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 René Barbera, tenor, shared his difficult situation due to the collapse of the performance economy.
Photo Credit: Anna Barbera
TB: I always like to start with something light. What’s the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
RB: The best thing that happened to me last week is that I managed to land a grocery delivery slot on April 4. I had one on April 17. I went to change the reservation because I wanted to add some things to it and instead of allowing me just to add things to the cart, it completely erased my delivery time. So I spent probably 3 hours just clicking refresh and refreshing overnight, then the next day when I checked there happened to be one available on the fourth! So I don’t have to leave the house before April 17 now, because I had booked one already for the 17th. So that is great news.
TB: So would you mind giving us a little idea of where you are in your career and your background as well please?
RB: This would make my eighth year as a completely solo professional. 2012 is when I left the Lyric Opera of Chicago young artist program. Prior to that, my first freelance engagement was at Opera Theatre St. Louis, the previous summer. I was in the young artist program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago for three years and the Florida Grand Opera artist program for approximately seven months. Before that I was at the Merola Opera Program in the summer and went to North Carolina School of the Arts—which is now the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina—but I did not manage to finish my degree. I was too busy with auditions and competitions my senior year and things went in that direction.
That year, I won the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions. I got into the Lyric, all that stuff. So things went very well that year and there was no time left after that to finish the degree. I was born in Laredo, Texas and lived there until I was nine. And then I lived in San Antonio until I was 20. It’s my hometown and where I did most of my growing up. I also went to University of Texas at San Antonio and did AIMS in Graz in 2003.
When I was a kid I started with piano and got into choir as a boy soprano when I was in fifth grad. My first opera was Amahl and the Night Visitors, and I was Amahl. I never put that together until about five years ago. I always said that the first opera I ever saw was one I was in, but I didn’t realize it was that one. I was in choir through high school and got a lot of positive feedback and encouragement to go into performance, even though I wanted to be a high school choir director. Then after my audition for my first college, I was encouraged to do performance. I really had no experience with opera. It was more contemporary music and choir.
TB: So where are you at in your career now?
RB: I live in Berlin now, because at a certain point in the last few years (around 2015), I switched to a London based agent. And my work very quickly began to shift to being mostly in Europe. So in 2017, I was looking at my calendar for 2018 and 2019 and I said, “I have no work in the States for over a year. What is the point of living in the States if I’m never going to get to go home?” So my wife and I decided to move to Berlin, where we could actually go home and sleep in our own bed.
Regarding my career, I don’t know how to really describe it other than to say that I’ve made a very large number of major house debuts. I have sung at La Scala a handful of times, at the Met once and at the Lyric Opera of Chicago twice, and then at San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, LA Opera, Paris Opera, Berlin Staatsoper, and Wiener Staatsoper. So, I’ve had a lot of major, major theaters.
TB: Could you talk a little bit about where you were and how you first realized that the pandemic was going to have an effect on your career?
RB: It is a weird thing because I was in Japan when it all started really going down in China. I was leaving Japan right when a few cases started and was really relieved to be leaving. I thought that when I got to get home, I’d have a couple of weeks and then I could say, “Okay, I’m safe.” So, I was in Berlin watching things start to happen. Shortly after I got to Berlin is actually when the numbers started growing in Italy. It was around that point that I started thinking, “China just shut down. This might shut down Italy. What is going to happen next?” I thought for sure that I was going to get the contract in Liège, Belgium done before things started really going crazy. And I was wrong.
The night before our opening night [March 13, 2020], the government made the decision to ban all gatherings of 100 or more. And that shut the theater immediately. We had just done the final dress rehearsal earlier that week and that day they decided. We all kind of saw it coming, but we all hoped for the better.
TB: In talking about the logistical side of it have you had to make any travel arrangements for contracts coming up?
RB: No, because I live in Germany and everything is so close. I never feel the pressure to book things in advance like I used to. I actually don’t need to anymore either to get my visa for travel. Because I live in Germany, they don’t ask me questions. They don’t ask me where I’m going to be staying or to see a flight receipt. So, I decided when things started going crazy that I should wait to make arrangements.
TB: How does this impact René as a business and the financial strain that you’re under?
RB: To put it lightly, it really f**** me. In the last couple of years, I feel like my career has really been taking off. I’ve made a lot of major debuts and things are going well. So last year, I decided to make a financial investment in my career and in my business. And I began paying quite a bit for PR. It is a substantial amount per month, more than a lot of people’s mortgages (I imagine). It was continually going well and then things got a little bit weird because I also have to increase my image.
I was spending money on designer clothing and things like that to make sure I was producing the visual image offstage and the vocal image of the “star tenor.” I felt that that was a way I needed to go in order to convince people of what I want them to believe, so to speak. It’s a weird mind game. But I had been told for years that if you want to get paid the big bucks, if you want to be treated like a star, you have to dress like one. I resisted that for a very long time, but I saw the reality of it when I bought my first very nice outfit that would definitely draw attention.
I’m not one of the people who gets recognized on the street very often. I was in Milan and had gone to an outlet and found a really crazy Philipp Plein designer outfit and I bought a few things. I said, “I’m going to take it for a test drive.” As I was walking in the neighborhood that I was staying in, I was recognized. I put on that outfit, walked down the street, and I was stopped twice by people asking me if I was René Barbera, who was singing at La Scala. That never happened to me before. It’s one thing if I’m walking around the stage door and people recognize me, but when I am in a random neighborhood, clearly the outfit made a difference.
So with that reinforcement, I invested more money. It was not something I really cared about. I’m a t-shirt and jeans kind of guy. All of that to say, that I spent a fortune last year towards my business, never mind the taxes and general expenses (which are always very high). So it has affected me quite a bit because where I would have possibly six or seven months worth of money in my account, I have maybe three or four months. I have just a tiny bit over 11,000 euro.
TB: So that has a drastic impact on your life, whereas if you were in the United States?
RB: I don’t think I would get anything, because my previous income has been too high. Which is funny because for many years of my career, I wasn’t ever turning a profit. It definitely didn’t really dawn on me until I incorporated and I was getting some money back at the end of the year. The only reason I got money back at the end of the year is because I had $18,000 of credit card debt from all of the expenses I accrued. So even at my level, where I’m singing at all of these places, it is tough. Expenses are high and the overhead is really quite crazy in this business. So unless you’re a superstar, it doesn’t matter where you’re working, you are still grinding.
TB: What would you say is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned so far in this situation?
RB: The hardest lesson I’ve learned is that I need to find a way to save more money, because clearly I’m not doing enough. I don’t know what the answer to that is now. I just know that I need to find a better way. Before I go back to investing in PR and clothing I really need to try to put away one-hundred grand or something. I need to have at least a year or a year and a half worth of cash available to me in the event that something like this happens. It is one thing when you’re planning that you might get sick and lose a production or two. It is quite another thing when you lose 110,000 euros of income in the blink of an eye. It is just gone, completely gone. And I don’t know how to recoup it.
TB: Can you tell me about what your future performances look like at this moment?
RB: I’m also supposed to do a concert in Palermo, Italy on April 9th. I am pretty certain that is not going to happen. Beyond that I have a concert in Baden-Baden at the end of May. I’m not really sure that is going to happen. After that, it’s Torino, Italy at the beginning of June. Then two contracts at La Scala. I think I have to jet out at some point in the middle of all that for another concert somewhere. I have performances in Sanxay, France in August. Now that I have all this time, I’m going to be studying quite a bit now for my debut in singing Russian, which is going to be at the Paris Opera in September.
So assuming this can go back to normal in the fall, I’ll be okay. If it goes into the summer, it is going to be quite difficult. I’m sitting here trying to figure out what I can do to make ends meet in the meantime, because right now there are no jobs. If it were a normal atmosphere, I could go get a job at Starbucks or whatever to make ends meet. But what can I do? Everything is shut down. Part of me thinks that I should just buy a bicycle and put fliers on doors telling people I’d get groceries for them. Something. Anything.
TB: Can you elaborate on how this is impacting your creative process as an artist?
RB: Honestly, I haven’t sung. Since this all ended, I’ve had no desire to sing. I see a lot of my colleagues who post videos and things like that; I just can’t bring myself to do it. I don’t really want to study at all. I haven’t even studied the Russian, though I need to do that. I can at least get started on the language. But I don’t have any desire to work. The only way I can describe it is that the light went out.
TB: As an artist who has been working at some of the largest houses in the world, what is one of the things that you would change about our business?
RB: One of my biggest complaints about this business has always been the lack of loyalty. You go to a theater. You do a great job. And you don’t get hired back. You get called in last minute to save a performance and you never get another contract. There’s a reason that is on my wall [Points to a La Scala poster for Verdi’s Requiem, then indicates another La Scala poster for Don Pasquale]. I have two more posters I have yet to hang, though they are framed.
La Scala has shown me the absolute most loyalty. I went there. I sang well and did my job. I was in the middle of Don Pasquale and had injured myself. I had to cancel a concert performance right after that because I could barely move. Right after that, they offered me Verdi’s Requiem because their tenor had to cancel. From there, I had a contract for Elixir of Love for this last summer. Then before that contract, I got a call from La Scala asking if I can come sing Traviata the next day. I went and I did it. I walked out of there and within two weeks I had two more contracts. At this point at La Scala, I have four upcoming contracts. That’s amazing.
TB: Six weeks ago, how different was your life? Where were you? What were you doing?
RB: I was in Tokyo doing Barber of Seville for my debut at the New National Theatre. Everything was great. I had a great year ahead of me. I was looking towards paying off a bunch of debt (although I was shortly going to find out how much tax debt I had). I was just preparing to pay for all of that and start saving. I had started putting away money at the beginning of the year and that all fell apart. I just had greater and grander plans, so to speak.
I couldn’t wait to get to La Scala again, because I’m supposed to do Traviata this summer (which I’m pretty excited about). I had a lot to look forward to. Right now, I’m pretty stressed out. I don’t really know how all of this is going to play out. Seeing theaters shut down their season is really taking it’s toll on me. I’ve only really lost one contract, even though I know there are at least two more to come. It’s just freaking me out because I don’t know how it’s all going to end.
TB: How do you think that this is going to change out musical landscape?
RB: I have no idea. I think that a lot of theatres are going to fold. I think a lot of singers are going to quit, on various levels. But it really depends though on how this all plays out. There are estimates saying that it is going to take 18 months to go back to normal life. And I guarantee the arts are going to be the last thing on the docket. Because who is going to be going to shows? People who are most at risk. I’m really concerned about how long this is going to go. If in six months time I have to leave Berlin and move back to the States, it could be really hard to come back.
I hope that theaters are able to find a way to innovate and monetize some kind of stream, in which we can all record from a premade studio. Then they can have somebody create a film in the background for online consumption. I’m not a creative thinker on that front and I don’t know how people are going to create when they can’t have an audience. With any luck all of this is just pointless to talk about. And everything will be back to business as usual in a couple months.
TB: What advice would you give to those in the musical community right now?
RB: Buckle up. [Laughter] But basically, you have to start looking at this career with a business mindset, because other people are looking at it that way. Commonly, artists have this whole mindset of, “You should be doing it for the art. You should be doing it for the love of the music.” No, it’s a business. If you’re not doing it for money, I’m sorry. That’s the thing that has always bothered me the most when people say things like that. You sacrifice massive amounts of time with your family. I’ve missed being the best man in at least three weddings and that I can’t be there for. I’ve missed countless other weddings, funerals, births. We sacrifice all of that. You’re on the road all of the time. Your body and mind suffer. You spend a fortune, no matter how much money you make. The bigger the house, the higher the cost. So at the end of the day, it’s a business.
TB: So closing up here, what question did I not ask you that I should have?
RB: Knowing what I know now, would you have changed anything?
RB: Not much. I probably would have just waited on PR for another year and not spent money on my appearance. Otherwise as much as I complain about the business, I’ve gotten to see more of the world than I ever would have if I hadn’t been a singer. I had the joy of flying my parents out to see me. I remember my brother and I combined finances to get them to go to Russia. They were in Moscow and I remember my dad telling me, “I never thought I’d be here. I grew up in the Cold War. I never thought I’d set foot in Russia.” Those are things that are incredibly special to me. Anytime I get them to come out and see me here in Berlin it is really incredible for them and me.
TB: So what you’re saying with that statement is, despite the fact that you’re going through one of the most terrible times in your life, that there is still a part of you that wants to be in music.
RB: Oh yeah. I’ll never quit being a musician. I don’t think being paid to sing qualifies you as a musician. So even if I quit singing, I’ll still be a musician. I love a lot of the things that it has brought into my life.
TB: What is your video binge recommendation?
RB: I’ve been playing a lot of video games, but also keeping up with Better Call Saul. Then we started watching Mythic Quest on Apple TV, which is kind of fun.
TB: So what video game are you playing?
RB: I started Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which I can only play so much of because it gets my adrenaline pumping to a point where I just feel sick. I also play Rocket League quite a bit and many others.
TB: Well, thank you so much for your thoughts and honesty today.
“Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!” from La fille du régiment by Donizetti
René Barbera, tenor
About René Barbera
Tenor René Barbera has quickly established himself as one of today’s most exciting vocal artists. The first-ever sole recipient of all three top awards of the Operalia Competition in 2011 and winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2008, René has earned critical praise and audience acclaim for his effortless singing, his “old-fashioned warmth” (Opera News), and his expressive musicality. In the 2019/20 season, René returns to the historic Teatro alla Scala for two of his signature roles: Nemorino (L’elisir d’amore) and Alfredo (La Traviata). Additionally, he sings Conte Almaviva (Il barbiere di Siviglia) at the Wiener Staatsoper, at Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice, at the New National Theatre in Tokyo, marking his debut in Japan and he comes back to Palermo with concerts of Beethoven IX and Verdi’s Messa di Requiem. Following these engagements, René will debut at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie Liège as Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata, and he revisits the role of Don Ramiro in Rossini’s La Cenerentola at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía in Valencia.
His international concert engagements include Verdi’s Requiem, first at the Elbphilharmonie with the NDR Elbplharmonie Orchester led by Alan Gilbert, and later at The Shed in New York City with MusicAeterna conducted by Teodor Currentzis. He is the tenor soloist in Rossini’s Stabat Mater, with Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg in Luxembourg and Paris with conductor Gustavo Gimeno, and he returns to Teatro alla Scala to perform the piece under the baton of Myung-Whun Chung. He is also a featured artist at the annual Deutsche AIDS-Stiftung Gala benefit concert in Berlin.
In 2018/19, René continued his dazzling streak of house and role debuts, with performances at the Wiener Staatsoper as Ernesto in Don Pasquale, the Dutch National Opera as Conte Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, and at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma for his first Anna Bolena, singing the role of Riccardo Percy. Additionally, he made his title role debut in Mozart’s Idomeneo at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, receiving critical praise for his “great power” and “effortless agility” (Teatro.it), and sang his first Idamore in Donizetti’s Il Paria in concert with Opera Rara (recorded for a future album release).
With MusicAeterna, led by Teodor Currentzis, he performed Verdi’s Requiem on tour with the ensemble in Paris, Brussels, Cologne, Hamburg, and Vienna. Mr. Barbera concluded the season with Nemorino (L’elisir d’amore) at the Wiener Staatsoper, Duca di Mantua (Rigoletto) at VeszprėmFest, and Alfredo in a new production of La Traviata at the Festival Castell Peralada.
Recent highlights include his Teatro alla Scala debut as Ernesto in Don Pasquale with conductor Riccardo Chailly; his Metropolitan Opera debut as Lindoro; Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Deutsche Oper Berlin; his first Alfredo in La traviata in Palermo; Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola, Conte Almaviva (Barbiere di Siviglia), and Iopas in Les Troyens at San Francisco Opera; Don Ramiro, Conte Almaviva, and his first Arturo (I Puritani) at the Opéra national de Paris; Don Ramiro in debuts with the Seattle Opera, Los Angeles Opera, and the Bayerische Staatsoper; Arturo at the Staatstheater Stuttgart; Ernesto with the Lyric Opera of Chicago; Tonio in La fille du régiment with Greensboro Opera; Almaviva with Los Angeles Opera; Giannetto in La gazza ladra and Narciso in Il turco in Italia at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro; Rodrigo in Rossini’s La donna del lago in his Santa Fe Opera debut; and the Italian Tenor in Der Rosenkavalier at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
René is a graduate of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program, and Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artist Program.