Opera houses sing the blues as pandemic continues

The cast of La Boheme, including soprano Danielle de Niese (in red), rehearsing at the Royal Opera House in London. Pandemic safety measures have hurt opera houses, as the art form often needs large crowds on stage.
The cast of La Boheme, including soprano Danielle de Niese (in red), rehearsing at the Royal Opera House in London. Pandemic safety measures have hurt opera houses, as the art form often needs large crowds on stage.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON • It is an evening of drinking and revelry at Cafe Momus. A group of young men chatter away as a femme fatale tries to get their attention, jumping on tables and tossing undergarments.

But the nightspot is not as crowded as usual. There are few waiters in attendance and three patrons dine alone by the windows in the back.

It is the second act of a pared-down production of Puccini's La Boheme at London's Royal Opera House. Given pandemic restrictions, the orchestra has 47 players, down from the usual 74.

The act opens with only 18 of 60 chorus members on stage, the rest singing from the wings and 10 - not 20 - children on stage. There are four, not 10, waiters in the cafe.

"The cafe scene feels less 'bustling belle epoque cafe' and more 'lonely-hearts establishment' at the moment, simply because there's a limited number of people that we can have in the Cafe Momus," said Mr Oliver Mears, the house's director of opera, a few days before the June 19 premiere.

He added that opera is an art form that breaks every social-distancing rule, relying on "crammed pits", large and dense onstage crowds, moments of intimacy between performers, singing - which can spread viral particles - and a sellout audience.

"All of these things really work against us," he said. "If you were someone who hated opera and you wanted to devise a disease that hit opera particularly hard, then you'd probably come up with something rather like Covid."

The pandemic has had a drastic effect on the performing arts - and opera, which is expensive, has suffered hugely. Many of Europe's major houses have received government help, in addition to annual taxpayer-funded grants, to avoid insolvency.

The Royal Opera House, which was closed for 14 months, received a government loan of £21.7 million (S$40.5 million) in December as part of a recovery package for arts organisations. The house attracts an average of 650,000 people a year and presents films and screenings in Britain and in 42 countries around the world.

Last October, it sold a 1971 David Hockney portrait of its former general administrator David Webster for £12.8 million. But even that was not enough to avoid cuts and 218 staff members were let go.

Since the house reopened on May 17, it has been operating at roughly a third of its original capacity to ensure socially distanced seating - just over 800 spectators, down from 2,225, Mr Mears said.

The Paris Opera, which also incorporates a world-renowned ballet company, has faced similar threats in the pandemic.

Mr Alexander Neef, its director, said the opera house had received €41 million (S$65.4 million) in aid last year, leaving it with a deficit of €4 million.

This year, the opera house is due to receive another €15 million in state aid, he said, to help offset a projected annual loss of €45 million.

The Paris Opera reopened on May 19. Since early last month, it has required audience members to show a "pass sanitaire" (health pass) proving vaccination, a negative test or other proof of Covid-19 immunity.

There was "great appetite when we reopened", Mr Neef said, but added that it is now "a little bit flat" - whether because of the health pass requirement or the good weather and the reopening of cafe terraces.

"There's still a lack of perspective as to how this can actually come to an end," he said.

Opera houses in the United States, which depend mainly on private philanthropy and ticket sales for survival, are suffering even more.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York, which plans to reopen in September, announced on its website that it had lost US$150 million (S$201.5 million) in earned revenue because of the pandemic.

For the cast of La Boheme - which ends live performances today in US time, but can be streamed online until July 25 - the pandemic has compounded the art form's challenges.

Soprano Danielle de Niese, who plays femme fatale Musetta, said that even without a pandemic, it had been hard enough to do "the drunken tabletop thing" - hopping from one tabletop to another in a long, heavy gown while singing at the top of her lungs.

Pandemic safety measures also meant having "to do all of our rehearsals with a mask on, and that is a killer", she added.

"It is incredibly challenging to sing into a material mask," she said. "It basically kills your sound and it feels like you're singing into a pillow."

She pulled out her special opera-singer mask: a protruding face covering with an extra wire to prevent it from "(going) up my nostrils" at each breath.

Masks were worn throughout the rehearsal period, she said. Instead of enjoying the "natural camaraderie between colleagues", performers had to sit on strictly distanced chairs between acts.

Despite the prolonged shutdown and the logistical and financial headaches, Mr Mears said there was a silver lining: a regained appreciation for opera.

"We always thought this was something that would always exist, and now I think there's a tremendous sense of gratitude for the work we are able to make," he said. "I don't think we'll ever take opera for granted again and that can only be a good thing."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2021, with the headline 'Opera houses sing the blues as pandemic continues'. Subscribe