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Clara Osowski: ‘Singing to 20 people and 50 birds made a difference’

She has started performing again; she recently sang the role of Mrs. Herring in Minnesota Opera’s filmed version of Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring.”

A still from the "Prayer for a Quiet Country" video, a song from "Haunted Blue."
Clara Osowski in a still from the "Prayer for a Quiet Country" video, a song from "Haunted Blue."
Screen shot

Before March 2020, mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski was doing just fine. The North Dakota-born, Minneapolis-based artist had won important prizes in Germany, London and Montréal, received a McKnight Artist Fellowship for Musicians and released her debut CD, “Haunted Blue,” with jazz composer and pianist Jeremy Walker.

An active soloist and chamber musician throughout the United States and Europe, she had sung with many orchestras and in numerous recitals including the Schubert Club’s International Artist Series. The Source Song Festival, a week-long art song festival she co-founded with pianist Mark Bilyeu, was in its sixth year, and she was a member of the Florida-based, Grammy-nominated Seraphic Fire vocal ensemble.

More than a year later, Osowski is still doing fine, but she’s not the same. She’s fully vaccinated against COVID-19. She has started performing again; she recently sang the role of Mrs. Herring in Minnesota Opera’s filmed version of Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring,” which will begin streaming on demand tomorrow (Saturday, May 22) for free, and in June she’ll sing Schubert on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. But her priorities have changed. She has learned things about herself.

We spoke by Zoom earlier this week. As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.

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MinnPost: Take us back to March 2020. What did the year look like for you?

Clara Osowski: In the two weeks leading up to the shutdown, I did the three things that I’m known for doing, and it was like my career was totally happening.

I did a chamber music concert in New York on March 1 at OPERA America. Then I flew to Milwaukee and did the Bach B-Minor Mass with the Bel Canto Chorus. Then, on March 13, when everything shut down, I was doing an ensemble gig with Seraphic. Those three things – chamber music, orchestral music and ensemble music – are everything I was building a career on.

I got home from Miami as fast as I could and quarantined for two weeks. My brother is a virologist, and he saw this coming and prepared me. When I was in New York, he called me and said, “You know, if you’re on the subway, you should be wearing a mask,” and I was like, “Ok, Lance, I’ll listen to you for a little bit.”

When I got home, I saw that Source Song was producing something at Psycho Suzie’s. I had to make the call and say, “We can’t do this” because I had my brother in my ear.

Then a recital on March 31 with my pianist, Tyler Wottrich, was canceled. To memorize almost two hours’ worth of music and have it canceled was a blow. The recital was in Eau Claire, so I had some hope it would still happen because it was local, but I knew better because of my brother. Then a symphony gig in Mobile, Alabama, got canceled, and Seraphic Fire got canceled.

Clara Osowski as Mrs. Herring in "Albert Herring."
Flight Creative Media
Clara Osowski as Mrs. Herring in "Albert Herring."
That month, we would wake up to cancellations, and it would be a roller coaster because there would be cancellations and no mention of payment or reimbursement of travel or fees, but then sometimes another organization would pop up and say “Hey, we’re gonna pay you anyway.” I saw at least $35,000 disappear. Luckily, I have had unemployment and I’m pretty stable and I had a nest egg saved up, and I live in Minnesota, not New York. And my parents [in Hastings] plant a big garden.

In the future, I don’t know if I want to work for an organization that forgot to reimburse me.

MP: Did you make pandemic plans?

CO: At first, I thought, “I’m going to study Russian, I’m going to commission all these things, I’m going to record five albums.” And my brother said, “You’re going to come up with all these projects, but you want to make sure that after a year is up, you don’t look up from your computer screen and say, ‘What just happened?’”

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I filled my calendar with recording projects. I felt safe going into the studio because I could stay separate from the pianist, who wore a mask. I also took it upon myself to use the testing in Minnesota, like the Minnesota Opera did, and the Minnesota Orchestra. We have the best testing in the nation, so I took advantage of that.

MP: Did you stay in Minneapolis the whole time?

CO: I went out to my parents’ for two months to make sure they could figure out how to do grocery shopping online. Whenever it was legal, I went fishing with my dad. I fished in Minnesota in every season.

My brother invited me to Maryland, so I drove out and we went hiking. I hiked part of the Appalachian Trail. Then he ended up moving to Amsterdam for a new job, so I drove out, again, moved all his stuff out of his condo into a trailer and moved him home.

MP: What did you do that you normally wouldn’t? I’ve seen some Mark Rothko cross-stitches on your Instagram.

CO: It’s something I did in high school. A lot of my friends on the road knit, and I needed something to do with my hands that wasn’t looking at my phone, so I started cross-stitching again.

Being on the road a lot, I didn’t get to connect with my friends and family much, so whenever I worked on a cross-stitch piece, it felt like I was spending time with them. It was a way to keep connected to some people. It still is. Giving people a cross-stitched gift is pretty awesome. It’s almost like singing for them.

So I did a lot of cross-stitching. I hiked. I ran a 10K, which kept me from gaining 15 pounds. I only gained, like, 10. [Laughs.]

I was extra careful, and I made sure to connect with some of my friends who were older, if they didn’t have anyone they knew for sure was being careful. I like going for walks and found different hiking spots here. That was my thing with people. If you wanted to meet with me, I would not sit inside anywhere. I didn’t want to take my mask off. So we walked.

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I also did some organizing of [VocalEssence founder] Philip Brunelle’s art song catalog. I sang for VocalEssence for five years. I knew Philip was being safe. He was at Plymouth Congregational Church, and I’m near the Minneapolis Institute of Art, so I could walk there. He has about 9,000 art songs and they’ve never been cataloged, so I put everything in a spreadsheet with voicing, composer, and poet. That was really fruitful.

MP: Was there anything special you did to keep yourself motivated?

CO: I didn’t force myself to watch everything, consume everything. There were times when I would scroll past something and it would stop me, and then I would sit down with it and watch it. I found supporting my friends by buying a ticket was enough. I didn’t have to sit and watch what they were doing. We talked about it. My friends were like, “Did you actually watch it? No? That’s totally fine.”

Things that stopped me in my tracks were art song commissions and performances, some of the Schubert Club programs, especially the Border CrosSing courtroom concert [in February]. Something new and honest, not super-showy. Those would motivate me and inspire me.

Honestly, it was the learning and the curiosity behind Philip’s art song catalog. I would come across an art song and be like, “OK, I’m gonna put a star on this, so when I have free time, I’ll sing through it.” And sometimes I’d sing through one and be like, “I can’t, because I’m sobbing, because I’m never going to work again!” Other times I’d be like, “Yeah, I can see doing this in my next recital,” or it would spur a program idea.

Philip had a bunch of unpublished things, and that would lead me into asking more questions.

MP: We were already in a pandemic, and then George Floyd was murdered by police. How did that affect you personally?

CO: You realize what it feels like to be terrorized. The riot in Uptown was on one side of me, and the other was the Target I would go to on Lake Street. I knew for my parents to feel better, I had to get outside the cities. So I left and went to my parents’.

Feeling terrorized was new for me. It made me more empathetic.

The [Derek Chauvin] trial was during our Minnesota Opera rehearsals. I would drive by the courthouse during the trail to go to work. I couldn’t believe the National Guard presence. It’s hard to be relevant when you’re a professional singer, and you wonder how much service you’re actually providing when the system is so broken. I’m still very ignorant of a lot of things other people experience.

MP: Has the Minnesota Opera’s “Benjamin Britten” opened another door for you? Do you want to sing more opera?

CO: Over five or six solid years, I auditioned for every young artist program I had available in my schedule, and nobody ever said yes. So I went instead where people said yes, and it was never opera. That was fine at the time, because I started doing competitions, and I really love art song. But no one in the opera world said yes until about three months ago.

I’m very happy it happened, and I know it’s a very demanding thing, being an opera singer, going for six-week contracts at a time. I don’t think I got the whole gist of it because I didn’t have to travel. But it’s fun, and it’s a different type of relationship with your colleagues, because you’re spending so much time on stage with them. So I hope this will lead to more opera work.

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MP: What was it like to step on stage at the Ordway?

CO: Incredible! It was not lost on me that I was not alone. There were upwards of 30 to 40 people on the stage. It was terrifying but also so encouraging because we knew that all the safety precautions were in place, and everyone was so committed to the process.

In opera, everybody is working for one common goal. That was amplified 1,000 times because everyone had to stay safe. It was teamwork to the max.

Being able to spend time with people from the community, in the community, making music together after such a drought … We’ve all been home for a year, but it felt like a homecoming.

Clara Osowski in the studio recording "Haunted Blue."
Courtesy of the artist
Clara Osowski in the studio recording "Haunted Blue."
MP: What has been your biggest challenge over the past 14 months?

CO: Finding some way to put my purpose into something, whether that was advocacy for music, or cleaning a friend’s apartment, or cross-stitching something for someone. It was like – why am I still here? Because singing is such an immediate service to people and I needed to feel useful. So the biggest challenge was to wake up every day and figure out, “What am I going to do today that makes me feel like I have purpose?”

Live streams are the worst of both worlds because you are being recorded. Whatever mistake happens is there in perpetuity. You’re doing live music but getting zero energy back because there’s no audience. That’s why I didn’t do a lot of livestreams. I only did a very, very few because I just knew that wasn’t how I wanted to make music.

I did an outdoor concert at my parents’ house in October. They invited their neighbors, who don’t know a lot of classical music. I sang a couple of Schubert songs and I sang a Libby Larsen piece. I sang [Samuel] Barber’s “A Green Lowland of Pianos,” because we were outdoors and I thought, “Well, we don’t have to suspend disbelief anymore.”

I sang a tango of Libby’s. And the Litany from John Musto’s “Shadow of the Blues,” because it talks about lifting up the sick and the tired in this humble city. [The lyrics are by Langston Hughes.] That was pretty special at the time.

The concert brought some people together. My parents have neighbors that are not of the same political affiliation. They wandered over and they were masked, and it was like – this is what’s possible. Those little bits of purpose changed my way of thinking and kept me going. Those things were possible and they happened, so even just singing to 20 people and 50 birds made a difference.

MP: Was there something important you learned about yourself during this year?

CO: I budgeted, and I figured out what the bare minimum is for me to live on. Knowing exactly what I need means I don’t have to take every gig, and I can focus on those that mean a lot to me personally or organizations that have done things for the arts community.

A different value is put on gigs now, and I’m glad to have learned that. We [musicians] often subscribe to “Is it good music? Is it good people? Is it good pay?” If you have two of the three, you usually take the gig. Now there’s a fourth pillar: “Is it a good organization? Do they care about musicians?”

I think going forward, that’s a really healthy thing to think about. I’m eager to get back to work, but I’m not here just to make money. That’s what I’ve learned.