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 Matthew Anchel, bass, explained the difficulties of being on a fest contract in Germany during a pandemic. In doing so, he discusses the impact on his family and his students.
Matthew Anchel, bass
Interviewed March 16, 2020
TB: So, you are in Germany now, but where are you there?
MA: I'm in Stuttgart, in the ensemble of Oper Stuttgart.
TB: That's fantastic. I always like to start off with something positive, so what is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
MA: I think a lot of people are feeling this way—or at least I hope they feel this way—and are trying to be creative and look for projects to work on. For me, I'm someone who has a lot of hobbies and creative outlets. I've been writing music, making videos, and also writing. I've been doing all sorts of things that I like to do, but I don't normally have the time to do. I'm really trying to make the most of that time that I have now.
TB: Could you tell me a bit about where you are in your career right now?
MA: I have now been working professionally for twelve years. I did the whole young artist thing, competitions, and everything. Then, before I came to Stuttgart, I was covering a lot at the Met and doing some regional work for the past few years. Then I did the NYIOP audition and had the opportunity to come over to Germany and sing for this opera house and was offered a contract; I actually knew about the contract almost two years before I came over here. That has been a big part of my psyche and life, just knowing what was going to happen because they plan their seasons very far in advance over here.
I am a soloist at the opera house and sing a few big parts and some medium-sized ones. What is so great about Europe is that there are so many opportunities. Next year, I'm singing in Austria and this past summer I was covering at Glyndebourne. There are lots of different houses over here, and so I'm hoping to be based more in Europe as time goes by—if we can still work, that is.
TB: So, what is one of your favorite roles to sing?
MA: I like to sing Sarastro [in Die Zauberflöte]. I've done it a lot. But my most favorite role that I've ever done is Alfonso in Lucrezia Borgia by Donizetti. It is a bummer that they don't do the opera more. It is such a fun role; you get a great aria and have an amazing act where you interact with everyone in the show. It was my favorite role that I've ever done, and I just love bel canto music.
TB: Diving into the situation we're in now, can you describe where you were and how you realized you were going to be affected by COVID-19?
MA: I knew that it was going to start being more of an issue because I was in New York City and had some time off. Obviously, we were all watching the news and seeing how that was progressing in China. And then watching it slowly make its way to other places.
When I came back at the end of February, I wasn't so aware of how fast it would become an issue in Europe. When I got on the plane, I wiped down all my surfaces and did all that stuff. I came back because I had more performances, but we only did one performance. I was supposed to have done maybe two or three, but the opera closed down. It just happened so quickly that, all of a sudden, life was affected. When I was back in New York, I remember talking with my dad about how I hope I don't regret going back to Europe.
TB: Do you regret going back?
MA: Obviously, I really miss my family and everything, but in Germany, being in the ensemble and having a fest position means I'm paid no matter what. I have health insurance that I get through my job, and the health care here is very good. And I really trust the leadership in the country to handle the situation well. I think it is scary how many cases there are starting to be here. But I'm looking at statistics and seeing that the death rate is much lower here than most other places with fewer people in critical conditions. Even though I'm so scared of being here by myself and away from my friends and family, I actually think I'm better off for now being here and not in New York. We will see if I'm right about that.
TB: Can you talk to me about the logistics that were impacted by the outbreak? I know you had said that you were traveling. Did you have any issues with that travel?
MA: Right now, Germany has closed its borders. I was supposed to go to an audition in the Netherlands in two weeks. Now, I don't know if that's going to be possible. I don't know if I'll be able to make that trip by train or if it would be wise for me to go even if I could.
But the trip back [to Germany] was very easy. It wasn't scary. Everyone was being casually cautious and very sanitary around me. That was not such a big deal. I am concerned that if I need to get back, will I have a problem with that? Because I don't know how many flights are leaving. I don't know what the restrictions are. At one point, they said that citizens could come back to America, but I'm not sure if that is going to change. It seems to be a day-by-day kind of thing.
TB: Can you tell me about the impact that this has had on those around you? I know you are close with your parents and that you teach as well.
MA: That was another big reason I didn't instantly go back when the opera shut down. I would have had to take a train, a plane, a cab, another train, and who knows. One of my biggest concerns was that I didn't give the disease—if I got it in my travels home—to my parents, who are older. Because I would probably be fine, but my dad is in his 70s, and my mother is in her late 60s, and I didn't know if they would be ok. But my dad was begging me to come home, and I just didn't know if that was the right thing to do. I didn't want to put them in danger. However, my parents have been locked down in the city, and are being really careful and staying home.
For teaching, I'm really lucky because I can teach wherever because I have Skype. I'm offering discounted lessons because I know I have one student who is losing a production of Camelot, and he is losing out on all that money. So they (my students) are probably all suffering financially. Obviously, I am not trying to get them to take more lessons, but if they need a lesson or want to prepare, I want to do that. That way, people could keep studying and not be burdened by it being too expensive.
TB: One of the things you have brought up a couple of times was the issue of finances. You are under a fest contract, which means that you get paid through this. Is it having any other effect?
MA: I did have a concert job for next month that I'm sure will be cancelled, so I'll lose out on that money. But I am feeling incredibly lucky that I have this job right now. Next year, I won't be fest here. This made me think that maybe I want to stay on fest because of the security. That is also the reason I started teaching because singing isn't always reliable.
TB: Can you talk to me about how this has impacted your creative process? I know that you have a lot of different angles that you are working on with composition, social media, and opera.
MA: So yesterday, I released a song on my Instagram, which is my favorite place to release my little projects. I have about 3,000 followers, and those people will see it. I don't like to post everything on Facebook because who knows what people will think. But Instagram is my safe bubble to post creative projects.
I wasn't planning on releasing that song. I was just at home and decided to release it. Everyone is sitting at home and being bored or scared and having all these existential thoughts. And I know that I've already been so entertained by my friends who are posting creative content on their social media. So, we should all just entertain each other for the next month or however long this will last. I think the idea of entertaining each other with our different talents is a nice thing. I'm already really enjoying seeing what other people are creating as well.
TB: For you as an opera singer, how are you preparing for upcoming roles?
MA: It is nice because it gives us a chance to step back. Because when I am here, I'm going from show to show, and you don't have time to say, "What could I have done better?" This extra time gives you an opportunity to study your music more and to work on the voice. I have so much time here; I've been working on my voice and looking at my text. So, if we do get to go back and perform, I'll be more prepared than I would have been just going from one thing to another. But we will see what happens and if I get to show off my hard work.
TB: So what you're saying is that this has actually made you proactive about that as well?
MA: Yes, me less so [than others] because I'm here in one place. But singers who finish one job and then go to the next one and are traveling right away are exhausted and maybe not as prepared as they should be. So if we are doing all those things, the free time that we have is used to recharge and be healthy to make sure that we can get to rehearsals and to the performances. But with all this extra free time, we should use this to be productive and do something, as opposed to just recharging and making sure that we're healthy.
TB: What is the hardest lesson that you have learned in this situation?
MA: The hardest thing is that artists—especially in America—don't have protections for singers. Especially for people that are paid per performance. I know of a company that was going to have a bunch of my friends in shows there, when [because of COVID] they just cancelled all the shows. They had been there for weeks working and paying rent for a second home. As of now, they have not been paid, and that is not right.
Either there has to be verbiage in the contracts that protects people in situations like this, or they get their basic expenses covered. The way that people are paid in American needs to change, so that [the pay] is a weekly salary like so many of the regional theaters for musical theater and straight plays. Everyone gets paid per week, which can vary based on the rehearsal process.
I think paying people weekly—like a regular job—will ensure that everyone is treated fairly. There won't be pressure to do this show, or you are broke; can't pay rent, student loans, or credit card bills. You get compensated for work that you've done and not just hope that nothing goes wrong. That is the main thing: there has to be a reworking of how singers are paid because it is so unfair, especially with all these people who have already put all the work in for weeks and weeks. That is what I think is the biggest lesson I've learned from all of this.
TB: Do you think that change of pay would have an effect on the quality of art that is produced as well?
MA: It would make for less stressed-out singers! I think of all the times in my life where I saved some amount of money so I could afford to live when I got to the next place that I was working. Everyone would be congratulating me, and I was there saving pennies. Then you get paid, and it is not like you make all this money. It is like, "I'm catching up. I'm catching up!" It doesn't create an environment where people are able to do well and be relaxed.
TB: That is a really good way of looking at it. Stepping back, could you paint me a picture of how your life was different six weeks ago?
MA: Six weeks ago, I knew what was going to happen. I knew that I was going to come back to Germany and do my 16 remaining performances there. Then, I was going to do a Mozart's Requiem and I would have that money. I knew everything. I'm sure it was that way for everybody, where they knew what their lives would be for the next six months. Now, I have no idea. It is very disconcerting.
TB: What is one thing that you're most grateful for in this experience?
MA: I am grateful for my full-time fest position. I am also very grateful that I have parents who could help me if something really crazy happened. And that is not something that everyone has. My dad literally told me to come back on the plane. I asked, "What if I have the virus?" He said, "We'll figure it out. I'll put you up in a hotel while you're in quarantine." I don't know if everyone's parents could do that for them. That is something that is on my mind in this situation—I'm very lucky.
TB: What is one thing that you would have changed about the reaction to this pandemic?
MA: I wish that things had been closed sooner. Because, who knows? Maybe that would have prevented some of the spread. There was an infected usher for a Broadway show, and they hadn't closed Broadway yet. They were still running and saying that they were going to stay open. I wish that everyone's reaction at first was, "Let's just close everything down for a week and see what happens." But I know it is really hard to do that. It is a huge undertaking to shut down theaters, public gatherings, and events. And actually, a lot more corporate events did shut down sooner than our artistic stuff because there was so much more money at risk for theaters.
TB: How do you think that this is going to change the musical landscape?
MA: I'm nervous that it will cause some organizations to close their doors. That is definitely something that I'm concerned about. Major opera companies are going to be fine because ticket sales for a lot of those places are not the main source of their income; it is donors. Those places may be fine. But the smaller venues and companies that rely on income from ticket sales are the places that I worry about. I also worry about people not wanting to plan in advance now and waiting to offer contracts to be more cautious. They might think, "Who knows what is going to happen?"
That is a bit paranoid on my part, but the more I read about the disease, the more I hope a lot of singers stay out of COVID-19's way because it can really harm the lungs, even if you recover. That makes me worried that if people who sing get it, who knows what could happen to their voices? That might be more paranoid than realistic, but I don't know. A lot of younger people are thinking that if they get it, they'll live. Well, there is living, and then there is the quality of living after being infected with something new. That's why I'm pro social distancing, and we should all just do it. Because you might survive, but at what cost?
TB: Does this shape the way you see your next five-year goals?
MA: None of the shows that I was supposed to do in the next few months are new. So I don't think I would be getting something from it or debuting a role that I really wanted to do. I'm worried that someone could have seen me, which would have lead to another opportunity. I don't know how affected I'm going to be. Being off stage for these months, coming back to the stage will be really hard for me because I have stage fright. I'll have to get used to being in front of people again and dealing with rehearsal dynamics. When you're doing it all the time, you get way better at performing and dealing with people. Starting over from scratch is going to be difficult.
Right now, if all my performances are cancelled for the rest of the season. I won't perform again till mid-2021. So even though I'm getting paid, I lose all of that stage experience and improvement. Who knows how that will affect me for my future work.
TB: Is there anything else that you would like to add to our chat from today?
MA: Yes, there is an aspect of extreme loneliness that comes in from this situation. I look at some of my friends who are self-isolating with their spouses or roommates. But I am here in my studio apartment by myself. I am trying to do what is right and isolate, but it is lonely and scary. That's when I wonder if I did the right thing by my family and maybe for my own physical health; maybe I should have gone home? Because I'm going to be here by myself for a while. So, loneliness is the hardest part of all this for other people in a similar position and me.
TB: Thank you for sharing that, I think that is a really important reminder. In closing here, what is your Netflix recommendation?
MA: I have been watching Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke. They are all so creative and [full of] girl power. There is always a strong female lead, and she isn't defined by loving a man or whatever. I love those on Netflix.
TB: It has been a pleasure to chat with you today. Thank you so much for your time and for your thoughts.
January 9, 2021
Since our conversation, Mr. Anchel continued teaching virtually and was hired to sing Banquo in Macbeth with Stadttheater Giessen. During the summer, the production rehearsed when COVID-19 numbers were low, was staged with social-distancing rules, and performed with a reduced orchestra. He traveled home to see his family during the summer and even saw some friends for some distanced outdoor gatherings while he was home. He returned to Germany in August, where he finished rehearsals for Macbeth and opened in September. The opera house tested the singers every three days for COVID-19 to ensure everyone’s safety. Before Germany locked down again in November, he sang four performances of Banco and received positive reviews. Since the second lockdown, Mr. Anchel had been living in Frankfurt and teaching virtually until he returned home in early December.
While he was living in Frankfurt, Mr. Anchel began posting on TikTok in October/November. Since then, he has had multiple viral videos and now has over 700,000 followers on the platform.
He talks about his life, gives advice and reviews, and gives tips about various makeup and beauty products. He is planning on returning to Europe for The Magic Flute in Austria, but with COVID-19 case numbers surging the production could be canceled. He is currently happily staying with his family in NYC, teaching voice lessons, and ‘hiding’ inside until he can get the vaccine.
“Come dal Ciel Precipita” from Macbeth by Verdi
Performed July 4, 2020 in Stadttheater Giessen
Matthew Anchel, bass
About Matthew Anchel
Bass Matthew Anchel, called "a voice to watch" by the Wall Street Journal, was a Grand Finalist in the 2013 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. During the 2018-20 seasons Matthew joined the ensemble of Staatsoper Stuttgart. His roles included Don Bartolo (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Benoit (La Boheme), Crespel/Luther (The Tales of Hoffman) and The Cook in Love of Three Oranges. He spent the summer 0f 2019 at the Glyndebourne Festival, covering Sarastro in The Magic Flute. Future engagements include Banquo in Macbeth with Stadttheater Giessen, Sarastro in The Magic Flute with Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck and a return to Staatsoper Stuttgart.
Prior to singing in Stuttgart Matthew celebrated his fourth year on the Metropolitan Opera roster, covering in new productions of The Exterminating Angel and Cendrillon. He also joined Santa Fe Opera to cover Tsar Dodon in their production of The Golden Cockerel, debuted with St. Petersberg Opera as Sarastro in The Magic Flute, returned to Spoleto Festival USA as Lamberto in Pia de' Tolomei, and sang the Bass Solo in Mahler 8 at Carnegie Hall.
The season before that included a debut with Anchorage Opera as Sparafucile (Rigoletto), a Carnegie Hall/Stern Auditorium debut in Haydn's Mass in Time of War with the New England Symphonic Ensemble, Dvorak's Stabat Mater with the St. George's Choral Society, and a return to the Metropolitan Opera for Idomeneo, The Magic Flute, and Der Rosenkavalier. Performances during the 2015-16 season included #8 in Conrad Susa's Transformations with the Merola Opera Program, Beethoven Mass in C with Spoleto Festival USA, and engagements with Annapolis Chorale, Savannah Voice Festival, Canterbury Chorale and American Lyric Theater. Engagements during the 2014-15 season included joining the Metropolitan Opera for a second season for their productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Die Zauberflöte and Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg, and debuts with Opera San Antonio as First Soldier in Salome, with LOFT Opera as Don Alfonso in Lucrezia Borgia, and with the Annapolis Chorale for Bach's St. John Passion.
In the 2013-14 season he first joined the roster of the Metropolitan Opera for its productions of The Nose and Die Zauberflöte, sang Ferrando in Il Trovatore with Opera in Williamsburg, the Bonze in Madama Butterfly in a return to Opera San Jose, the Bass solo in the Mozart Requiem with Allentown Symphony, and a return to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis for Sarastro in The Magic Flute, a production directed and designed by Isaac Mizrahi. Performances in the 2012-2013 season included Ferrando (Il Trovatore) with Opera San Jose, Alidoro (La Cenerentola) with Knoxville Opera, and Sarastro (Die Zauberflöte) with Music Academy of the West.
For the 2011-12 season Mr. Anchel was a member of the Ensemble of Oper Leipzig, singing Zaretski (Eugene Onegin), Alaska Wolf Joe (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), Marquis D'Obigny (La Traviata), and The Police Inspector (Der Rosenkavalier), among others. From 2010-2011, he sang with Los Angeles Opera as a member of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, performing the roles of Count Ceprano (Rigoletto) and Fourth Noble (Lohengrin), both under the baton of James Conlon. He also joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic as Dr. Chausable in the world premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Other performance highlights include Haraste (Troilus and Cressida) and First Soldier (Salome) with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis; Familiare (Maria di Rohan) with the Caramoor Festival; and the title role in Le nozze di Figaro in his international debut with the Intermezzo Festival in Brugge, Belgium. He has also performed Sparafucile (Rigoletto), Enrico VIII (Anna Bolena), Oroveso (Norma), the Verdi Requiem, and Handel's Messiah.
In addition to his recognition from the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Matthew is a recipient of many other awards. They include 3rd Place in the Palm Beach Opera Competition, the Judges Award from Opera Index, and Encouragement Award from the George London Foundation, and Finalist and Encouragement Award in the Loren L. Zachary Competition. Born and raised in New York City, Matthew graduated from the famed LaGuardia Performing Arts High School, and later attended the Manhattan School of Music, where he started studying with his current teacher, Patricia McCaffrey.