LONDON – It’s an evening of drinking and merriment at Café Momus. A group of young men are chatting as a femme fatale tries to get their attention, leaping across tables and throwing underwear. But the nightclub is not as crowded as it used to be. There are few waiters and near the back windows, three clients are dining alone.
This is Act II of a refined staging of Puccini’s “La Bohème” at the Royal Opera House. In light of the pandemic restrictions, the orchestra has 47 musicians, up from the usual 74. The act opens with just 18 of the 60 choir members on stage, the rest singing backstage and 10 (not 20) children on stage. There are four, not ten, waiters in the cafe.
“The cafe scene feels less ‘bustling old-time cafe’ and more ‘establishment of lonely hearts’ right now, simply because there are a limited number of people we can have in the Momus cafe,” Oliver Mears , director of the house opera, said a few days before the June 19 premiere. “It’s just a matter of adapting to the circumstances we have been faced with.
Mr Mears said opera is an art form that breaks all the rules of social distancing, relying on “crowded pits”, large and dense crowds on stage, moments of intimacy between performers, singing (which can spread viral particles) and a sold-out audience. “All of these things are really working against us,” he said.
“If you were someone who hated opera and wanted to conceive of a disease that particularly hits opera, then you probably would have found something like Covid,” he added.
The global coronavirus epidemic has had a drastic effect on the performing arts, and the expensive opera has suffered greatly. Many large European houses have received government assistance – 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 £ 21.7million (around $ 29million) in December, as part of a stimulus package for arts organizations. The house attracts an average of 650,000 people a year and presents films and screenings in Great Britain and in 42 countries around the world.
Last October, she sold a 1971 David Hockney portrait of her former chief executive, David Webster, for £ 12.8million (roughly $ 18million). But even that was not enough to avoid the cuts, and 218 staff members were made redundant.
Since the home reopened on May 17, it has been operating at about a third of its capacity to secure socially remote headquarters – just over 800 spectators, up from 2,225, Mr Mears said. He described the internal mood as “enthusiasm tempered by caution”. (Pandemic restrictions are in place until at least July 19.)
The Paris Opera, which also incorporates a world-renowned ballet company, faced similar threats during the pandemic. In an interview, Alexander Neef, its director, said the opera had received € 41m (around $ 47m) in aid for 2020, leaving it with a deficit of € 4m.
This year, the Paris Opera is expected to receive an additional € 15m in state aid, he said, to help offset an expected annual loss of € 45m.
“Everyone is exhausted from more than a year of crisis,” Mr. Neef said. The Paris Opera reopened its doors on May 19 and since the beginning of June, all spectators are required to present a “health pass” proving vaccination, a negative test or proving post-Covid immunity.
There was “a big appetite at the reopening”, he declared on June 22, but “it’s a bit flat now”, whether it is because of the obligation of the sanitary passport or the good weather and the reopening of the café terraces.
“There is still a lack of perspective as to how this can actually end,” he said. The hope was that by the fall, “we’ll get back to what this new normal will be.” But there is no guarantee for that at this time. We have no visibility.
Operas in the United States, which depend primarily on private philanthropy and ticket sales to survive, are suffering even more. New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which plans to reopen in September, announced on its website that it had lost $ 150 million in earned income due to the pandemic.
For the cast of “La Bohème,” which ends live performances on Tuesday but can be streamed online until July 25, the pandemic has only compounded the challenges of the art form.
Danielle de Niese, who plays Musetta, the femme fatale, said in an interview during rehearsals that without a pandemic it was hard enough to do the “drunk table thing” – having to jump from table to table in a long and heavy dress while singing at the top of your lungs. The coronavirus, she said, also meant having to “do all of our rehearsals with a mask on, and that’s a killer.”
“It’s incredibly difficult to sing in a material mask,” she said. “It basically kills your sound, and you feel like you’re singing into a pillow.”
Ms. de Niese, a soprano, pulled out her special opera singer mask: a protruding face cover with an extra thread that ensured it wouldn’t “go up into my nostrils” with every breath. Masks were worn throughout the rehearsal period, she said, and instead of the “natural camaraderie among colleagues” and between acts, performers were to sit in strictly distant chairs.
Ms de Niese said she was concerned about “singers who are just starting to get started, not making much money yet” and who, struggling financially during the pandemic, have had to take “jobs packaging of cartons at Amazon. “
“We have to make sure that the next generation will always put their skin in the game,” she said.
The next big show at the Royal Opera is being directed by Mr. Mears himself: a new production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, which will debut in the fall. In its favor in times of pandemic? There is no refrain, he pointed out.
Despite the extended shutdown and the logistical and financial headaches, Mr Mears said there was a silver lining to the difficulty: a newfound appreciation for opera.
“We always thought it was something that would always be there, and now I think there is a tremendous sense of gratitude for the work that we are able to do,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll take opera for granted again, and that can only be a good thing.”