Performers in the Time of COVID: Rebecca Lea
I so much enjoyed talking to Rebecca Lea, a soprano of seemingly effortless lyricism, from her home in South London on an evening at the end of February. Behind her on the window sill sat a Christmas poinsettia in full bloom which must be an odd reminder for Rebecca of a winter holiday that was less than relaxing. Her partner, also a singer, contracted Covid at a Christmas eve concert and by New Year's Eve both he and Rebecca and their 6 year old daughter had come down with the virus.
Rebecca describes life prior to March as tumultuous. Four years previously, when her daughter was two she had lost her then husband to cancer. Over the next years, as she explained, she worked hard to get her life back together and by January of 2020, having moved in with her current partner, she found herself engaged in an exceptionally busy musical career. Not only was she employed full time with the BBC singers but she freelanced with I Fagiolini, an early music consort and EXAUDI which devotes itself to contemporary music while frequently joining ensembles such the Sixteen, the Dunedin Consort, Scotland's leading Baroque vocal ensemble and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Life involved a complicated juggling of childcare with work in both London and on tour. But Rebecca enjoyed the travel, the opportunity to mix with others, the excitement of new projects and the chance to discover new music.
March 2020 found her in Switzerland in the week before Lockdown 1. “We spent the week glued to the news,' she said. 'The management for our engagement kept assuring us that everything would go ahead but in the end they cancelled four hours before the beginning of the concert.' Realising that the borders would close Rebecca managed to get a flight back home on the Friday evening before lockdown.'
'On the Monday morning (Monday the 16th of March, 2020) I went into the BBC to do an education workshop with students from the RCM but that evening we all received an email telling us that we'd been shutdown.' Rebecca said that the news came as a shock. She had taken the work with the BBC thinking it would offer security and continuity and suddenly it was offering neither. That being said, the first lockdown proved extremely busy for Rebecca. The BBC planned a series of online projects including a mini St Matthew Passion which involved hours and hours of what Rebecca described as demoralising work, recording individual parts at home. 'We were sent guide piano recordings of the arias but we had to layer up the chorales; I would record and video my part and send it to the alto who would record and pass on to the tenor, etc. It was demoralising in the sense that all the joy of making music together had been drained from the experience.'
Rebecca said that the most rewarding work she did over Lockdown 1 was for an initiative called Connecting the Dots which created music workshops for children still at school (the children of key workers, etc.) 'At one point I gave a Zoom presentation to two different classes of kids in two different rooms which was extremely challenging but interesting.'
And all the time, she and her partner were supervising homeschooling for then 5 year old Rose. Rebecca admitted that she struggled. She was still processing the tragedy of the previous years and by the summer she found herself in a depression. It didn't help, she said that she found it impossible to tear herself away from the constant barrage of frightening news on both mainstream and social media. The pace of life continued into the autumn when for a while it was possible to return to socially-distanced work at the BBC. But that finally shutdown on the 19th of December. On the 22nd and 23rd Rebecca and her partner were involved in two local live streamed concerts and then Covid struck closer to home. 'I just felt extraordinarily tired for a couple of days and had a bit of a cough,' she said. 'The loss of sense of taste and smell however lasted for a month. It's strange and frightening knowing that a colleague who got it at the same time had to go to hospital. It seems to affect people so very differently.'
The current lockdown has also been very different for Rebecca. 'The BBC finally acknowledged that it just wasn't viable to spend so much time producing online content'. The slower pace has given Rebecca time to reflect. 'I've been able,' she said, 'to release and come to terms with the grief, to do the processing that I really hadn't managed to do in those frantically busy years. I've come to feel more at one with where I am now. And it's been good for the three of us to have such an intense time with one another and to learn what we are as a family. At the same time,' she said, 'I've come to realise that we can't count on anything. We have to be open to change and know it will be okay.
But Lockdown 3 has been different in other ways as well. 'For one thing,' Rebecca said, 'we've formed a bubble with a single Mum and her daughter. It's been wonderful to have another adult in the house and for Rose to be able to play and learn with another child. 'In the first lockdown I baked a lot of bread, ate a lot of cake and drank a lot of wine. This time around I'm on a fitness regime. It's far better for my head.' And recognising that none of us can know how Brexit and the post Covid world will affect freelancers, Rebecca has begun working on a TEFL course, 120 hours learning to teach English as a foreign language. 'I've decided,' she said, 'that it's good to have a back up plan. And I'm enjoying the security and safety of English grammar. It's wonderful to think that all I need to worry about for the next half hour is prepositions!' she laughed.
That being said, Rebecca hopes very much to return to her work as a musician; this period has served to reconfirm for her how much she loves her job. 'Although I've enjoyed all the online productions,' she said, 'I miss the human subtleties of live concerts, the smell of someone's perfume, the sound of a siren, a drink in the bar, the human imperfections... Concerts online are necessarily airbrushed,' she reflected. 'It's a shame when we lose the human, the unplanned because of a striving for perfection,' was her perceptive and life-affirming comment. 'What we think of as perfect, is not necessarily perfect.'
You can find out more about Rebecca here: