The Coronavirus Economy: Meet the vocal coach keeping busy while opera stages are all dark

May 20, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

Just like a top-ranked tennis star or an Olympic marathoner, an opera singer needs a coach. Rachelle Jonck, a New York–based vocal coach, works with opera singers bound for the art form’s biggest stages, including the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden in London, and Chicago’s Lyric Opera, helping them with everything from Italian diction while singing to help taking on Germanic opera if that is not the artist’s forte.

But since the COVID-19 lockdowns started in mid-March in the United States, one opera house after the other has gone dark, leaving Jonck’s clients idle and unable to make a living: The Metropolitan Opera canceled the last two months of its season, the Lyric Opera in Chicago had to drop its ambitious Wagner Ring Cycle, and the prestigious Santa Fe Opera last week said there would be no 2020 summer season.

Jonck is keeping busy, still working with just a few singers. (She is not, however, a fan of performances or lessons on Zoom, preferring in person collaborations, but says artists should do what works for them in this environment.) And just as the lockdown started in March, she launched a large group on Facebook—the Vaccai Project 2020 (named for the 19th-century Italian composer)—where her singers can share scores and tips on things like breathing exercises, as well as sing for one another and offer mental support as they wait for their art form to return. She likens it to barre classes for singers.

But the South Africa native, who moved to New York in 1998, is also in the early stages of a project that aims to use the Internet to cultivate new audiences and create more ways to provide instruction and training: In pursuit of this goal, Jonck has just launched BelCantoBootCamp.com. For now, there’s no cost to participate in the upcoming class offered on the site, but she is mulling whether down the line she might request payment, to supplement her coaching income. As distraught as Jonck is over the opera world’s current problems, she sees an opportunity for the art form to reinvent itself.

Fortune spoke with Jonck for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how the outbreak has affected her work as well as her thoughts on the future of her business and her beloved art form.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Vocal coach Rachelle Jonck at the Rose Theater in New York, July 18, 2019.
Steven Pisano

Fortune: What does an opera vocal coach do?

Jonck: We are the main way in which a singer prepares to sing a role onstage, from a language perspective, from a musical perspective, for the first day of rehearsals. Opera singers have to show up on the first day of rehearsals fully prepared. (On Broadway, it’s typically done during rehearsals as an ensemble.) For younger singers preparing for auditions, it entails preparing arias like a package so they are ready to present their wares. 

How can your service vary from client to client?

Some singers do a lot of work before walking into the studio, other singers prefer to do so in earlier stages with me. It depends on the singer’s innate ability to deconstruct the material he or she is dealing with. It can be, “Oh, I’ve been singing a lot of opera, but I haven’t sung a Verdi role in a while. It’s very much about getting that person to sing in that style again.”

Different styles of music require different skills in things like score-reading. Singers are required to sing in a wide variety of styles and languages, and no one can be a master of all of them. For example, if someone has to sing coloratura (an elaborate style with lots of embellishments), they might say, “I just haven’t had to sing fast notes in so long.”

How do you help a singer develop his or her own style?

The singers live in a world where a lot of opinions come at them. They build the roles for themselves, then they arrive and they have a director and a conductor with opinions, or a costume that might be hard to wear, or a production concept that might be unusual. In the modern world, people tend to want singers to be a blank slate because there are so many people with opinions; I work the other way. I like singers to bring their own knowledge and ideas. That is what makes a powerful singer onstage.

What about singing in foreign languages?

You can teach someone how to make sounds with their mouth but that doesn’t mean it’s coming out with conviction if that language doesn’t flow from them naturally. A lot of our work is on making that language feel idiomatic and comfortable.

How did you fall into this profession?

I trained as a pianist and musicologist. I did instinctively know that I didn’t like being on my own all the time. I knew I wasn’t good enough to be Martha Argerich. But I always loved drama and language. I’m an introvert, but when I talk about music, it all comes out. One day, my school got a call from Cape Town Opera saying that if anyone had shown any aptitude working with singers, they had a position. I really knew nothing of opera. I grew up in a musical household, so I went to the audition, had no idea how to follow a conductor, but then they offered me the job.

Any upside for your singers in this involuntary pause?

All of my singers are in this pause, and when does that ever happen? We’re always just pushing ahead, trying to get ready for the next gig. Then, all of sudden, everything stops. This could be—if you get over the horror of what’s happening—like a moment when a tennis player breaks down their serve to work on it. 

Jonck and Derrick Goff leading a discussion on their Facebook group for opera singers.
Rachelle Jonck

What do you think of all the free content being put on the web to keep audiences engaged with classical music and opera while stages are dark?

I am wary of free music-making from your living room because the opera world, the performing arts world, already had issues before COVID-19. People were already not coming to the theatre, people not donating at the same levels. Opera was already in a crisis. While singers need to keep their brand alive and stay in front of people, I am not sure that just putting out free content sends the right message. We want to send a positive message, but it hurts the value people put on music.

Since the invention of reproduced sound, we’ve been continuously fighting this battle, arguing why people must come to the opera house rather than watch YouTube clips. Another challenge: attention span. Opera is longer than a YouTube clip.

So what do you think online engagement of opera and classical music audiences should look like?

What if we can build audience participation online? What if we created courses on how to listen to certain things to a much larger audience? After all, sports and ballet fans are into the technical know-how of things. There is no such thing as a tennis fan who doesn’t have an opinion about why someone’s serve is off. What would it be like if opera had live commentary? The opera world has always thought that if singers are these mystical beings doing things that no one understands, that people would love that; that is not true. What if it’s fun for an opera fan to follow along a basic training program for singers and see singers talk about how a particular skill is difficult, with a video Maria Callas executing that skill in a video?

How are you and your singers coping?

Singers are in cocoons now and want to come out. They are devastated that they can’t be on a stage. Yet no other generation has had the opportunity to reimagine itself in this same way, especially during the technological age. We shouldn’t be pausing, we should be activating. But it would be easier to be optimistic if people weren’t facing such devastating financial hardship. No one is getting any money coming in. Artists are tough; you have to be tough in this business—you have to have a thick skin. But you have to be able to pay your rent and to eat.