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 Markus Laska, co-founder of Melos Opera, discussed the impact of the pandemic on his life in Italy. He shares his evolving perspective with special attention to forming a way forward with other agents and managers, which resulted in the formation of Opera Managers Association International.
Markus Laska, Melos Opera
Interviewed April 27, 2020
TB: First off, what is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
ML: That's a good question; the best thing that happened last week was that agents started to meet together. I'm an opera agent for opera singers and conductors, as well as classical music more generally. I have done this type of work for 16 years; my office is based in Italy, but I am active worldwide.
Before this week, agents were all in competition and never moved together in any situation. So from last Monday on, we are trying to meet and form an association of managers and agents for opera and classical music. This association is so that we can find common problems and speak with politicians, theaters, and concert halls to try to solve them. It has been a really positive thing that in this pandemic, we can finally come together to say, "We are competitors, but we have a lot of common interests that we can face."
TB: Would you mind giving a bit of your background and where you are in your career right now?
ML: Sure, I was born in Germany and mainly did all my studies in Munich. I studied musicology, Italian, and theatre science. Then, I moved to Italy for one year, and I got to know my wife there. I started looking for jobs, and one of the first jobs I got was in a local agency in Italy. Following that, I started with Prima International Artists Management in 2003. In those times, it was the most important management agency in Italy.
From there, I co-founded Atelier Musicale with some others. I left three years ago, in July of 2017, to open Melos Opera with three colleagues, which is now the management agency I co-own. Even though it is called Melos Opera, we don't only deal with opera but also with symphonies. We manage about 60 artists with 80-85% worldwide exclusivity.
TB: In talking about the pandemic, could you talk about where you were and how you first realized that you were going to be affected by this pandemic?
ML: It's very funny because I was in the States actually. They took the first steps when everything started in Italy was on February 24. They closed down some theaters in Northern Italy. La Scala was one of them, also Venice and Bologna. So, Northern Italian theaters and schools were closed.
The last performance for one of our artists—a young tenor of 23—was a debut at La Scala on February 22 in a new production of Il Turco in Italia. It was the first and last performance he did in La Scala.
On February 24, when the schools and theaters were locked down, I left for the States. I was there for a week, assisting with performances and having meetings with artistic directors. My first reaction was that I didn't really believe that there was a pandemic. I thought it was an overreaction. I didn't think it was a necessity to close theaters and schools at that time. I'll admit I was totally wrong about that. I didn't understand what was happening.
I spent eight days in the States, and on my way back, the first flights were cancelled, and then on my flight from Frankfurt to Bologna, there were six people on it. I realized that something bigger was going on. Then I started to know people that were ill and people who have had parents that died of the disease. It was really much closer than I'd thought.
TB: So what did that feel like to be on the plane from Frankfurt coming back to Italy?
ML: I was quite frightened at the end. When I was in Los Angeles, they started to cancel flights, and at a certain point, I was really wondering if I could get back home. Northern Italy was called the red zone, and they decided to close the borders. At that point, when I was to fly from New York to Frankfurt, I had already called my parents and said, "I might be staying with you in Munich." I was really frightened about not being able to go home to my wife and kids.
TB: You made it back to Italy, and then did you have to quarantine?
ML: No, not at all. At that moment, it was worse in Italy compared to all the other countries. Five or six days after I got back, I was supposed to be in Hamburg. They cancelled the meeting in a very nice way, saying that I was coming from a red zone, so I should consider not seeing the performance and staying home. It was to see Matteo Beltrami, who was conducting the premiere of a new production of Norma in Hamburg on March 8. And they invited me not to join them. [Laughter]
TB: For most agents, about 65-80% of their roster is working at a given time. What percentage of your roster is working right now? And how does that affect your agency?
ML: 0% of my roster is working now. As you know, all theaters worldwide are closed down. But artists invent themselves in new ways. Some of them have developed streaming conversations and are talking with colleagues every day. Every day at five o'clock, I have a soprano singing from her balcony, so people in Vicenza know her. They are working sort of because they want to keep singing and performing. But nobody is singing professionally.
A few are singing in gala concerts from home like the Met just did three days ago. I did not have any artists there, but Florence is planning one on May 1, and they have three of my artists in it. They are recording at the moment for the backup because they hope it will be live there as well. So while some are working, at the moment nobody is being paid for work that way. This also answers your question as contracts for March, April, May, June, and some for summer are cancelled. It is something like a third of the annual income is totally cancelled.
TB: How does this affect your agency's financial health moving forward? Has there been some governmental support?
ML: There is some governmental support. Not all of the projects are clear at the moment in Italy, but there is some support. We are quite lucky that we don't have anybody we pay in this situation. We are just four people, but we are all co-owners, so we don't need to pay any people working for us. We may need to go to the bank for some credit, but it should be survivable and shouldn't seriously affect the agency.
Of course, that depends on how long the crisis goes on. Because people are saying that we will start in September and others in January, nothing will be as it was before. We are hearing from artistic directors that fees will not be the same as before. We will never earn the same amount of money with the same artists. Maybe if you are lucky to take over a star or even build up a new star, then maybe you will earn something new. But it will not be the same as before.
TB: What would you say is the hardest lesson that you've learned so far in this situation?
ML: It's not only about the profession then; it is that with a virus or something like that, the whole world can be locked down. I'm getting anxious about that because we know that there are many theories about how this virus came about and if it is natural. But the idea that somebody could create something that locks down the whole world is a lesson that we are not free and cannot just get out of this.
However, I think that the biggest lesson is to enjoy what you have in this moment. I'm lucky to be in my little house with my family, my kids, and to have a tiny garden. I'm so used to traveling more days a week, so I really try to enjoy my family. This is one of the few moments I'm staying at home for months. So let's try to enjoy more family life.
TB: Backing up, what was your life like two months ago? What were the things that you were looking forward to doing in late April?
ML: Two months ago, we were extremely happy about how the management was going. As I said, we just opened in July 2017. Everything was going better than we thought. We never expected that everything could be so different so quickly.
For the rest, tomorrow, I would have been leaving for the States again. I normally go every two or three months. I was supposed to be in New York, Chicago, and on May 1, to Pittsburgh. I was then going to Toronto, where my bass-baritone, Vitalij Kowaljow, was to debut in The Flying Dutchman. It was a long-planned role debut that I was very proud of. So this would have been one of the most important professional things to have happened since the pandemic.
TB: How do you think that the musical landscape is going to change after the pandemic?
ML: It really depends on the countries and continents. Being based in Europe and working with many European theaters, we just need to wait. Everything changes drastically here in Europe. Most institutions, theaters, and concert halls are heavily state-funded, so they will continue to get the same financing as before. I think that the pay gap between young artists and huge stars will also get bigger.
But the direction our business is going is already in that direction. There are many big names, and they are important for selling tickets and then there are many young singers after that. The difficulty today in my job is to convince artistic directors that an outstanding and solid singer who is 45—but not Bryn Terfel—is a good choice. And not to hire somebody who is 25 or 30. To put it financially, I want them to hire a person that costs $15,000 versus the other side, which would cost $5,000.
That means that the people whose fees are between $8,000-$10,000 will have more problems. This is the biggest change that will happen. An artist will need to be at a really high level in order to have a long-lasting career. If not, they will be substituted immediately by younger people coming up. And this will happen faster than before.
Of course, we will need to see what happens in the States with all of the private money. Artistic directors fear that they will have fundraising problems because many people prefer to give to the Red Cross rather than the opera. Many are having a lot of fears about that. So we will need to see if it is like that or not.
TB: What is your advice to those who are past the emerging professional but still young to the field?
ML: First of all, I want them to develop consciousness about the career situation. So that when they are at a certain age, they realize how they fit into the market of theaters. So it is really important in the first 10-15 years of a career to find their position. That means personally—teachers and agents—not only what they have but what is different from other people. What is it they do better than others? What is their personality? Then they'll find certain roles where they are in a position to really say that they are one of the best at that.
TB: Then looking at young artists, what would your advice be to those who are 18-25?
ML: The most difficult thing is to find a really good teacher. Somebody you can really trust and who always tells you the exact truth. It is not just someone you pay, and they give you a lesson. They have to really understand you.
The most difficult thing about opera singers is that they have their instrument in themselves. There are many great artists, but they need to understand how to use their body and their technique. Then, of course, they must study, study, study. They must try out repertoire to understand where it is that they are going.
Ideally, this will lead into going to a good young artist program. There are many of them around the world. The best is to get into a training program where they can experience everything from coaching to language to being on stage. They must do as much as possible to gain experience about being onstage.
TB: As we are going through the pandemic and many programs are having difficulty with the online platforms and selection, is your viewpoint changing in terms of the development of young artist programs?
ML: Yes. In some ways, the selection will be a little harder. Especially in the first years, because even if I know that many artist programs are going on by coaching by Skype or something else, that isn't the same as being at the program. Theaters don't just hire the youngest people, and so it is important that they are still growing and getting better. Of course, they will lose some time, and there will be a stricter selection. The really hard workers will get the best jobs and management.
At the moment, we are not seriously frightened that the art will disappear. But there will probably be fewer managers. And that means there will be fewer choices for singers and more strictness on who is hired because of quality.
TB: One of the things that many have been talking about for the future of the arts is the fear associated with going back to social places. Do you have any thoughts on overcoming that fear in the arts?
ML: At the beginning, it will be really difficult. Also, [it won't be easy] for the artists going back on stage to be as good as they were before. They have been at home for many, many weeks. And the theater will not be as normal. For example, if you saw a couple being tender and affectionate in a performance, it could be uncomfortable. They will need to force themselves to get back to that point.
I didn't mention the other problem: will the public really go back to the theater immediately? Or will they be thinking about the virus passing from person-to-person, and how they could be sitting close to someone who has the virus? I think that there will be many people who are frightened, especially older people. They may be frightened to go to a theater or the opera. We all hope we will be back to normal at a certain point. But many people will still be afraid of the virus, even if we return to normal life.
TB: What would your advice be to the musical community at large?
ML: It is important to be back, to reopen, and to find ways forward because we must help people understand that we need music. We need art. We need to find a way to come back. It is summer now, and we have the chance to do some outdoor concerts (even if it is piano and voice or chamber music). We need to bring people back.
We've already taken the first steps with that. It is important to give this message. We need art, and we need music. Now that we have all of the streaming, the next step is doing something in a theater. Let's try to open and socially distance with a limited audience. It is just important that we get back.
It is also important for governments to give artists money to survive, especially in Europe and especially young people. Having them [young artists] try to find new jobs after spending money to study means they might not return to art. So they need money now and for the next month.
TB: Thank you so much for your time and speaking with me today. I have one more question for you. Is there anything else that you would like to add to our conversation today?
ML: Yes. There is one thing that I do not understand. Why are there so many companies paying and others not at all? I realize that many American companies are paying a percentage of the artist's fee, and they are not publicly funded. They have much less money than the European companies have, but they want to keep the relationship with the artists to say, "We need artists, and now we will help you."
In Europe, it is the same with all of the UK companies, for example. Covent Garden is paying 20% of all the artist fees and saying that it is costing them more than a million pounds. They are saying, "We don't have this money, but we need to find it. We need to force the government to fund this because we need to help you. We need you."
There are many countries where that is not the case. Italy—the home of opera—is not mentioning it. The premier for Italy spoke to us yesterday evening about opening the lockdown. They never mentioned the arts. They mentioned opening museums on May 17, but nothing about cinema or theater. It is totally uncertain. That is why we have to have ideas about how we can open up.
TB: Well, thank you again for your advocacy of the arts and the work you are doing during the pandemic. I really appreciate your time and your speaking with me today.
Markus Laska is vice-president and co-owner of Melos Opera, an international Artist management based in Bologna, Italy, general management of many famous opera singers, conductors and stage directors. He is also co-founder and communications director of OMAI (Opera Managers Association International), the first worldwide association specialized in opera managers.
Born in Munich in 1979, Markus Laska grew up in a family of opera lovers who brought him to opera since the age of 6. From his early school years on he has been singing in amateur choirs, which led him to share the stage with important artists such as Montserrat Caballé, Placido Domingo, Andrea Bocellli or Zubin Mehta.
He has studied opera dramaturgy, musicology and italian philology at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich and at the Bayerische Theaterakademie August Everding, graduating in 2003 under the guidance of Prof. Jens Malte Fischer. During the academic year 2000/01 he was regular guest student at the Università degli studi di Bologna working especially with Lorenzo Bianconi, Giuseppina La Face, Gherardo Guccini and Marco Beghelli at the DAMS.
In his university years he cooperated with the Prinzregententheater Munich (dramaturg of the world premiere of “Die Feierstunde”, and for the revivals of Händel’s “Rodrigo” and Verdi’s “Luisa Miller), the Opernhaus Zürich (assistant of Daniele Abbado for a new production of “Luisa Miller), the Austrian Broadcasting system in Vienna, the Komische Oper Berlin (internships at the artistic direction) and the Teatro Comunale di Bologna (internship at the Marketing office and the artistic direction).
Since 2003 he works as artist manager, cooperating with the agencies Ouverture, Prima International Artist Management and Atelier musicale, before co-founding Melos Opera in 2017.
World wide known as talent scout, he is often jury member of voice competitions such as the Puccini in Lucca, Tita Ruffo in Pisa, Benvenuto Franci in Pienza, Santa Chiara in Naples, Koliqi and Salvatore Licitra in Milan, Obraszova in St.Petersburg. He was also invited for masterclasses at the MaDAMM in Lucca and at the Young Artist Program of the Bolshoi Theatre Moscow.