Claire Jackson interviews MAX founding member, Andrew Watts, about finding connection and building a thinktank over Zoom
Andrew Watts was on a plane returning from Moscow when news of the first lockdowns broke. The countertenor had just sung a run of The Rake’s Progress at the Stanislavsky Theatre. He was looking forward to unwinding on the flight – it would only be a short time before he would be back on the road again, first to Madrid to sing Reimann’s Lear, and then to engagements in New York. ‘I felt that 2020 was going to be my best year yet,’ Watts smiles. We know what happened next, of course: pandemic restrictions meant that practically all performing artists were unable to work – at least not in the traditional sense. ‘When I switched on my phone after landing, my inbox was filled with cancellations.’ Concerts, some that had been months or even years in the making, were swept aside. ‘Everything was wiped out,’ remembers Watts.
It’s easy – and for some, preferable – to forget how unsettling that period was. While wealthier friends were simply enjoying unexpected family time at home, many within the classical music industry were fraught with anxiety over the loss of income. There were also many practical hurdles to overcome: many of us were new to virtual setups and without sound-proofed practice rooms, the business of keeping chops in check was rife with complications. As confinement began in earnest, Watts – an internationally renowned soloist and teacher – and colleagues expressed an interest in keeping touch. ‘We had a regular Zoom on a Wednesday afternoon – it gave everyone a focal point for the week,’ says Watts. The informal support group developed into a semi-official peer mentoring group, and, in time, became MAX – the Musician and Artist Exchange network.
‘Our members are all proactive and well established in their respective fields and want to make improvements to the industry – it’s better to work on this together rather than on an individual basis,’ explains Watts. ‘There are no membership fees – everyone volunteers their time – and we are always open to new members. It’s about making a space for those conversations that you never get to have in a rehearsal room because there is never time.’
Over the past two years the need for certain difficult conversations has become patently clear. ‘The death of George Floyd and the following Black Lives Matter demonstrations affected us all,’ says Watts. Discussions became increasingly focused, and the group began forming a mission statement. MAX organised online conversations with industry figures including Gillian Moore, director of music at the Southbank Centre, and Roger Wright, CEO of Britten-Pears Arts. Discussions included issues such as gender parity, the future of the concert hall, and trying to make freelance working conditions better. ‘These changes need to be artist-led,’ explains Watts, ‘Working as a freelance musician is a very unusual lifestyle. If you’re engaging artists, why not ask what they need?’
The Guardian recently ran a series of profiles of freelance musicians who had been forced to seek alternative employment due to the circumstances of the pandemic. The story of violinist Catherine Martin, who cited the poignant moment when she delivered groceries to an address close to Wigmore Hall, a venue she had played at only months before, are ubiquitous. Industry body Creative UK estimates that 110,000 jobs were lost in 2021, with as many as 95,000 freelance roles. While Paris Rivers, whose current work as a funeral driver may inform his future work as an actor in horror films, not many temporary jobs directly relate to life as a musician. However, many people have decided that, given the uncertainty of the sector, their best bet is to leave the arts for the medium- to long-term.
Working as a freelance musician is a very unusual lifestyle. If you’re engaging artists, why not ask what they need?
‘Lots of people have left the industry altogether. I have friends who are amazing artists who are now working as delivery drivers,’ says Watts, who has sung at many of the world’s leading opera houses, including Covent Garden and Glyndebourne. ‘A big thing is seeing how identities have shifted. There are lots of us who started as a clean-cut million-pixel image and moved to a fragile and elastic shadow. It’s not just the solo opera singers, this crisis has affected all sorts of roles. In La Scala there was a lady whose job was to look after the shoe laces – she had a whole room to maintain. What’s going to happen to those people? It’s a scary situation to be in. It’s hard enough being freelance in ‘normal’ circumstances.’
MAX’s role has expanded to include a consulting service for organisations looking to support freelance musicians. This also includes engagement on issues regarding diversity and inclusion. ‘We have to blow away myths that exist about equality,’ says Watts firmly, ‘it’s not good enough to simply employ a single person of colour or programme of ‘women composers’ – that won’t have any lasting impact.’
Watts is leading by example. The production arm of MAX – born out of a chance conversation with a neighbour – specifies that events must have social value, as well as be self-sustaining. (‘We’re not going to be handed thousands of pounds at the end of a season no matter what,’ says Watts with a wry smile.) Operations follow the MAX maxim: there is parity of pay, programming is diverse, and the standard is of the highest quality. MAX has recently established an association with Legal and General Mitsubishi and hosted a series After Crisis, Joy at the organisation’s shiny new offices at 245 Hammersmith Road in London. Pianist Joanna MacGregor performed a special programme featuring Bach, Nina Simone, Mary Lou Williams and Piazzolla, while Trio Balthasar – comprising Iain Burnside, Michael Foyle and Tim Hugh – played pieces by Joan Trimble, Judith Weir and Brahms. Watts, who teaches at the Guildhall, the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House and at the Opera Studio at the Hamburg State Opera, led a masterclass with singers from the National Opera Studio (mezzo soprano Sian Griffiths and countertenor Logan Lopez Gonzalez), giving audience members a taste of what it takes to be a professional opera singer. The series engaged 43 freelance performing artists, eight freelancers as production and front-of-house staff – and attracted over 300 attendees.
Max@245 continues this year, building on the success of After Crisis, Joy. It’s a blueprint for how we could explore local collaborative projects post-Covid. ‘The creative sectors require immediate and significant support,’ writes Bill Hughes, head of LGIM real Assets, in the programme note. ‘As owners, investors and innovators we have a responsibility to ensure that we are delivering places fit for the future… We are delighted to support MAX in such an important initiative.’ An office foyer might not be the obvious place for a festival – but these are not the times for obvious.
Two years on from MAX’s first Wednesday Zoom meeting and members – including Gerry Cornelius, Nicholas Daniel and Lucy Schaufer – still meet regularly – online at least. Naturally, Covid remains a regular topic of conversation. Watts is speaking to me from Germany, where he is about to sing Figaro Gets a Divorce by Elena Langer. ‘We opened two weeks ago then four out of seven singers in the cast got Covid, then the assistant director. So, we had Saturday’s show cancelled but are hoping that this week’s show will go on.’ Then, there’s the ongoing issue of Brexit, which is causing all manner of headaches to musicians who previous moved without hassle from gig to gig across Europe. Watts is dealing with a ‘Brexit visa issue’, having surpassed his allotted 90 days in Germany, which, by the time you’ve done a couple of productions and teaching assignments, is not a lot of time. But despite the administrative headaches, Watts is more determined than ever. ‘We musicians are here and we’re not going anywhere,’ he says, ‘Through MAX we are making our case. We want to be better, bolder and more beautiful.’
You can find out more about MAX Musician and Artist Exchange here.
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