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Gen Y Speaks: I was a conductor in opera houses around the world till Covid-19 hit. Now I deliver food in S'pore

For several years, I worked as a conductor based in Russia, specialising in opera and ballet, and performing around the world, winning some accolades along the way. Today, I am a food delivery rider for Foodpanda.

Gen Y Speaks: I was a conductor in opera houses around the world till Covid-19 hit. Now I deliver food in S'pore

The author has been working for Foodpanda for two months since returning to Singapore. The photo on the left, courtesy of the author, shows him conducting at the St Petersburg Imperial Capella.

For several years, I worked as a conductor based in Russia, specialising in opera and ballet, and performing around the world, winning some accolades along the way.

Today, I am a food delivery rider for Foodpanda.

After finishing my national service, I won a scholarship in 2011 to study music in London before moving to Saint Petersburg in Russia with an FJ Benjamin-Singapore Symphony Orchestra bursary to complete my postgraduate studies in conducting in 2013.

I was a prize winner at several conducting competitions, and an assistant conductor to leading French conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and BBC Philharmonic. 

I was also the first foreign Asian and Singaporean assistant conductor of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre, near Russia’s Ural mountains, which ranks just behind the famous Mariinsky and Bolshoi Theatres in Russia, and to open the Linkhovoin Opera Festival in Russia on its 80th anniversary. 

Before the Covid-19 outbreak, I was the permanent guest conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre North Ossetia-Alania Branch, a well-known theatre in south-western Russia just across the border from Georgia, and a Riccardo Muti conducting fellow at the Spring Festival in Tokyo – Tokyo Opera Nomori. 

The author at the International Musical Olympus in June 2019 at the Saint Petersburg Imperial Capella. Photo courtesy of Chiya Amos

I was usually well booked as I travelled from engagement to engagement, working with opera houses, ballet companies, and orchestras in Russia and Europe.

As performance venues went into lockdown and closure, I had no engagements nor cancellation fee for more than 10 months, and started to take on other jobs such as teaching music privately and in seminars online over Zoom. 

Even though restrictions began to ease throughout Europe at the end of last year, the majority of orchestras started to opt for local conductors, and at the same time, promote new and upcoming young homegrown conductors instead of inviting foreign guest conductors like myself.

With the second wave of Covid-19 hitting many parts of the world late last year and having used up my savings, as well as feeling homesick, I decided to look for suitable jobs back home in Singapore.

The author being applauded after conducting an opera at the 80th Linhovoin Opera Festival in Russia in October 2019, where he became the first foreign conductor to open the festival. Photo courtesy of Chiya Amos

I returned in December, and despite applying for more than 40 jobs, including sales, management, and academic positions, I received rejections from every single one of them. 

As I have been overseas for many years, I was also ineligible for any government relief schemes in Singapore.

Facing financial instability, I found myself feeling depressed and anxious. I was constantly feeling frustrated and dejected.

Wanting to do something more useful, I applied to deliver food for Foodpanda, and have been doing so since January.

Working eight to 10 hour shifts four to five times a week is extremely tiring and can be dangerous as we rush between deliveries, especially during the rainy days as we work rain or shine.

It has been only two months, but I have sprained both ankles and a wrist in a couple of small accidents on my second-hand kick scooter, as I did not have a budget for a bicycle.

I often receive a huge smile and a “thank you so very much” after a delivery, and occasionally those to whom I deliver food offer me a cold drink and some snacks on a hot day. 

The author with his wife, Karina Kuzmicheva, during a delivery break. She sometimes accompanies him on his deliveries to offer him moral support. Photo: Nuria Ling / TODAY

Because of the gratitude I have received, and the different perspectives and insights while encountering people in different situations and from all walks of life, I have grown more introspective, and developed a clearer sense of purpose.

Having others appreciating us delivery riders bolsters our self-esteem, and in turn gives us greater self-acceptance which improves our emotional well-being. 

This job has given me a lot more courage, strength, happiness, and also made me feel calmer and more contented, knowing that I have continued to bring a little joy to people’s lives, just as I used to do through music.

The job is about the money, but at the same time it has brought me back to my roots and reminded me that it is about doing something good while you are at it. 

The author (front row, fourth from left) after conducting the ballet Don Quixote at the Buryat Opera and Ballet Theatre with a combined cast of Japanese and Russian ballet dancers in 2018. He says he hopes to return to conducting soon. Photo courtesy of Chiya Amos

As my mentor, the great Italian conductor Riccardo Muti once said: “Music is important not because it is an entertainment. Music is not only a profession but is a mission. That is why we do this work. A mission to make society better.”

It is a common misconception that conductors, or maestros, live in our musical ivory towers, impervious to the outside world.

A maestro is also a cultural worker. Like everyone else, we have been affected by the global pandemic. Many of us performing artists constantly face new challenges and hardship while we try to continue our passion in music. 

We are all fearful for our future and, while some of us are already back on stage, many still face the complex challenge of performing in a socially-distanced set-up and venue, while others who are still not able to resume due to the restrictions in place have taken up other jobs to tide us over in these extraordinary times.

Nevertheless, I still continue to explore opportunities in the music sector in Singapore, such as organising a workshop to share the art of operatic and ballet conducting with a live ensemble, and continuing to give masterclasses and seminars in creative practice.

I am optimistic that the decrease in new infections around the world will continue, while the global vaccine rollout will continue to increase.

Opera houses in Russia and Europe have begun to open again, and even though things will not be the same as they were before any time soon, I hope that the governments around the world will understand that the performing arts are the spiritual sustenance we all need.

Despite the restrictions, there is a glimmer of hope for me to return to performing, as I am still engaged to make my operatic debut at the Spring Festival in Tokyo with Verdi’s Macbeth in April, and also a series of operas at the Mariinsky Theatre North Ossetia-Alania. 

Conductors are in many ways citizens of the world, but Singapore still remains home to me. I hope that the country will be a place to provide opportunities for me to develop and nurture my skills.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Chiya Amos, 30, is a Singaporean conductor specialising in opera and ballet.

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career music Covid-19 food delivery Foodpanda

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