Performers in the Time of COVID: Caroline Halls
I met soprano and fundraiser, Caroline Halls on an icily cold Friday in February. She spoke to me on Zoom from a beautiful beamed, skylit room and admitted, holding up her fingerless gloves, that she too was freezing. Normally based in Wandsworth, South London she had gone to stay with her family in Salisbury in early December and hadn't yet had the need or inclination to return to London.
When I asked Caroline what her life looked like prior to March 2020, she began with her gap year which followed her time at Oxford. She said that during her university years she was constantly performing but afterwards she began to question whether she wanted to make a career in music. As well as doubts about her own abilities, much of her hesitation revolved around the bullying and sexism she had observed. 'Sometimes,' she said, 'it wasn't even overt but more a feeling that you were being difficult if you asked something basic like what the fee would be. I also,' she admitted, 'sometimes found the classical music world narrow and elitist. Roaming around Europe during my gap year I decided that I didn't want to earn my living solely from music.' When Caroline returned to the UK she enrolled on and graduated from a two year Masters programme at Kings College London in Arts Management and realised that she could both work 'behind the scenes' and as a musical performer. She said that it sits well with her to not have to put all her eggs in one basket and that each role informs and adds energy to the other.
Having taken a part time job with the fundraising consultancy Achates Philanthropy as an administrator, she had the flexibility to accept a wide variety of choral and solo work. 'I've even sung on a couple of films, Caroline told me, 'but much of my work is 'Churchy'... services, weddings, funerals... I particularly enjoy working as 1st deputy for St James's, Spanish Place, Marylebone; the team there are so lovely.'
Caroline said that in March of 2020 she was preparing for a concert at Royal Festival Hall as part of the Beethoven celebration year. The concert, scheduled for Sunday the 15th had been designed to recreate Beethoven's epic Vienna concert of 1808 and and the programme, which ran to more than 3 hours, included 2 symphonies, 2 Masses and the Choral Fantasy, with Stephen Fry narrating. 'The performance did go ahead but I remember Stephen Fry beginning his remarks by saying this might be the last occasion for people to listen to live music for some time. Little did he know.'
During the next weeks Caroline was notified of one cancellation after another. She was furloughed from her administrative role at Achates and eventually took redundancy. 'There were some very difficult days,' she said. 'I think what I found hardest was the loss of identity. I found that I didn't even want to sing for the first months; it's impossible to sing if you feel you're about to cry.' But Caroline clearly possesses a resilient spirit and a wonderful resourcefulness. She described how in those first months she read a 1000 page novel which she loved (Lucy Ellman's Ducks, Newburyport), 'upped' her yoga to 3 times a week and downloaded the Couch to 5K app. 'I remember,' she said, 'one day in the summer when 'my coach' (the voice on the app) told me to run for 20 minutes without any walking breaks. I thought: No. It's too hot. I can't do it. But I did do it. And I survived!' She described how every Friday she and her boyfriend would have a date night. They would dress up, order a take away and open the skylight upstairs to admire the evening sky. Then they would watch one of the National Theatre's live-streamed offerings. 'I'm really proud of how we managed to get on through it all,' she said. 'It was difficult sometimes because my boyfriend was working longer hours to cover for his colleagues who had been furloughed and I wasn't working at all. In an odd way we were envious of each other and yet we managed to stay close and support one another.'
Some singing work did emerge over those months: Caroline was engaged for a few recorded concerts and even, as a member of Pro Victoria, entered the LIFEM Young Ensemble Competition. The ensemble emerged as the joint winner. And there were opportunities for voluntary work. Caroline helped with the Dons Local Action Group and did some fundraising for Link UP London where she developed a lovely relationship with the CEO. She read and fedback on submissions to the Orwell Youth Prize, offered mentoring in practise interviews to disadvantaged students for OxFizz and took minutes for What's Next Wandsworth. She offered fundraising advice to various friends and ended up doing some paid work in that capacity for her colleagues at the Vache Baroque Festival.
However stable work proved elusive. 'After 8 months of applying for jobs with absolutely no success, I was more aware of what I couldn't do than what I was good at. I felt very hopeless at times.' But characteristically, Caroline found a way to rise above the situation. She availed herself of two free sessions of career counselling offered by the Women's Trust which, she said, renewed her confidence. And at last in early December her many applications bore fruit; she was offered 3 interviews. As a result she now has a part-time role working for Play for Progress (a charity which uses the arts to help unaccompanied minor refugees and asylum seekers) and is enjoying it enormously. Meanwhile there is some singing work in the offing which may induce Caroline back to London.
I asked Caroline what her hopes for the future were and she spoke about the role of singing in her life. 'Singing is my identity,' she said. 'It comes from such a deep down place. And you don't realise how much you miss it until you do it again. But in a more general way, I hope that there will be a way for the government to subsidise and encourage live performance and that funding organisations will increasingly consider their role in supporting the sector.' It seems to me that with her dual role, Caroline is at the epicentre of her hopes and with her drive, resourcefulness and insight she will be able to add value to whatever the future holds for the performing arts.
You can listen to some of Caroline Halls' work here:
1) A recorded concert with The Marian Consort is available to view in full for £4.99 but there are trailers and little clips around to watch for free
2) The London International Festival of Early Music Young Artists Competition, which Ensemble Pro Victoria joint won. The three finalists, all with 20 min sets, are on from about 19:48.