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 Lisette Oropesa, soprano, chatted with me about the effect that the pandemic had while she was at the Metropolitan Opera and her concerns for the musical community. Furthermore, she talks about a fear of traveling to Madrid for her post-COVID return to the stage as Violetta in La Traviata, which is captured in the below photo.
Lisette Oropesa, soprano
Interviewed June 10th, 2020
TB: First off, I always like to start these interviews off on a good note. So, what is the best thing that’s happened to you this week?
LO: Probably the best thing that’s happened to me is that I have had some amazing speakers join me in my masterclass series. On Wednesday [June 3, 2020], the day after Blackout Tuesday, I had a group of six incredibly gifted and successful African American singers come and speak to a group of over 800 listeners on a Zoom call as part of my masterclass series. We just let them tell their stories and share their experiences about things they had happen in the opera industry all over the world. It was a really eye-opening discussion and a lot of people got something out of it, including myself. I learned a lot about people’s experiences and about how far we still have to go.
The masterclasses are completely free and donation-based. All of the donations that came in for that masterclass were either given to the panelists themselves or if the panelists didn’t want to take the donations for themselves, I redirected them to arts organizations in their hometowns that serve underprivileged children by providing music lessons, music education, etc. So I was really excited that we—all of us—were able to not only get something out of it, but that we were able to raise enough money to give some help to several different foundations right now. That’s probably the best experience I’ve had all week.
TB: So, as most people are likely familiar with your career, what would you say is one of the proudest moments you have had so far?
LO: I would probably say this past season. I was featured at the Met [Metropolitan Opera] in two leading roles for Manon and La Traviata [Singing Manon and Violetta, respectively]. Two very similar storylines up to a point, but they’re two very different characters and very different styles of opera. They were both really beautifully received, and really wonderful successes for me and for the entire cast. I just felt privileged to have an opportunity to sing at the Met in roles like that after having been a young artist there. Having basically grown up there, I just felt like I made it. Really made it, and that made me feel very good this year.
TB: So talking about the pandemic, could you back up and talk about how this occurred for you? Were you at the Met when it shut down?
LO: Yeah, I was in between performances of Traviata the day that they announced that they would be closing the theater. I didn’t get a message or a phone call or anything. I had suspected that it might happen and then everybody saw a formal announcement on social media. Then I got an individual phone call later on that afternoon. So, it seemed like they were calling artists one at a time.
By the time they got to me, I had already read what was going on. And I asked, “Can I leave town? Or do I need to stick around?” Because normally you book an apartment for a set time and the plane ticket is at the end of the contract. This was a couple weeks before I was supposed to originally leave so I asked and they replied, “No, no, you can go. You can leave.”
We knew we weren’t going to be able to go on to Europe, which was my next set of engagements, because my engagements there had already been cancelled. I knew that I didn’t want to stay in New York for risk of getting stuck there and that New York would probably become a hotbed for the virus. I’ve lived in New York for many years; where there’s a lot of people [a disease like COVID-19 makes for] a dangerous situation. So, we figured we would be safer and have more space at home. Luckily, we have a house in Baton Rouge. So, that’s what we did. My husband and I packed all our bags and we knew we didn’t want to fly. So, we rented a car and drove immediately out of New York to Louisiana.
TB: Can you talk to me about some of the logistics of that cancellation as well? Because my understanding is that there is no housing [provided] for these contracts. So, were you able to get that taken care of through Airbnb or something?
LO: No, I tried. The thing about the way soloist life works is that we have to book in advance, our housing and our flights. A lot of that includes just our regular living costs, and some opera companies pay for housing and other companies do not. The Met pays for travel, which I had gotten my travel reimbursement already, but they don’t pay for housing. So, I paid for an Airbnb and [after the Met closed] I asked my host, “I’m being essentially laid off my job and I need to leave two weeks early, is there any way you can refund me these last two weeks?” He said no and I went to Airbnb. I sent a message and asked if I could be refunded my money and they said no. So, Airbnb was not able to help us get those last two weeks worth of rent, which in New York City is not cheap. So, I lost that.
Then my flights: I could reschedule my flights, but I didn’t get any reimbursements for them. So, I lost that. Luckily, after a lot of haggling I was able to get my hotel paid back that I had already booked for my next engagement [in Europe]. It was a short engagement, so I booked a hotel. I was able to get the hotel and the opera house in Germany—between the two of them—to reimburse me for the hotel costs that I had paid in advance, because—only because—they [the opera house and the hotel] work together and I had stayed at that hotel many times in the past. I had a relationship with that hotel. So, I was very fortunate in that aspect that I got that [money] back. But that’s it, I didn’t get anything else for anything. My flights—international flights—are a lot of money and obviously Airbnbs and things like that are a lot of money. Thank God, I had not booked everything else in the future as to that engagement yet.
One of my summer engagements was trying to get me to book my housing as early as January for the Summer. But for as much as I like to plan ahead, there are only so many months of costs you front at one time, and I had this feeling in January when they were like, “Do you want to go ahead and book your June, July, and August housing?” I am really glad that I said, “No, I’m going to put it off...” I ended up doing the right thing, because I didn’t have to now lose another three months worth of rent, which would have really been another big bummer for me for this summer engagement, which was later cancelled. So, all in all, I didn’t really lose that much compared to some people that had fronted expenses and had lost a lot more. But I did, of course, lose a lot of income. I did have work booked solid all the way through the summer. So that’s disappointing for me.
TB: So does this change the way that you are looking at negotiating contracts as you go forward?
LO: Yes and no, because the thing is that going into this in the future, force majeure is not going to be on our side anymore. Companies have to protect themselves and artists want to protect themselves. But I think the big issue that’s happening right now with force majeure is what exactly does that mean? How far out in advance can a company claim force majeure?
My summer engagements were cancelled in May and now the Met is closing all of the fall. So, they’re claiming force majeure into September, October, November, and December. Which brings up the question of does force majeure mean a year? Because usually when you think of force majeure—at least I certainly always have—it’s a one time thing. It’s a freak accident almost always, and it affects one house at a time. So, it’s one thing to say a company is going to shut down because it flooded, like when New Orleans had the hurricane, that’s force majeure. [Classical Singer Magazine, November 1, 2005] But then what ends up happening is that people come together to boost the organization that has lost whatever they’ve lost, and everybody supports each other. You move on and it’s a one time thing.
Force majeure across the entire world for a period that’s longer than a couple of months, now going into a year starts to become a real issue, because then you can’t even count on income. It’s one thing to say, I’m going to stretch my income or what I have now for two months... Now, I’m going to stretch it into the summer... Now, I have to stretch it until next year and possibly further. [On the other side,] Companies are going, “Okay, we have to make sure that we don’t get forced to pay artists.” Because if they [arts organizations] get forced to pay artists, they might have to close. So, everybody is clinging to what they can. But I think the fear for a lot of performing artists is, how long do we have to make this work? And then, what’s going to happen on the other side of it? If and when it gets back to normal, can we still make the same fees that we originally were making? Do we have to make cuts? Are we going to have to take a percentage cut or maybe a performance number cut?
I think a lot of that is still uncertain right now. I’m lucky. I’m in a very privileged position that I have contracts in the future that are already negotiated, but I have no idea if one of those companies will come to my manager and need to renegotiate for a 20% or 30% pay cut. I have no idea if that will be the point that it gets pushed to.
TB: We’re at the two and a half month mark of this catastrophic event. So, when is your next performing gig?
LO: Well technically, I was supposed to sing La Traviata in Madrid in May. They have rescheduled concert performances of it for July and have asked me to return in July to sing a few performances at the end of the month, which I’ve agreed to do. But I haven’t booked my flight. I haven’t booked my housing. I haven’t booked anything, because I have no idea really... The way this whole thing has made me feel from day to day is that you can’t make plans because you have no idea. All of a sudden, last Sunday was some of the highest number of cases that they’ve seen in the United States because of things that happened on Memorial Day. So, every few days and every week, we get a whole new batch of information.
I’m happy that they [Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain] have the best intentions to try and put something on and to make it work with socially distancing everyone—everybody wearing a mask and gloves, along with washing their hands—and all that... I’m very happy that they’re feeling ambitious enough and courageous enough to try and do this. I want very much to sing again. But I also don’t really feel 100% guaranteed that something like this can happen in July; that seems very soon to me. But I also know the situation there is a little bit different than it is here in the United States. [It’s strange] Because if Madrid’s saying we can start doing performances in July, but the Met and the New York Philharmonic are saying, “Sorry, we can’t do anything until 2021”... Everything just seems so uncertain, because everybody’s on a different wavelength about what can work.
TB: Some German houses have begun opening back up as well. [Wall Street Journal Wiesbaden State Theater, June 16, 2020] But, we’re sitting here in America going “Wait, but this isn’t over yet.”
LO: Yeah, for us it isn’t. We’re way behind the curve. So, I’m grateful to have European engagements, my entire fall. I’m grateful that I didn’t have Met contracts that I lost, or other contracts in the United States that I lost, at least not as of yet. Not as of yet...
I’m just praying that there isn’t a second wave. I’m praying that a vaccine comes out sooner rather than later. I’m praying that social distancing and all that will work. So then people feel more comfortable getting in groups again.
TB: What would you say is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned so far in this situation?
LO: [Laughter] Other than the meaning of “We are invoking force majeure?” Probably the hardest lesson is that you can never be too careful with your money. Honestly, I’m grateful, grateful, grateful that I have a savings account, a house, and some retirement. I’m grateful I have money somewhere that if I really needed it, I could take it. That’s only because I’m a pessimist.
I have been a pessimist my entire life. I’ll tell you this with 100% truth, last year when I won the Sills Award and the Tucker award [Opera Wire, May 7, 2019] (they’re both $50,000 awards) and I remember saying to my husband and my mother—and they’re both going to kill me because I said this—I said, “I’m putting this hundred thousand dollars away because there’s going to be a one hundred thousand dollar expense somewhere. I’m getting ready. This is God setting me up for the loss that I’m getting ready to incur.” And I’m the type of person who believes when something really wonderful comes, there’s something else that’s going to balance it out and vice versa. I was almost waiting for this, or for something, to happen at some huge expense.
Just before the pandemic, I was in Paris singing Il Barbiere di Siviglia and there was a huge strike that shut down the opera house for months. Half of my performances [were] cancelled, due to the strike. That was another lesson, though they paid the artists for that, as they had a fund ready to pay in case the orchestra or the house would go on strike. And I’m so grateful for that, because I was able to sing half my performances, but they paid for all of them. It was a huge contract. And thank God for that, but I put that money away. Because this money is not for free. Nothing is for free.
I’m always remembering, you know, the other side of the coin. It keeps me grounded and also it has kept me afloat, for now. It has kept me afloat for now and I’m grateful.
TB: So, how has this impacted your creative process? Are you singing?
LO: Yes, because of the masterclass series that I’ve created, it’s given me an opportunity to study while also helping other people. Because when you teach, you have to learn as well. You’re teaching yourself, as well. So, in the classes not only have I been giving lectures and stuff, but I’ve also been hearing arias from dozens of singers—hundreds actually—by now. Just helping them by giving them a coaching on their aria, on their language, or on their musicianship, or their vocal technique. That has kept me working, studying, looking at music everyday, thinking about phrasing, and about music making. Even though I’m giving advice or whatever to others, I’m processing those things for myself as well. So that when I go and look at that aria again I can remember, “I broke down this phrase like this, or I never realized before that the text actually says that.” So, that has kept me going.
Honestly, the first five weeks, I couldn’t sing, not classically. I was so devastated. I was so angry—not angry at the Met or anything, just angry at the idea that so many people just suddenly had the entire rug pulled out from under their feet. My mom is a music teacher in a public elementary school and they just shut down school. All of the kids had to suddenly start learning online. When they were talking about distance learning, I actually saw a statistic yesterday: Louisiana has some of the highest rates of children that don’t have internet access. It’s like 30% of children don’t have internet access. [Lack of Internet in Rural Louisiana Spells Trouble for Parents During Coronavirus-WAFB9] So my mom is maybe 10 years out from retirement and also trying to teach music lessons online. She was making phone calls to international children—particularly Hispanic children, because we’re Hispanic—to help the teachers try and communicate with these kids to make sure they could get a Chromebook. Also, that they knew they had to come and pick up their little Chromebook so that they could get their lessons from teachers and they could do their schoolwork for the rest of the year.
My heart was breaking every single day, thinking about these poor children who, maybe their parent or parents have to work? I’m sure their parents have to continue to work to support them, so they’re going to be home alone trying to do their Chromebook exercises, trying to do their schoolwork, and some of them don’t even have internet access?
There was one lady my mom talked to on the phone—my mom had tried several different phone numbers to get in touch with her and she finally got in touch with her—the lady had three or four small children, all different age levels. The lady’s husband had just died a few months before and she was working like mad, trying to make ends meet. She hadn’t even paid her electricity bill that month... I’m sorry, but as much as I love music, how the hell does anybody feel inspired when something that drastic is going on? To suddenly just pick up some Mozart and just start working on it? It just seems so unimportant, like there are so many more important things than opera right now. That’s how I felt at first and then coupled with that, the idea that I was in a bad position but nowhere near as bad as people who had lost their contracts and their gigs for the year. For some people those were the only gigs they had. For some, that was it, that was their first big break; or that was their first debut; or that was their first chance to sing a role and they lost it. I felt like I didn’t lose hardly anything compared to what some people lost.
I had no reason to complain, and hearing stories from my friends who have kids, health insurance, and mouths to feed, to suddenly lose all of their income with zero help or zero payout from any company. AGMA [American Guild of Musical Artists] was trying to work with companies to convince them to pay 10%, 20%, or 25%, but every company would do something different, basically according to whatever moral pressure we could put on them. But there would be no guarantee. Also, AGMA has a relief fund, which I donated to and tried to help promote and open the floodgates for people to donate, because the AGMA Relief [Fund] only had a few million in it. They had more applications for aid in the past couple of months than they’ve ever had. Ever. So, they couldn’t even really process them fast enough and they only give out $1,000 a year.
It just felt so overwhelming. I’m sorry, I’m going on and on. But it was awful at first, honestly. The masterclasses have really helped me pull out of what was a very deep, dark, angry, and upset slump.
TB: So, tell me a little bit about how you decided, “You know what? I see this problem and I want to start doing masterclasses.” Because with tomorrow, you’ve held forty-one classes.
LO: I didn’t know it was going to be this big or this popular, or whatever. I just started it on a whim because I was doing some Facebook Lives to just keep my sanity and connect with people (sing some karaoke and whatever). A lot of people on my Facebook Lives were always asking me technical questions and I started talking about technique. I thought people were tuning out but it was the opposite. As soon as I started talking about technique, people started typing questions like crazy, and I wondered if I should just do a masterclass series. Talk about technique, see who shows up, and just try it.
We had a camera and we had a setup because we’ve been investing in filming stuff for years as I make newsletters and I’ve done broadcasts and all that. So, I got a little Zoom account and I put out the feelers for who might be interested. I set up an email signup and in just a few days, we had about one thousand signups. It was just like boom, and we said, “Well, we’re going to have to upgrade our Zoom account.” So I upgraded my account to allow for five hundred participants. Next thing you know, I had three thousand signups and I upgraded again for a thousand participants. I also thought, I better do two classes a day, because if all these people show up we’re going to be too many people for Zoom. So it literally started as let’s just see what happens. In my first few classes, I had 400 people, then 500, then 600, then 800 people. It is huge. But completely organically spread, with people telling their friends on social media, inviting their whole studios, teacher friends of mine telling their students to come. Also, they’re free.
The other thing is, I do get a lot of requests, people asking me to have a studio and teach voice lessons. But I don’t have enough hours in the day to sit down and teach voice lessons to every single person that has asked me. Plus, I feel bad to turn people down. I also feel bad to say, “Okay, that’s 200 bucks,” because voice lessons are not cheap. I certainly feel like, I want to be able to help people, but I know most people can’t afford 200 dollars an hour. It’s not fair to have to say, “Well, I’ll only take the people who can pay the most money,” it didn’t sit right with my bones. So, I wanted to do this free session and let people donate if they wished, but they don’t have too. Then I offered some singing opportunities for free again, which I did for almost two weeks. The people who’ve donated more than a certain amount get an extra class.
The intention was only ever to connect with people and find some sort of positive outlet for myself and for others. I’m so happy that it’s basically become a platform that a lot of people are now connected with. It’s a community now. I’m thrilled that that’s happened because it’s people from all over the world who’ve become a part of this. They’ve met each other, heard each other sing, and applauded each other. Everybody’s been so supportive when others go up there and sing. We’ve had people from beginners to professionals sing in these classes. The people that I’ve managed to get to sing for the class have been all different levels, from all over the world. So, people have gotten to see and hear each other and be inspired by each other. I’m just giddy at the thought of it.
TB: Well, thank you, because as you were saying we were all in that dark, stormy time. But you turned it into something where we could all begin to connect and share art. That’s beautiful.
LO: Well, thanks, I feel very blessed to have had this experience and that it’s going well and people are learning. I’m taking off a week now because I’m going home to visit my family, but I want to continue it to the end of June and maybe a little bit of July. Maybe I’ll do it every summer in the future. If it turns out to be something that people are interested in and want to be a part of, I’m here for it.
TB: So, minus a pandemic, it is June 10th. Where would you be and what would you be doing?
LO: I would be in Glyndebourne, preparing for the summer festival right now for Die Entführung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio]. I know, I’m sad. I was really looking forward to going to Glyndebourne too, because I love it there. I’ve sung there once before. It’s a beautiful part of the country and you get to spend a lot of time there. My husband and I were just reminiscing about the cider and how great it is. And the running routes there are amazing. Also, the views are spectacular. It’s peaceful. And it’s one of those places that you miss when you’re not there.
TB: How do you think that this pandemic is going to change our musical landscape?
LO: I pray that this is not the new normal, that everything is moving to streaming and we’re all just going to become streaming artists. I pray that that is not the new normal. Everybody’s doing a gala. Everybody’s doing singing from home, play from home, use the recorded accompaniment, set up a microphone, set up a light... This cannot become the new normal. This will never come close to replacing what our real art form is like. You know, and I never felt it more strongly than I did during the Met Gala when I was watching it.
All I felt was that sense of this is not our art form; like watching during the orchestra bits when they were alone with headphones playing their part and then it was all put together later by sound engineers. I’m watching them and they’re all alone in their house. But the idea of ensemble... I grew up in band and orchestra playing the flute. You have to be in earshot. Same thing with chorus; you have to be in earshot. That’s the whole point of music making in an ensemble. You’re supposed to listen to each other. You’re supposed to breathe with each other. You’re supposed to follow your concert master and your conductor, via your senses. You’re enveloped in the sound and in the experience. The way it’s being put across now, it might be really nice for an audience member to enjoy and get to hear music the same way they get to hear a record, or television, or the radio, fine. But for the experience from the artists’ perspective, especially if you’re in an ensemble, it is completely disconnected and it’s very difficult to simulate.
We try. We try. We try so hard. We put on our smiling faces. We get up there and we sing. But to miss getting to see the orchestra, see the conductor, hear the singers with you, hear the audience, feel the acoustic space of the room, I mean, all of that... It feels very much just like singing in your underwear. [Laughter] It just feels very hard. So, what I guess the answer to your question would be is, I pray that this can be behind us. You know, I don’t know how long that’ll be, but I just don’t want the world to evolve into this.
TB: In turning towards the young artists, what advice would you give to them about getting through this?
LO: It’s a pretty hard hit for them, especially if they just finished college and they didn’t get to sing their recital properly, or they had to record their recital, or their jury. They haven’t been able to have voice lessons in person for several months. I think for a lot of them it’s a really hard hit. And maybe they’re missing their first summer program where they got to sing or were going to get a chance to sing something. For some people, they were just commenting in our class yesterday saying, “I feel like I’ve missed a year. I feel like I’ve lost an entire year of my training.” I know that that’s very, very difficult. I can’t really even begin to sympathize with exactly what that feels like.
What I hope that they’ll do is take this time to invest in the things that take time to invest in and that you need to spend time doing at that age, [such as,] learning languages and repertoire. I gave them a couple of tips like, you could listen to a new opera every three days. Just pick a new opera from the canon that you’ve never heard or that you’re not necessarily familiar with. Just sit and watch it. All these broadcasts are out. Get on that opera on demand and watch an opera everyday so that you can learn the repertoire. Because that takes time. That’s one thing we have now, time. That all we have is time. So you can work on languages. You can work on repertoire. You will use them.
But not everybody feels motivated to sing right now and I get that. One of the first things on my first class was finding the motivation to sing, but also understanding and knowing that you may not feel it. And it’s okay not to push yourself to try and study and vocalize every single day. We’re not machines. You don’t turn us on and we just work. It’s not like that. So, do something else that will benefit your singing without you having to actually sit and start singing. That is why listening is something I was hoping to inspire people to do more of. Listen and observe other people. Learn your languages, etc. I want them to get that message.
TB: Do you have advice that you would give to the musical community at large as they’re going through this, right now?
LO: I think the only thing you can do whenever things go really bad, is to try and really count your blessings. It’s very easy to count your losses. Very easy to count your losses and I’ve certainly been doing a lot of that. I’m certainly not an example of a person who counts her blessings every single day. I count my losses all the time, especially lately. But the times that I’ve been able to manage to find a reason to get out of bed and do something is when I feeling motivated to do these classes and be there for these people. I know people look to each other for inspiration and a lot of people look to me for inspiration so that makes me feel inspired. Because it makes me have a reason to do something.
If you’re a musician and you’re feeling at a loss, and all you’re counting are your losses, try and find where your blessings are and try to understand that there are people looking to you for motivation, people looking to you for inspiration. If you can be that inspiration for just one person, or two people, that’s the whole reason that you got into art in the first place, most likely. It doesn’t have to be a huge group or a huge audience, really. I mean, there is somebody that’s going to be moved by you. You didn’t get into this for the money. You didn’t get into this for the fame. You didn’t get into this because it was easy. None of those reasons are the reasons that we’re here. We’re all here because we love this and this is who we are. We can’t see ourselves doing anything else. So, find a way that you can still be an inspiration to someone.
TB: Thank you so much for your time and for chatting so openly with me. My last and favorite question is, what is your video binge recommendation?
LO: Basically the only show I watch, RuPaul’s Drag Race. [Laughter] No, I watched Better Call Saul, but it’s done for the season. I’m enjoying Dead to Me very much. What’s the other one that was really good? Oh yes, Killing Eve is a beautiful, beautiful show. I always watch The Golden Girls and then I’ve been watching All in the Family, because we got all the episodes for that. I find it very telling and amazing how many issues that were so prevalent during the 60s and 70s, we’re literally still having the same conversation today in 2020. It shocks me to my core.
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About Lisette Oropesa
LISETTE OROPESA was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and is a regular at the most important opera houses in the world. She started her career at the Metropolitan Opera at the age of 22 by debuting as Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro. Since then she has sung many roles at the Met including Gilda, Manon, and Violetta in La Traviata. In Europe, highlights include acclaimed performances as Amalia in Verdi’s I Masnadieri at Teatro alla Scala, Queen Marguerite in Les Huguenots at the Paris Opera, Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Teatro Real Madrid, La Traviata at the Arena di Verona, Teatro Real, Rodelinda at The Liceu in Barcelona, Gilda at Grand Théatre de Genève, and the Rome Opera, Konstanze in Munich and Paris, Rosina in Barbiere and Adina in L’elisir d’amore also in Paris, Isabelle in Robert le diable in La Monnaie-Brussels, and Ophélie at Opéra de Lausanne. She has also sung major roles at the Rossini Opera Festival, the Santa Fe Opera, Glyndebourne, and Tanglewood, among others. In concert, she has appeared with the Concertgebouw, Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Symphony, Orchestre de Paris, and Philadelphia Orchestra.