Brett Dean: Coronavirus is like living in a Kafka novel

Brett Dean: Coronavirus is like living in a Kafka novel


norman lebrecht

March 08, 2020

The sick composer, diagnosed with Corona virus on March 5 has posted a gloomy reflection from his isolation unit in Adelaide:


Firstly, to my dear friends and colleagues of the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Shao-Chia Lu, friends of the Orchestra and the people of Taiwan, I am devastated to learn that the consequences of my COVID-19 diagnosis on March 5 in Australia has led to the cancellation of concerts in Taipei and the quarantining of so many people. Please know how deeply saddened I am that this has happened. Many of you, plus family, friends and colleagues have sent me messages of support and I‘m sorry I can‘t reply individually to you all but wanted to say I am very grateful for the kindness and generosity of spirit you have shown me.

I’d also like to send a general update on how things are. This message comes to you all from an isolation unit at Royal Adelaide Hospital. I’ve been here for 3 days now and wanted to share some thoughts on the experience and how I ended up here. While the life of a composer often necessitates isolation, there’s a world of difference between something self-imposed and a situation imposed upon you, even if it is for one‘s own wellbeing and that of others.

I’m obviously not in the best of health, but at the same time I’m not in any real discomfort and I’m able to speak with friends and family and move around my room. I know that it could be worse, much worse, and for that I’m truly grateful. Indeed, in many ways I feel fortunate that I was diagnosed early and sent to this isolation unit where I’m receiving the best care imaginable. While here however, it’s impossible not to think of others who are suffering or have suffered from this virus and who haven‘t received this level of attention. One‘s thoughts also turn inevitably to those who have died, and to their loved ones, left behind uncertain about their own prognosis.

It is an understatement to say this is an enormous challenge for me, both physically and mentally. A number of correspondents have asked whether I can use the time to compose, however it hasn’t felt like a time of creativity in any way whatsoever. Like the rest of humanity at the moment, I see this as a period we must all get through, learn from and then put behind us. I have also been made acutely aware of how precious life is and especially time with loved ones.

By sharing my experiences, I hope it can show people that despite the best precautions and intentions, this is a virus that can affect us all. As a musician who is constantly travelling, I’ve long been conscious of the risks to my health, especially from frequent flying. When the coronavirus first emerged I was mindful of the need to be vigilant at all times and to self-monitor my general well-being. Like countless others, I too have had an intermittent cough throughout the winter months. No more than an occasional irritation, I was able to self medicate and carry on as normal.

As my flight approached Taipei Airport however, in the interests of full disclosure and personal honesty, I dutifully ticked the box on their health questionnaire to say that I had had a cough. On disembarking I was therefore taken to a screened-off area where my temperature was taken as part of an official vetting process. All was fine and I made my way to my hotel where, like every other guest, I again had my temperature checked before I could enter the building. This was repeated several times a day, every time I returned to the hotel or even entered the breakfast room. Each time my temperature was fine, no warning signs were apparent and I believed I was symptom free.

This daily reassurance helped me to focus on my rehearsals and, though I had to stifle the occasional cough, I was otherwise feeling fine and excited to be working with the marvellous National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan. When it was suggested to me after two days of rehearsals that I should see a doctor because of the coughing, I readily agreed and was taken to see one that day by the kind artist liaison officer from the orchestra. The doctor examined me and acknowledged that I had a mild bronchial infection and prescribed some medication to help combat that. He reassured me that I didn’t need to be tested for the coronavirus. Therefore I was not referred any further within the Taiwanese health system. Being acutely aware of how prevalent and unpredictable this virus is, I wore a face mask when in confined spaces like taxis and in the public spaces of the hotel.


When I flew on to Adelaide via Brisbane for a project with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, I felt that my health was deteriorating. Though I still had no fever, I decided to seek further medical advice upon arrival in Adelaide. I was seen by a number of health care professionals and had various tests done. My condition was deemed to be “low risk“, however I asked to have a virus swab test done for reassurance. Some 24 hours later, I got the call that everyone dreads. The test for COVID-19 was positive. I immediately informed the Communicable Diseases Unit of South Australia Health about all contacts that I had had within the previous 14 days and remained in my hotel room until an ambulance came and took me to where I currently reside.

It’s a strange sensation to have professionals in hazmat-suits enter my room and escort me out of the building and into complete isolation. It was like being in a Kafka novel. I’m a musician and we live to communicate and this lack of human contact or day to day interaction is the thing I’m finding hardest to deal with. But, as I’ve said, I feel fortunate and I’m conscious that many, many others haven’t been so fortunate. Whilst the only contact I have is with hospital staff, they bring with them wonderful warmth and good humour and are providing excellent care, for which I am extremely grateful. I also wish to thank all the kind and generous colleagues who assisted me at the NSO Taiwan, the Adelaide Festival and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. It is my greatest wish that you all remain healthy, and I hope too to regain my complete health soon.


Brett Dean


Dean has been designated Composer in Residence next season with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

See also: 103 quarantined in Taiwan


  • Incredulous says:

    Are you kidding me! Over 100 people in quarantine because of this guy including flight crews! Who cares about your self pitying musings!

    • Diane B says:

      Yes but he did his best with the tests being wrong, not him, the doctor in Taiwan diagnosis of bronchiole infection. He did not say he was putting the mask during rehearsal. I think you did not read the letter. Yes he had already infect the whole orchestra. This prove that temperature check is not enough.
      Best of recovery to him.

    • Melvyn Roy Cann says:

      I care! And Brett’s ‘musings’ are not self-pitying, just humanly real.

    • Joe says:

      It says in the message that he was initially misdiagnosed. People are unfortunately misdiagnosed every day (especially with diseases
      that are new, rare or harder to spot – remember that COVID19 is only just emerging), and it must feel horrid and embarrassing to find out you may have made other people ill.

  • Kynan Johns says:

    Brett – so sorry to read this but am full of admiration for your vigilance and perseverance. Get better soon!!!

  • Peter says:

    So it turned out Mr. Dean isn’t being honest about wearing a mask “when in confined spaces like taxis and in the public spaces of the hotel…” He did not. Of course this is not the point the letter, and we wish him a speedy recovery. But why? What is the reason of putting out false information?

    • Geoff says:

      He did NOT put out false information!

      In this letter he explains exactly what happened. He did not claim to wear a mask throughout his stay. He said he wore one only in confined spaces.

      If Taiwan is claiming in any way that he is being dishonest in this statement, that would be wildly unfair.

      Dean, out of honesty, informed Taiwan of his bronchitis before entering the country and they still let him in and told him not to worry. They could have chosen not to but they did. There is no blame to place on Dean here.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    One fully sympathises with decent people like Brett Dean, who has actually caught the serious virus and is trying to recover with dignity in a hospital. Unfortunately this virus have also revealed shameless, selfish individuals who are hoarding all the necessities that no one else could find them anymore. In Sydney it is impossible to find tissues, toilet paper and quite a few other products at the moment.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      My son (in federal politics) got an urgent call yesterday in Sydney from a friend who could not find a particular type of infant formula. It’s been very worrying for these parents of babies and young children. He also couldn’t find disposable nappies.

    • Hilary says:

      The panic buying is selfish.
      Nonetheless, the shortages will encourage us to look at interesting alternatives whether it’s toilet paper (water from a bowl) or pasta (quinoa) .

  • Ninedragonspot says:

    Readers here may not be aware that the Shintrun Taiwanese Opera Troupe (薪傳歌仔戲劇團) was on the same flight that carried the ailing Mr. Dean from Taipei to Australia.

    The Shintrun troupe is my favorite of all the traditional Taiwanese (Gezaixi) opera troupes. They perform classic works with remarkable finesse of musical design and with great singing.

    Their mentor, accompanying them on this trip, was the 85-year-old Taiwanese National treasure Liao Qiongzhi 廖瓊枝. Liao Qiongzhi was one of the greatest performers of “crying” roles (苦旦)in the history of Taiwanese traditional opera. She has taught generations of young performers. She is a dear, dear woman.

    For fans of Taiwanese opera, there will be an anxious couple of weeks of waiting to see whether the artists from this marvelous troupe will emerge unscathed. It’s very sad.

  • Steven says:

    Thank you for sharing Brett. Wishing you a quick recovery.

  • Maria says:

    A bit self indulgent. Just get on with it! It is what it is, basic hygiene and common sense needed and listen to the science and medical specialist experts, not the Daily Mail or CNN.
    Quarantine yourself. It’s only a fortnight, not a year. And the vast majority will have symptons of a mild to moderate flu and not die unless you have an underlying and serious medical condition, and elderly over 70. Still more likely to die of a heart attack or cancer.

  • Franky says:

    Thinking of you Brett and wishing a swift recovery, along with anyone else who has the virus

  • Daniel says:

    I wish Mr. Brett a full recovery. However, his recollection of how he handled himself during his stay in Taipei is not totally in line with many of the musicians’ statements. From various sources, it appears that he did not wear masks at all times as he claimed. The Taiwanese government made an investigation into this and announced the results. In addition, it is well known that there are asymptomatic carriers of COVID. Even though temperature checking is being done regularly (that is the best health authority can do), one should be keenly aware there is limitation to that measure (it is about likelihood of disease, rather than definitive, diagnosis). People should take more ownership to situation like this. Putting your mask on when you are coughing, regardless of whether you have COVID or not, is a precaution to not pass what you have to the others surrounding you, especially for someone who travels that much like himself. It is not Kafka, its just common sense.

  • Neil says:

    Words are wind. “Saddened that this happened”, and only “sorry he can’t reply” to messages.

    Irresponsible, unsympathetic, and not at all accepting of culpability in infecting hundreds of others.

    • Kim says:

      Your statement is incorrect. To date Taiwan has not reported a single infection linked to Brett Dean – people who came in direct contact with him are in a 14 day quarantine. It is of course entirely possible that some of these contacts might test positive within the 14 day timeframe, but please for the moment keep your facts straight. To claim a particular person has caused hundreds of infections when the country in question has reported a total of 47 cases since the Corona outbreak started is irresponsible!

  • Honest says:

    Dude, who cares!! I swear, people do the craziest stuff for attention. We get it mate, your career as a (mediocre) composer was dying, and this was your solution. Can’t wait for “COVID 19: the opera

    • John Borstlap says:

      Dean is a trendy composer of the average modern style, i.e. modernism mixed with hip, but he wrote at least one beautiful piece, a cello concerto with the title ‘Farewell to Philosophy’, where he includes elements of the classical style to great effect. Unfortunately there is no video of that piece on the internet.

    • Chris says:

      You better be joking buddy…

      His career was dying?! His most recent opera was a worldwide hit. He has won dozens of awards. He is one of the most in-demand, successful composers alive. No one “DOES” Coronavirus for attention and to say that someone would is a statement so lacking in empathy it is actually psychopathic.

      Unless this is a joke, in which case… it sucked.