opera The Parting by Tom Cipullo, co-starring baritone Michael Mayes and mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook.
Ms. Strickling was a vocal fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center in 2013 and 2014, a resident artist at the Steans Music Institute at Ravinia in 2012, a recipient of the Marc and Eva Stern Fellowship at SongFest in 2011 and 2012, and performed in The Song Continues…with Marilyn Horne – Weill Music Institute’s 2012 Professional Training Program at Carnegie Hall. She is a graduate of the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University (M.M. in Voice), and Moody Bible Institute (B.M. in Sacred Music).
A Chicago native, Ms. Strickling is an avid traveler, having lived in Morocco, where she studied classical Arabic at the Arabic Language Institute of Fez, and Kabul, Afghanistan, where her husband was the founding chair of the Department of Law at the American University of Afghanistan. She currently makes her home in St. Thomas, U. S. Virgin Islands. She is represented by Schwalbe and Partners. For further information, visit www.laurastrickling.com.