fb-pixel Skip to main content

Europe is reopening. American musicians are missing out.

Christine Goerke and Davone Tines.Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Emily Magee had plans for this spring. Very few of them involved staying home in Colorado with her husband and their dogs. But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent cancellation of live events around the globe, the soprano became one among many American performing artists out of work for the foreseeable future.

Magee’s scrapped 2020 engagements include a turn as Isolde in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of Act III of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” which was to take place in April. She’s still on the books for dates this fall with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which plans to resume normal concerts in September (provided the virus remains in check for scheduled stops in Hungary, Italy, and Switzerland). But first Magee would need to be allowed into the European Union. For now, as the coronavirus rampages across much of the United States, most countries in the EU remain closed to American nationals without long-term visas.


For most of her 25-year professional career, Magee has concentrated her work in Europe. Now she’s biting her nails when thinking about the future. “I’ve always chosen to keep my home and residence in the US, and it’s not paying the returns that I would have hoped,” she said in a phone interview. “We’re handling things so badly that it’s destroying my ability to do my job.”

Would she consider relocating to Europe? “The temptation has been rearing its head,” she said.

The office may be a gilt-encrusted auditorium, the uniform a pressed tux or opulent gown, but these trappings belie the fact that many classical performers live gig to gig. Months on end with no income can quickly deplete whatever nest egg they have, assuming they’re far enough in their careers to have any savings at all. Europe’s travel ban is just the latest speed bump on the long road back from a forced shutdown of the classical music world, and the journey has exposed several weaknesses in its fragile ecosystem — particularly here in the US.


Institutions plan seasons with the assumption that performers are able to hopscotch around the world, and audiences will flock from miles around to hear them live. Some of pianist Shai Wosner’s pending projects in Europe may be rescheduled, but others are “just gone,” he said in a phone interview from his New York City home. “The cross-pollination between artists and composers and institutions is just a vital part of who we are. ... Just the thought that the arts will have to sort of hunker down and be confined to the country that you live in — this is not a healthy thing, artistically speaking.”

Soprano Christine Goerke, who starred in last summer’s concert “Die Walküre” at Tanglewood, was initially “freaking straight out” when her solid season of international gigs vanished. “It is a very frustrating situation, to say the least, to know that we have potential work where things seem to be ‘open,' but knowing we may have to give it up if we are not allowed to enter the EU,” she wrote in an e-mail.

For Kelsey Lauritano, an American mezzo-soprano living in Germany while participating in Opera Frankfurt’s young artist program, looking homeward is bittersweet. When Germany shut down to contain the virus, Lauritano and her colleagues were provided “Kurzarbeit,” temporary government-funded wage subsidies. Now, with the virus under control in Germany, Lauritano is able to resume her onstage career, however slowly. Frankfurt’s opera house has reopened for small concerts; just two or three people appear at a time, and only 100 of the house’s almost 1,400 seats are open for patrons. Given the German government’s level of support, there’s more leeway to turn on the lights even minus the usual ticket sales.


“It’s a very strange mentality for Americans here,” Lauritano said. “For me, it’s very guilt-driven. I’m fully aware of how lucky I am in my situation.”

Lauritano hadn’t planned to live in Germany more than two or three years, but now she’s looking to extend her stay. Who could blame her after hearing from friends in the US, fellow graduates of the Juilliard School doing anything but performing right now — learning to code, taking on students, collecting unemployment money, and hoping the US government extends its weekly $600 boost to unemployment benefits provided under the CARES Act, which are set to expire July 31. “It’s unfair what’s happening in America to the performing arts industry,” Lauritano said.

Some musicians are seeking out opportunities closer to home during their time on the ground. Wosner has been working on a collaboration with the Classical Theatre of Harlem. A “desperate desire to be creative” inspired Goerke to haul a speaker onto her front porch and invite neighbors to an outdoor recital; lately, she’s been filling her days by giving vocal coachings on Zoom, participating in online summer programs, and most important, she said, spending time with her children.


Bass-baritone Davóne Tines intended to hit the road this spring with a recital including Bach, spirituals, and art songs by Black composers. Now he’s working with some of his American Modern Opera Company colleagues to turn that program into a visual album in the vein of Beyoncé‘s “Lemonade.”

“In general, my career was born of a necessity to find a path where there wasn’t one. It’s meant that I’ve had to look at the cracks and crevices between different philosophies and different disciplines, and find space where I can express myself,” Tines said. “I had to be adaptable. So it’s led me to a place where this situation has actually not derailed my projects and interests — in fact, it’s given them more space, which feels good.”

But Tines, who estimates earning between a quarter and a third of his yearly income in Europe, knows this isn’t the case for many of his peers. “It’s really unfortunate that a lot of my colleagues are taught in a rigid system that can’t look outside of itself, and the way that the world has come to a stop has meant that they have come to a stop as well.”

For the moment, the touring musician’s routine of life-on-the-go has been entirely and indefinitely disrupted. The more flexible a musician can be under the current constraints the better, Goerke suggested. “I see more digital content being created, and I see my colleagues finding different ways to connect with audiences and with each other,” she wrote. “I love this idea that we have a strong connection to the past with what we do, and now we also have our feet pointed firmly to the future. ... We are adapting.”


Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.