Like many who depend on social media for news and entertainment during the pandemic, I have spent my share of time on Facebook staying connected to friends and family, as well as enjoying the multitude of virtual performances now available. Following the example of his fellow performing artists, tenor Ganson Salmon has posted videos of himself singing. Upon seeing one recently, I reached out to the Indy native, as I have other artists, during the current health crisis to ask how he’s coping.
I first met Salmon, 27, when he participated in the Resident Artist Program at Indianapolis Opera in 2016, following his graduation from Ball State University, where he earned a degree in music and a sub degree in vocal performance. I was already aware of him through my long friendship with his doting grandmother, Sarah Jane Gradison, an arts patron who also happens to be an avid opera fan. Though I did not see Salmon perform at the time, I recall being impressed with his engaging personality and charisma. Since then, his grandmother, or Nana, as he calls her, has regularly kept me abreast of his activities.
Salmon is based in New York, but back home in Indy quarantined with his parents, Jackie and Steve, in their northeastside home. Speaking by phone, he told me how the pandemic is affecting his emerging career and its personal toll. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
How is that you happen to be in Indianapolis?
At the beginning of this whole pandemic, I was in Sarasota, Florida working at Sarasota Opera. We had a three-month season that was continuing and we were all watching this thing develop. Then, when it was really ramping up, Sarasota, in line with a lot of other companies, decided to cancel its last week of performances. That would have been 11 performances. It was just so surreal, but they were gracious enough to decide to pay everyone, including staff, backstage workers, musicians, and singers for the last week because it was obvious our livelihoods were in jeopardy moving forward. So that was the beginning.
It was a strange time. I had a decision to make as to whether I was going to go back to my apartment in New York City. But after talking to my family, I figured that was not a good idea and they said, “Come on home,” so I came back to Indianapolis and this is where I have been since.
Let’s back up. Fill me in on your activities since the time we first met.
I moved to New York in the fall of 2016. That was to go to go Mannes (School of Music in The New School). After my stint at Indianapolis Opera, I did my one school audition at Mannes because I wanted to study with one particular teacher. I was accepted and that was the beginning of my journey.
I moved to New York with all the excitement and support of my family behind me and my closest friends. I started at school and I met a great teacher who taught my teacher whom I studied with here in Indianapolis and that was my connection to the business. It proved to be a wonderfully fruitful two years at Mannes. I got to do three leading roles on stage there in three shows that are rarely done. I did Tom Rakewell in “The Rake’s Progress,” Anatol in “Vanessa,” and Roderick Usher in a rarely done Philip Glass opera “The Fall of the House of Usher.” And like any singer who goes to grad school, all we ever want to do is get on our feet and sing and I got to do that. I had a great experience at school. I met so many people who would help me move forward as I stepped out of school and into the professional arena.
What transpired after your graduation from Mannes?
I graduated in 2018 with a master’s degree in music, after which I had a tumultuous summer because of personal issues I was undergoing. Plus, I was not in the best place, vocally. I went Turin, Italy to participate in a competition, the International Contest Piemonte Opera Voci dal Mondo and got to sing with Renata Scotto, the main judge, and one of the finest singers of all time. She told me I still had a lot of work to do. That hit me really hard, but I realized I had to find a way to get better. I met teachers after that who would help me find the tools to really start to learn how to sing and that is when my real stride began. Mark Schnaible and his wife Patricia have worked together as voice teachers for over 30 years and they have changed my life. That is the track I have been on since I graduated from Mannes. And they have influenced me through all the programs and companies I have worked for since.
What exactly was Scotto’s feedback?
It hurt a lot. I was coming off the high of graduating and after singing the biggest role I had ever done so far in my life as a singer. I was receiving so much praise and got my first reviews in NYC (The New York Times called him a “dashing lyric tenor” and he was recognized for his “powerful and nuanced” performances.) I was feeling so good about my singing, then I met one of the greats whom I had only seen in videos. And then to meet that person and have her say to you, “You are beautiful and your expression is wonderful, but your voice is disorganized.” It hurt, but she made me realize I had to find somebody who was really going to keep me on my toes and challenge me to really learn how to sing. Singing is no easy thing and it is so technically challenging that I needed someone who was going to put me in the ring.
What happened next?
After the Italy competition, I went to Pittsburgh to be part of Pittsburgh Opera‘s production of “La bohème.” I was actually supposed to be in the second cast for the lead of Rodolfo, but it turned out the tenor who was to sing on the main stage got called away and I ended up singing the last three performances as the lead, which was a great experience. Then in the fall, I became connected with Sarasota Opera through an agent friend of mine who told me they were in dire need of a tenor for their Studio Arts program for Winter of 2019. I have been working for them since January of that year. I did two years of seasons with them. In between, one of the most exciting things was this trip I did last summer, June and July of 2019, where I went to seven different countries and ended that month’s stay in Israel to be a part of a production of Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” at Tel Aviv Summer Opera Program. It was a two-month trip and the second month I was in Israel singing and my teacher was there and I got to work with him every single day which caused so much growth.
Which bring us to the present. How has the pandemic interrupted your career?
This summer was supposed to be the biggest summer of my career thus far. As of two days ago, I was supposed to be a young artist with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and I was going to be part of their production. However, three weeks ago, they publicly announced they were canceling their entire season, which was a huge blow. It was a two-month season. It was going to be May and June. But they softened the blow by being so communicative about it. And thanks to their board of directors, they announced they were going to pay everyone half of the contract, which is huge because I and the other artists are cushioned and have something to fall back on while we are out of work. I was going to participate in the ensemble of “Carmen” and their new opera “Awakening.” I was so excited for this gig because Patricia Racette, who is the artistic director, is close with my teachers and I had been so excited to meet her because she had an amazing career. Everything came to a halt very quickly and ended the momentum and the excitement I had for the upcoming summer. I was also going back to Israel and also participate in the Ravinia Festival in Chicago. Then I was thrust back home.
How have you adjusted to being in quarantine?
The effect has been major. I feel like it is 2008 again. I’m mowing the lawn, listening to music, going for bike rides and helping around the house. I am back navigating home relationships. It’s been good. I love being home. I am so happy to have a loving family to come home to. But it is surreal because it really feels like I’m a kid again living at home.
Are you experiencing feelings of loss?
It’s kind of this strange, haunting feeling. I think many of us have an unreasonable fear that our profession is lost into the abyss forever. We feel like we can’t imagine a thousand people gathering into a theatre to watch a play, or an opera, or a rock star, or something and wonder if we will ever be able to do it again. And we get to soothe ourselves by making videos and being connected with our friends and being with our family. The pain comes from “Man, did we take this for granted?” You know?
Do you try to stay positive?
Absolutely. I am a stubbornly positive person. My mom and dad raised me that way. It is my instinct to make the best of it. It is my instinct to not be in despair because to me, that is the worst. Once I go to a place of despair then I just start to crumble. I am happy with what I have and grateful I get to be safe and sound with my family. I know that even if these fears haunt me, I am one of the people who believes that everything happens for a reason. These things are happening to make us better and to change us. I know there is going to be another side to this and I know we will make it through this.
Are you a person of faith?
Yes. Yes, I am.
What do you miss the most?
I miss the theatre. I would have been going to Opera Theatre of St. Louis and meeting new singers, directors and musicians. We would have been preparing productions and everything. I think about everything I can’t have now. I think about that theatre experience when you walk into the doors and there is that lobby full of people and there is that electric air of a show going to happen and you sit down next to people and you watch a show. I really miss what we do, all we work for, that we can’t have right now.
What is your biggest fear?
I think we all have fears that the business will never be the same and we won’t be able to go back to what we had before. But I would also add I am fearful that all the fear and worry will lock me into a ball and that is the one big reason I fight, to stay positive, because if I give into that fear and worry, then I don’t operate in a way that I want to and I don’t see the light.
Are you in contact with your support system?
I have been staying in close connection with my close circle of friends. I like to do quality over quantity because my closest friends are few, but those relationships are meaningful. I do long conversations with my best friend in New York and I have another friend here is Indianapolis. We just love to talk and talk and just be with one another, at least by phone.
Do you miss New York?
Oh yes. I miss the subway. I miss my favorite Thai restaurant. I miss my apartment. I miss my roommates.
How has it felt to observe what’s happening there from afar?
It’s been scary to see how everyone in New York feels like a caged animal and the streets of New York are empty and the whole machine has shut down, but as you can imagine, I am glad I am not there because, at least here, I can pull together some semblance of life and normalcy.
Do you know anybody in NYC who has contracted the virus?
Actually, I don’t. I haven’t heard of any of my friends or connections who’ve contracted it.
Do you have a message for your fellow artists?
Well, I would say something similar to what I touched on earlier. I really am one of those people who makes a bad thing into a good thing. The pain and grief we feel over our business and over our lost opportunities and over our wallets are only for this time and this time will serve to make us into better versions of who we really are. We’ll come out on the other side of this with a renewed joy for life and joy for what we do. It will change how we operate and how we love what we do for the better. That is what I would want everyone else to feel because I feel that and I hope for that.
What are you learning as you experience this period in your life?
This is teaching me patience for the long game and how to enjoy what I have and to accept my situation even though it is not perfect. I have figured out a way to practice patience every day. I have dinner with family every night and take it as it is. Every day in quarantine is a challenge and there is always that ever-hovering question as to when this is going to end and when can I get back to doing what I want to do? With those challenges coming every day, I try to take it for what it is and enjoy what I have because what I have is not a given and it is not something I want to take for granted.
To learn more about Ganson Salmon, visit website at gansonsalmon.com.