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 Maria Zouves, Executive Director of the Savannah VOICE Festival, discussed the beginning of the pandemic and the turmoil that was only beginning. Of particular interest is the care and advice that she gives and shows to young artists around the world.
Interviewed March 22, 2020
TB: First off, I like to start with something positive. So what’s the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
MZ: Oh, I guess it is that my neighbor brought me over rolls of toilet paper, paper towels, and Kleenex. [Mutual laughter] Just out of the blue.
TB: And here I was thinking it was going to be a casserole. Nope. We live in a new world.
MZ: Well before that, it was the tater tot casserole. But it was hysterical. So... it sort of personified, “What do you do in this situation?”
TB: So Maria, for those who aren’t familiar with your work with VOICExperience and with the Savannah VOICE Festival, would you mind talking about what you do?
MZ: Well, we are 20 years in, in regards to mentoring and training singers. And with that comes developing audiences. Our mission to nurture both artists and audiences has been the cornerstone of our work since 2000. So, here we are in this anniversary year ready to celebrate all of this wonderful work that has been done, at a time of crisis for our artists. But, 8 years ago in 2012, we started the process of giving our singers an opportunity to perform in a community that really needed opera. And Savannah, Georgia (of all places) did not have an opera company. So now we run two nonprofits; VOICExperience Foundation, which is the training, mentoring, and developing ‘arm’ if you will, and then the Savannah VOICE Festival, which is basically one time per year. So, for three weeks, we become the musical event that is happening in Savannah, Georgia. In one year alone, we’ll do 36 events and have 125 artists from 12 different countries offering everything from operas, to rock and roll concerts, to sacred concerts, which are themed according to our artists.
Because it is all about the artists and how they present their art to an audience. So what we do is a little out of the box as we don’t program per se. Instead, we ask, “What do our artists and audiences need?” And importantly, “How can we develop our programming bubbling up from that?” So if Sherrill Milnes—who is my co-founder, husband, and opera legend—and I had to describe what it is that we do, it is really helping push forward the growth, stability, and interest in the classical voice in whatever way they use it (opera, music theater, song, etc.). One of our taglines is ‘where music meets life’. And indeed, in this time that is so true. We are having to live that now in this situation—and figure out what is going to happen for the rest of our year and maybe the rest of our lives.
TB: I think that something important to note here is how multidisciplinary the VOICE Festival is and that this eclecticism depends on what you find artists doing. They are not just a single aspect of classical voice, they are multifaceted.
MZ: That is exactly right. And I think within those strengths and layers, we actually find our art. We are better singers when we explore. So the fact that we can run a marathon doesn’t preclude us from sprinting or playing basketball. I think we’re extraordinary creatures. As classical artists, we have such training and knowledge that the ability to use our instruments and move in other directions is easy, provided that we have those other stylistic elements.
We have had so much fun discovering that fact, in particular in our rock and roll concert. Nobody pretends that we are a cover band. But at the same time, I’ll have 5-6 artists every year that will surprise us with a drum solo or get up and sound exactly like James Taylor. How fun is that? But at the same time, we’re steeped in opera. And we offer operatic events every summer and year-round, doing so much outreach as well.
For us, one of the biggest components—it is very much a part of our Zeitgeist—is to be in the schools and working with communities. We have a relationship with Hospice Savannah, where we are looking at palliative care and how music therapy can really help to not only give comfort but also to prolong lives. So there are many avenues that we explore. And our radar is always open to seeing how we can affect change. It is going to be really interesting in the next year to see how we will participate in what is happening.
I may be jumping your question, but I love the fact that singers, artists, and producers—and organizations, like OPERA America and the National Endowment for the Arts—they are all ready. It took just a matter of days for the community to jump in and start to think outside the box. And even just the goodwill of people singing out of their balconies.
This is resilience in the arts. Like any other wartime, art will survive. Art will endure. And it will also evolve. Things will happen that would not have happened. And people will get jobs that weren’t supposed to. Opportunities will be greatly missed and the trajectory of a career... [shrugs] I know of one particular artist that had nine things cancelled in the course of a month. Those nine things could have led to another 20.
This will change how we make art. And those [new] opportunities may be greater. I always liken it to the story of Richard Tucker (which Sherrill often tells me), and how the war actually gave him a career. Without the war [World War II], perhaps they wouldn’t have gone to that synagogue to find a new tenor if others could have come over from Europe. So what we need to do is be mindful. Notice it and pay attention to what is going on. Try very hard to objectively, stoically, and calmly see how we can participate and continue to affect change. Our music lovers, audience base, and artists that need us are not going to go away. We may have to just change the way we make art temporarily (hopefully).
TB: So one of the things that you mention specifically in Savannah is community development. Could you talk about how you are looking forward and how you plan to address this issue in your programs?
MZ: Well, if you’re talking in terms of what is going to happen with COVID-19 and how our financial instability is working against us right now, I think we are going to have to reinvent the wheel in a lot of ways. Like others, we are now doing things online. We are also trying to partner with our other organizations, ones that have had to cancel in the more recent past or had to cancel things right away.
We are still planning on having our programs in August. But it changes so quickly. And we don’t know. We can’t know. And it is irresponsible to make those decisions at this point in either direction.
So, if we were to proceed, I suppose the way we address the community would be a little different, especially if we are in a financial crisis, recession, or depression (as it were). Our formula will change. Typically our formula is that in May, we begin the ticket sales with a live event.
But that is going to change, as we are looking at moving our ‘on sale’ to June. We just can’t ask anything of anyone right now. It is not appropriate to go in and start saying, “Hey don’t miss out. Buy your ticket today!” People aren’t prepared to do that right now. They don’t know what is going to happen. And they’re looking at their financial portfolio and making decisions about how they are going to spend their money.
Then you have this other part that says, “They need us. This is something that is comforting.” However, we are constantly pushing the idea of a live performance and a community engagement together. One of the things that I talk about a lot is that we miss the magic of being in the same room together. We have the same experience but different, and it gives us a sense of community. Right now, we are in a society where we are saying, “You mustn’t do that for the sake of our survival.” So, how are we going to change that? How is that going to affect how we present our music? Well, the answer is, we don’t know yet. But our team is already meeting to spin out concepts and ideas. We are going virtually with a lot of things. So, we will have people around the world giving concerts. And why not? Joyce DiDonato did it right away. Howard Watkins was playing. She was singing. And it was all good.
So it will find its way and change. With the economic crunch, well, we always live on the edge. We are always working at the marrow because there is very little extra meat on the bone for nonprofits. So instead of thinking about expansion and growth, we’ll think about sustainability. And that really changes the mindset. Because eight years into a new strategic plan, it is going to look very different. I’m now in the middle of building a brand new strategic plan because we are going to look at sustainability.
We are going to look at inspiration. We are going to look at ways to see if we can engage our constituents to still feel the investment is worth having. And we are going to look at ways not have them shy away from understanding the value of it, in order to keep it going. The thing about Savannah that is so extraordinary is that they do understand. It is the reason why years later we’ve come to where we are. We keep growing exponentially. And it is because Savannah understands that art is as important as their green fountain for St. Patrick’s Day. They have embraced it and without them, we wouldn’t have a Savannah VOICE Festival. I brought great artists, wonderful faculty, and great producers. But they embraced it and wanted more.
Even in this short period of time, I haven’t seen anyone scurry away. They are holding their course with me and are ready to engage in whatever way is appropriate and safe. In terms of the artists and what we are going to be doing for them, obviously, we are going to be looking more to our workshops being the added layer of what we [can] do in the case of force majeure. People are coming up with wonderful ideas and articles. And we will pass that on to our artists as well. We have something called a ‘Brown Bag Lunch’, where we have really great experts come in and talk about issues for artists. This will definitely be one of them.
TB: In your last statement, you brought up the clause of force majeure, which is something very, very important to the opera world today. And we’re going to struggle with it over the years as we are recovering from this. Do you have thoughts on the subject?
MZ: That depends on what side of the fence you want me to discuss it...
TB: I think hearing both will help.
MZ: There is a duality in me. Because I am looking at being someone who has signed a contract with a vendor. And I am thinking, “Please, think of this as force majeure.” Then for artists looking at this in terms of their contract with me, I am trying to figure out what I need to do to honor the artists’ [contract], if anything. Do I need to reschedule? Do I need to postpone? Do I need to help them?
There are so many angles to it because as a producer you wear so many different hats. It is not a solo singer saying, “What is my recourse if I can’t be there? Is there some kind of insurance that allows me to make a living?” We talk about this on a much grander scale in the news. And you hear the government now say that they’re going to help support people. Whether that is restaurant workers or hotels, they talk about lots and lots of labor. But no one is talking about the artists in the news. They’re not talking about those of us that are living from gig to gig and who is going to take care of us. So, I predict that AGMA and other organizations will help step in to provide relief funding that is specifically dedicated to this new normal that we live in. This will not be our last pandemic. Though hopefully, we will be better prepared.
So these are things that are going to have to be explored. And we are going to have to protect ourselves. We ensure ourselves on the road and with our health. We don’t necessarily insure ourselves with our art. And we’re going to have to look in that direction. The same with little organizations like ours with cancellation insurance. Those are things that for those of us that are smaller, one cancellation of one season should not take us out of business. It just should not. We should be able to endure. And there should be various tools to help us do so. I’m not saying that there aren’t already things like that in place. But for the smaller organizations or the individual artist, we really have to have easy access to things that give protection when something goes terribly wrong. No one should have to move in with mom and dad.
TB: Thank you for talking about that. I think it is something we need to engage with as a community to come to a conclusion about what is fair and equitable. So what is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned already in this situation?
MZ: [When this started,] We reacted faster than most. I cancelled our concert in New York before anybody was cancelling. I sat down and had this gut assessment of everything with Sherrill, which is not abnormal. I basically said that I didn’t think we could make this happen. And I saw it coming. So I made some calls and got some advice. For us, it was a little different because a lot of our constituents for our week-long New York program and gala were coming in from out of town. So I saw danger in doing that when people were still traveling. I saw something ahead but I beat myself up over it quite a bit.
If anything, I learned to trust my instincts because my instincts were right. Within three days, everything started shutting down. I am certainly not patting myself on the back. I’m just saying that it was so hard for me to make that decision. And I felt so guilty because I thought that I was overreacting. I should have just gone forward. But within three days, I thought, “Maria, you need to trust your instincts about this. Because sometimes it is what it is. And it is not an overreaction.” So I think that if I’ve learned anything, it is to protect the safety of the people that have put their faith in your organization. It is the safety and well-being of artists and we have always felt that way. This is now on another level of that.
TB: That is a very interesting lesson. Because when you react to these things, you have to think, “What if?” But this was a big ‘if’.
MZ: That turned out not to be an ‘if’. It was a ‘yes’. I liken it to the mom who looks at a child and says, “You’re about to hit your head.” Now, does that mean that female administrators have better skill sets and gut-level thoughts than men? No, I’m not saying that. But there is a bit of a mommy instinct in being an administrator where you can assess and say, “I see this coming down the pike. How about if we don’t go there?”
I feel the same way about what is to come. Every time I hear an official say that it is going to be four months or six months, I immediately go to a place of readjusting and asking, “What does this mean for our survival?” So, I already have three budgets done. One is normal. One is half. And the last is not going to go.
What is so fantastic about this particular situation, in a good/weird/bad way, is we are all going through it. This is not geographical. This is not a disaster that is siloed. You are going through it. Somebody in China is going through it. Somebody in Canada is going through it. We were to have 15 artists from China that were interested in coming to sing with us. Hopefully, we’ll be in a situation where we can all be together and make art. But I don’t know. I think about them sitting there—knowing things are getting better there and that is great—but then they are thinking, “I want to make art. I want to come and do opera and sing with Sherrill Milnes. I had an opportunity to do that.” So what are they thinking now?
TB: So how different was your life six weeks ago?
MZ: I was really worried about all the work I had to do to get every single initiative in these next few months accomplished. [Laughter] I was really worried as we’ve got a gala, then the Opera as Drama program. I have to get contracts out. I have my April events and a sacred concert in Tarpon Springs at the end of March. In May, I have Prelude coming up. I have our co-production with Savannah Music Festival. Every year, there is a laundry list that plays through my head. It is just all the things you do.
Right now, it [the laundry list] is having nothing to do with what is immediate but what is ahead. That is really different and the thinking required is really different. The hardest part is when you’re in the to-do list mindset. That’s when you’ve got a to-do list that is a mile long. And it’s not that you aren’t prepared to do it, it is just there. You’ve got to keep the team going and everybody’s got to be inspired. You have to make sure you keep all the balls up in the air and don’t drop one. This year is just so different because everything you’ve got up in the air is a big question mark. There is no definition. That’s a very different mindset for a producer.
For those of us that are smaller the way we are, there is both good and bad. Because there is a little more flexibility to change. But you are also asking, “Are we going to be okay?” I believe we will be, so there is that assurance in my mind. We’ve done the work. But I wasn’t thinking that six weeks ago.
TB: As someone who has worked with numerous young artists, what advice would you give to them as they are going through this?
MZ: Well, I think that young singers have to be prepared to live within the avocation of their art for a while, and not let that get them down. I don’t think a singer should really, seriously, have the aspiration of making a living by singing at this moment. Young singers always say that they’re going to sing at the Met someday. Well, that’s sweet, wonderful, and it drives them all. It is the athlete that says, “I’m going to be an Olympian.” You must have that.
But in this new normal, there should be a sense of ‘get as good as you can get’. Cultivate that art. Be realistic about your growth and your ability. And never stop being curious and asking questions of the people around you and those that can make you better. And never assume that you are good enough and just deserve a career. Now more than ever, you need to feel that. Because if you don’t, well, you are going to be even more disappointed in this time.
That’s my big answer. Just be very realistic about what’s possible out there. Not because you’re not talented, but because sometimes we have to live in the world of ‘this is avocational until I can literally flip it’. But let’s face it, we all make a living doing other things and still sing. That’s just who we are because of the world in which we live. And now, well, it’s even harder.
So my advice to them would be accept it. But never, ever stop being hungry about cultivating art. That should never change. Don’t be complacent about the excellence of your art and exploring new ways to have it. But at the same time, be kind to your psyche. Tell yourself what you’re doing is enough, [in terms of the career being hard for singers]. And don’t get heartbroken, because often it is not their fault.
TB: In closing up, I have two more questions for you. First, what question did I not ask you that I should have?
MZ: What is it that we might be doing financially right now to address this? Or were you going to ask me that?
TB: No, that’s a great question.
MZ: So what is it that an organization does and how do they get by? It’s an interesting question because fundraising is the essence of what we do. You can talk about the art all you want but any producer is also a fundraiser. They have to be. And what they are doing is inspiring people to give. Even in that sense, I inspire artists as we are tuition-driven for an element of our program. Though we give a lot of scholarship money. But I have to drive that. I have to give singers a product that is worth them spending that money on, especially now.
Then for the people with whom I engage for stewardship, we have to continue to engage them. So one of the first things that one should do is get on the phone. And start sending emails to find out how your donors are doing. Care. Certainly not going, “Did you lose a lot of money in the market?” You don’t want to do that. Because you care about people. We’re in the business of people. So you get on the phone and check-in. A lot of people that do steward this with their gifts are people who are at risk right now. So they’re staying in. A lot of corporations that try to help are hurting. So where are they going to be next year with their sponsorship and grants? We don’t know. So you have got to keep embracing everybody; the artist, the faculty, the donor. And just continue to show that they need to invest.
Then be really responsible financially. The tough decisions that a producer makes for their finances are hard because it has to be against people. It is so they can have a job in the future. So you may have to say that you can’t do this production. I am sure that everyone that has had to cancel hated having to do so. I did. Having to say to an artist, “I love you. I hired you because I want you to be here. I love your art but there is nothing I can do for you. You’re not going to have that income.” Nobody wants that. It is heartbreaking. Especially when you’re somebody who is in it for those people. But then again, you have to make those decisions for the livelihood of the organization in order for it to be there next year so that you can bring the artist back. We can’t all panic and close our doors. That would be wrong. So, I know that a lot of my colleagues and other arts organizations are having those same conversations with themselves and their boards.
TB: It seems like one of the things you have talked about is the fact that this is an individual conversation. You have to decide what you can or cannot do for your organization.
MZ: That is right. You talked about force majeure and we went down that road. But case-by-case has been one of the most sane things I’ve heard in these few weeks. Because that is what it is. Even things as simple as do I cancel or do I postpone? For instance, in our New York events, everything has been moved to November. Hopefully, that’ll all be fine. But that was a very specific decision that I made to move it rather than just cancel. Because you don’t know if everybody is still available at that time.
It is a gentle balance. Especially if you’re talking about a fundraiser where these people have committed to coming and you are asking the people who bought a ticket to hang on. Please don’t ask for a refund. Those things are hard to do. But case-by-case is very valid.
TB: We are all stuck at home and watching our videos. So what is your video streaming recommendation?
MZ: I’m very eclectic. I tape a bunch of things and then watch them later. Some of my favorite shows are Modern Family and Will and Grace. But I am also a huge Grace and Frankie fanatic. We just got into Jamestown on Amazon Prime because it reminds me of Michael Ching’s Alice Riley. Sherrill saw the Luciano biography by Ron Howard and he loved it.
TB: Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today. It has been so enlightening and an absolute pleasure.
Addendum: December 15, 2020
After nine months, Ms. Zouves and I spoke again because I wanted to see how she had managed the transition and kept the Savannah VOICE Festival and VOICExperience moving forward. When speaking with her again, I noted how true her interview read after all these months. It articulates a clear understanding of how difficult the pandemic would become. It would not simply be alleviated and we would need to implement plans to deal with its reality. This element of ‘optimistic pessimism’ provided the VOICE programs a great deal of flexibility and the necessary will to collaborate during these difficult times.
Young singers and musicians have always been the highlight of the VOICE programs and remain central to Ms. Zouves’ career as she and Sherrill Milnes have operated young artist training programs for decades. Ms. Zouves’ message to singers in March to cultivate their art remains true. And this message is demonstrated in her tireless effort to provide artists with opportunities for music-making. Since March, she and her creative team have put together over 15 recorded performances. After experimenting with a livestream program—Virtually Live in May—they moved to using prerecorded segments that can later be assembled into a larger whole.
The switch to prerecorded material also allowed growth in two specific areas: community relations and the education of artists. In furthering their highly-valued relationship with the community, the VOICE programs provided recorded shows to schools and enhanced this educational material by using Zoom to bring artists in to conference with students. In addition to the practical experience provided by this type of programming, Ms. Zouves began a project that asks individuals to respond to their surroundings. Her young artists must analyze what is in their immediate environment and then draw on that experience to find a song that fits the space they are currently inhabiting. The young artist must then learn and record the piece they’ve selected, which becomes a part of a concert made available across the world.
These efforts of video production have required a steep learning curve. In building on their experience in programming, Ms. Zouves described these productions as a process of storyboarding individual projects and then inviting artists to collaborate. This was the same methodology they used in their summer training programs. In fact, Ms. Zouves noted two things were paramount to them accomplishing their program: ‘positivity’ and ‘permission’. It needed to be a positive experience where all of the participants from teachers to students were able to safely and comfortably grow together.
On December 13, 2020, Savannah VOICE Festival streamed “Home for the Holidays: A VOICE Holiday Special.” Opening with a lovely announcement by the famed baritone, Thomas Hampson, this special program then presents a Burl Ives type of variety show. In fact, it begins with a quartet decorating and baking goodies while singing “There’s no place like home for the holidays.” Then, as a sign of the times, Maria Zouves makes an appearance in a face shield to introduce Jessica Fishenfeld and Scott Joiner, who serenade a socially-distanced and masked outdoor crowd. Afterwards, Sherrill Milnes offers a reading of Dicken’s Christmas Carol before he shares a recording of “Lo’ how a rose e’er blooming.”
As a whole, the concert holds something for everyone. There are several holiday carols and an extravaganza that includes a significant cut of La Bohème. There are also several virtual choir pieces, including “Carol of the bells” and an advent-calendar-inspired “The twelve days of Christmas” that shouldn’t be missed. In closing, there is a beautiful rendition of “Silent night” that includes a virtual passing of candles, which shows where each of the performers is. This reminds the audience that though we may be distant, we are still together in song.
View Program Here: "Home for the Holidays: A VOICE Holiday Special"
From the Savannah VOICE Festival and VOICExperience
Artistic Director, Sherrill Milnes
Executive Director, Maria Zouves
About Maria Zouves
Maria Zouves is an educator, director, producer and writer. She is Executive Director of the Sherrill Milnes VOICE Programs − VOICExperience Foundation and the Savannah VOICE Festival – which she co-founded with her husband, Sherrill Milnes, to provide training for aspiring young artists and foster new audiences for the vocal arts. The Greek-American soprano has sung leading roles in the regional U.S., made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1997, and has recorded under the VAI label. While Maria directs most of the concerts in the VOICE Programs and co-directed the new SVF opera commission, Ching’s Alice Ryley: A Savannah Ghost Story, she most recently directed Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre in Prague, where the work first premiered and co-directed Le nozze de Figaro with Sherrill Milnes in Prague and Salzburg with Prague Summer Nights. She was recently seen in the title role of the premiere of Ching’s Anna Hunter: The Spirit of Savannah.
Ms. Zouves has directed, taught, and produced events all around the world, having worked with the International Vocal Arts Institute (IVAI) in Montreal and Puerto Rico, the International Institute of Vocal Arts (IIVA) in Chiari, Italy, and at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland. From 2007 to 2011, she served as Vice President and Associate General Director of Opera Tampa, the resident opera company of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. She has taught workshops at Southern Illinois University, Drake University and served as interim opera director at Northwestern University. A sought after clinician, particularly in career development, she has also aided young singers as a career liaison through her former feature, “A Conversation with…” in Classical Singer magazine.
Ms. Zouves has sung leading roles with the Baltimore Opera, Florentine Opera, Memphis Opera, New Jersey State Opera, Orlando Opera, and the Pittsburgh Opera. The Stuttgarter Zeitung praised her “beautiful, lyric voice” and “a not to be surpassed ‘piano’ in the high register.” Opera News has described her voice as “creamy.” This Greek-American soprano shows great versatility in opera, on concert stages, and in crossover repertoire, with a specialty in classical and popular Greek music.