Pandemic Borders

Opera singers: the elite migrants trapped in Italy

Border closures leave migrant workers both at the higher and lower ends of the labour market trapped and jobless.

Irina Isaakyan
13 May 2020
Nino Machaidze (middle) as Marie in La fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment) at the Metropolitan Opera House.
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Picture by Ralph Daily / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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A well-off English stockbroker arrives in Tahiti in hope of becoming a true artist and in search of his niche. Deadly ill and self-isolated for several years, he creates his magnum opus before he dies. Based on the life of the vagabond painter Paul Gauguin, the famous novel The Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham resonates with many real-life examples of talented people creating their masterpieces in conditions of isolation. Their list includes the cholera-quarantined Alexander Pushkin and the KGB-exiled Joseph Brodsky.

Their stories make me think about currently quarantined opera singers in Italy and, particularly, about transnationally mobile migrant-artists. As the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically escalated in Italy, the country went into forced lockdown as of 9 March 2020, a few days after the closure of opera houses and the cancellation of all artistic events. How do transnational opera singers, whose prior lives were full of socialization, manage to live through the Covid-19 quarantine in such conditions?

Opera singers are, in fact, people who, in many cases, do not have permanent jobs but rotate geographically on short-term contracts and depend on the income from each performance. As noted in The Definitive Guide for Opera Singers Auditioning, such circulation also impacts on their work-life balance because they often find themselves separated from their spouses and children.

When faced with the Covid-19 lockdown, many transnational opera singers from the post-Soviet space have become fervent advocates of the #stayathome strategy in Italy, where many of them have chosen to be in this difficult time of the pandemic. ‘My beloved Italy is my home now. It is my second native land, a place where I should be at this moment’. ‘I’m traveling back home today, to my Milano, and as the rest of Italy, I will stay home’, wrote Nino Machaidze in her public blog.

On social media, these singers act as leaders-by-example and interpreters of the global #stayayhome strategy. They not only invite their fans to stay at home but also share how they are living their lockdown - like, for example, the famous Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze and the famous Kazakh soprano Maria Mudryak both living in Milan.

These elite migrant artists use their fame to persuade their admirers to follow their suit by speaking about their daily routine of doing indoor sports, helping their own children with homework, cooking meals, cleaning their own house with their own hands, or simply thinking aloud about the nature of life and art. They admit having enjoyed a rare opportunity to reunite with the family or to (re)decorate their houses, and have shown how staying at home can be a ‘luxury’.

When faced with the Covid-19 lockdown, many transnational opera singers from the post-Soviet space have become fervent advocates of the #stayathome strategy in Italy

Their advocacy of #stayathome can have a powerful message as their social media networks are transnational. They send video-messages to audiences in their countries of origin, whose quarantine regulations may lack in transparency. In such humanistic messages, they persuade the transnational audience, by their own example, of going to the supermarket in a mask and avoiding social gatherings:

"Here in Italy, I have seen many people falling ill from the coronavirus. I am appealing to your common sense: please be responsible and stop communicating face to face.

Close up and practice singing. If this is not possible because your neighbors object, spare yourself and others, and let your respiratory system rest."

Their invitation to stoicism and discipline may owe to the traditions of self-discipline and self-sacrifice in the world of music, as always advocated by the legendary opera diva and a pioneer of elite operatic migration Galina Vishnevskaya: ‘Never give way to despair! Always master the art of patience’. A previously overlooked segment of elite migration, opera singers become impromptu agents of transnational patriotism and solidarity under the current pandemic crisis.

However this is the sunny part of their story. There is a darker side that highlights that their high-flying transnational careers are particularly precarious. My research on global elite migration of opera signers (conducted in 2016-2019 as part of the GEM project) shows the importance of timely access to the world market of operatic production for an ambitious opera singer, whose career is normally structured by fixed professional schedules and age limitations. All interviewed singers admitted investing a lot in their global mobility and in their vocal technique, in order to be able to compete on the world market over new desired roles, and to attract an interest of agents and theatres.

The global pandemic has currently created uncertainty about the timing of the reopening of opera houses and an artist’s ability to survive economically and professionally. Such concerns have been recently shared by Italian mass media and also by the world-famous Russian opera diva Anna Netrebko. The pandemic may further disrupt established vocal festivals and concourses, performance programs, and long-awaited auditions: see for instance the released statements of La Scala and the Puccini Festival and also the Decree from 26 April 2020 on the reopening of Italy. Transnational opera singers find themselves unable to travel even within the EU or back to their homelands, while they may even not be allowed to practice within the condominium walls (Italian municipal laws prohibit such practice). Pandemic border closures know no class nor distinction: they touch migrant workers both at the higher and lower ends of the labour market leaving them trapped and jobless.

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