DUETS: Covid Coping for Singing Spouses

The struggles of performing artists during the Covid-19 pandemic are no secret to anyone. Abruptly changed plans, canceled opportunities, and lost income are only a few challenges that individual opera singers have faced for the past 15 months. This upheaval perhaps came into starkest relief for partners who both sing professionally. Two such married couples have experienced the Coronavirus crucible together, and their stories offer hope for other professional opera couples who are facing a new reality together. As we all grappled with an ever-changing world, I was inspired by my brother and his wife, David Blalock and Jeni Houser, as well as my friends and colleagues, Megan Marino and Michael Mayes. They generously agreed to share the recent moments that further shaped them as artists, professionals, and humans.

What surprised you most as an artist during the past year?

Megan Marino: The floodgate of creativity that this pandemic has opened from all angles of artistry in myself, those close to me and out in our world at large! 

David Blalock: I am surprised how much I miss attending live performances. The digital content that so many artists across the globe have created this past year has been a lifeline for me, but you cannot duplicate the feeling of being there in person during a performance. One of my favorite parts of being a professional singer is getting the best seat in the house when I work with other incredible artists.

Michael Mayes: I’ve seen singers use the capital they’ve earned throughout their careers to lean on producers to depart from the conventional definition of opera and meet the public where they are, many of them becoming producers themselves in order to realize ideas that have been bouncing around in their heads for years. Seeing my colleagues rise to the challenge and use their talents to expand and sometimes redefine the artform and the role of a singer in that artform has been incredibly inspiring.

I was also encouraged by the efforts of companies like Atlanta Opera, Austin Opera, San Diego Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Pensacola Opera, Chicago Opera Theater and so many others that refused to let the pandemic prevent them from bringing art to the public in ways that not only protected the health of our audience but also that of all of the folks on, below, and behind the stage- providing much needed income to all of the people that saw much if not all of their ability to earn a living evaporate in an instant.

Jeni Houser:  have been surprised at how essential the act of singing has remained for me personally; it has felt like a lifeline during dark periods. I think working on my craft daily has kept my motivation and spirit strong, even without the usual short-term deadlines. On a larger scale, there have been exciting projects and industry-wide changes that I could never have imagined before this, from high-quality video productions to improvements on safety protocols and scheduling.

What would you say were the biggest things that Covid stole from you? What was the biggest gift that it gave you?

Mayes: As a later bloomer in opera, I saw the trajectory of my career come to an abrupt halt. For most of my career I have lived on the margins, barely earning enough to survive, and living for many years out of my car. I was just beginning to get to a point in my career where the wolf at the door was at least far enough away to allow me to mentally get to a place of some security. 

When COVID hit, all of the insecurity and anxiety that I had lived with for most of my 25-year career (but had slowly begun to overcome) came rolling in like a tsunami. The existential dread that I felt, and frankly still feel today, stole what little peace of mind that I had carefully begun to build, layer by ultra-thin layer.  

Were it not for the support of my wife and family, and a couple of really incredible friends in the industry with whom I spoke many times a week, and with whom I would collaborate on projects that sought to mitigate the damage done to our industry by Covid, and use the opportunity to move further down the shared ideological path that we shared; I don’t think I’d have made it. COVID put these relationships in stark relief- and the bonds that I’ve made with these folks will no doubt last a lifetime.

Blalock: Collaborating! By far, the thing I missed most during the past year is working with other people. Jeni and I have been fortunate to do some small projects and some recitals this past year with Madison Opera, our home company; but I miss collaborating with other singers, conductors, instrumentalists, directors, carpenters, costume designers, wig and makeup artists, and anyone else that I would traditionally be working with to produce an opera. I guess I could say the biggest gift the pandemic gave me is the realization of how lucky I am to be an artist. I won’t be taking it for granted any time soon.

Marino: It stole, from a practical adult standpoint, money and some plans we had made based on expected income- I’ve mostly accepted those changes now. As an artist, from a career-building standpoint it stole some debuts I was excited about that I’d been working hard towards. The biggest gift it gave me is freedom and time! It afforded me the space I’ve been needing, or didn’t really know I needed rather, to ask myself some tough questions and work towards answering and addressing them and making tangible changes in the way I do things and who I surround myself with. The freedom out of the spotlight, off the road, with my family, in the studio to just play and grow and find a renewed, deeper love for music and meaningful communion with others, has been life changing as a human and artist!   

Houser: The main thing COVID stole from me is momentum. With the sudden standstill of my live performing career, a black hole of uncertainty opened inside me and I had to find ways to create my own forward motion and fulfillment. But taking expectations for the future off the table has also been a gift, along with the time and space to reexamine my priorities, intentions, desires, and identity. 

How did the pandemic change the dynamics of your relationship with your spouse, personally or professionally? 

Blalock: Spending 100% of our time together was an adjustment, but I am so grateful we were able to be physically present for each other during this tough time. We have always prioritized keeping in touch when one or both of us is on the road, but it’s tough to imitate a good hug over Skype or Zoom. 

Marino: We’ve never spent so much time together in our entire relationship. This year, we’ve had the time to legit work through things that before might’ve been swept aside or left until the next time we see each other for a longer amount of time. Our bond is so much stronger and richer in ways that I can’t even put into words. We say what we mean a lot more directly now, and only get better at it by the day. We’ve been able to work together as artists at the same company for an entire seasons—something that rarely happens for opera couples, let alone for opera couples in the USA—in many capacities; onstage, in concerts, supporting one another on our various solo projects, just to name a few that jump to the surface first.

Mayes: The sheer amount of time we spent together during those months would no doubt dwarf the balance of time spent together in the previous 6 or so years of our life. We both began to work internationally for the first time a few years into our relationship, and that combined with a relatively busy domestic schedule, meant that we never spent more than a few weeks together at a time.  

We had never really had the chance before to make music together in opera or any other genre- but the pandemic gave us a unique opportunity to collaborate not only on the opera stage as members of The Atlanta Opera Company Players and at Houston Grand Opera in a concert of songs from The Sound of Music, but in other genres such as bluegrass, country, folk, jazz, and R&B. We lived for the first part of the pandemic in Lyons Colorado, the bluegrass capitol of the Rockies, and that environment allowed us not only to explore making music with each other but we met and jammed on the porch with Jason Hicks and KC Groves, two incredible bluegrass musicians whose music making was also devastated by the pandemic. They now make up the other half of our band, The Midnight Cricket Club, which combines the incredibly diverse musical styles that we all have into a delightful hybrid that has helped us all heal from this traumatic experience.  

Houser: We had previously spent about half of our time together, so it has felt like a huge shift to be in the same place. We have had to navigate our own (understandable) mental health challenges during this period, and also each other’s ups and downs. I am incredibly grateful for what we’ve learned about one another and our relationship during this period and the fact that our connection feels as strong as ever, especially since we’ve developed new together in the last year.

Coronavirus changed life for singers. Which of these adjustments do you hope will remain after the pandemic, and which do you hope will be gone forever?

Marino: Freedom and creativity floodgates being opened. Complacency is not an option! And I’ll be happy to not have to sing in a mask in public someday sooner than later, hopefully.

Mayes: I hope that the willingness of companies to engage and encourage artist-driven content will continue.  There is so much more to these artists than just the ability to sing- which we all have seen in Technicolor throughout the pandemic. Bringing us into the creative side of the equation is something I’ve been so thankful for, and something I believe is essential to the survival of the artform. Like Meg, I can’t wait to remove the barrier between my face and my audience that muffles our sound and covers half of our most vital storytelling tool but I don’t think I’ll ever board a plane or ride a subway again without one. I haven’t had a respiratory illness in over a year, and I don’t miss them.

Houser: We’ve had time for some conversations about difficult things in our industry which I am hopeful will lead to important changes, plus I love some of the digital offerings that have made opera accessible geographically and financially. Keep letting those creative juices flow, and let’s all get in on the production ideas! I also love seeing teachers and coaches and students virtually, regardless of physical location, so I certainly hope that will continue. But I’d happily take a breather from singing in masks and endless zoom meetings.

Blalock: I haven’t had a cold in over a year! I can definitely see myself wearing a mask more often in the future if I’m not feeling well, or just wearing one as an extra precaution while traveling to and from gigs. However, the thing I am looking forward to most is giving all of my friends and colleagues a giant hug after this is over!

You can keep up with these artists at davidblalocktenor.com, jenihouser.com, meganmarino.com and michaelmayesbaritone.com.

Jonathan Blalock

Jonathan Blalock has sung with The Santa Fe Opera, The Dallas Opera, Washington National Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, The Pacific Symphony, Memphis Symphony, PROTOTYPE Festival and Opera Hong Kong. He currently serves as Individual Giving Officer at The Atlanta Opera, and he is a member of the Classical Singer Magazine editorial board.