SALT LAKE CITY — The coronavirus was a problem for Wendy Bryn Harmer before it became a pandemic.
The opera singer, who lives in New York City, was booked for 2020. In January and February, she’d be in Japan. In March, she’d travel to Hong Kong. In April and May she’d perform at the Metropolitan Opera. In the summer she’d join New York’s Chautauqua Festival.
It was all lined up. But then, like a row of dominoes, her schedule began to collapse. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, her January flight to Japan got canceled — 12 hours before takeoff. Hong Kong was also canceled. And then the Met shut down in mid-March.
Eventually, everything was canceled.
So Harmer has been home, largely unemployed, for several months now. Her husband, a corporate real estate attorney, has been working from home. Her kids are also at home, attending school remotely.
While the opera singer said her income isn’t necessarily needed month-to-month, it still gets used on a monthly basis. Projects like renovating their 110-year-old home are now indefinitely postponed.
“I’m lucky because I have a spouse that has a normal job,” she told the Deseret News via a recent Zoom call. “But I don’t know an American artist who is not genuinely concerned about paying their mortgage — I don’t know a single American artist who is gainfully employed, beyond a tiny gig here and there. I have a lot of good friends who are leaving the business altogether, going back to school to become lawyers, journalists.”
I think if the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that America does not value education or the arts. — Wendy Bryn Harmer
Harmer had already planned to be at home in New York this season — she just thought she’d be performing regularly at the Met. Over the years, the opera singer has sung at the Metropolitan Opera House more than anywhere else. She had a full schedule lined up there for the 2020-21 season. But as of now, the opera house is closed until fall 2021.
But there’s at least one opera gig that, surprisingly, remains intact.
With drastic changes and safety precautions in place, the soprano has flown out from New York City to take the Utah Opera stage Oct. 9-18 for a small-scale, one-woman production titled “The Human Voice.” It’ll mark her Utah Opera debut.
And it’s her way of helping to keep the arts alive during the pandemic.
Harmer is no stranger to Utah. She last visited Utah in January, for her dad’s funeral. The funeral came a few years after her mom’s passing. Both deaths were sudden, following short illnesses.
But being back in Utah this time around feels different.
“It’s very weird to be in Utah and not go home,” the singer said. “If I was coming to Utah to see my parents, it felt like I was coming home. This is the first time I’ve been to Utah and didn’t refer to to it as, ‘I’m going home.’”
But Harmer still has siblings here. And she has people who were her mentors, people who sensed her passion for the arts and inspired her at a young age to pursue that path.
Although born in Roseville, California, the singer grew up in Bountiful. For a time, her large family — Harmer is the youngest of 10 — lived up Mueller Park Canyon, just east of the Bountiful Temple. They hiked Elephant Rock just about every week.
In their home, a grand piano was one of the first things you’d see. Everyone played an instrument — there was a cello, flute and violin, and an organ in the basement. Harmer and her siblings sang in the Salt Lake Children’s Choir, under Ralph Woodward’s instruction. Music was part of their lives to the extent that practicing the flute was on Harmer’s chore chart.
But even though she was in choir, and had taken flute lessons from University of Utah music professor Susan Goodfellow for about a decade, Harmer didn’t think she’d take the professional music route. She was actually interested in forensics — especially fingerprint and blood spatter analysis.
“That’s honestly where I thought I was gonna go,” she said with a laugh. “Music, I’d probably do it in college, but it wasn’t going to be my degree, despite my parents having invested tens of thousands in dollars in flute lessons. But that wasn’t the point. The point was, ‘You are good at this and you can enjoy it. You don’t have to do it as a job, you can enjoy it.”
But when Goodfellow saw Harmer perform in a high school musical, the professor noticed her student clearly had a passion for performing, and told Harmer to look into it. So the budding artist did some research and ended up at the Boston Conservatory. From there, her music career began to fall in place.
“I don’t know how it happened, but in two years, I was suddenly an opera singer,” Harmer said. “I couldn’t have replicated it if I tried.”
Harmer was on a family vacation in San Diego when she got the call from the Met. The recent graduate was in the backseat of the car with her sister, Miriam, when she learned she’d be joining the Met’s young artist development program.
“My dad turned to my mom, and I still remember him saying, ‘She got it! She got it!’ Harmer recalled with a smile. “And then I stayed at the Met forever.”
The singer was 24 when she made her Metropolitan Opera debut, a small role in the “Marriage of Figaro.” To date, Harmer has performed on that stage 250 times. It’s a job she’s passionate about, but there are times when, in her words, it’s not “sunshine and rainbows.”
“My livelihood depends on two tiny, tiny flaps of muscle that no one can see, and that sleep interferes with, caffeine interferes with,” she said. “If I have a head cold, either I have to muscle through it and be miserable, or I don’t get paid.”
It’s a situation made all the worse by the pandemic. Originally, Harmer was taking the female lead in Utah Opera’s production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” — a role she said she could “roll out of bed and sing.” But it’s a large production that has more than 50 people in the chorus alone. And it’s an expensive production — one that wouldn’t be particularly cost effective since the Capitol Theatre, which seats around 2,000, is only allowing a capacity of 300 for each performance right now.
“If you’re not selling your entire house, you just can’t do it,” Harmer said.
So instead, Utah Opera did a major overhaul of its season, replacing “The Flying Dutchman” with two smaller-scale operas — Francis Poulenc’s “The Human Voice,” centered on a woman’s final phone conversation with her former lover, and Joseph Horovitz’s “Gentleman’s Island,” a tale of two shipwrecked men.
Harmer had to learn her role relatively quickly — the production change went into effect about a month and a half ago.
But during a time when most concert halls and venues remain shut down, the singer isn’t taking the opportunity to do any kind of performing arts lightly. After all, most of the artists she knows haven’t been able to find work during the pandemic.
“It’s a shame because America just does not have the systemic support for the arts that other countries do,” she said. “It’s very telling that heaven and earth was moved to save the NBA, but schools are still scrambling. Heaven and earth has been moved to save the Big Ten college football season, and my kids are still in remote learning. I think if the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that America does not value education or the arts.”
She knows she’s lucky to perform with Utah Opera at this time. She’s never tired of taking the stage during her 15-year career, and the pandemic has only intensified that feeling, making those moments all the more special.
“There are days when I walk into the Met and it feels like I’m punching my card,” she said. “But I have never felt that on the stage — ever. The stage is always magical.”