Like many international opera singers, COVID-19 caught Australian tenor Samuel Sakker well and truly on the hop. The London-based rising star was actually in Sydney, having just arrived for what would have been a month of concerts split between Australia and New Zealand for performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and an Italian Opera Gala, all of them under the baton of Donald Runnicles. On returning to England, the plan was to have included his debut as Des Grieux in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at The Grange Festival where his wife Rachel would cover Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After that, there would have been performances as Sergeant Thibault in Delius’s Margot La Rouge at Opera Holland Park, and then off to Opéra de Montreal for his debut as Laca in Janáček’s Jenůfa conducted by fellow Aussie, Alexander Briger. As career trajectories go, Sakker’s was one with considerable momentum. And then, lockdown hit.

As Rodolfo with Elizabeth Llewllyn as Mimì rehearsing La Bohème for Scottish Opera. Photo © James Glossop

“In the space of a week, all of my contracts for the next six months just evaporated,” he explains. “The companies were very transparent about the devastating effects the pandemic would have on them, and there was really only doom and gloom when speculating about the future, especially for us freelancers caught out by force majeure clauses. I’m not a pessimist, but as a realist I didn’t think there would be much chance of working again in 2020.”

With their coffers only recently emptied to invest in a modest London flat, it was time for some lateral thinking. His first step was to rewrite what he refers to as his “muggle, i.e. non-musician CV” and start applying for jobs. “From mid-March to mid-April, I must have applied for 250 jobs, many in the National Health Service,” he says, explaining that coming from a family full of medical workers he felt that he might be of some use there.

When he was offered a position at St Thomas’ Hospital as a Pandemic Inventory Operative in the NHS Supply Chain he signed on at once. Placed in charge of medical equipment supplies, and in particular managing stocks of PPE, his territory included a COVID ward for patients coming off of ventilators and out of ICUs. “In the middle of lockdown, it was the most normal environment with people busy at work,” he recalls. “The main focus was on coronavirus, but babies kept on being born along with emergencies and people with serious illnesses.”

As a musician, Sakker might have good cause for concern – for many singers, the road back from COVID-19 has proved a slow one – but he never really hesitated, despite some perilous sounding work practices. “At first everyone in the hospital was wearing scrubs, we were social distancing, but NHS policy was to direct PPE to those who absolutely needed it, which meant masks weren’t mandatory for those of us not on the front line,” he explains. “In lifts, unable to socially distance, we relied on the suspension of disbelief, though many of the hospital workers had already recovered from the virus by the time I started work there.”

Although he was never quite on the front line – “I was mostly trudging about the storerooms replenishing the long list of PPE,” he says – his ward was full of patients undergoing rehabilitation after the wasting effects of the virus. “I was worried,” he admits, “but very cautious, always washing my hands and social distancing when possible.”

As the UK relaxed its lockdown regulations and people started to come and go things began to shift towards a new version of normal. Masks became mandatory for everyone entering the hospital and it was decided that four in a lift should be the maximum. “It did feel safer, though some people’s ignorance of basic infection control and lack of regard for others became apparent,” he says. “On one occasion, a greeter in the Children’s Hospital remarked: ‘I wear my mask all the time, I just take it off to cough,’ and the poor guy got a lecture from me that he won’t soon forget.”

Coming out the other side, right now Sakker is making his role debut as Rodolfo in Scottish Opera’s socially distanced, outdoor production of La Bohème, something he describes as “a light in the darkness”. Not planned as a part of the company’s original season, the production has been pulled together as a response to the current slew of COVID cancellations and in light of the Scottish Government’s stringent guidelines for live performances.

With Roland Wood as Marcello and David Ireland as Colline. Photo © James Glossop

A socially distanced production brings many new challenges, but none of them are insurmountable according to Sakker who rattles of a list of rules and regulations. “When singing, we must be three metres from the audience at all times, the same if we are singing to each other, and only two metres if we’re singing out or away from each other,” he explains. “This was easily solved by having metre-spaced markings on the floors. That said, two or three metres is a lot farther than you would think.”

Props too are tricky: “We each have individual props and cannot share them, so we’ve had to be creative with boxes and pre-setting props. For the Café Momus scene we have a waiter in full PPE to help the magic happen.”

And the love scenes? “Showing the intimacy of Mimì and Rodolfo is hard at a distance,” he admits. “We never touch – we never even come within two metres. There’s a lot of eye contact, and we have to be very aware of each other.”

With only nine days of rehearsal on a new production, outdoors, socially distanced, and singing in English, the schedule has been gruelling, but spirits are high because, as Sakker explains, “we’re actually making some art, doing some work. Of course, there are a lot of little jokes buoying us along while all our ‘tiny hands are freezing’ outside at the end of Scottish ‘summer’.”

With Roland Wood, Jessica Rhodes and Elizabeth Llewllyn at the La Bohème Dress Rehearsal. Photo © James Glossop

So, what will all this affect the live audience? “Social distancing means they’re at least three metres away from each other’s bubbles, and at least three metres away from the performers,” Sakker explains. “Our very clever director, Roxana Haines, has disguised this by setting the production in a Boho style cafe with cabaret seating. Each act takes place in a different set in the space, with the Café Momus being a very large table at the centre, in the round.”

Despite the Scottish Opera ray of light, the future still strikes Sakker as bleak. Quotas permitting, he and his wife will return to Oz in October as a way to get away from the British winter and the whole Brexit shenanigans. “Recently, there have been discussions about rescheduling a couple of our cancelled productions, and there have been some tentative invitations for next season, but realistically everything is up in the air until the pandemic comes to an end,” he admits. “For as long as audiences must be socially distanced, opera companies can’t afford to put productions on in theatres. As I understand it, the big UK companies need at least 80 percent occupancy to break even, but with social distancing (assuming we will even have an audience that wants to enter a theatre) their max is 20 percent, which is completely unviable.”

All of that means that Sakker is less than optimistic about the future, despite the positives of smaller companies and festivals pivoting to take risks to make art that employs freelancers. Like other singers, he’s grateful for the support from initiatives like Freelance Artists Relief Australia, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, Tait Memorial Trust and Help Musicians UK. He also feels that the ways artists have found to support each other through these dark times will ultimately have strengthened the musical community.

Right now, however, the old model looks pretty broken. Grand opera in particular seems untenable right now with its typically crowded backstage areas and cramped dressing rooms feeling like a potential death trap. Sakker sees outdoor performances – weather permitting – playing a far larger role in the industry in the immediate future.

Even then, opera companies, and hence singers, will face massive hardships. “In the best-case scenario, opera companies will be producing at least a third less, and even if there is enough work to spread throughout the performers currently in the industry, it won’t make for a survivable salary,” he reckons. “Perhaps there will be a refocus on education from the big companies, and that will allow for some more financial stability, but realistically, apart from the 1 percent of stars in the opera industry, I think many of us will be looking to other revenue streams.”

Scottish Opera’s La Bohème runs in Glasgow from September 8 to 16