For many musicians, the anniversary of this pandemic’s first lockdown coincides with an added pain of our second lost ‘Passion season’. I have learned to deal with the disappointment of cancellations over the past year, but was recently shocked to experience the cruelty that can still be inflicted on freelance artists. What kind of industry do we want to work in? After a year of forced reflection on our precarity, are we still content to put up with those leaders and organizations that treat us like shit? Do we want to be part of an industry that assumes we are easily disposable and replaceable? If we want to come out of this pandemic with greater security and agency in our lives, it is high time for us to stop hiding behind our fears of pissing off our next possible employer.
In truth, I had already mourned the loss of this Passion period last July when my scheduled tour was preemptively cancelled. The decision was based on the continued uncertainty about how the pandemic would evolve and how governments would react. I commend many of my employers for making tough decisions to postpone and cancel rather than stringing me along with false hopes (I will give some notable shoutouts in the comments below). This past year has clearly taught us that ‘hoping for the best’ is naïve amidst the knee-jerk, illogical, and inequitable decisions of most governments (there is NO logic that permits the crowded, confined spaces of public transport but forbids socially distanced performances outdoors or in large halls and churches). Quite simply, artists are not seen as important enough, or at least not influential enough. But, we partly have ourselves to blame. We have accepted so much crap and lived in so much fear throughout our careers, it is not really a surprise that we have literally been silenced now.
On 16 March 2021 (almost exactly a year after the first lockdown started), I received an invitation to sing the Evangelist part in a Johannes-Passion performance on 28 March at the Monastère Saint-André de Clerlande (https://www.clerlande.com/). The director who contacted me had only been approached the day before and was making initial inquiries to check availabilities while awaiting confirmation from the organizer. As it was very short notice, and my involvement would require added complications of international travel (possible quarantines, COVID-19 tests, reduced travel possibilities, etc.), I was reluctant to agree. But the next day the project received a ‘definite go’ from the organizer. I booked my travel and began practicing my role while the director assembled and confirmed an incredible cast of early music specialists. Fast forward 6 more days, and we receive a message that the concert has been cancelled.
I am mad as hell.
How is this possible? How does someone invite someone else to organize a major performance in less than two weeks, confirm that it will take place (if not with public, then internet streamed), and then turn around and cancel one week later?
It is beyond cruel.
This pre-Easter period is normally one of the busiest and most lucrative of the year for professional singers and players. Literally hundreds of performances take place of J.S. Bach’s famous oratorios. The extreme sadness and disappointment of last year’s loss was coupled with the horrible realization of how precarious our lives as freelance professional artists are. Some of us were fortunate then to receive compensation for cancelled projects. Some countries were generous to extend their emergency support to artists. In retrospect, the beginning of the pandemic could have been much worse. However, the softening of the initial blow does little to change the fact that this past year has been a prolonged period of stress and uncertainty for many of us, if not outright depression and anxiety.
But we have not only lost income. We have lost our way of life. We have lost our communities of fellow artists. This single Johannes-Passion for me was not about the money. It was a beacon of hope, a needed opportunity to reconnect with several colleagues whom I love and respect, and once again experience the challenge and beauty that performing Bach’s music always offers. To offer this hope, and then rip it away is inexcusable. It is thoughtless, reckless, and cruel beyond measure. But we can only expect situations like this to continue if we do not ‘out’ those individuals and organizations who treat us and our fellow artists so inhumanely.