An Interview with Met Opera Bassist Leigh Mesh
Leigh Mesh is associate principal bass at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. His wife Nancy Wu is associate concertmaster. They’ve been playing in the orchestra for a combined 58 years, and have both been making do without their regular incomes since March 31. On June 1, in the New York Times, the Met announced its earliest planned date for resuming performances would be New Year’s Eve, 2020. If that goes ahead, Met orchestra musicians, stagehands, and chorus members will have gone a total of nine months without pay. “With the latest news of an extended shutdown and the orchestra continuing to be furloughed, we fear that our members will be prevented from supporting their families, communities and the local economy with what they do best, make music,” said Brad Gemeinhardt, the third horn with the ensemble and a member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra committee, in an email. With that in mind, I spoke with Mesh about his financial future, the Met’s crisis communications, and the prospect of changing careers.
VAN: How’s it going for you guys, financially?
Leigh Mesh: It’s OK at the moment. Things will change, and then we’ll reevaluate. But it really depends on one’s own personal finances, and if you have any savings or not.
Last time we talked, you said that you have money set aside for about four to six months. A reopening on New Year’s Eve will be cutting that pretty close.
Yeah. And I didn’t actually quite put it together and realize that that extra $600 a week will end in July. That’s going to change things, for sure. That’s the extra, additional unemployment benefit that people are getting through Congress, in addition to the $504 normal rate.
That’s not very much money.
No. It’s not a lot of money. And my information is coming from the Times, which is interesting.
Does that mean you also found out about the planned New Year’s reopening through the Times, and not through the Met’s management?
Correct, yes. I had heard murmurs of it. Peter Gelb definitely, when speaking to the orchestra, alluded to the fact that it would be very difficult to open in the fall. But he didn’t give us specific news. I learned about all the specifics in the paper.
How did that feel?
I’m talking personally, but I’m irked at finding out what happens in my workplace in the media. I’m particularly irked at the particulars of what our online gala brought in. [The Met has raised $60 million in the past two months, including through the gala. The orchestra musicians and singers who participated were not paid. —Ed.] Peter Gelb was asked repeatedly about that information, and he refused to tell us. We learned about it in the Times.
I really wish communication with the company would be much different than it is. I don’t know that would have really changed anything. Certainly what the gala earned is a drop in the bucket. But just in this time, it doesn’t feel good. Morale is pretty low.
Your wife Nancy Wu is the associate concertmaster of the orchestra. That means you’re losing two incomes at the same time.
Yes, true. But we’re also in a good position because we’ve had two incomes. We have savings, and we’re also receiving two unemployment checks. It puts us in a better position. But losing the extra benefit now will really cut our earnings, and I imagine lots of people are going to be in trouble.
Have you considered changing career tacks: teaching, or even performing with another orchestra?
Each person’s situation is really specific to them. Nancy and I have been playing for a long time. Even though I feel young, I’m not [laughs]. I’ve played 27 and a half years at the Met. Nancy has played in the Met for 30 years. So we have options. To me, going to another orchestra is really not an option, full time. Certainly we could move to teaching full time if a position became available that worked for us.
Our other big option is retirement. We’d get our pensions. There have been quite a few colleagues that have done that right at this time. They’ve been thinking about retiring anyway, and they’re going to make their pension immediately, instead of not receiving any pay. So definitely people who are in that position are considering it, and I feel very fortunate to be in that position. But it’s not how you want to end your career in the Met orchestra.
Has Yannick Nézet-Séguin been in touch with you guys regularly as the crisis continues?
No. We have not heard from him in quite a while. He sent us a video message on April 16.
In the Times, Gelb said, “It’s transparently obvious that social distancing and grand opera cannot go together.” Do you wish that the Met would be more proactive in terms of organizing socially-distanced performances, or do you agree with Gelb?
To open up the Met and have a smaller audience with distance—how do you do that? How do we play in the pit? How are works performed? Sitting in the pit, I’m seeing spit spraying into the pit from singers all the time [laughs]. It just does not work. I do agree with that.
When we last talked, in April, we didn’t know how long this was going to last. Now we have a definite idea. Does that change the way you’re thinking about this crisis?
Yeah. It’s much better to have a date, rather than to really not know, even though the date is a long ways away. Personally, I’m also a little bit skeptical that it may start on their planned date: it’s projected, not definite. We still don’t know what’s going to happen. Our country is exploding on pretty much every level. Look, I hope it actually will happen. I’m also prepared that it could be longer, and it could even be the entire season. ¶
Correction: an earlier version of this story misstated the amount of the special unemployment benefit passed by Congress. It is $600 per week, not $600 per month.