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Jennifer Johnston - Freelance Artists Silenced

Sunday 6th September, 2020

How am I? It’s a question I’m asked repeatedly and I can’t honestly say I ever fully know the answer. My feelings about, well, everything, vary hourly, like clouds scudding past in a summer sky. Sometimes the sun shines brightly for a few minutes, and then I’m lost in shade again.

Since March, everything I knew, or I thought I knew, about where I was going in life, what I thought life looked like, has been gradually dismantled. Being in full lockdown was challenging, with little physical freedom and endless hours to kill, but there was still hope that we could return to normal soon. Now, we’re watching almost as bystanders, aghast, like witnessing a car crash in slow motion, as the arts struggle to keep going in the face of social distancing.

Jennifer as Gaia in Battistelli's CO2, La Scala

Despite the promised bailout from the government, most arts organisations won’t be able to afford to make work, instead making a slew of redundancies and mothballing, or, worse, closing their doors for good. That leaves freelancers swinging in the wind, and will rapidly diminish the arts workforce, as many won’t ever be able to afford to return and will seek employment in other sectors. For those facing unemployment on a long-term basis, life feels bleaker than ever, especially combined with Brexit, a lethal blow. The prospect of facing a return to work isn't easy either, I find it difficult to sing without crying, and looking at a score makes me heartsick, longing for the life I had before, which I doubt will ever fully return.

Most of all, the thing we all need most right now is each other, the amazing community of artists who live on these isles, and to renew and strengthen relationships and to offer support to each other.

Music should bring joy, comfort, solace, and yet for many who are facing months if not years of professional silence, it is currently bringing heartbreak and profound feelings of loss. It’s also natural to feel resentment at a system that is currently promoting a few faces relentlessly, something that also has triggered a crisis of self-confidence in some - why not me? Why are the same people being given so much work and I have nothing? Is it game over?

Jennifer in Die Tote Stadt, Korngold, at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich, with Jonas Kaufmann

No-one can say if it is game over for either individuals or the arts as a whole, but we have to hope not. We are an industry of creatives, and so now is the time to innovate, to create, to find new ways forward. It’s easy to say those words, and not so easy to imagine how, but already there are little green shoots popping up, on to which we collectively need to cling: look at the brilliant work being done by Tête-à-Tête in piloting how opera can work on a socially distanced basis; look at the spirit of Opera Holland Park, Glyndebourne and ENO in organising concerts and opera outdoors; look at the Live From London Festival organised by Voces8, with 10 livestreamed concerts showcasing the best of the UK’s vocal ensembles. None of these events are being performed by artists being flown in from abroad either, all of those organisations listed have taken great care to support British and British-based artists at the time we all need it the most, something other major promoters, whether they be opera houses, orchestras or halls, would do well to emulate.

Most of all, the thing we all need most right now is each other, the amazing community of artists who live on these isles, and to renew and strengthen relationships and to offer support to each other. It’s only by working together that we can get through this darkest of periods, and rebuild from the ground up. So if you see someone struggling who you know works in the arts, show some solidarity and ask them how they are. Even if they aren't readily able to give you an answer, at least they won’t feel alone. We’re all in this together.

© RT Dunphy

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