“Once you’ve made it onto the Metropolitan Opera stage, you’re ready,” mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges said recently.
When Ms. Bridges, 33, debuted at the Met in Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten” in November, she had already sung canonical roles around the world. But she found an ideal vocal and theatrical fit in Mr. Glass’ Nefertiti. With this unconventional role, there would be fewer preconceptions and “more space for people to receive my performance honestly and openly”.
And then everything stopped.
In March, halfway through a well received run as Dalila in the production of “Samson et Dalila“This company was closed together with performing arts institutions around the world in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Ms. Bridges’ spring and summer engagements were all canceled:” Carmen “at the Dutch National Opera, Bergs” Wozzeck “at Aix-en-Provence Festival in France.
When we talked for the first time in May, she was in London for a BBC Proms concert in July. Simon Rattle should conduct Chineke, an orchestra founded in 2015, which offers young color musicians in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Mrs. Bridges, Pretty Yende, Lawrence Brownlee and Ryan Speedo Green as vocal soloists.
It was a performance that meant a lot to her – then it too was canceled. A flood of cancellations followed in the fall, including the Met, where she was supposed to sing the title role in “Carmen” in October, a return to the stage on which she had been so celebrated in “Akhnaten” a year earlier.
“It was tragic, to say the least, to get to literally nothing from perhaps the highest point in my career so far,” she said. “At first I was incredulous and shocked. Since then I have gone through phases of struggle, despair and acceptance. “
The impact of the pandemic was devastating for classical music, which, despite all its dazzling connotations, was always economically fragile – both for large companies and for freelance artists such as Ms. Bridges.
It’s true: while opera fans consider Ms. Bridges a chic diva, she’s a freelancer who lives gig for gig. The same applies to world-famous prima donnas like Anna Netrebko. Neither the Met nor any other company offer any of them a salary, even though both are stars in the world of opera.
The same applies to artists who are stars of the contemporary music world, such as Conor Hanick, a brilliant pianist who excellently plays a wide range of repertoires, but is primarily known for his outstanding achievements in contemporary solo and chamber music. Musicians like Mr. Hanick, 37, seem to occupy a kind of classical music underground and often play in smaller, alternative rooms, chamber festivals or spin-off events that are presented by larger institutions. But this world is a crucial breeding ground for creativity and Mr. Hanick is an important figure in it.
When we first talked in May, he felt bleak, but came to helpful conclusions when he stayed with his wife and 10-month-old son in his Brooklyn apartment near his home. He spoke of his “decimated season”, in which projects were canceled and premieres were made.
“In a strange and depressing way, this disaster was one of the most powerful balancers in my career,” he said. “I won’t have a job in the next few months, but I don’t think Yo-Yo Ma has any or someone like my friend Julia Bullock.”
It was a source of comfort, he added, that “we are all experiencing similar feelings of insecurity”.
Fortunately, his wife Silvia Lin-Hanick is a librarian and associate professor at LaGuardia Community College. Her family was able to get health insurance.
Some institutions have been able to meet their obligations to artists like him. For eight summers, Mr. Hanick was at the Faculty of the Western Academy of Music in Santa Barbara, California. This summer he will attend school from home Distance learning institute. The work would be done, he said, and it was a great relief to be paid. (Two weeks shorter than usual this year, the school will pay him in full for the weeks he works and sometimes for the canceled time.)
A concert he should attend this summer Caramoor Festival in Katonah, New York, will continue with the four members of the sandbox percussion ensemble as part of a series of Caramoor live stream programs, albeit without a live audience. Mr. Hanick learned the challenging solo part for Christopher Cerrone’s new concerto for solo piano and drum quartet.
Although he is grateful to Caramoor for keeping the project alive, Mr. Hanick struggles with the emotions of “infiltrating other people’s blisters,” as he put it. He worked on the score through online conferences with Mr. Cerrone. Both he and members of Sandbox Percussion in Brooklyn are all tested for the virus before they start rehearsing in mid-July. Mr. Hanick plans to rent a car to drive to the ensemble’s studio in Sunset Park instead of risking the subway. You will travel to Caramoor in a group for the program on August 6th.
But other works in his file remained impractical as the music world is preparing to hibernate much of the next year. “Every minute of the piano is obviously a minute for something bigger,” he said. Still, he added: “Spending 25 hours learning and rehearsing a new piece just to have it canceled is literally an investment that doesn’t pay off in a purely economic sense.”
Unlike him, Ms. Bridges has no regular teaching position to fall back on. Although she loves living in New York, everyone isolates herself. So she decided to leave her Harlem apartment and go to Houston to stay with friends.
“I told myself that if we choose to do it alone, we won’t get awards,” she said. So she decided to listen to herself and “do nothing really”.
She took the time to get a better grip on the languages, the key for an opera singer, and to immerse herself in gospel and jazz again, music with which she grew up. In May she had an enjoyable online discussion with Northwestern University students. “It gave me the much-needed joy,” she said.
Then came George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the ensuing wave of protests. The Los Angeles Opera invited Ms. Bridges to present a livestream concert. She told the company that she wasn’t in the right emotional place for it. Instead, she proposed a panel discussion with her and other color singers to discuss racist issues in opera and society.
“These are conversations that black artists have with each other every day,” she said. “I’m tired of having them. But if we have them, we might as well be on one platform.”
Available The company’s website included Mr. Brownlee, Ms. Bullock, soprano Karen Slack, tenor Russell Thomas and bass Morris Robinson. The participants brought painful personal experiences in life and at work. Mr. Robinson noted that after 20 years in the opera, he had not yet been hired by a black general manager or welcomed by a black chairman, and was never directed or directed by a black artist.
In the most poignant exchange, all six singers talked about how exhausting it is to constantly expect them to teach racism to their white colleagues. Shouldn’t the problems involved, fundamental questions of right and wrong, be obvious to everyone?
“I was asked what it was like to be a black opera singer,” Ms. Bridges told me after the panel. “That’s the craziest question. I’m an artist. I’m a singer. I’m going on stage. I don’t have to save the world.”
All she has to do while the performances are on hold is to hold on. Ms. Bridges, Mr. Hanick, and musicians at every stage of their careers and awareness are hoping for an appearance of normalcy in 2021. Ms. Bridges sounded certain of one thing.
“Artists will come back with more inspiration and people will change,” she said.
The experience with live music will deepen, she emphasized: “How can it not?”