CU graduate had to postpone Metropolitan Opera debut
By Peter Alexander Dec. 23 at 12:45 p.m.
It is the best of resumes, it is the worst of resumes.
Reflecting on his situation during the pandemic, bass Ashraf Sewailam muses, “I was one of the quote unquote lucky artists who never had to do anything but perform. But I discovered how unlucky that was, not to have anything to fall back upon.”
Sewailam, a CU graduate who has sung extensively in the area, at the Central City Opera, with the Boulder Bach Festival and the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, as well as CU operas, found himself without work when the pandemic occurred. Even a planned December online program of Messiah arias with the Longmont Symphony had to be cancelled. He ended up doing deliveries for Amazon, until a broken foot put an end to that, too.
“Lots of my colleagues, when they first went to New York had to do other jobs to keep body and soul together—secretarial jobs or finance, banks, or even waiting tables,” he says. “All of this is actually good experience to have to fall back on. I have this super-impressive resume, in academia and performance, but I couldn’t get myself hired in anything that needed previous experience, so this was big wake-up call.”
It was an especially tough time for Sewailam to call a halt in his opera career because he had contracts and roles upcoming that would be impressive additions to that resume, and likely have led to more work. He was in rehearsal for a production of Aida at Virginia Opera when things suddenly were shut down.
“We had just made a promotional TV appearance about the show, and then we got back to the hotel to change into rehearsal garb, and we got the call that it was cancelled,” he says. “It was sad because it’s an excellent production.”
And that’s only the beginning of what Sewailam had planned for 2020 and ’21. “Right after that I had a Bohème in Seattle, and then I was directing [Donizetti’s] Anna Bolena in New York in the summer,” he says. “And then I had [Rossini’s] Cenerentola (Cinderella) with Minnesota opera in the spring of 2021, [and Donizetti’s] Elixir of Love in Amsterdam.”
The biggest disappointment of all, however, was that he had a contract at the Metropolitan Opera in New York for three roles during the fall—the kind of breakthrough contract that all opera singers dream about. “The Met is the pinnacle of the mountain that we’re climbing,” he says. “And who knows what would have materialized in early 2021 before the Cenerentola because stuff just jumps into my lap.”
Like most of us, Sewailam also had personal affairs to take care of during the pandemic. In his case, family issues took a lot of time and travel back and forth to his home country of Egypt.
“The situation is that I provide for mom there, while my sister manages the situation on the ground,” he says. “My mom has Alzheimer’s, and my sister had a cancer scare. I basically jumped on a plane and went to Egypt and stayed there for two months, mid-May to mid-July, and then early September to early October.
“Logistically [travel] was difficult. Security provisions [in Egypt] are much tighter and it was a little rattling to go through it. Then when I came home I took care of a couple of elderly friends, so I travelled to Seattle and up and down the California coast. I had to keep getting tested [for Covid] just to be able to look after my friends. And I’ve been fine so far.”
When he came back to Boulder, Sewailam took the job delivering packages, so he could continue supporting his mother and sister in Egypt. But with all the travel he has hardly done any singing since the pandemic began—just one streamed performance of “Some Enchanted Evening,” done remotely from Cairo with pianist Mohamed Shams in New York.
The lack of singing and being cut off from the field for so long concerns Sewailam. “Singers are professional athletes,” he says “You’ve got to keep stretching yourself, keep practicing,. You’ve got to keep seeking the right advice, because this is one of the most opinionated careers. Everybody has an opinion about the art form, about the singers in it, definitely about you and your voice, and everybody loves to opine.”
As for the future, “there were irons in the fire well into late 2022,” Sewailam says. But even if those and the prior contracts that were cancelled turn into firm offers later, there’s no guarantee that he would be able to accept all of them.
“Once things open up and companies start re-scheduling themselves, a lot of us might end up having to choose between gigs that we were already contracted for, that they would get rescheduled at the same time,” he says.
“That would be sad, because not only did we loose all the money from all those gigs, as well as the artistic gratification, but also you end up losing all of that money all over again, and then we would end up suffering for that.”
In other words, the return to live performing could be the best of times, but it could bring serious dilemmas, too.
Ashraf is a fantastic artist and we love working with him at Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra! His plight is shared with many artists, especially those who free-lance. Dare I mention that artists in the UK are getting 80 percent of their normal income to keep them afloat? (It’s actually all unemployed, or “redundant” people). Here, musicians who receive both W2s and 1099s have had a very difficult time accessing the public unemployment system that we have, it’s two separate programs, and income from one form/program, even if small, impacts the amount of unemployment you can get from the other program. Two-musician families are hit extra hard.
Meanwhile, the orchestras that engage them are struggling. No one envisions ticket income resuming to previous levels for a long time to come, if ever. So yes, the recovery will be tough going for a while. The landscape is going to be vastly different for those reasons, plus cultural equity needs to be part of the building back process. I see both exciting possibilities and daunting challenges.