Pandemic Borders: Feature

Getting a foothold in global opera: the cost of COVID

Aspiring singers are finding it hard to begin careers in the world of international opera because of difficulties with travel caused by COVID-19

Irina Isaakyan
17 November 2021, 12.00am
Anna Netrebko in Les Contes d’Hoffmann at The Metropolitan Opera on 23 December 2009
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Ralph Daily/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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“I’m stuck in Italy: I can’t travel like a real artist anymore. So I have started to re-qualify for a secretarial job.” This is what Marfa, a former opera singer from Russia, says about her current employment situation. Having completed music school courses first in Russia and then in Italy, she was dreaming of becoming an international opera star before the pandemic struck. At the age of 30, she is now unable to secure work in opera houses outside Europe due to travel restrictions, and vaccine and quarantine requirements. Without the ability to travel, she says, her operatic career has been “just buried alive”.

Her story is not unique. She is one of many aspiring opera singers from the former Soviet bloc who dream of becoming well-off, well-networked, multilingual global stars. But since the pandemic, such dreams have become hard to fulfill. As Marfa explains,It’s very important for an aspiring artist who wants to be internationally mobile and famous to be very proactive and to move easily, to plan each role and each performance in a specific country in advance.”

Many artists from the former Soviet bloc seek education or employment abroad. The iconic Russian soprano Anna Netrebko inspired others to try to find work in prestigious global theatres, or attend vocal concourses and masterclasses, across the globe. Her rise from small-town girl to diva with international fame and roles in world-leading opera houses encouraged young post-Soviet people to believe that an international opera career was a realistic possibility.

This kind of mobility is what distinguishes ‘elite migrant artists’ like Netrebko from ‘migrant artists’ who end up settling down and doing jobs that do not require travel: teaching music, working in cultural enterprises, and occasionally performing in the country of their residence.

Barriers to mobility

However, artists who aspire to Netrebko’s fame and success complain that the pandemic has put up insurmountable barriers to the mobility that is vital to their success. It is through international employment and participating in international vocal concourses that emerging artists often enter the field.

Many, like Marfa, now feel their careers have ended before they’ve really begun. As she puts it, “I have invested so much in finding the right people and roles in various international locations – so when it’s all suddenly cancelled, my artistic life is literally ruined.”

“If you get vaccinated in your country of origin, it may not work for another country where you may be offered a job"

Cancelled trips and postponed auditions and concourses can cause real damage to a budding career. For aspiring artists, digital auditions are not a substitute for live ones. Ratmir, who is also Russian, explained: “Online performances and virtual auditions only work for established singers. Who will bother to listen to my CD in another country if these people don’t know me?” A graduate from a German music school, he has been struggling over the last few months to establish himself in the international opera field. He is now teaching German.

The frequent cancellations of performances and auditions is only one side of the story. Aspiring artists also have to cope with the complexity of quarantine and vaccination requirements for international travel, which differ from one country to another.

“The question is where to get vaccinated.” This is the dilemma faced by Kupava, a recent graduate of a Ukrainian music school, as she tries to plan the first steps in an international career. She has been unable to participate in prestigious masterclasses in Europe because of difficulties with vaccination and quarantine requirements.

“If you get vaccinated in your country of origin, it may not work for another country where you may be offered a job. If you are not vaccinated in the right country, you will end up with a rather costly quarantine, for which I personally have no money,” she explains.

Similarly, aspiring artists living in Italy or Germany complain that their EU vaccines are not accepted in Russia or China. They are also unable to travel for important vocal concourses, masterclasses or performances, without a costly and disruptive quarantine.

Different realities

While the closure of theatres in 2020, many singers suddenly found themselves unemployed or suspended, the recovery is being experienced differently by successful, as opposed to aspiring, artists.

For example, the performance schedule of Anna Netrebko shows that the Russian diva is still highly mobile and in demand on the international opera circuit. Her programme for the next six months includes lucrative performances in the most prestigious opera houses and concert halls in six different countries.

Even less famous singers with internationally established reputations feel confident: “The pandemic has shown that I am always wanted by my network. My agent takes care of everything including the vaccine certificate and any rescheduling,” notes Antonida from Russia. She had passed the stage of concourse participation and network building prior to the pandemic. Unlike her less experienced colleagues, she had already worked in prestigious theatres in Europe and beyond before the pandemic struck.

While internationally established singers may feel immune from the impact of the pandemic on their careers, the reality for those just starting out is one of vulnerability and precarity. Without international mobility, they have no chance of becoming the next Netrebko.

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