A Conversation with Zachary James

Zachary James and I became friends when I was bringing BLEEP Magazine to a close. He was one of my last interviews and his insight into the world of opera and his dedication to the artform were incredibly inspiring to me. He also happens to be one of the nicest guys I’ve ever had to the privilege of working with.

He, like so many, found himself suddenly without work for the foreseeable future when stages around the world went dark this year. However, the past six months have proved to be some of the most unforeseen and difficult of his life in a way no one could’ve imagined. He was gracious enough to talk with me about what life looks like when the operas go dark and how he is finding his way in the aftermath of unbelievable tragedy.

Ryan: Let’s start with where you’ve spent the pandemic.

Zachary: I was in Minnesota when the world ended, ten days out from the opening of a show. I drove home to Philadelphia in a rental car rather than getting on a plane and I’ve been here for the most part. On my drive to Philadelphia, I stopped at Walmarts in places like Indiana to stockpile supplies because the shelves were already empty in Philadelphia. A lot of the places I stopped, no one was taking this seriously. They weren’t wearing masks in stores.

Ryan: Once you were back home, how long did it take you to acclimate to being there?

Zachary: It took a little while. In my normal life, anytime I get home from a gig, we have what we call reentry, like an astronaut coming back to earth. I’m used to being away and taken care of and now I’m back home making the bed. It’s always been an adjustment but given the extreme nature of the circumstances today, it’s been different.

My boyfriend works at the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania so any adjustment from coming home was instead swept away by survival mode. I had a lot of fear for him at work. He does autopsies and was doing those on people who died of COVID. The messaging in March was a disaster at a national level as it still is now so I was very clued into what our governor in Pennsylvania was saying as well as our mayor in Philadelphia. I jumped immediately into survival mode as soon as my gig disappeared.

Ryan: That’s certainly not the same thing as just having to work from home. What was it like living with someone who was in the thick of it at the hospital every day?

Zachary: We had a routine. He would text that he was coming home and I’d wait to hear the hallway door open to the apartment. I was there with my mask on, a bottle of bleach and a washcloth. While he’d take off all his clothes and put them directly into the washing machine, I’d wipe down his phone, glasses, watch and bag. We’d then both shower to ensure we were fully clean.

Ryan: Wow. So when the world went into pause-mode, stages went dark. How did that initially feel and at what point did the drive kick in to use this as an opportunity to create differently? 

Zachary: My job ended in Minnesota but I still had jobs on the books for May, June, July and the fall, all of which have been canceled now. At some point after being at home, I realized I hadn’t sung because I wasn’t being paid to do it. But I like singing and it makes me feel good so what would it be like to sing whatever I wanted and share it with people?

I started doing Quarantine Karaoke in our basement, hanging up a piece of fabric and singing in front of it once a week. My friend Kamala composed the world’s first Zoom opera and I took part in that during April. It was a joy, people really loved it, and it felt cool to be a part of something new that was actually written for that format and wasn’t just a concert at home. It was a lovely community experience and we even had a virtual cast party afterward.

Other stuff came up, I was asked to sing a patriotic song for our healthcare workers on the news, but a lot of what I was doing were video messages for the opera companies to send to donors and I hit burnout quickly. I said yes to everything, got all the videos done, then had to put out a message through my manager that I needed some time away. It had become too much. That was in May.

Ryan: With the industry at a standstill for such a prolonged period of time, are there issues you feel have been uncovered or exposed?

Zachary: It depends on the size of the company. Des Moines paid us in full for our canceled contracts and I was very happy to make a video for them. Their board voted unanimously to pay us. At The Met, artists found out via Twitter they were losing a year’s worth of income. The Met has been the standard for 100 years, said to be the best opera company in the world. Other companies are looking to them for leadership but when they dismiss their artists via Twitter, I think it’s possible the standard in how to treat artists will now come from elsewhere.

Also, opera has been a very racist artform for a long time. It’s tough to see beautiful music gloss over the fact there’s an old white woman playing a young Japanese woman. Why does that not matter to people? Opera is having to play catch up in that regard. People now feel less fear in saying what’s on their minds about their experiences in the industry. Whether it’s racism or sexual harassment, it’s been like the wild west in opera and a lot of that’s been coming up during the past six months.

Ryan: Apart from your industry this year, what have you learned about yourself?

Zachary: A lot. Within the pandemic frame of this, I’ve learned that I’ve sacrificed a lot of my quality of life for my career. I actually love being home and it’s great to focus on my homelife and my relationship and be with my dog all the time. It’s what I miss so much when I’m working but I try not to think about it while I’m on the road because you can’t really. You have to keep going for the paycheck.

But primarily, in dealing with my family situation, I’ve learned I’m really strong and can handle a lot. I’m made of some tough stuff.

Ryan: Do you mind talking about what happened in your family?

Zachary: I was home having coffee and I got a text from my sister. A reporter reached out to her saying he was sorry about what happened to our family and asked if she had a comment. I wasn’t even really awake when I googled my brother’s name and saw the news report that my nephew had a psychotic break, killed his 14-year-old brother, and then tried to kill my brother.

How do you even process that? I didn’t know if my brother was even alive at that point so I called the sheriff’s department who connected me with the hospital where they were performing surgery to save his life. I found out my brother was alive, called my family to tell them, my boyfriend immediately came home from work, and we got a plane to Florida. I was there for two months picking up the pieces. Those were the worst days of my life.

I went from fifty five days at home to running to the airport to fly directly to one of the places we were told was least safe in the pandemic. But we had no choice. That mentality prevailed. Then the press situation was a nightmare. I was immediately found on social media, they were outside the hospital waiting for comments, the phone was ringing all day long. Today, my nephew is in jail and my brother is still recovering. It remains really difficult; definitely a defining experience.

Ryan: In light of all you’ve been through, and all amidst a global pandemic, what’s brought you solace and a semblance of calm?

Zachary: I’ve really gotten to know Philadelphia in a way I never did. I’ve lived here for two years but I was never here for long so it’s been really awesome to walk around the city every day. This concentration of time spent with my boyfriend and my dog is not something we were used to and it’s been so fun to even share a meal together every night. We never had that.

Work wise, I was supposed to do a solo recital at Carnegie Hall in November which is obviously canceled so instead I’m doing an album of the music I want to do. I’m reclaiming my voice and working with who I want to work with. It feels good to get back to me and my roots as an artist.

Ryan: As an artist, what’s something you’ve learned about yourself this year?

Zachary: I don’t want to sacrifice my quality of life anymore. I don’t know what that means in terms of how I make money but I’m more concerned with making sure I’m taking care of myself and those around me. Opera is weird because jobs are booked so far in advance, I’m booked through 2022, so it’s hard to say how I will implement that but I’ve asked myself, “Why am I giving of myself to all of these people and not saving any for myself?” Today, singing at home, I feel like more of an artist than I’ve ever felt. Previously, I tied being an artist to having an audience but that’s not actually true. I’m home, I’m singing, and it feels good in my heart.

For more on Zachary, head over to www.zachjames.com

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