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 Ned Hanlon of the Met Chorus Artists Inc. talked with me about the abrupt end to his season at the Metropolitan Opera. His reaction to the situation continues to impress me with an ambitious fundraising effort to support artists that was incredibly successful and ongoing advocacy for artists of all varieties.
Ned Hanlon, Met Chorus Artists Inc., Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Interviewed August 3, 2020
TB: I think I can answer this for you, but what is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
NH: This is the end of the story a bit, but we finished a big fundraiser that the chorus has been spearheading for all the AGMA [American Guild of Musical Artists] artists that lost contracts at the Met. We just finished that up on Friday. It was a massive success, we broke $500,000 on the final day. We also had an anonymous donor that gave us a $25,000 matching grant for the final 10 days. And we broke that in the final three hours of the campaign.
So we closed up this huge effort that we’ve been working on and now we’re in the process of going through the applications; making sure the people who applied are eligible. I think we’re going to end up getting a substantial amount of money to 300-plus artists, who are the Met artists who need it the most right now. So that has been what we’ve been focusing on the most of this past week.
TB: This is a huge project, as you noted it is over half a million dollars. For me what matters even more, aside from the gifts from Rolex or the Metropolitan Opera Board, were the number of artists that were giving. Seeing names like Erin Morley and Patrick Carfizzi supporting [other] artists was what we all need at this point.
NH: Absolutely true. I would add to that because Erin and Patrick are great, but my dresser also donated to it and these are the best donations. We saw $10 donations with a note attached; with just, “We love you” and “We miss the arts.” And people saying, “I don’t have a lot of money, but I just want to show my support for everyone who is out of work right now.” The idea being that all of us in the arts have helped other people and brought joy to their lives. It is the 400-plus people who donated. They want to return that favor and show us that when we can’t perform, they still love us and still want to respond to us.
TB: Simply amazing. Would you mind sharing a little bit about your background and where you are at in your career now?
NH: Sure, I was always a musical theater kid growing up and didn’t know much about opera at all. Then I decided—like a lot of people do—that I was going to use music as an extracurricular to get me into a better school. So I applied to a bunch of universities that had liberal arts programs, because I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I ended up going to McGill University, where I did my undergrad up in Montreal. They didn’t have a musical theater program so I got thrown into classical music and opera.
I couldn’t read music at all and I was in my first opera in the fall. I was like, “This is kind of cool.” I’m from New York originally and I went back during our February reading week and decided I should probably see an opera at some point if I’m going to continue to study them. So on back to back nights, I saw the Zeffirelli Traviata and Bohème at the Met. I was like, “Wow, I like this. This is neat.” Years later (I’m going to skip ahead and then I’ll go back), one of the amazing things is I’m now in the Met Opera Chorus, so I looked up and found that production of La Bohème. And I realized I was now singing in the chorus with a number of the people who were in it. Actually, the person who played Schaunard in that production later became a full-time chorister. He sits next to me in the dressing room. It was a full-circle experience for me.
So I studied at McGill for a while and during that time I was doing young artist programs in the summers. I did things like Seagle Music Colony and a Toronto program called Summer Opera Lyric Theater. Then I went on to do my Master’s at University of Michigan and stayed there for another two years doing a specialist diploma. I was still doing the young artist program thing. I did Ashlawn Opera, Ohio Light Opera, Glimmerglass, and Chautauqua. Then I graduated into doing the full-year young artist programs and more summer programs. I was doing that for a couple of years and was just at the point where I was starting to make my transition into being a principal artist, putting seasons together that were a combination of roles at smaller regional companies. I was based out of Chicago at the time, so most of my stuff was happening around there. I also did some extra chorus work at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and sang a little bit with the Chicago Symphony Chorus.
Then on a whim, I was in New York for a workshop at the Lincoln Center Theater [LCT3] and they were doing the Met Chorus auditions. I thought maybe I could pick up a show or two there in the chorus. So I auditioned and then four months later I got a call saying, “We’re considering you for the full-time chorus. Would you be interested in that?” At that point, I never thought of myself as a professional chorister. I love doing chorus and everything like that, but it was always to make connections and fill things in with new small roles at places like Lyric Opera of Chicago. So I sat on it for a little while, but told them to keep considering me and I would love to hear about it.
Two weeks later, they finally got back to me and by that point I was like, “I want this so badly.” I had started to worry that maybe they had gotten the wrong idea from me. Then they got back to me and said, “A spot has opened up. We’d like you to join.” I said yes and that was the start. It would have been six and half years ago now, [because] I started that August. My first performance at the Met was Le Nozze di Figaro, which was great because Figaro was my role. I love doing it as a principal. My sixth season ended two months early and now we’re looking at whenever season seven is going to start...
The other thing I should mention is during my time in the chorus, I have gotten more involved with the internal workings of the organization. Four years ago, I founded this nonprofit, Met Chorus Artists, Incorporated. We put together a board and ended up doing this fundraiser. Then three years ago, I became the chair of the Met Chorus and the chair of the AGMA Negotiating Committee at the Met. I chaired the negotiations in 2018 and now we’re looking ahead at next August when we’ll have negotiations in the summer of 2021.
TB: Let’s back up a bit because one of the things that you alluded to was the fact that your season ended early. Obviously that is due to the pandemic. So can you take me through where you were and how you first realized that your life was going to be so dramatically affected by this?
NH: We were actually in the middle of rehearsal. It was on March 12, we were doing a musical rehearsal for Simon Boccanegra. We did an hour of singing and took a 10 minute break. Our chorus master, Maestro Palumbo, called us back and we all sat down to sing... Then he told us that we were all going home and that the Met had cancelled the next two and a half weeks through the end of March due to COVID.
This was something that we were getting a little suspicious would happen for a couple days before—that was the week when everything closed—but it was shocking. It was shocking to just leave rehearsal like that. We had an impromptu full chorus meeting where we just talked about how we’re going to get on this. And we talked about what this means for another half hour in the middle of the rehearsal room... And then we all went home.
Then—I don’t remember, maybe March 18th or so—we heard from the Met that they were going to be cancelling the rest of the season. Again, not quite a surprise, because things were beginning to close. But I remember thinking over the course of that week, “The Met’s not going to close. The Met never closes.” The Met closed for a week for 9/11 [the Metropolitan Opera actually reopened the next day] and maybe for two snow storms in the past 20 years. It was hard to wrap your head around. And then you started to think maybe it would and what that means.
TB: So what does that mean for you? Take me through that as the Metropolitan Opera closes.
NH: Right at first, it is just, we all go home and wait. Then for a couple of weeks, we’re really just waiting because we don’t know if we’re going back April 1st or not. Then we got the news [that the Metropolitan Opera cancelled the remainder of its season]. The full-time people at the Met, which would be chorus, managers, a number of directors and some full-time supers, they got a little bit of money and we were promised health insurance throughout the closure. But once April 1st came there was no more money coming in.
So getting on unemployment and then the reality of, what are we doing this summer? What are we going to do now? A lot of people stuck it out, [but] we have had a ton of choristers who have left the city. A lot of people went home to their parents. My wife and I waited in New York for awhile. But when it became clear that we wouldn’t be going back, we started looking for options to get out of the city. Because New York City, in a small apartment, when you don’t have an income... [Shrugs]
My wife is a cruise ship entertainer mostly and certainly cruise ships aren’t doing great right now either. So when you no longer have an income and you’re relying on unemployment, and that starts getting called into question in Congress, we started to ask what can we do? We packed up our bags, ended our lease, and now I’m based out of Puerto Rico. We’re going to be here until we see what is going to happen in December. Are we going to be able to go back in December?
TB: That is a big question... One side of this question is the independent contractor side, but as a Met Chorus regular you have a W-2, if I am correct? So can you talk me through what that means for unemployment in the arts?
NH: Having the W-2 has made unemployment easier, though congress passed the PUA so that 1099 employees will [also] be able to get unemployment. But that was a treacherous process. Though I think most of them have been able to get through the system. My wife had to do it and it took her forever. But she was able to get something from that.
For us [Met Chorus], we were able to apply for unemployment pretty easily. But those first couple weeks were when the entire world was applying for unemployment and all the websites were down. They since streamlined the process. That’s been a help. So we were able to make that transition over to unemployment and to some extent with the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, the extra $600. It has helped cover the things that you need to cover throughout this time. So that has been hard.
A lot of the people at the Met who you maybe think of as independent contractors actually do get W-2s. A lot of soloists are W-2 employees at the Met. But I know that it has been a lot harder for them. All my income comes from New York. That really makes the unemployment issue easier. However, for a person who does a little bit in New York, a little bit in Chicago, and a fair amount in Europe—as many American artists do—it’s been a lot harder to pick those pieces up.
There are two things I would add to that, which are really hard right now. One is, as I said earlier, the full-time employees were promised their health insurance. That was great, and that was part of the agreement we reached back in March. [However,] We were unable to get that for everyone. It is difficult because itinerant soloists, dancers, and our extra choristers are also paid per performance and don’t get their health insurance through the Met. So there is no good or easy way for them to do that. So now they’re without income because all their contracts are backloaded and they don’t get their performance fee until they perform. So if there are no performances and they don’t have an obvious source for unemployment health insurance, then everyone has been put in a bad place.
The more performance-y groups at the Met are the most at-risk groups at this time, which is why it was super important that we did this big fundraiser and that it was going to go to all the AGMA artists —the choristers, soloists, stage managers, stage directors, actors, and dancers—to give them something to try to fill in some of those gaps.
TB: Thank you for talking me through that. In following up, we’re also staring down the huge issue where that $600 a week [FPUC ending] may dry up. What would that mean for you?
NH: My wife and I don’t have children. We’ve always enjoyed the flexibility that comes from that. We don’t own an apartment or a house, so we would be able to get by. Especially considering I have health insurance, I’d be able to get by on basic unemployment. We could cut back. We’ve already cut back a lot. But we could really cut back and do it.
I don’t know how people with families would be able to get by. I really don’t. Apparently my landlord is an angel because he let me out of my lease. But people with mortgages or who are stuck with another 10 months more of New York apartment rent pay, for many of those people, that $600 was going straight to mortgage payments and apartment rent. Especially since there are a lot of reasons to believe that the arts are going to be one of the last to return, I think there is a real fear that we’re going to lose a lot of artists.
We are going to have artists who just can’t do it and are going to seek other jobs and other careers. They’re going to give up the thing that they’ve studied for their entire lives. My educational story is pretty standard. I did eight years of university to become a performing artist. That’s what a lot of people did. I think my greatest fear is that we could lose a lot of artists. It is sad. I’m concerned about the arts organizations. But I’m more concerned about the artists because they are as much at risk—if not more at risk—than anyone right now.
TB: What would you say is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned so far in this situation?
NH: On a basic level it is; you can’t take anything for granted. In this business or any business really, you’ve never made it. I’ll approach that statement from two places. We’ve had people who joined the chorus just this last year. You think you get into the Met Opera Chorus and “I’m there. I got it. I’m going to work here for awhile and I’m going to have health insurance. Eventually, I’m going to retire and I’ll have a pension.” You can’t count on that.
On the other side of it, it’s been sad and in many ways very tragic to see some of the biggest name soloists in our industry publicly talking about how this is a difficult time for them financially. I think it is a lesson that anyone who goes into this business has to go into with their eyes open. You don’t go into this business for financial security. You go into this because you love it and you’re going to stick it out.
I think I said ‘you never make it’, but you do. You just have to make it again everyday. That’s what the lesson really is; you can’t take anything for granted. For the whole performing arts or maybe in life, I’m not sure. I’ve said this to my wife several times, I think I’m going to stop predicting things. I was sure that the Met couldn’t close for nine months. Then it closed for nine months and maybe more. So I think that’s the biggest takeaway.
TB: So looking at the artistic side, how has this impacted your creative process? Are you singing?
NH: I had a lot of trouble singing. It was very difficult. I did a little bit of stuff. But especially in the first couple months after things closed, there was a lot of... I don’t want to call it pressure, because it was a lot of ingenuity. Like, we have to keep the arts going on social media and we have to put all that out. I did a little, but I have had no interest in singing for about three months and did almost none.
A week ago would have been our first day back in rehearsal at the Met and today would have been the first day of a preseason proper when the house really started to open up again. So I am happy to report—I don’t know if this was subconscious or whatever—the past week, I’ve felt that old desire to sing again. I’m usually a person who is constantly singing and this took me out of singing completely. So I dove into the union stuff, fundraising, and into political action. I should also say, I’ve gone back and am getting another degree.
TB: Oh, what degree?
NH: Well through the union, they are giving free undergraduate education. So I’m 16 credits into a business management degree with a labor focus right now. I just finished my summer semester and so I’ve been working really hard on all that stuff. But the singing had not been an interest and now it is maybe becoming one again.
I had a friend who shared an aria with me that she was writing before this (I think she sent it to me on March 10th). Then the world exploded and I never looked at it. Now I’ve got a renewed desire to do that. I’m hoping to do a little recording of it at some point in the near future. I have another friend who is putting together a virtual operetta and I’m going to be doing something in that. So finally, I feel like singing again.
TB: So it sounds like when this happened you had to step away from it. Then through time you’ve allowed yourself to heal and come back to it more gradually.
NH: I think that’s probably right. So much of what we do in this business is preparation for something or getting in front of people and performing. I love being on stage. I mean, I love opera, but if I could dance and I couldn’t sing, I’d probably be a dancer. If I could act, I’d be an actor. I just want to be onstage in front of people. And having no prospect of that, it just took me completely out of doing anything. Now, I’ve turned back to it organically and said, “This is still something that is valuable for me and I want to do something with it.”
TB: You alluded to this a little bit before, but minus a pandemic, tell me a little bit about where you would be and what you would be doing.
NH: Normally, I would have finished my season in May and then I would have been off for two and a half months. We would have started rehearsals last Monday, which would have been the period we would have started our preseason before we open. It would have been first music and then staging rehearsals. Then we work on stage for the new productions of the 2020-2021 season.
We were going to open with Aida, which is obviously always a big chorus show, so that was something we were really looking forward to. It is neat when you do a new production of a show you’ve done a lot, because you get to dive into it in a way that sometimes you don’t always have the time to do during a regular pre-season for a revival. So I think musically, we were going to be able to really get even better with it.
During those two and a half months, I always do some performing. The past three years it has been working on cruise ships. I’ve worked as both a cruise ship entertainer and last year, I was assistant cruise director on a ship that was circling around the Baltic and Norway in Scotland and Ireland. It was beautiful. I don’t know exactly what I would have been doing. I probably would have been doing some performing throughout the summer. I probably would have gotten back on a cruise ship and worked there for at least part of the summer.
TB: So let’s talk a little bit about the future. How do you think that this situation is going to change the musical landscape as we move forward?
NH: As a person who said earlier in the interview that I think I’ve stopped making predictions, I’m a little trepidatious about saying. [Laughter] I guess in the long term if you were an outsider ooking in or you were an alien coming down to earth and you landed in 2018 and again in 2022, and you looked at opera in both those times, I personally don’t think it will be different to an outsider.
I don’t want to say we will go back to business as usual though. I see a company like the Met going back to a large season—they usually do 220 operas—but maybe they’ll do less than that. We’re already seeing the value of creativity, performing, and trying new things; and honestly, working with artists to find new ways of doing things. Those seem to be the things that are working right now. They are going to continue to be the things that work in the short term and maybe even the middle term. That’s what we need to be doing. We need to be trying new things.
The Met, what they have done that I think really got out ahead of this was making those HD broadcasts that they have been filming for years. It’s increased their viewership by making those available now. I know it has increased subscriptions to Met on Demand. But it has also exposed a lot of people to opera who wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed. So I think that was really good.
Now you’re seeing other companies: like Madrid that just finished up a month of La Traviata in a whole different format and setting that seems to have been a relative success. So I think in a business where creativity has not always been valued and where we are just doing things as we’ve always done them, the companies that are going to thrive and come out of this stronger are the ones that are going to try new things now. We will think about how opera gets made and how we can think about this art form that we love and try new things with it.
TB: So let’s talk about young artists and also emerging artists during this time. What would your advice be to those two groups?
NH: Oof! I don’t know if you could pick a worse time to become a singer. I left school in 2010, so we were a little past the Great Recession. In general the advice I like to give young artists is to watch every part of the process as it gets created, because there are so many different ways to work and have a living in this art form that we love. Pay attention to what the directors do. Pay attention to what everyone is doing at all times when you’re in rehearsal. That’s one of the things I do like to say to young artists. But that is not great advice now because there are no rehearsals going on...
I’m starting a certification in SEO [Search Engine Optimization] today through Coursera. This is a time when you can work on things for when they come back. And again, I’m a believer that they will. You have to be an entrepreneur essentially. So work on those things... I was also just saying that I haven’t been able to sing in three months and I doubt I’m alone. I know I’m not alone. My heart just goes out for the people who are trying to get a start. But at least they won’t have any illusions about the security they might have. They’ve hit the worst patch for opera in living memory.
TB: So I think that one of the things that you were saying is; be kind to yourself, right? Take it one day at a time.
NH: Right and do what you can to improve. Try to learn. Maybe work on a language. But if you can’t, don’t. Just take care of yourself. Mental health is a big part of what is going to get us through this. I’m very fortunate that I’m married to a person I love and I’ve been isolated with her. But not everyone is so lucky. So the only advice I can think of right now is just to take care of yourself.
TB: So in closing up here, I have two more questions. First off, is there anything else that you would like to add to our conversation?
NH: I guess one thing—and this may be me on my union soapbox a bit—we already talked about how we raised half a million dollars. If the chorus had just tried to raise that money for itself—
for the 80 person chorus—first of all we wouldn’t be able to do it as a nonprofit. But we wouldn’t have gotten the donations that we got. We wouldn’t have gotten the donation from the board. It’s the fact that there was a desire to help all the people in our business—the stage managers, soloists, and those different groups—and because of that, everyone is going to be helped more.
The word solidarity has been thrown around a lot. For me, this is my new favorite example ever of why solidarity is important. Because we were able to raise half a million dollars. Because we embraced solidarity. Because we wanted to help as many people as possible and thereby strengthen themselves.
TB: Last question, what is your video binge recommendation for the pandemic?
NH: We had two main TV shows during the pandemic and then [I’ll give] one non-TV recommendation. One was The Good Place. Then the other was—we watched it partly because we were moving down to Puerto Rico and we were working on our Spanish—Money Heist. Really good.
Then the only other thing, I finally read Ulysses, which I have been meaning to read for a long time. I have a good friend; we had a book club going and we’ve moved it to Zoom. It’s a two person book club, but we read Ulysses together.
TB: Reading books is always appreciated! Thank you so much for chatting with me today.
In the second half of August, Met Chorus Artists, Inc. gave $1668 to 307 AGMA Artists at the Met in need of financial assistance. For more information, on the organization, you can visit them at MetChorusArtists.com.
Solidarity Forever - The AGMA Artists of the Metropolitan Opera Lyrics by Sam Wheeler, Jeremy Little & Ned Hanlon; Piano by Ross Benoliel & David Lowe; Video editing by Ned Hanlon
Thank you for your support of the Met Chorus Artists, Inc. fundraiser!
Video participants: Chelsea Shephard, Extra Chorus Nathaniel Hunt, Met Opera Ballet Mike Gomborone, Staff Performer Ashley Emerson, Soloist Anne Dyas, Staff Performer Paula Suozzi, Stage Director Sarah Weber Gallo, Met Opera Ballet Javōn Dansberry, Met Opera Ballet Gina Lapinsky, Stage Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Music Director Stephanie Chigas, Met Opera Chorus Ned Hanlon, Met Opera Chorus Video by Tanya C. Roberts
Ned Hanlon has completed six seasons as a full time member of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, performing on the iconic stage almost 1000 times. In addition to his chorus work with the company, he has soloed in 85 performances including La Bohème, Cendrillon, Der Rosenkavalier, Cyrano de Bergerac, Turandot, and Thaïs.
When not singing at the Met, Ned maintains a varied solo career. Most recently he workshoped Lydian Gale Parr, a new oratorio by Karinne Keithley Sayers and Alaina Ferris, at National Sawdust and New Dramatists. Ned spent the last three summers bringing music to the high seas, as a performer on the MS Rotterdam and the Azamara Journey (where he also served as Assistant Cruise Director).
Back on land, recent credits include Bartolo (Le nozze di Figaro) with Brott Opera, Sparafucile (Rigoletto), Talpa (Il Tabarro) and Betto (Gianni Schicchi) at the North Shore Music Festival, as well as the bass solos in Stainer’s Crucifixion at Brick Presbyterian Church, and Handel’s Messiah with Garden State Philharmonic. Other favorite roles include Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro), Nicholas Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Dick Deadeye (H.M.S. Pinafore), and Colline (La Bohème) with companies including the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Lincoln Center Theatre, Des Moines Metro Opera, Edmonton Opera, and the Glimmerglass Festival.
Ned resides in Puerto Rico with his wife, soprano Tanya Roberts.