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 Lucas Meachem, baritone, shared his experience with the ongoing issues of being a professional singer in a pandemic. Notably, his concerns center around young artists and the continuation of art.
Lucas Meachem, baritone
Interviewed December 26, 2020
TB: Thank you again for chatting with me today. First off, what is the best thing that's happened to you in the last week?
LM: In the last week and even the last year, it is my son. I am going days at a time, getting to spend all day with him. He is at such a great age, a year and a half. So spending a lot of time with him is definitely an excellent time.
TB: And this is his second Christmas, right? That has to be a wonderful time.
LM: Yes, it is his second Christmas. He still doesn't get it, but he likes the perks and the presents. Santa Claus came to visit yesterday, and he was really freaked out about that. [Laughter]
TB: You've also had a really interesting career. I read about how Susan Graham, having heard you sing karaoke, then recommended you to the Chicago Lyric. What would you say is your proudest accomplishment in your career so far?
LM: I would say making my Metropolitan Opera debut. When I finally had the confidence to think that I was good enough to make a career out of singing, I set that goal for myself when I was probably 24 to make my Met debut by the time I was 30. I made it at 29 years old. It was General Rayevsky in War and Peace.
TB: I know you have had two big issues with COVID-19 related cancellations. First, could you back up to March and tell me about where you were and how you first realized that the pandemic was going to have such a dramatic effect on you?
LM: I was in Dallas, Texas, at the Dallas Opera, rehearsing my first Don Carlo. I was singing the role of Rodrigo, which was going to be my step into the heavier Verdi repertoire. I was stepping into that role as an up and coming Verdi baritone.
We were rehearsing, and I was so happy with how it was going and the cast that we had. It was an amazing cast. The company ended up cancelling on March 14, I believe. Of course, I thought it was the absolute right thing to do, and it was what we needed to do. The day they cancelled, I actually went home with my wife, and we were down and commiserating. But I don't stay down very long when things happen to me. So the first thing I did was think about how we have to do something to push back against this. The fine arts still live in our hearts. If we are artists, we are always artists. We don't just stop being artists because the show is cancelled.
So I said to her, "We're going to do a live stream performance in two days. Maybe the Dallas Opera will help, and maybe they won't. But we will figure this out ourselves. We're a two-person band. My wife is a pianist, and I'm the singer. We have performed together over the years for recitals, so we have a lot of repertoire.
We called the Dallas Opera, and they loved the idea. It ended up being one of the first live stream recitals. I think Joyce DiDonato and Piotr Beczala did one the day before us. At the time, I thought that this would be through the summer and that then we would all be okay. In the summer, I'd be in Paris doing Bohème. (I don't think anyone saw it going so long.)
TB: That is really an interesting point because, after that, Dallas Opera took such a lead in developing digital content. And your live streaming of that recital certainly opened up a nice door for that as well. So have you performed on stage in an opera since that cancellation?
LM: No, I haven't.
TB: So this ended up cancelling the entire season into the fall. That leads me to the next big COVID-19 cancellation, which you had posted about on social media. You were at Opéra National de Paris [Paris Opera] getting ready to perform Escamillo in a really interesting production of Carmen. The French government then shut that down. Can you take me through that?
LM: Absolutely, I can. But to understand Paris, you have to understand every cancellation that led up to Paris. In the beginning, I was surprised. And in the middle, I was hurt and frustrated. By the time Paris came around, I was expecting cancellations. It is all about your outlook on what is going to happen. In a way, the hardest part about COVID-19—for some people and artists in particular—is the emotional side.
For artists, the emotional side of COVID-19 is that you just don't have a clue if you're going to go on. It could be the night of the show, and they can pull the plug on the entire performance. In some opera houses, that means you don't get your pay because opera singers don't get paid until the night we perform—usually during intermission, we get a check. Most opera houses do it that way. The uncertainty is one of the most difficult things to deal with as an artist.
Going to Paris, I had it in my head the entire time they were going to cancel. I didn't even rent my apartment for the whole time that I was there. I rented my apartment until December 15, and our show opened on December 16, 2020. So when they cancelled, I wasn't surprised or hurt. I was actually so proud of Paris because they tried, and they gave it a shot. I would always rather the company attempt to put on a show and attempt to make art instead of cancelling without even trying.
Being an American artist in the United States is frustrating because you see these companies that have the best of the best for artistic administrators and directors pulling the plug for the foreseeable future. There are a lot of reasons that this has had to happen in the United States—don't get me wrong. But Europe is still going forward and being the creators of live performances and finding ways to deal with COVID-19. Europe has started to put all of these procedures in place for COVID-19, and when the United States comes back, we're only going to be at step one.
My show in Dallas may be one of the first shows back in March. [Dallas Opera, Don Carlo March 27 and April 3, 2021 Note: Abridged 90-minute version with COVID-19 safety precautions and no intermission. As of January 27, 2021, The Dallas Opera cancelled their spring season.] And we're going to start our learning curve in March, whereas in Madrid [Teatro Real], they started their learning curve last July. So, I just feel like we are really behind the times as far as performing during COVID-19 right now. I understand why people's hands are tied in the United States, and opera is an outlier there for several reasons. But that is what made it so special in Paris. They tried to do it. I was happy to show up and work with my colleagues, the director, and the orchestra. My heart was full; those were the best two weeks of my 2020.
TB: Could you tell me about some of the ways that Paris was making you feel confident that your safety was being taken care of?
LM: Of course. First of all, everyone who walked into the opera house regularly was tested three times a week. So I was tested three times a week. When I arrived, I had to show the French government, airport customs officials a negative PCR COVID-19 test from the last 72 hours. This is very difficult in the United States because after taking the test in the US, they say it takes up to three days to get the results. It was not easy to get to Paris, but it was quite easy once I was there. Paris had already lifted some restrictions as far as being able to go out without a permit. But Paris Opera had also provided me with a permit as I was an artist working there.
Only on the very first day at the sing-through, I sang without a mask. We were in a huge room with about seven people, and we were all spaced out. And other than when we were singing, we had our masks on. Besides that one time, every time I performed on stage or offstage, everyone wore a mask. In the hallways, the backstage area, and onstage, we performed with masks. And that is after everyone arrived with a negative COVID-19 test.
We weren't going to take our masks off onstage until the final dress rehearsal and all of the shows, of course. So we would wear our masks to the stage, and right as we were about to enter, we would take the mask off. When we left the stage, we would put the make back on and go to the dressing rooms. I could have my mask off in my dressing room because I was the only one in there. If anyone came in, we would open the windows, like if my wig or makeup person came in. It was incredibly safe, and I felt very well taken care of.
TB: It seems like it was a real team effort for safety. Everyone was working towards making sure that everyone was safe and comfortable.
LM: Absolutely. I really felt that there.
TB: Hopefully, that continues.
LM: I can't imagine it won't. Especially in the arts, I don't think there are very many pandemic deniers or anti-maskers. And if there are, you don't have to come to work.
TB: Looking at the overall situation, can you talk to me about how this has affected your financial health going through the pandemic?
LM: I've been very fortunate to have had contracts with companies that have kept their artists in mind. Every company that I've worked for could have cancelled my contract and not given me a penny. Let me start this by saying there are people out there who have it a lot worse than me. So when it comes to my financial state, I have had 15 years of a pretty nice professional career to be able to save money. And I've done so. This means that regardless of whether those companies chose to pay me, I would be okay because I have a retirement fund and have put away money. I've been very conservative with my money.
The people that have been the most affected by this are the ones that could be the next talented professionals. But they haven't saved up money, and now they might have to get another job. They might be out of the business completely. You might miss out on the next Jonas Kaufmann because he has had to take a job in advertising or insurance to make rent. If this had happened to me in 2006, I would have had to move back in with my parents. There is no telling what would have happened to my career. So we need to keep those young artists and people in mind.
To your original question, I've been very fortunate to receive a portion of my fee from almost every company that I've had contracts with. And those companies who offered zero compensation will always be remembered for not taking care of their artists. Though, I’ve also been able to save quite a bit of money because it is so expensive to live the life of a traveling opera singer.
You have to have a home wherever you normally live, so you pay rent or a mortgage. Then you pay rent at another place where you are going to perform. Then you pay for a flight, to have your family come—if that happens—and the food in that separate place. So this is a much more affordable lifestyle for an opera singer, staying in one place.
Honestly, the percentages that these opera houses have been paying me for my cancelled contracts have been able to sustain us through this time, along with the savings. So, we are doing okay—not great, but it could be much worse. I don't even want to quantify it or qualify it because so many people are in so much more need than me. At this point, my main goal is to try and help younger singers.
TB: I want to come back to the initiatives you are working on to help younger artists. But before we talk about that, could you talk about how this has affected you as a creative individual? Because I know that you've been talking a lot about emotional health and the challenge for people going through this, especially in your blog post. [Man to Man: Mental Health During COVID, July 29, 2020]
LM: It is tough. Any major lifestyle change is difficult. They say that there are five or so especially stressful life events, and a change of occupation is one. Right now, it is not even that people's careers are changing. They are in limbo, trying to wait as long as they can and hoping that they will be able to get back to some semblance of their occupation (which just happens also to be their calling in life). It is just the most horrible place for all these young singers and myself included.
As far as actionable things, I try and give as much help as I can to people, like with my Sunday live sessions. I try to keep answering questions and working with young singers. But right now, it is an emotional time, and people are losing a tremendous amount. To give you an example, I had a wonderful Zoom call with my wife's family on Christmas Eve. All of them talked about their jobs and how hard Zoom is and having gone back to the office. They're not even complaining but just talking about the difficulties of working in this COVID-19 environment. The whole time I was thinking, "Every one of my colleagues is out of work right now." I feel like everyone has forgotten that artists are still suffering and that we are not back to work. We're still closed down with a very blurry future. I just don't want the general public to forget that we are going to be the last ones able to stand on our own two feet. Even while people are standing back up, they can't forget us.
TB: Can you talk about some of the new initiatives you've been working on? Because one of the things that I have noticed about your work is that you're continuously trying to keep young artists and artists in general engaged.
LM: Absolutely. One that I am really proud of is The Perfect Day Music Foundation's Virtual Voice Competition. We decided to do this a few months back, and since putting it into motion, we've had 135 people apply for the competition. The foundation's mission statement is based on inclusivity, but we also wanted to give some money back to the community and young singers in need right now. And what we've realized happened was that we got a third thing out of this. We have given new purpose to singers: to be able to dress up, put on a suit, makeup, or an audition gown, and to go record something. Learning a piece of music that they might not have known and uploading it gives them a sort of satisfaction of putting art back into the world. It is funny that it didn't occur to me that we were giving to these young singers purpose.
Also, I’ve been working with the Vincerò Academy. Though my wife, Irina, has done a lot of coaching, I haven't done as much yet. But it is set up for the end of the month. I have also been trying to speak to people about the pandemic's emotional side and allow the emotions to happen. Because there is so much stifling of emotion that goes on with people where they don't want to believe it is happening—or with toxic masculinity that won't allow the emotions to happen. So I've been encouraging people to experience the emotion. See it come and then let it go.
At the end of the day, if you sit down at the piano, you'll practice a little. It's like the gym. If you walk into the gym, you're going to work out a little bit. So if you sit down at the piano, you will crack a score and do a little work.
TB: That is great advice. So minus a pandemic, where would you be at this time?
LM: I'd be in Paris right now doing Carmen. I would have had a show yesterday, then a show on the 28th, and the last show on the 31st. I would have been through four performances in Paris as of yesterday, with two left. I told you that I had rented an apartment until December 15. And so, two days before the cancellation, I thought that this would actually happen. So, I rented another very nice apartment as my family would be with me. Their flights were booked and everything. Then everything cancelled [in Paris] a couple of days later, and I went to cancel my Airbnb. This has happened to me twice now, where they have refused to refund my money. I had not even stayed at the apartment, so that was $4,000 gone in the blink of an eye.
So, I would be in Paris right now, and I would be preparing for La Bohème at the Met in the Zeffirelli production. That is always exciting, and I love being back in New York.
TB: What is one thing that you're most grateful for in this situation?
LM: Family time and watching my son grow up, for sure. Of course, I am in a luxurious position where my family travels with me everywhere that I perform anyway. I'm in a position to do that because I waited a long time to have a family. I'm 42, and I had my son—my first child—at 40. I got married at 37. So I did push off a lot of things for two reasons: 1) I had a drive inside of me that didn't allow me to have too many connections and I had to succeed at this before I could bring a child into the equation; and 2) I had this drive professionally that was always a block to how far some relationships could go. Once the profession was really going and I felt in a good place, I was all of a sudden open to that. And I met the perfect person at the perfect time.
TB: One of the things that you're clearly very passionate about is developing the next generation of singers. If you could give them one piece of advice, what would it be right now?
LM: Keep working and keep working hard. Because once it gets back, it is going to be back. So don't give up. Keep going. You can have lazy days but don't have lazy weeks or months. There is one other thing that I learned in the pandemic because I had a unique perspective. And that is how much I appreciate being able to be a performer and getting paid to be a performer. I really appreciate my work. Opera singers, we like to complain. We like to talk about each other—not in a negative way—like if the director called us late or the conductor is too fast here, whatever. I don't normally get down with that, and I know how lucky I am to be able to do it. But this has reinforced how fortunate I feel to be able to sing and give my art to the world as a professional. So the reinforcement of the love that I have for classical music and being able to perform is something that I've gotten from the pandemic that has been very positive.
TB: How do you think that this is going to shape the opera world in the future? Do you think it is going to change it?
LM: I think the artists themselves will remember the companies that stood by them and helped them at their lowest point. They will also remember the companies that let them fend for themselves and left them in a lurch when they had contractual agreements with those artists. That's about as far into it as I want to get, but I think we will remember.
TB: What advice would you give the musical community at large as they are going through this?
LM: Continue to remind your friends and family that they will allow 200-300 people to sit next to each other on an airplane. But they won't allow them to sit next to each other in a theater. And tell them how unfair it is to keep the arts closed, especially when they've done studies now in Austria and Germany that note how audience members will adhere to guidelines and stay socially distanced.
We could be doing performances here in the United States. But again, we're the forgotten victims of COVID-19. We are still out of work. There are other people out of work too, but I feel that people aren't as sympathetic to the arts because we are such a sports nation. We think about those college kids who are only in classes but don't get to play their sport. But I think they are college kids, and they are supposed to go to class and study. Sports are an elective in college. Whereas professional performers, we have no other recourse. We need to be remembered. It speaks to the lack of culture in the United States.
TB: In closing up, I have two more questions. First, is there anything else you would like to add to our chat today?
LM: It is paramount to me to remember the importance of young artists right now. I can sit here in my comfortable home in Minnesota and feel fine. But in my heart, I continue to think back, "What if this had happened to me 10 or 15 years ago when I was just starting out?" Some fantastic singers are just starting out right now, and they need help. They need for us to be there. I've called younger singers that I hear, and I know they are talented. I keep telling them, "Keep at it! You've got what it takes." They are the real up-and-coming singers, and they need to be cared for. They need to be remembered and lifted up.
TB: Finally, for something fun to end our conversation, what would be your recommended video binge for the pandemic?
LM: Well, we all have a bunch of options for that right now! I'm going to go with something that I haven't video binged but really wish I had: the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. I love Lord of the Rings.
TB: Thank you so much for chatting with me today and for all that you are doing on behalf of the young artists.
“Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre” from Carmen by Bizet
Recorded November 2020 at the Tequila Cultural Festival
Lucas Meachem, baritone
Irina Meachem, piano
About Lucas Meachem
Grammy® Award-winning baritone Lucas Meachem is one of the most accomplished, in-demand singers of the moment, captivating audiences around the world with his “earnest appealing baritone” (The New York Times) and “commanding presence” San Francisco Chronicle. “A rock star of opera” (Opera Pulse), Meachem’s 2019-20 season includes a house debut at Teatro Regio di Torino, four role debuts, and performances with Opéra national de Paris, Dallas Opera, Prague Philharmonia, San Francisco Opera, and Chicago Lyric Opera.
Meachem opens the San Francisco Opera season, singing Mercutio in Roméo et Juliette and appears as a soloist in the Richard Tucker Gala at Carnegie Hall. He then sings the title role of Don Giovanni at Chicago Lyric Opera, followed by his house and role debut as Escamillo in Opera Teatro Regio di Torino’s production of Carmen. He then adds another role to his repertoire as Prince Yeletsky in Pique Dame at the Chicago Lyric Opera. He continues his season in his “signature role for good reason,” (Opera News) as Figaro in The Dallas Opera’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Meachem closes his season at Opéra national de Paris performing Marcello in Claus Guth’s noteworthy production of La bohéme.
Named the winner of San Francisco Opera’s inaugural “Emerging Star of the Year” Award in 2016, notable performances in Meachem’s American career include marking his 50th role debut as Athanaël in Thaïs (Minnesota Opera), Chorèbe in Les Troyens, Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Valentin in Faust at Chicago Lyric Opera; Eugene Onegin, Don Giovanni, and Il barbiere di Siviglia, Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, and Fritz/Frank in Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt at San Francisco Opera; General Rayevsky in Prokofiev’s War & Peace, Robert in , Marcello in La bohéme, Silvio in Pagliacci, and Mercutio in Roméo and Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera; Don Giovanni with Santa Fe Opera, New Orleans Opera, and Opera Cincinnati Opera; Zurga in Les pêcheurs de perles at the Florida Grand Opera; Germont in La traviata at Washington National Opera; Il barbiere di Siviglia at San Diego Opera, Opera Colorado, Houston Grand Opera, and Los Angeles Opera where he also gave his Grammy® Award-winning performance of Figaro in The Ghosts of Versailles.
A regular performer across Europe, Meachem has performed the title role in Il barbiere di Siviglia with the Vienna Staatsoper, Royal Opera House, Den Norske Opera; the title role in Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne Festival and Semperoper Dresden; the title role in Britten’s Billy Budd at Opéra national de Paris; as Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro at Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich and Royal Opera House; Wolfram von Eschenbach in Tannhäuser at the Saito Kinen Festival in Japan under the baton of Seiji Ozawa; the title role in Eugene Onegin with Komische Oper Berlin and Opéra national de Montpellier; Zurga in Les pêcheurs de perles at Bilbao Opera; with the Teatro Real de Madrid in the world premiere of El Viaje a Simorgh, Frank/Fritz in Die Tote Stadt, as well as Oreste in Iphigénie en Tauride; and a European tour with Anna Netrebko as Robert in Iolanta with 11 performances at Europe’s most important musical centers and venues including Vienna, Munich, Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam.
Last summer Meachem performed with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under the baton of Kent Nagano as the opening concert for the Salzburg Festival of Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion. Additionally, Meachem was part of the opening concert for the Grafenegg Music Festival of the Britten War Requiem and performed the Mahler Kindertotenlieder with Emmanuel Villaume and the Prague Philharmonia. Other notable concert performances in Europe include the Fauré Requiem with the Maggio Musical Fiorentino under Seiji Ozawa and Carmina Burana in Rome with the Accademia Nazionale de Santa Cecilia. Meachem made his Hollywood Bowl debut in 2014 as Silvio in Pagliacci with Gustavo Dudamel. He has sung with the New York Philharmonic in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion under Kurt Masur; the San Francisco Symphony in concert performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe; the American Symphony Orchestra in the United States premiere of Ferdinand Hiller’s oratorio The Destruction of Jerusalem at Avery Fisher Hall.
Born in North Carolina, Lucas Meachem studied music at Appalachian State University, the Eastman School of Music, and Yale University before becoming an Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera.