Ekaterina Levental on corona: ‘If need be, I’ll make myself useful in other ways, without looking back in anger’

The financial damage caused by the corona crisis is enormous, and the end is not yet in sight. The Dutch website Theaterkrant assembles the stories behind the figures in their series ‘corona practices’. How do freelancers manage? Do they still have work and income? For this series I interviewed singer, harpist and theatre maker Ekaterina Levental of LEKS Company and Duo Bilitis.

Ekaterina Levental (c) Richard Smit

Ekaterina Levental (Tashkent, 1977) came to the Netherlands as a refugee in 1993. The increasingly open anti-Semitism in Uzbekistan had made her parents decide to leave the country. In Israel they were ostracized like inferior skunks, in Moscow they were deprived of their last pennies, in Sweden more humiliations followed. It was only in the Netherlands that they finally found the much hoped-for safe haven; Ekaterina was 16 years old.

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With admirable perseverance Levental made her way from her position as an underdog to the top of Dutch musical life. She sang at Dutch National Opera and formed the successful Duo Bilitis with fellow singer and harp player Eva Tebbe. Together with her partner Chris Koolmees she moreover started LEKS Company, which specialises in small-scale music theatre.

They tour along chic theatres, upgraded barns and everything in between. LEKS Company gained fame with successful one-woman productions such as the trilogy De grens (The border), De Weg (The Journey) and Schoppenvrouw (Queen of Spades), inspired by her own life, and with classics such as La voix humaine by Poulenc.

‘When Prime Minister Rutte announced the closure of the theatres on 11 March 2020, I understood that I was on the eve of an historic disaster’ recalls Ekaterina Levental. ‘I have been fascinated by epidemics since childhood. “Now the time has come!”, was my first thought when I heard about the lockdown. In practice this meant that all the performances with LEKS Company and Duo Bilitis, and my tour with Holland Opera were cancelled in one fell swoop.’

Financially, the damage initially seemed to be manageable: ‘Holland Opera paid for all fifteen cancelled performances, and some thirty concerts with our own LEKS Company were largely rescheduled. But for a considerable part of the cancellations a new date has still not been set.’

In terms of compensation, Holland Opera stands out favourably: ‘A very limited number of stages have been able to compensate us in part or in full. One offered 100 per cent, another 90, another 50, and finally there was another organisation that gave 40 per cent, the rest wasn’t able to provide any compensation at all.’

It is striking that in general not the large, richly subsidised institutions generously flashed their wallets. ‘Small venues in particular empathized with our situation and assured us of their own accord that we could come back another time. This continuity is the most important thing for us at the moment, but of course we faced a considerable loss of income.’

Levental is not the type to sit back, and immediately looked for other possibilities. ‘As early as 2017 the pianist Frank Peters and I had conceived the plan to record Nikolay Medtner’s complete song oeuvre. We were about to present our first CD in a series of five, Incantation. When that could not go ahead, we found an alternative in a well-received live stream. In the meantime we have made the second CD and the third one is on its way.’

Opera2day offered yet another opportunity: ‘At their request we made La Voix Humaine en quarantaine, a version of Poulenc’s one act opera tailored to the corona situation. They also commissioned us to make the mini-movie Lost in Isolation, based on our Queen of Spades, which can be accessed online.’

A gift from heaven came from Dick Verdult: ‘He offered me a role in his film Als uw gat maar lacht (As long as your butt smiles). That was a very special experience, which also provided some financial relief. For the rest, I threw myself into self-study and preparations for projects with LEKS Company and Duo Bilitis. – I think I worked harder than ever during the corona crisis.’

For the rest she kept her head above water thanks to her savings. ‘I’ve never had a permanent job and have never taken it for granted ever being able to earn a steady income. So for years I have been saving with the thought that worse times might lay ahead. It’s always in the back of my mind how at 16 I came to the Netherlands as a refugee. The fact that I am allowed to be on the stage and earn my money with singing and performing is still not a matter of course for me.’

The emergency situation also gave Levental more insight into her own personality: ‘The corona crisis taught me that I don’t want to feel sorry for myself and that in situations like this I naturally enter the survival mode with which I am so familiar from my background. – Which is very beautiful on one side, but really sad on the other. I have realized that by nature I do not assume anyone would want to support me as an “artist”, it astonishes me when colleagues dare make demands. But at the same time I suddenly understood that I can learn from this to look more realistically at the importance of me and my sector in society.’

Has she, like other freelancers in the cultural world, considered looking for a different job? Levental: ‘This question has occupied me all my life. I experience it as a miracle that all these years I have been able to support myself thanks to my performances and even save money from them. In case worst comes to worst, I won’t hesitate to take on a different job: when doors close, I look whether a window might be open. If the need really arises, I will make myself useful for society in other ways. – Without looking back in anger.’

This article appeared in Dutch on Theaterkrant on 24 November 2020.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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