• andreasachs1

A Renaissance Man in Pandemic Times

Updated: Nov 19, 2021


At Cafe Luxembourg in Manhattan in February, 2020. One of Fred’s last opportunities to dine out before the pandemic took hold
At Cafe Luxembourg in Manhattan in February, 2020. One of Fred’s last opportunities to dine out before the pandemic took hold



We at The Insider are honored to have published renowned cultural (opera, classical music, culinary and travel) expert Fred Plotkin’s marvelous video interview series, Fred Plotkin on Fridays, for more than a year now. As this rhapsodic profile by WNYC, America’s most-listened-to public radio station shows, Fred is widely considered an authority with unique access to luminaries and newsmakers in the arts. He has brought Insider readers in-depth conversations with leading cultural figures that are at once incisive and entertaining. Among our favorites are legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade; NPR Weekend host Michel Martin; travel expert Rick Steves; and Dominique Meyer, head of La Scala. Reading the following interview, Insiders will soon find that Fred is as compelling as the stars whom he interviews!



The Insider:

Hi Fred. When I look at your bio, it’s hard to know where to begin! You are considered one of the world’s great experts on opera and everything Italian. The president of Italy made you a Cavaliere della Stella d’Italia—the Italian equivalent of a knighthood—in 2015. You are the author of nine books, including Opera 101, Classical Music 101 and six books on Italian culinary culture. You have worked at more than 40 opera companies, including being a Fulbright Scholar at La Scala and Performance Manager of the Metropolitan Opera. You have a master’s in journalism from Columbia and have written for most of the top newspapers and magazines as well as being the lead opera writer at WQXR in New York and being the opera expert for New York Times Journeys. And I am sure there is a lot more I left out! Has your work life been greatly impacted by the pandemic?


Fred Plotkin:

Before the pandemic, I traveled constantly. It is the thing I love most and I constructed my career to include frequent travel. My travels included working at opera companies and festivals, teaching opera symposia for Times Journeys, giving some 50 lectures a year in the U.S. and Europe and doing research for my food writing. I hadn’t set foot off Manhattan Island since March 8, 2020 until I gave a lecture this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on October 23.


Fred with opera star Danielle de Niese at La Scala (September 2019)
Fred with opera star Danielle de Niese at La Scala (September 2019)
Fred with famed chef and author Julia Child in Sicily. The two cooked and ate together (early 1990s)
Fred with famed chef and author Julia Child in Sicily. The two cooked and ate together (early 1990s)

The Insider:

Wow! What a jolt not traveling must have been. But I bet you’ve found creative ways to go around that reality.


Fred Plotkin:

I did not want, when the pandemic finally eases or becomes a livable chronic situation, to say only that I washed my hands a lot. But I also did not want to get sick. I have known 18 people who have died of Covid-19 and more than 60 who have been infected. And I take care of an elderly relative who would be vulnerable to infection and I don’t allow anyone to enter the home.


Fred Plotkin—with Natalia Quintavalle, former Italian Consul General in New York--was made a Cavaliere (the Italian equivalent of a knighthood) for his services in spreading Italian culture in the world (December 2015)
Fred Plotkin—with Natalia Quintavalle, former Italian Consul General in New York--was made a Cavaliere (the Italian equivalent of a knighthood) for his services in spreading Italian culture in the world (December 2015)

Fred Plotkin with opera legend Jessye Norman. The two taught together at the University of Oxford (2015)
Fred Plotkin with opera legend Jessye Norman. The two taught together at the University of Oxford (2015)

The Insider:

That’s a tremendous number of friends and colleagues. I’m so sorry to hear that! But I know what you mean about not wanting to waste this period of time. How have you continued your opera work?


Fred Plotkin:

I realized that I have good interviewing skills and that many of the leading people in opera and classical music were unable to perform and, uncharacteristically, had a lot of time on their hands and no place to communicate. I was asked by Idagio.com, a German music streaming service--a really good one--to start a program. I called it Fred Plotkin on Fridays because they had Thomas Hampson on Thursdays and I liked the alliteration.


Tom is a wonderful singer and very intelligent man. I am not a singer but bring other abilities, including a journalist’s skills at research and interviewing. I actually began with Tom on April 24, 2020 and have kept up ever since. My next guests included great singers such as Christine Goerke, Ben Heppner, Julia Bullock and Ferruccio Furlanetto. I started with people I know. I have been working in opera since 1972, when I was 16, so I have quite the Rolodex. I have since added arts administrators, conductors, instrumentalists, writers, broadcasters and a couple of food and wine world people who like music.

Fred Plotkin at the Opera Ball in Vienna (2016)
Fred Plotkin at the Opera Ball in Vienna (2016)
Fred at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò of NYU, where he has led an Italian opera series since 2010 (2018)
Fred at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò of NYU in 2018, where he has led an Italian opera series since 2010
Fred with star tenor Roberto Alagna at N.Y.U. (January 2020)
Fred with star tenor Roberto Alagna at NYU (January 2020)
Fred was the opera advisor for Ron Howard’s 2019 documentary about Luciano Pavarotti
Fred was the opera advisor for Ron Howard’s 2019 documentary about Luciano Pavarotti
Fred enjoying a performance of Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm (November 2014)
Fred enjoying a performance of Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm (November 2014)

The Insider:

And Insider readers have been among the lucky recipients weekly! After a career of interviewing so many celebrated people in person, what’s it been like to meet and talk with them remotely?


Fred Plotkin:

I used Zoom before the pandemic for work meetings. And I have appeared a lot on TV, radio and in a couple of films, so I am at home in front of a camera. The key to being a good interviewer, apart from diligent preparation, is to really listen and then pick up that thread. I see so many interviewers, and have been interviewed by them, who have a list of questions that they ask no matter what the guest has already answered. I occasionally teach a class I created called “The Art of Listening.” Many people don’t realize that hearing and listening are not the same thing. I use music to teach listening to speech and conversation. And not just for journalism. I find it is essential for lawyers, negotiators, businesspeople, medical practitioners and educators. If I were to tell you I have one particular strength, it is that I am a superb listener.

Fred Plotkin at home in New York City in October, 2020, grounded by the Covid surge
Fred Plotkin at home in New York City in October, 2020, grounded by the Covid surge

The Insider:

We at The Insider who have watched many of your interviews can attest to that! Has the pandemic been a complicated time for performers?


Fred Plotkin:

It has been devastating. Musicians and actors appear in front of live audiences. If there cannot be public assembly, there cannot be work. I am not a musician or actor but I am a public speaker. I lost more than 50 gigs due to Covid. I was able to recoup a few by doing Zoom lectures. They were fine and I was glad for the work but there is nothing like a live audience. You feel them breathe, sigh, enthuse and--rarely, we hope--snooze. For musicians and actors, they work in that space that is a theater and they are fed energy by the audience. It is fine to practice on your own, but the reward is performance. I sought to do Fred Plotkin on Fridays not only for the intellectual stimulation and the intimacy of interacting with someone far away for an hour or two, but also because it is performance, which I love doing.


One more thing: I wanted to do this weekly program because I felt it was important to document the thoughts and brilliance of my guests, not focusing on the frustration of the pandemic but creating lasting documentation of what these people know. I hope these conversations will become educational tools for decades to come.


The Insider:

As a music and theater lover, are you ready to attend live performances yet?


Fred Plotkin:

I am hesitantly ready to attend live performances. I have been to three live events. I mask up. I have, of course, been vaccinated and I do my best to keep my distance. I only sit in aisle seats. I know that I crave the sound of live music, which, for the uninitiated, is not amplified with electronics in the opera house or concert hall. But I also am concerned about the Delta variant, the Mu variant and ones that have not yet been named. So I might stand in standing room in a theater and duck out if I feel uncomfortable.


The Insider:

In Manhattan, are these live performances beginning again, or have they been postponed because of Covid?


Fred Plotkin:

The Metropolitan Opera did a wonderful commemorative concert on Sept 11, 2021 of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem. It was broadcast on PBS though it was also attended live by an audience in the Metropolitan Opera house, including many relatives of those who died on 9/11. The Met opened Sept 27 with a premiere, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, and quickly followed with Boris Godunov, Turandot, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and next week Porgy and Bess. Carnegie Hall opened in early October with a rich calendar and the New York Philharmonic started its season around the same time. New York has many other venues, including City Center, the Town Hall, the 92nd Street Y, Symphony Space and more. They are all opening their doors and I encourage people to support them. Many of them have created very flexible exchange policies because of the unpredictability of the variants. But we should try to benefit while we can and hope for the best. And get vaccinated, of course.


The Insider:

You’re also a well-known author and expert on food and cooking, particularly Italian. Many amateur cooks have been seized by the cooking bug during the pandemic. Have you experienced that yourself? Are you working on any new food books now?



Fred Plotkin:

I can say in full disclosure that I was quite overweight in late 2018. In February, 2019 I embarked on a sane weight loss program--no gimmicks, no radical steps. By March 2020 I had lost a lot of weight and I vowed to keep it off. My health values, as measured by blood work and other ways, had radically improved. I knew that being locked down was dangerous in terms of weight management and I vowed to not ruin all that I had achieved. I also was cooking for my relative, who is a vegetarian who eats fish, aka pescatarian. My goal was to keep her healthy too because that is a necessary defense at a time when it was unsafe to go to doctors, and we did “telehealth” for non-emergencies.


I have always known about nutritional science and my previous books, mostly Italian, factored in the need for eating well, something the Italians do perhaps more than anyone else. I cooked from my books, [https://app.1000cookbooks.com/people/fred-plotkin] especially Recipes from Paradise: Life and Food on the Italian Riviera, which the New York Times named the best cookbook of 1997, The Authentic Pasta Book and La Terra Fortunata: The Splendid Food and Wine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. But I also developed many new recipes that are delicious and healthful. I have acquired a large audience of Facebook followers who see my photos of what I have prepared and I then post recipe guidelines.


Will I create a new cookbook? Perhaps. But it most definitely will not be a pandemic cookbook. I don’t want to hear that word again. It will be delicious and healthful eating. I kept the weight off until I got lazy last spring, when I too quickly put on 10 pounds (just under 5 kilos). But I knew how to take it off and did that slowly. By July I was back to my healthy weight. By the way, I have not eaten once in a restaurant since March 9, 2020.


From top to bottom: Handmade Ravioli di Ricotta from Capri; Handmade Tagliatelle al Ragù Bolognese; Irish Scrambled Eggs with Leeks and Irish Cheddar with Brown Bread; Minestrone;

Pan-Seared Wild Salmon with Quinoa; Florentine Pappa al Pomodoro; Cod Provençal; Insalata Caprese; Pan-Seared Scallops with Corn-Edamame Succotash; One-Bowl Smorgasbord; Mackerel Navarraise


The Insider:

That’s great! So many of us have gained the dread Covid 19 pounds.


Last question: where will you go first when you are able to travel again?


Fred Plotkin:

When I am able to traveI, I will get the first flight to Italy and head to Bologna. I will rent an apartment with a good kitchen and shop in that city’s glorious markets and cook twice a day. Within two hours of Bologna are at least a dozen great opera houses, so I can revel in that again. I miss Italy terribly. It is half my life.


The Insider:

Arrivederci! I hope that blessed post-pandemic day comes soon for all of us. Thanks so much for your wonderful work in Fred Plotkin on Fridays, and for taking the time to talk with us.


Fred Plotkin:

Thanks Andrea. The Insider has been a source of inspiration each week during the pandemic and has helped form a community at a time when that is desperately needed.






5 comments