Annenberg Radio

When the curtain falls

A Thornton School of Music student and professor reflect on how the pandemic has challenged and strengthened their drive to pursue a career in opera.

Screenshot of a singer performing on Zoom.

That’s Blake Stevenson, a USC junior in the Thornton School of Music studying vocal arts and opera. He’s rehearsing for his upcoming performance of a scene from Così fan tutte to be streamed on Zoom. Blake chose to keep singing virtually during the pandemic, even though it meant he would have no in-person lessons or performances.

I think I’m in it because at the end of the day I’m a performer.

But in what felt like a lost year, it can be hard to see yourself improving as a vocalist and performer.

The lack of performance had been eating away at me slowly and slowly over time. And it’s not something you notice until it’s been 12 months, and you haven’t given a live performance. You look back and you’re like...whoa. As much as making videos and as much as putting yourself out there on the internet can be cool, it’s just not the same.

This uncertainty spiraled out of control and made Blake even more apathetic toward his studies.

And I couldn’t tell if I was getting better or if I was degrading, and I couldn’t really know. It was just sort of a downward cycle in terms of neglecting the art form and sounding bad and not enjoying my performance. You know that relationship just kind of built in momentum and momentum and tumbled and tumbled.

But just like students, professionals had emotional heartbreaks too…

My challenge has been motivation because all of my jobs got cancelled. I was going to be singing at the Metropolitan Opera. I had concerts with soprano Renée Fleming in three different cities.

Rod Gilfry, a USC professor for the vocal arts and opera department, had jobs lined up months in advance when he got a phone call that ruptured the stability of his performance career.

On my way to the airport, this was last February, on my way to the airport I got a call saying we had to cancel it. And that was a huge, big, big recital. I was really disappointed. And I thought, OK, well, you know, this is not going to go on forever. And then one by one, these things got cancelled, cancelled, cancelled, cancelled. So I was like, why practice? What am I working toward?

This doubt was also felt by Blake, who started losing interest in his classes and felt himself questioning his role in the classical music world.

No disrespect to classical voice, but because classical voice wasn’t really the medium that gave me the most bang for my buck while in quarantine, I started to migrate into other things. So I started getting online and learning about animation, learning about starting a business and managerial stuff. I learned about how to make clothes.

But he always felt an internal pull toward opera that not even the pandemic could get in the way of, and Blake was determined to make it work.

But when there is life in it, when there is acting context, when there is purpose and you really feel like you can close your eyes and you’re on stage and you’re singing with these imaginary surroundings and the scene, that’s when it doesn’t matter if it’s in person or digital. That’s when I can really thrive.

This passion for opera had turned into Blake’s way of expressing and communicating his resilience, not only as a performer, but as a person.

The reason I’m sticking with opera and the way I still believe opera is worth pursuing is because I think it is a really spectacular storytelling method.

But storytelling is not new to opera, it’s been around for centuries. It has survived world wars, cultural shifts and it will survive through this pandemic because people like Blake have chosen to keep it alive.

I needed performance more than I realized, and performance for an online audience only gets you so far. To exist as a human being I need to be in front of other human beings. Trying out a song, telling a story, moving my face, even if it’s choral...that’s cool, but not really. There’s no substitute for dramatic vocal music, like opera, like musical theatre. I learned that there’s no substitute for that, even online, which is why I’m hoping this ends pretty soon.

The pandemic has shifted all of our lives. It’s OK to have experienced moments of self-doubt along the way; moments where a once normal routine or passion became so difficult or frustrating to do that you wanted to quit. For Blake, pushing through those moments wasn’t easy, but it was well worth it.

For Annenberg Media, I’m Liza Monasebian.