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May 13, 2021
By Elisa Lichtenbaum
As part of #PBSForTheArts, a multiplatform campaign from PBS and The WNET Group celebrating the resiliency of the arts in America during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown and reopening, we’re pleased to present a series of artist interviews spotlighting the inspiring pandemic survival stories of artists across the country. From Broadway dancers and concert performers to classical musicians, visual artists, and beyond, discover how these creative, resourceful artists have kept the arts vivid and vital during the pandemic.
Baritone Lucas Meachem is currently wowing audiences as Figaro in San Francisco Opera’s new production of The Barber of Seville, running through May 15 at the Marin Center Drive-in — the Company’s first live opera since December 2019. In the following interview, Meachem talks about the challenges of a year without singing, his surreal and scintillating return to the stage, and finding moments of gratitude in the midst of the pandemic.
San Francisco Opera’s drive-in production of The Barber of Seville has brought live opera back to the Bay Area, with audiences enjoying the performance inside their cars. What is it like to perform under these unique circumstances, and how does it feel to be doing an opera in front of a live audience again?
Rather than listening for applause or seeing faces in an auditorium, it’s windshields of cars and honking of horns under a starry sky. I see waving glow sticks from onlookers and I sing my heart out to them, knowing that my face is projected onto a 20-foot screen — something unlike most opera experiences. Toss in the occasional frigid night and innocent bug swallowed as I inhale for a high note, but no complaints here. I am among the privileged few in the arts who are lucky enough to be working and I am extremely grateful, unlike I’ve ever been before.
This will go down in the history books. Having no opera this past year was dispiriting for all artists and still is for many. A year without singing takes its toll on a performer. I have a deep sense of gratitude. It’s a privilege to do what I do and I have a completely different outlook on life because of COVID.
My musical heart is finally full, and each night I’m greeted with the symphony of the orchestra and honking car horns — the loudest ovation I’ve ever received and I’m not even cutting anyone off in traffic!
Did you have opera engagements that were cancelled due to the COVID-19 performance shutdown in March 2020?
All of my performances since March 2020 have been cancelled. This is my first time back onstage. I had many opportunities lined up: world premieres of new operas, my role debut as Rodrigo in Don Carlo, house debuts, recital debuts, etc., and that artistic light has dimmed for me. So, finally, I am back on the stage, and honestly, my light feels diminished but it’s still shining.
I have this music inside me that hasn’t been put out into the world and it’s just waiting to get out. I think there will be a resurgence of the arts in the coming months and years and we will have more support from audiences and communities than ever before.
You and your family reside in Minneapolis. What has it been like to live there in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd?
Witnessing the destruction of the city I call home was much more devastating in person than through a news channel or social media feed. Yet, knowing that a human life was wrongfully taken and will never be restored is much more harrowing. We can rebuild Minneapolis; we can’t reverse the murder of George Floyd and the many murders of innocent Black people.
Your neighborhood was alive with the sound of music last spring and summer thanks to your uplifting “porch concerts.” What inspired you to do these concerts?
Last spring, I was left with a grim future of unemployment and canceled contracts. I missed music so much. Yet I know people missed attending those music concerts, too. So, as I was sitting on my couch, thinking about how and where could I spread my music, I looked no further than my porch and thought that could be my next house debut. Literally. I live in a complex with lots of gracious neighbors, so my wife -- who is a pianist -- and I planned this concert and it was just as reinvigorating for me as I hope it was for the community.
What has been the most difficult thing for you as a performing artist during the pandemic?
There were many days of uncertainty -- whether or not I had a future as a singer, whether or not the companies I sang for would fold, whether my colleagues were pulling through, whether I could support my family. It was at times grim.
I think many of us experienced dark days this past year. In the best of times, we artists share the unique plight of a competitive industry, but to throw in a pandemic that robs us of all opportunities is truly shattering. I just feel so much for everyone.
What has helped you maintain a sense of hope and optimism during these challenging times?
My son. He’s two years old, and toddlers have an amazing ability to live in the present. So when I felt down, I played with him, enjoyed the moment, awed at his curiosity and wonder for the world, and I felt better. I value the gift of time this past year I’ve been given to enjoy growing with him. That is the silver lining to 2020 for me.
What’s next for you?
What’s next for me is for the arts to open its beautiful door to the world again. That consists of a number of American appearances this summer, and my fall season is mostly European. I still have the fear of cancellations. This could all come falling down at any moment. Our only hope is vaccinations and the amazing scientists behind them.
Learn more about San Francisco Opera’s drive-in production of The Barber of Seville here.
Elisa Lichtenbaum |@ElisaVonTap
Elisa Lichtenbaum is a Senior Writer at The WNET Group. An avid theatergoer and tap dancer, she is dedicated to helping theater artists and the theater community make a vibrant comeback following the pandemic.
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