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 Peter Russell, General Director of Vocal Arts DC, spoke with me about the onset of the pandemic and the resulting postponement of recitals. Of particular interest was the flexibility and openness to experimentation with a variety of different presentation models to enable performance.
Peter Russell, General Director of Vocal Arts DC
Interviewed June 16, 2020
TB: First off, I always like to start these interviews with something good. What is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
PR: I think the best thing that has happened to me in the past week is that I periodically do Zoom sessions with my two sisters, with whom I stay in close contact. One of them is three years older than me, the other is six years younger but we’re a tight-knit group of siblings. We’re very supportive of one another and I find it to be a very grounding experience. It’s something that no matter the turbulence around you, there is something wonderful about touching base with one another’s lives.
I’m not on Facebook any longer. So, it has been amazing to me that number of times my phone has rung since this started—the area code has looked very familiar without my being able to place it—and it has been someone with whom I’ve lost touch entirely who has just decided to pick up the phone and reconnect. That is awesome. It is just a tiny silver lining but it is a silver lining nonetheless.
TB: You have had a very diverse and interesting career in music. So could you tell me a bit about your background and your work with Vocal Arts DC?
PR: Sure. I worked in professional opera for most of my life. I’m not a performer. I’m just someone who got bitten by the classical music bug at a really early age. I always found the solo voice to be the most beautiful instrument. It was the one that has moved me the most. And I’ve been one of those incredibly fortunate people who has been able to make a living doing what would otherwise be my hobby or my passion. So, what is better than that?
However, about 10 years ago, I became legally blind. So the skillset that you really do need to work in professional opera—being able to see at least partially well—is not possible for me any longer. Stephen, my spouse, and I decided to move back here, figuring that DC is where we had our roots and is where we knew the most people. It just so happened that I had become friends with the founder of Vocal Arts DC, a wonderful gentleman by the name of Dr. Gerald Perman.
Before Vocal Arts DC was even founded (when I was in my 20s), I did all kinds of odd jobs, just to piece together a living. One of them was sometimes acting as a tour guide and lecturer for the Smithsonian Resident Associates program. One such tour was to Charleston, South Carolina for the Spoleto Festival in the USA. In the spring of 1985, it so happened that Dr. Perman and his wife Ann were on that tour. And I was just entranced by this very erudite and gracious couple in their 60s. (Here I was 27 years old and I wanted to be Gerald and Ann Perman when I grew up.) They were these people who had boundless intellectual curiosity.
Dr. Perman told me at one point—it was actually at a Sunday brunch after seeing the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at the Dock Street Theatre—that his plan when he turned 65 was to retire from psychiatry and start a chamber music society of his own in Washington. But it was to focus exclusively on vocal concerts. Because quite rightly, he felt that they were diminishing in the nation’s capital and that any great city should have a vocal series. I thought, “That’s a really nice idea but how is this very nice gentleman going to make that fly?”
Well, he did and when I moved back here, Dr. Perman—who was about to turn 90—decided that he was ready to move into an emeritus phase with Vocal Arts DC. He said to me, “Why don’t you apply for my job?” I said, “I don’t know... I can’t really see.” He replied, “That’s not necessarily a problem for a vocal series where it is basically a male or a female singer wearing concert attire and a pianist or other instrumentalist on a rare occasion.” Long story short, I went through a vetting process and did it. And after years and years of working in opera, I find the simplicity of song to be just so refreshing. It’s given me a whole new lease on life, one for which I’m incredibly grateful.
TB: That is really necessary. Especially now, the advocacy for recitals in the next few years is going to be very important.
PR: That is the [great] thing, you can do your part of the art form without having to worry about the huge impact that comes from social distancing. In terms of opera, how do you do staging with that factored in? Whereas for the bare bones of song, we can pretty much do what we do—even if it is pre-recorded—and it is going to look pretty much like the real deal. So we’re not really sacrificing. We’re doing an actual presentation of what the art form is, rather than just a representation of what the art form normally looks like.
TB: Backing up to the beginning of this, can you tell me a little bit about where you were and how you first realized that this pandemic was going to have such an effect on your life?
PR: I think it was gradual, and I think that because denial is such a powerful tool, crutch, and influence in all of our lives. I remember when I got the warning alert on my phone, sitting in my office in downtown Washington, DC, letting me know that Washington was under lockdown until further notice. We all had to vacate the Blake Building on Connecticut Avenue, between K and L Streets, very rapidly and head to our homes. I knew that something was going on. Yet still, there was a voice in my brain that said, “No problem. We’ll reschedule.” Even the booking coordinator at the Kennedy Center said, “Let’s get into September and the rest of next fall. Let’s see what we can do to fix this for you in terms of finding rescheduling dates.”
Then the weeks started going by and I was aware of everything that was going on. And I think that the light bulb went off over my head in a conference call that the board of directors and I had. There was a pro-bono consultation with the former CEO of the Kennedy Center and now consulting guru, Michael Kaiser. Michael gave an hour’s time to organizations in the DC area to ask us where we were, to ask him questions, and in turn for him to ask questions of us. [In this meeting,] He asked, “What is your plan on the very good chance that you can’t open your 2021 season? Right now, a lot of the artists’ managers with whom you’re talking, they have their heads in the sand too. They don’t want to say, ‘that is going to happen’. They don’t want to lose their commission too.” That was a big part of it [the realization of the scope of the pandemic].
Then there were a couple of different meetings that took place between a coalition of arts presenters who make use of the Kennedy Center facilities and a couple of spokespersons from the Kennedy Center. There was back and forth about the concessions granted to us, as our audiences—in various surveys—have noted they will feel very uncomfortable going back unless there is tremendous attention given to social distancing.
So now, we really want there to be a live stream option for those people who are just too squeamish to go back to the Kennedy Center. Though we don’t know when we are going to reopen. We don’t know when. We don’t know how. We don’t know what it will look like. And we are needing to come up with a plan. So we have.
We have come up with a plan that I think is viable. Not only that but one thing that has been gnawing both at myself and our manager for external affairs, Tehvon Fowler-Chapman, is finding a way to have an impactful presence on the web. So while we think that live performance is our life’s blood, if there is something that we feel should really reach a broad audience then we can do so.
For instance, the program that Davóne Tines is doing is a themed program of his own creation. It has the title, Mass, and it examines what the ritual in a church looks like as reinterpreted through the lens of a contemporary African American male. So it has a “Kyrie Eleison” to open but it also has bits of the mass that are rewritten for him by composer, Caroline Shaw. [Also,] It has the lyrics to traditional spirituals that are sung in African American churches, such as “Were you there” but with entirely new musical settings for him by Tyshawn Sorey. If all goes according to plan, he is going to film that at an arts colony that is run by Zach Winokur and Matthew Aucoin in New England this summer with a contemporary dance ensemble. That is something that was nearly sold out when we had to postpone it in March. But if more people can see that through a well-shot video that we post online, so much the better as far as I’m concerned. [See addendum for further information concerning this project]
TB: Before we talk about the major fallouts that have happened with the pandemic, it sounds like this type of pivoting to an online presence is mission-driven for Vocal Arts DC, correct?
PR: Very much. It’s been there, hovering for some time. We don’t want to make everything seem as if it is a silver lining. But this really is the crisis that has made us look for opportunities to add to our overall menu, which could be really impactful as we move forward.
TB: So before the interview began, we chatted that there were two cancellations at Vocal Arts DC. One with Matthew Polenzani and Natalia Katyukova, and the second with Mr. Tines. Would you mind talking about that and the way that has shifted as we’ve gained a longer view of the pandemic?
PR: Sure, as I was discussing before, we started with a ‘no problem, we will just reschedule’ [approach to handling cancellations]. But eventually, it was not feasible. We very much wanted to be able to present to the 450 people—Mr. Tines was almost sold out and Mr. Polenzani was already sold out—something available online where there was clearly a local audience, but nothing like this original program by Davóne Tines.
So to be able to produce something that we could then put online not only for our core constituents in Washington, DC but to make available (if we market it cleverly) to a national and perhaps even international audience, that is a win-win for everybody. And although there is a lot of stuff on YouTube by Matthew Polenzani, he is underrepresented on YouTube and online as a recitalist, which is something that he does supremely well. He has only sung in Washington, DC one previous time in his entire career and it was under our auspices in a recital in the winter of 2015. So to be able to bring him back, record it, and put it up online will show this other facet of what he can do, not only to 450 Washingtonians but to countless other people worldwide (who will hopefully buy it as a recorded unity). It’s like a whole new potential untapped audience.
TB: Can you talk a bit about how your organization has handled the financial side of this? Because it seems like you’ve had a lot of community-based support as you’ve been going through this as well.
PR: We have. And we received one micro-grant from the mayor’s office, which is nice. Now full disclosure, as grateful as I am every waking day to our founder, Gerald Perman, for having dreamt up the idea of Vocal Arts DC, I am doubly grateful to his wife, Ann Perman. She was the practical half of the couple. She was the one who told Dr. Perman, “If you do not include an aggressive planned giving component from the time you incorporate, you will be in very deep trouble someday.”
So, we started planned giving right from the time we incorporated in 1990. As a consequence, we have amassed five-years worth of operating income. So, we are not in dire straits, financially. Basically, we need to cover rent and payroll, and that’s mostly it in terms of large expenditures. And we are pretty confident that once we do actually unveil a season— we will do this through our website, which is currently being completely rebuilt—if we go to our nearest and dearest and say, “We understand that times are really awful for a lot of people and organizations. We have a reserve fund, so if it is more important that you give to others, by all means, do so. But if there is any leftover please give to us as well. We would be grateful.”
We think that financially we’re going to be okay and that we will come out of this with revenues from what we make for people who pay for the concerts and those who make donations online.
TB: One other item we talked about before the interview was the immense amount of ticket sales that you have for concerts. Do you want to talk a bit about the impact of that?
PR: Yes, our average attendance is 400. Every year, we do a concert that is a holdover from a collaboration that we used to do with the Marilyn Horne Foundation. When Marilyn Horne retired from an illustrious career as a performer, she started a foundation that was dedicated to the notion of preserving the song recital. So each year, she would audition singers that would come and just do song literature for her. They would present sample programs of the kind of song concerts that they would give if they were chosen as one of her seasonally-selected Marilyn Horne Singers. Then she had presenting organizations. We were one of those that would present one or two of the Marilyn Horne Foundation Singers. It was always someone who was giving a Washington, DC recital debut. Then the Horne Foundation dried up in that iteration.
When our founder, Dr. Gerald Perman, turned 90, the board wanted to honor him in some way. He said that he missed the collaboration with the Horne Foundation so every year we now present a Gerald Perman Emerging Artist Recital. Some of these artists are going on to really wonderful careers but whose names are really unknown. These are people that are either fresh out of degree-granting programs or training programs and they are harder sells with the general public. So that, in and of itself, brings down the overall median in terms of the number of tickets that we sell every year. Yet, we feel that that’s important enough. And we are committed to the idea, so we keep doing that every year no matter what. But by and large, this is a community where we’re blessed to have a lot of people that are rabid classical music fans, who really do follow what is going on internationally, and are supportive of what we do. So that makes a huge difference.
TB: Right and one of the things that you mentioned was the idea that as the Kennedy Center had closed, you gave people three options with their tickets: postpone, get a refund, or donate that ticket to Vocal Arts DC.
PR: And only three have asked for a refund so far. The vast majority were going to the rescheduled concert. But those that didn’t select that option went for donating their ticket.
TB: Which really speaks to the amount of community engagement as well. So we’ve talked about a lot of positives. But what would you say is one of the hardest lessons that you’ve had to learn in this situation?
PR: That uncertainty is the new normal. And that you absolutely have to have a plan B. But as you are concocting it, you are very much aware that by the time you finish putting it together, the sand will have moved. You will need to go back to the drawing board and slightly readjust or maybe readjust wholesale. But that’s a good thing.
We find other aspects of life that can become dependable for us—whether it’s taking a walk or Zooming with our siblings—that somehow gives us the illusion of stability and serenity. We need [this illusion] to go back and look at work and be real about being flexible and bearing that in mind.
When I look at racial inequality, our democracy in free fall, and the number of people that are suffering horribly because of what is going on in the economy and the pandemic in general, it has a way of putting everything in perspective. It’s like if we have to go back and look at our concerts and figure out a different way to do it again, sure that’s a challenge. But what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
TB: I really like that positive viewpoint. It sounds like Vocal Arts DC is using this time to deal with things that were not priorities. One of those things being the website, are there any others that you are working on?
PR: We may actually do live streaming. One of the Perman Emerging Artists—in fact, he was the second one we presented—is having a really interesting career working and is very entrepreneurial. A lot of composers are writing for him and he and his pianist presented an idea of a live stream that they would like to do for us that is very intriguing.
I just have to sell the executive committee on it due to the possibility of technical glitches. But these two young artists are just so tech-savvy that I have good confidence that if we did go with what they’re pitching, in terms of a live stream, that it would be very well attended and very, very high quality in terms of audio and video. So, we may mix and match live-streaming when we know it can be done really well. Or mix it with the pre-recorded stuff, where we know we can guarantee quality. [See addendum for further information concerning this project]
TB: So minus a pandemic, it is June 16. What would normal life be? What would you be preparing for?
PR: Our season would be done, it is always done before Memorial Day. I would be working on our biggest grant proposal of the year, knowing already what our 2021 season is and what our outreach and educational programs would be. Today is June 16, so I would be a subscription campaign machine and taking down subscription orders. Given that we would have set our subscription renewal deadline—usually June 30, the end of our fiscal year—I would have also sent out a bunch of renewal letters. We would have gotten volunteers in to trade lists with Washington Concert Opera, which is the nearest demographic match to our own people that are voice aficionados. It is always that list where we get the biggest number of new subscribers in any given year. That and we would be getting out tax letters to all the people that added on contributions to general operating costs, including the Gerald Perman Fund for Emerging Artists.
TB: It is very wild the way that our world has shifted. So as someone that has guided a lot of young and emerging artists, what advice would you give them?
PR: Have a backup plan. Absolutely, have a backup plan. There is nothing more heartbreaking than people who go into this, even the ones who succeed for several years, and then find out that this is not sustainable. For instance, there’s someone who I’m looking out for now and recommending for many jobs because she’s reinvented herself very successfully as an arts administrator. She was actually being really successful: singing at the Met and regional companies all over creation. She got married, started a family, and suddenly realized that this life—as the kids were getting to the point of needing to start school and a husband who was also a performer—was just not going to work. She has landed on her feet and is happy with the way she’s reinvented herself.
But there is at least one name—without my needing to give the actual name of the singer—that took a lot of us by surprise several years ago. Someone who seemed to be doing really, really well professionally. But a case of being a single mother—there is no such thing as a great job to have because the industry isn’t really supportive of single mothers—and this line of work is especially cruel, I think. So despite earning six-figure annual salaries for several years, it reached a point where she just couldn’t be on the road and away from Europe. And it took the world by shock. So having a backup plan would be the first bit of advice I’d give.
The second one would be to try to love every component of this profession. Meaning you hear so often, “Oh, I hate to audition.” Well, find something about auditioning that can be a growth opportunity for you, either personally or professionally. Or, “I hate the onstage technical rehearsals because they’re boring.” Well, if there are long stretches where you’re not being called because they’re adjusting the lights, bring a book. Because it’s not just all about the curtain going up, you being the vessel through which the music pours, and you’re getting a standing ovation. There is a lot more going on than that and you have to find a way to make peace with all of it.
TB: One of the big questions is, how do you think that this is going to change our musical landscape?
PR: I don’t know precisely how. But I think it is very safe to say that at least initially—when we come out the other end of this—it is going to look very different for a while. It is going to be more streamlined. Those areas organizations that were more vulnerable in terms of their reserve funds may very well go away. But we saw during the Great Depression that as we came out from under that that even though the arts went through very tough times, most did recoup and rebuild. So I think that there is some hope.
My big hope is that people don’t begin to love the idea of communicating with devices period. Because such a huge part of what we do is communing with the art form as a community and live in a theater. It is that experience of the energy that we’re all feeling being in a room together. And our minds processing the music in so many different ways, as many as there are numbers of us sitting in the audience.
TB: So last question, what opera should we all stream?
PR: As One by Laura Kaminsky. It is very cutting edge, though it is so difficult to narrow it down to one.
TB: Thank you so much for speaking with me today and sharing your insight.
November 28, 2020
As the pandemic has surged forward in the late fall, I followed up with Mr. Russell who gave me several updates as to Vocal Arts DC. First, he noted that the pandemic has had ongoing effects on their programming and offerings for this season. As noted in the interview, Mass was going to be filmed with a company of dancers and Mr. Tines. However, proper social distancing and safety have made this impossible. Yet, this program will be recorded in its original recital programming and will be available for streaming in January of 2021.
This period has also been a period of transition for the Washington area as Tehvon Fowler-Chapman (also featured in the Artist Relief Tree interview) has become the Managing Director of Washington Concert Opera. Ellen Goodnight has succeeded Mr. Fowler-Chapman as the Manager of External Affairs.
Finally, as this has been a period of change and growth, Vocal Arts DC has experimented with many new avenues. While live-streaming recitals proved to be an ambitious goal that may occur in the future, Mr. Russell and Vocal Arts DC have reinvented themselves to providing high-quality vocal recitals available for internet streaming. The first of which will be the previously cancelled Matthew Polenzani and Natalia Katyukova recital. This will be available to viewers to purchase a virtual ticket to view the recital from November 30-December 10, 2020. Information on this and future events can be found at VocalArtsDC.org.
The recital gives the audience a stunning view of the best that the art form can be. With songs drawn from Schubert, Finzi, Schumann, Poulenc, and Ives, there is something that can entice any voice aficionado. In fact, this is extra special as Mr. Polenzani noted that it is the first time he has performed Schumann in a recital, and he does so with an elegant sweetness.
Ms. Katyukova is simply divine. Her musical elegance shines in her eyes and is executed with inspiration on the keyboard. Any pianist dreads Charles Ives, yet under her mastery combined with the musical understanding and elocution of Mr. Polenzani, Ives shimmers and reminds the listener what a gift he was to American music. “When Stars are in the Quiet Skies” ends the Ives and gives listeners exactly what Mr. Polenzani noted, hope.
About Peter Russell
Peter Russell assumed the artistic and administrative leadership of Vocal Arts DC in Washington, DC in March 2012. He previously served in executive roles as General Director of Opera Colorado in Denver, as Director of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and as General Director of Wolf Trap Opera Company in Virginia. A co-founder of Washington Concert Opera, he is also a frequent guest lecturer on opera, including for the Smithsonian Institution’s Resident Associates Program and for Georgetown University’s Continuing Education Series, and has frequently adjudicated vocal competitions, including for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, The Richard Tucker Music Foundation, and the Washington International Competition. He graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in music history from Yale University.