1 Nov 2020

Jonathan Lemalu - Boosting pacific artists

From Standing Room Only, 4:35 pm on 1 November 2020

Grammy-award-winning bass Jonathan Lemalu is a top international opera singer, but like most other artists based in Europe he's in lockdown due to Covid-19, and hasn't seen a live audience in months. And like other artists he's thinking of new and innovative ways to keep sharing his work.

Lemalu is the campaign champion for the Boosted X Moana fund, backed by Creative New Zealand and designed to raise about $50,000 towards 15 Pacific art projects, which is nearing its end next week.   

He talked to Standing Room Only.

No caption

Photo: Jonathan Lemalu

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

"I'm currently in London in my living room, not doing any performing on any theatre or concert stage, as is the way over this side of the world. I'll try not to cry... I basically haven't really worked since the end of February apart from one recent production. So, it hasn't been the best of years.

"Mentally, more than anything I really feel like I've lost an identity in a way, I've lost that kind of adrenaline, that performance identity as someone who goes to work and entertains. And I think the repercussions for all artists or creative people is going to be long into the future, I think it's pretty brutal to be honest."

At the very beginning, Lemalu says the idea of a break for a few weeks was a relief for many, but as the disruption has stretched into many months it has become increasingly serious and alarming.

"As the weeks and months drew out you started to realise 'ok, this is really serious', and now I see lots of Europe has gone back into essentially complete lockdown. London hasn't really figured out what to do with itself."

"I almost feel it's been going on so long that a lot of us have forgotten or thought 'that's that thing that happened in March', like a tornado that's blown over, we can go back to pack the pubs and restaurant. Whereas I actually think that if we all do essentially what New Zealand did, globally we're all in awe of what you've done in terms of just really taking a hard line, really got on with it, and I think you're really reaping the rewards.

Jonathan Lemalu (right), rehearsing  "Idomeneo" during the Salzburg Festival in Austria, in 2019.

Jonathan Lemalu (right), rehearsing Mozart's "Idomeneo" during the Salzburg Festival in Austria, last year. Photo: AFP

He says there's at least 100, if not 150 New Zealand singers who are part of the opera world in Europe at the moment.

"I know the students, a lot of which I see coming through the guild hall where I teach, they're pouring through, and I guess it's trying to remain optimistic for them... if you're struggling to go into a business that doesn't seem to quiet exist, it's trying to maintain positivity and optimism, when actually I'm thinking 'I'm screwed', so it's a tricky situation right now."

But artists are finding ways to continue their work, Lemalu says. He regularly walks past the rehearsal space for the London Symphony Orchestra - which is often a car park or marquee, depending on the weather.

"I think everyone's really having to think outside whatever normal is or was, but the passion's still there. Creative people, we're creative."

He says the Boosted X Moana project is a bright note in this year's darkness. The Aotearoa-based Pasifika artists taking part pitch their project online, and if they reach a goal fundraising amount can have part of their funds matched.

"I think it's Aotearoa's only crowd-funding source for creatives...  it really sprung up, and I think New Zealanders have really taken it to heart. I know the Pasifika community has as well as New Zealand artists in general.

No caption

Photo: Supplied.

"I just love the fact that it seems like a game show in a cool way - if we don't get behind these people then they might miss that opportunity, and I think there's a certain amount of adrenaline. And there's some fantastic things coming through.

"It's almost a catalogue of what New Zealand's up to, and regardless of whether you're a New Zealander or Pacific Islander some of this stuff is just globally at a really high level, and I think outside the box in a way, which I think this pandemic stuff asks you to look outside your normality and see if there are opportunities to be creative."

The projects have four days left in their campaign to reach their goals.  

"I feel it's a really great community venture, it's trying to get people to look after each other, who are trying to look after themselves, who are trying to give something back.

"It's boosted.org.nz it's just a really nice smorgasbord of what new Zealand is up to. It's a celebration of Pacific arts in New Zealand, it's not necessarily your large institutions or established creative artists, it's real grass roots and real people. A bilingual comic book, I totally get that; Black Grace [dance troupe]- I know they're established, but they're wanting to create a mobile stage to give free concerts, so it's not just about making money, which I think's really cool. It's about creating art and being still viable."

Lemalu says he's both excited and nervous for the future for arts, living in a world affected by Covid.

"With the creativity comes spontaneous opportunities, there's a lot more questions than answers, and I think there are some really dark times, which is why something like Boost can be a ray of light."