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COVID-19 and the gig economy: Three opera stars press onward

Alicia Russell '16 (center) performs in Furman Lyric Theatre's 2015 staging of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas."

Soprano Alicia Russell was set to debut at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in “Blue,” a timely modern work about police brutality, when everything changed for her and other artists. COVID-19 has scrubbed performing arts calendars for 2020 and left many artists wondering if  their normal professional lives would ever return.

Now that shows have been postponed or canceled altogether, what do vocalists do with their time? How do they make ends meet? Is singing a career that they can expect to have after COVID-19 is behind us?

Three opera alumnae at varying stages in their careers shared how they are wrestling with the current challenges.

“We are in a very tricky place,” said Russell, a 2016 vocal performance graduate. “Everyone wants the show to go on, and opera houses are planning for the best, but the there’s this looming dread that things might not get better soon.”

Jacquelyn Stucker
Jacquelyn Stucker ’11. Photo: Jonathan Nesteruk

Jacquelyn Stucker ’11, a member of Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Fest Ensemble, was three days away from her debut as Pamina in “Die Zauberflöte” when she was ordered to leave the country because of the pandemic. Her Boston Lyric Opera debut as Cleopatra in a new production of “Giulio Cesare” evaporated, and her lead role at Festival d’Aix in “L’incoronazione di Poppea” was pushed out to 2022.

Meantime, Stucker, fluent in German and fresh from publishing her New England Conservatory doctoral dissertation, is brushing up on the language online and learning her femme fatale dream role to one day perform Alban Berg’s Lulu in the same-titled opera.

“I need two years to learn this piece,” she said, “and now I finally have the time.”

Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop ’89

Elizabeth Bishop ’89, a mezzo-soprano on the roster at the Metropolitan Opera, saw the cancelation of seven months of shows in the wake of COVID-19.

In what she calls the “stillness,” Bishop is catching up on her reading, teaching online at Juilliard, and exploring how she might be valuable to opera when it opens back up – “in ways other than just singing.”

On top of the cancelation of performances, Bishop was forced to shutter her voice school Potomac Vocal Institute in Washington, D.C., a business she founded in 2015 that caters to elite young artists.

Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop ’89

“The one thing a vocalist can’t give you is silence,” said Bishop. Singing within the confines of an apartment through online instruction just wasn’t going to work.

Bishop, who holds a 2012 Grammy for her part in Wagner’s “The Ring” cycle, said opportunities can come in all shapes and sizes.

“I’ve done recession opera; I know what it’s like to be gifted with unemployment.”

When roles began to wane as she became older, she founded the Potomac Vocal Institute.

“A lot of times your career is going to feel like this,” said Bishop. “Do you want it bad enough to wait out the lulls and do what needs to be done?”

For aspiring artists, she was frank: “Even in the best of circumstances, this is a difficult business to get into. Under these strange circumstances, no one has any idea what’s going to happen.”

Bishop said artists should keep their skills sharp and not be afraid of a side job.

“There’s nothing shameful or embarrassing about working at Starbucks and singing at night,” she said. “If it’s really worth creating the art, then we have to make the sacrifices to stay in it.”

Russell characterized her side gigs as blessings. In addition to building her audition repertoire and taking online voice lessons, she also works part-time as a marketing consultant for a Charlotte-based firm.

“It’s been great to feel like I can still grow my voice and be working,” she said. “It’s so easy to be negative and even harder to be positive, but I have to remember what’s important, what things I can let go and how precious life is – how precious this gift (of singing) is.”

Jacquelyn Stucker
Jacquelyn Stucker ’11. Photo: Jonathan Nesteruk

What’s evident for these opera mavens is their ability to persevere through adversity. In their individual ways, they credit Furman for giving them a solid liberal arts and sciences foundation and an unshakable, never-say-die spirit.

“I felt that the education I received at Furman allowed to me to have that intellectual curiosity,” said Stucker, a winner of only five spots awarded in 2017 for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House. “The thing Furman is doing really well is encouraging people to be curious, to ask questions.”

But if there’s one regret for her, it’s that she did not take full advantage of the faculty and courses available, such as investing more in languages.

“There are so many things as artists we need to understand,” Stucker said. “Everything from other fields informs what we do as artists.”

Bishop, who studied political science and music, agreed.

“People who are curious about everything make better filters for the art,” she said. “The more we know, the more compelling we are as artists.”

Alicia Russell
Alicia Russell ’16 as Daisy Buchanan in Seagle Music Colony’s production of “The Great Gatsby.” Photo: Eric Kephart

As a young singer, Russell, too, was drawn to the broad arc of a liberal arts and sciences education rather than a conservatory. The rigor and variety of Furman’s program on top of a world-class music offering, gave her an edge when she was looking for graduate schools.

“I have so many friends from my master’s program at Northwestern who are shocked that I got to perform as an undergraduate,” said Russell, winner of the 2020 Metropolitan Opera National Council audition in her home state of North Carolina. The stage is the best place to learn, she said, and not having to compete with graduate students for roles allowed her to gain more experience.

If all goes well, Russell will take the stage in “Blue” in 2021.

“I’m looking forward to being part of a story that’s so important for Americans to be listening to … from the perspective of artists and creators of color who want to convey what it’s like to be black in America in a very turbulent time,” she said.

Hear the artists at these links:

Elizabeth Bishop
Alicia Russell
Jacquelyn Stucker

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