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, Zachary James, bass-baritone, talked to me about when he found out that Minnesota Opera was shutting down a production. Furthermore, he shared his lived experience with having a boyfriend in the medical field and on the frontlines of the pandemic.
Zachary James, bass-baritone
Interviewed April 2, 2020
TB: Thank you again for chatting with me today. I always like to start off with something positive. So, what is the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
ZJ: Honestly, staying home with my dog is a total gift and time that I will never regret, because he’s amazing. You know, I’m on the road a lot normally, so this is some really beautiful time.
TB: I think pets are the best thing that we can have in this situation.
ZJ: Absolutely, and he’s having the time of his life because he hasn’t been alone in 20 days now.
TB: My cats too. So would you chat briefly about your background and about where you are at in your career, for those who aren’t familiar?
ZJ: Sure. So, I’m an opera singer and actor. My career began with Broadway and I’ve done TV and film, as well. I kind of fell into opera full-time about seven years ago, via working with Philip Glass. Primarily, now I make a living as an opera artist. I live in Philadelphia and am on the road pretty much non-stop. I was on the road for a six month stretch when I was sent home from my job in Minnesota a few weeks ago. So, here we are.
TB: One of the biggest things that people might be aware of is your work in Philip Glass’ latest show at the Metropolitan Opera, correct?
ZJ: Yes, Akhnaten.
TB: So, diving into what you already alluded to with being in Minnesota, I’d like to have you reflect back on the recent past. Could you describe where you were and how you realized that you were going to be directly affected by this pandemic?
ZJ: Yeah, I was in Minneapolis working for the Minnesota Opera. We were working on a world premiere of a piece called, Edward Tulane. The piece had been in development for four years and it’s like a multi-million dollar production. World premieres take a long time to get on their feet, typically, and one of the big payoffs of doing a world premiere—besides the artistic experience—is the companies producing them bring in a lot of other companies to see the work. The hope is that the work will have long legs and that other companies will pick it up. We were also making a recording that they were submitting for the Grammys. So it was... it was a big moment that we all lost out on. I believe the piece is going to be rescheduled at the end of 2021, which is nice to hear. But it complicates things also, because opera is scheduled so far out in advance. So, by losing this opportunity and moving it to another time, there is the potential of having to decide between future opportunities.
But as I said, I was in Minneapolis and we were in rehearsal. We were ten days out from opening night and the company had gathered us for our final run through in the studio, before we would be moving to the theater. As it was explained to us, they had a message ready for the full company on preparedness and what measures they were going to be taking at the Ordway Center, in St. Paul, etc. On the way to the meeting, they got the call from the governor’s office that the governor would be enforcing the no-large-gatherings rule, which we’ve now seen everywhere. So, we went to our final run through and we were told the show was cancelled. This was the whole chorus, the staff, and everyone involved; so a room of over 100 people. Then we all went to our hotels and traveled home.
I’m a germaphobe, for sure. In opera, if we get sick and can’t go on, we don’t get paid. So, I am really extreme about staying healthy and [taking] sanitary measures. So, the news was already out, and things were already really bad. There were already cases—many, many cases in this country at the time. So, I was taking extreme measures. I’d stopped having housekeeping come into the hotel room and I wasn’t going to the breakfast buffet at the hotel, because I didn’t want to share food with anyone. Also, I was making sure I was sanitizing my hands after touching any prop in rehearsal, because it was a big prop show. We were all sharing props amongst the huge cast. So, I felt prepared in that way. When I arrived in Minneapolis, I had also, I think, purchased the last bottle of hand sanitizer available, that I saw on the shelves again. I got cleaning supplies and I was just cleaning my own space, and staying sanitary and healthy on my own.
I did not feel comfortable getting on an airplane at that point, and this was like March 13th [following the cancellation of Edward Tulane]. So, I rented a car immediately and drove home to Philadelphia without stopping, because I also didn’t want to stay in a hotel, you know? I didn’t have the supplies I felt I needed to clean a hotel room myself. So that’s kind of where I was and what happened.
That was twenty days ago now, so I’ve been home since then. I have the luxury of just being at home because all my work has been cancelled. I’ve had five other jobs cancel since then. My boyfriend works at the hospital, at University of Pennsylvania, which is in our neighborhood, and so he’s... he’s at work. Right now, he’s there three days a week on fourteen hour shifts, but when I got home, he was on the typical five day schedule. Then they did four days a week, and now three days a week, but while maintaining their hours. They need to have separate teams of people right now, so that if one team goes down, the other team can work, basically. So, they’ve separated out his lab, because of that.
TB: So dealing with Minnesota, can you talk about some of the unseen logistics from this cancellation? You already shared about the hotel, but what about the plane ticket was that booked for you or booked by you?
ZJ: It was booked for me. Usually our travel is booked by the companies, and so we requested a refund and that’s still pending. Then I paid for my rental car home myself, and the company’s reimbursing me. But Minnesota is one of the good companies, they’re paying us full out even though they had to cancel. In our contracts, the force majeure clause literally states in a pandemic, other act of god, etc., in the event that the show can’t go on, they don’t have to pay us. So Minnesota [Opera] said immediately that they were not going to honor that clause, and that they were going to pay us and recognize our work, which is really fantastic. Other jobs that have cancelled; one is paying us 25%, a couple of others aren’t paying at all, some are saying they hope to reschedule and will be in touch, which is an easy way to put it off.
Also, it’s... it’s a hard time. People are juggling a lot, and everyone is in flux and not sure when this is going to end. And so, when companies are saying, “We’ll be in touch, we hope to reschedule,” I think they truly mean it. But, as I said earlier, it’s complicated in opera because things are scheduled so far out in advance and seasons for next year have already been announced. So, to take something that was supposed to happen now and put it into a future slot means other artists are losing their work because it has cancelled something else. So... So it’s really complicated.
TB: So, one of the next cancellations is paying you 25%, but you said that there were five cancellations for upcoming contracts. How will this effect your overall financial health?
ZJ: It’s definitely a blow. I mean, I don’t have it as bad as many of my colleagues and friends. I’ve had friends that have lost over $100,000 of work overnight. Because when you’re working, for example, at the Metropolitan Opera, that’s some really high paying work. Also, oftentimes you’re doing many performances and you’re paid per performance. So, I had a lot of friends who lost work instantly from the Met, and that comes at a very steep price.
I’ve been financially impacted but because Minnesota is paying us in full, and because another company I was going to be working with is paying something, that’s... that’s a big deal. Des Moines [Metro Opera] announced already that they’re paying us, no matter if the season goes on or not. So that is a huge, huge help, just knowing that in advance.
We’re all kind of waiting to see how the Cares Act really plays out, because for the first time gig workers and independent contractors, which, we [artists] are considered independent contractors, we have the chance to file for some sort of unemployment insurance. But, for example, in Pennsylvania it says, “If you’re a gig worker, independent contractor, please don’t apply right now. We’re figuring out what to do.” You know? There’s no immediate solution here. There’s a lot of artist relief funds that we’ve all applied for. Some of them are for up to a couple thousand dollars, some of them are for $250. I’ve applied for two that the payout is $250, and got an automatic response that was like, “We’ve raised $8,000 for this fund, but we’ve had $600,000 worth of requests.” So you know, it’s... it’s dark. But, thankfully, I personally am not in an emergency, the way a lot of my friends are and I have a home which I share with someone. So, we’re very lucky in our circumstances here. But definitely, it’s an impact. I’ve definitely lost money.
TB: Well, I’m glad that you brought up Des Moines Metro Opera and their commitment to paying their artists over the summer. Could you talk about how that has had an affect on your mental health and your security?
ZJ: Absolutely. We immediately knew that we were going to make it through the summer, which is a really big thing. Because, I’ve definitely been in times and very recently, where I had absolutely nothing, or had a negative bank account just as recently as last year. I didn’t have the income to meet my many bills, you know? Many of us took out extraordinary student loan debt in order to get the training to have these careers. So, in those times it can be very dark, and panic is very real. Not having food is something that many of us have dealt with. At that point, you’re at a basic survival place. You’re not like, “Oh, no, I can’t pay my student loan.” You’re like, “I don’t have food to eat today. What am I going to do? Who can I call to borrow $10?” So the fact that Des Moines said, well in advance, that they’re going to pay us is a really big deal.
It gets many of us through the fall, that’s what we’re looking at right now. We’re hoping that things reopen in the fall, and we can all return to work, but we don’t really know. So, it’s a really big deal, and the statement that came with it, saying that it’s a time to support artists and not turn away from artists was also really important. Because it’s an emotional thing when... when we hear of these companies where artists found out via Twitter that their jobs were cancelled and that they were losing, what can look like, years worth of income on paper for us. So, to get a message from Des Moines that they support us and are in our corner and that they’ll be paying us no matter what, it’s a really big deal.
TB: So what is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned so far in this situation?
ZJ: You know, there’s this book Rich Dad Poor Dad. It’s a really cheesy book, but it’s full of great financial information and a lot of it really applies to the artist lifestyle. But one lesson in there that is hard to live by is to pay yourself first, and that’s when it comes to debt. Because I just did two shows at the Met back to back, I had a great year financially. And I decided to ease the burden of debt in my life and paid off a ton of debt. I didn’t need to do that at the time, it just felt good. But I didn’t pay myself first, and I didn’t leave myself with any savings at all and I really should have. That’s a good lesson to learn. I think in the future, I will remember that one. I literally paid off like $30,000 in debt, and it felt great. But it would also feel great to have some of that in savings right now. Especially knowing that jobs can be cancelled overnight and some companies won’t be paying a dime to you. I think it’s really important for all of us—in the arts—to start saving when we can. Let’s be clear, that’s a big luxury if you have the opportunity. But when possible, I think it’s a really good idea. Also, I guess the other one, is just knowing that you can love a company, think they are the best in the world, and they will not care about your well-being, necessarily, in times of an emergency.
TB: So let’s dive into the musician, Zachary James. How has this affected your creative process?
ZJ: At first everyone was like, “Oh, what a great time. Shakespeare wrote a whole play in quarantine once,” and “Let’s be productive. Let’s practice. Let’s be ready for everything. Let’s com back stronger than ever.” In week two people were like, “Yeah, I’m depressed, lethargic, and I don’t want to do anything, and that’s okay too.” So, it’s both of those things. My first week at home, I was playing piano a lot. I was singing. I was looking for ways to be creative, but I don’t really feel productive at all right now and I think that’s okay.
We all feel heartbroken about the loss of these productions. So, I was sitting at home and my Macbeth for May hadn’t been cancelled yet, but I felt strongly it was going to, so I wasn’t investing in something that wasn't going to come to fruition. Honestly, that’s where I am with Platée [Rameau] for Des Moines right now too. Because, honestly, until I know it’s happening, I’m not going to invest in it emotionally. That would be further heartbreak. I’m pretty low productivity right now, and I’m okay with it. I think going, going, going for so many years that to have this time of rest, resetting, and just hanging out is okay. We don’t know how long this is going to go, but it’s possible we have several months ahead of free time to deal with, so right now, I’m just chilling out.
TB: I would like to ask you a little bit about the personal side of your life, if that’s okay. I know that your boyfriend works in the hospital and is on the front line defending us from this pandemic. So, could you talk a little bit about your experience watching this unfold?
ZJ: You know, at first it kind of freaked me out because I can do everything I can to protect myself, but he’s coming back and forth from a hospital every day. So, I’m only as safe as he is and there’s only so much he can do, you know. Things got scary pretty fast. I think a few days after I got home, they stationed an armed guard holding a gun next to someone in a hazmat suit checking the temperatures of every employee as they entered the hospital. So that sends a message and creates an environment of fear when you’re going to work every day and that’s how you’re being greeted at the door.
Then they started issuing masks and requiring all employees to wear masks while in the building. This is at the same time where on the news they’re saying, “Please don’t wear a mask if you’re not sick. The only reason you should wear a mask is if you’re sick.” But then we saw overnight, almost every hospital in the country was requiring all staff members to wear masks at all times, so... now they’re saying on the news, “Oh, maybe in a couple of weeks, it’s going to be recommended that everyone wear a mask at all times.”
It’s weird because I hear what’s going on in his hospital and then compare it to what we’re hearing on the news, and it’s often very contradictory. I just found out this morning, that they have fifty new cases in his hospital. In order to have space to bring patients from New York, they rushed the completion of a new building. So, the next wave is that they’re going to be bringing a lot of people from New York in. Just because.... We see what’s happening in New York, it’s very bad, and there’s not enough room. There’s not enough beds for people. So, what else? I don’t know.
My boyfriend works in a pathology lab. So he’s not a nurse. He’s not dealing with patients with the virus directly each day. What he actually does are autopsies, primarily, but that’s a high risk situation, obviously. You would think, “Oh, they don’t need autopsies on someone who passed from this virus,” but actually, they need samples of everything for the CDC. So anyone that dies of pneumonia and they weren’t tested for the coronavirus, or anyone who does die from the virus, they have to do an autopsy on them and send samples immediately. A lot of the autopsies he does are pneumonia cases. So now, you have to assume that every one of those is the virus, because the testing is so slow. So it’s scary...
TB: Well, thank you for sharing that. It’s a very difficult thing that you are both enduring. So, reflecting back on this whole experience, how different was your life six weeks ago? Give me a snapshot.
ZJ: Six weeks ago, I was professionally booked solid for the rest of the year. I had way to much music to learn, but I always rise to the occasion there. Yeah, a lot... a lot... a lot of really great things going on. Now I’m just at home, of course. What else six weeks ago? Yeah, I guess, I had been home for seven months straight because I was working from the Met and Opera Philadelphia, and I was commuting to New York daily when I was working there. Another big thing was, I was going back on the road for about six months. So, I was kind of dreading that in a way because it would have been nice to be home. But I was very excited about the work that I had and the opportunities coming out musically and professionally. So yeah, it’s very strange to be home.
We’ve all decided not to take these things that were cancelled off our resumes and websites, just put an asterisk like, “cancelled because of COVID-19.” The industry is really coming together to figure out how to deal with this in every way. I’ve been on a lot of Zoom meetings, in calls with my agent, and an entire roster of singers with OPERA America, which is the service organization for opera in this country, and I’m an ambassador for them. We had a meeting to address some of the industry concerns. I’m also a part of three different unions because I got into opera late. I was an Actors Equity Member, Screen Actors Guild actor member, and then finally joined the American Guild of Musical Artists. So to see how three different unions are handling it is really interesting.
TB: Well, that brings me to the next question, which is how will this change the musical landscape?
ZJ: Yeah, I think we’re already assuming some things, and they’re probably true. If we go back to full programming, we’re going to be lucky, right? Because the industry has lost a lot of money. But in order to do that, we’re going to see artists fees cut substantially. I also think it’s going to be a time similar to 2008 for everyone financially. During that time, you saw A-house singers start to take work in regional houses, which the year before they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing. That’s not a bad thing. I think it’s great when singers are working across the board in many different levels of opera companies and orchestras. I think that’s really lovely, but it takes jobs away from emerging artists and younger singers—that’s where it’s rough.
I think we’re going to see some companies not make it. I think some companies, orchestras, and opera companies are going too close. Not every company has an endowment: the Met has a $300 million endowment, I think Des Moines has almost a million dollar endowment, and Opera Theater St. Louis has a $50 million endowment. Some companies are in great debt, like $500,000 of debt for a company with no endowment, that can shut the company down completely. So, I think some companies aren’t going to make it.
I think some singers are going to decide to retire. I think some singers will go bankrupt and I think some young artists, who have yet to have big breakthroughs and were doing apprentice programs etc., I think it’s going to force them out of the industry, perhaps. We have to see. But I think first and foremost, we’re going to see artists’ fees cut. Also, [I am] really curious to see, with the bigger companies that bring in a lot of artists from other countries, if that’s going to keep happening or if they’re going to have to hire locally. Because I think we just don’t know what’s going to happen there.
TB: So, one of the things that you brought up is young artists and the effect that this will have on them. So what would your advice be to them?
ZJ: Oh, gosh, I don’t know, because I’ve had some days within this where I’m like, “Oh, God, I should have joined the military out of school and gotten a business degree. Why did I choose this path?” So, I don’t want to say that’s my advice to younger singers, but I think it’s important to have a backup right now. Because those singers, if they lost jobs, it was probably a job that paid $200 a week. So, we’re already talking about a really rough situation for them financially and they’re not paying their bills with music. They’re just making it and hoping to have a breakthrough professionally by doing this low paid work. But yeah, I guess... I don’t know what my advice would be. I think have some sort of cushion, but I don’t know where you find that.
That’s where I think it’s going to have a catastrophic impact on the industry. I honestly have heard some managers and agents say, “Well, in the long term this is going to be a good thing, because there’s too much competition. There are too many singers in the game.” And that’s true, but it’s unfortunate that it’s taking a global pandemic to cull the herd; that’s not a good thing. So, I don’t know, it’s going to be rough for a while. Then we’re going to look back on this in a couple years, if we are lucky to get back to a place of full productivity, and see that it had a big impact.
TB: So in closing up, I would like to ask a very positive question. What is your video binge?
ZJ: Oh, I’ve watched everything. I just watched Unorthodox on Netflix, which is really terrific. Season three of Ozark. Currently watching this show called Last Ship, which is about a global pandemic. [Chuckles] Yeah, I’ve been going there. I’ve watched like every pandemic movie there is, but also cheesy reality stuff. I always enjoy that because it allows you to really check out and turn the brain off.
TB: Well, thank you so much for chatting with me.
Zachary James - The Son of Him Who Knew Thee Not Has Set
By Philip Glass
By Antonín Dvořák
About Zachary James