Why Vienna opera singers are ready to risk their lives to perform in a pandemic

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An usher waits for guests prior to a concert at Vienna’s State Opera on June 8. Vienna is considered the world’s capital of classical music. | Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

“Without culture, there’s no society.”

VIENNA — As baritone Klemens Sander waited for the curtain to rise at Vienna’s Akzent Theater for the world premiere of the opera Toteis, he felt privileged and “very emotional” about returning to the stage.

“It was like coming back into a family you have not seen for a very long time,” he said.

It was mid-September and Sander hadn’t performed in an opera for six months. The originally scheduled Toteis premiere, on March 13 in Northern Italy, had been canceled, as the pandemic ushered in a season of silence at the world’s opera houses. Back then, Sander hopped on a train to Vienna only 24 hours before the borders closed, and promptly learned that all his performances for the usually busy spring and summer seasons had been called off.

Packing theaters and concert halls is a risky business right now: We know most coronavirus transmission happens inside, especially when people are less than 6 feet apart.

Singing, like loud speaking or coughing, is also a particularly dangerous activity. It launches into the air respiratory droplets and aerosols, which, if a person is infected, can efficiently spread the virus to others. In one notorious case, a single person at a choir practice in Washington state infected 52 others, leading to two deaths. A database of Covid-19 superspreading events around the world lists numerous choir practices and a few concerts as sources of contagion.

With transmission of the virus still relatively high or surging again in big cities, many performing arts organizations are turning to livestreaming and outdoor performances, or canceling their fall and winter programs altogether. On September 23, the Metropolitan Opera in New York announced that it will stay closed until at least September 2021, only resuming performances when “a vaccine is widely in use, herd immunity is established, and the wearing of masks and social distancing is no longer a medical requirement.” (The decision will cost the house more than $100 million in revenue.)

These changes have pushed classical music (which wasn’t exactly booming pre-pandemic) into a precarious state. “It’s like being on the Titanic,” one concert pianist told Vox. Opera houses and companies around the world are furloughing workers, cutting salaries, and laying off staff. Two of the biggest classical music talent agencies — Columbia Artists Management in the US and Hazard Chase in the UK — recently folded.

But in some corners of Europe, where governments have included provisions for the arts in coronavirus stimulus packages, the picture is slightly cheerier. Concert halls and theaters are finding ways to adapt and carry on. And even as Covid-19 cases rise across the continent, opera season in Vienna, the world’s capital of classical music, just reopened.

These days, Sander and his colleagues are singing centuries-old arias under a new set of conditions: smaller choirs, smaller audiences, plexiglass barriers, masks, and a lot of Covid-19 testing. Theirs is a middle-road approach for live indoor performances — between the full closure of the Met and pre-coronavirus normalcy.


Joe Kalmar/AFP via Getty Images
Guests disinfect their hands as they arrive for a concert at Vienna’s State Opera.

Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images
Concert houses in Vienna reopened their doors in June.

But pulling off safe rehearsals and stagings is as resource-intensive and elaborate as the operas themselves. Reopening also puts considerable strain on artists, who are forced to choose between their love of performing, their livelihood, and their health. And as we head into winter, when coronavirus case counts are expected to rise, it’s not clear how long the curtain will stay up.

Coronavirus at the opera

A startling sign about the potential danger of live operas in the pandemic came from Russia earlier in September: Anna Netrebko — the Beyoncé of the opera world, who often plays the role of the prima donna dying of infectious disease (think Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata) — tested positive for the virus.

Netrebko had sung in the first post-lockdown performance in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre with another singer who had also been infected. But her decision to carry on was one she didn’t regret.

“I don’t regret going back to performing because I strongly believe that we need culture, now as ever,” she tweeted. Since then, she has been Instagramming from her hospital bed in solidarity with other artists. “The categorical cessation of work for artists in most major theaters is preventable and does not need to come to this,” she wrote on September 23 of the Met’s closure. “Without culture, there’s no society.”

What’s gotten less attention is the live indoor performances that run safely — at least for well-resourced institutions in locations where Covid-19 isn’t spreading widely.


Robert Michael/picture alliance via Getty Images
The Russian soprano Anna Netrebko (center) seen on stage in Saxony, Dresden, on June 19. Since then, she’s tested positive for the coronavirus.

This summer, the Salzburg Festival, an opera music event that takes place in indoor concert halls in the Alps every August, drew an audience of visitors from around the globe. In late May, organizers announced that they’d go ahead with the program to celebrate the festival’s 100-year anniversary — with a pandemic plan in place, and face masks stamped with the centennial logo.

Coronavirus transmission had been relatively controlled in Austria, with 100 cases per day for months. And festival organizers worked with public health experts to come up with infectious disease prevention protocols that would keep it that way.

Among the rules: Audience members were asked to wear masks and social distance at one meter. Seating capacities were reduced, and every second seat in every concert hall was locked so people couldn’t get around the restrictions. There were no intermissions at performances, or refreshments available.

Simply buying a ticket meant agreeing to engage in contact tracing, if it came to that: Tickets were personalized with names, and audience members had to show an ID when they entered any venue. There were also disinfectant dispensers everywhere, and venues were cleaned more than usual.

In the end, the festival attracted more than 76,000 visitors — a little more than a quarter of last year’s — from 39 countries during August. According to the festival’s final report on the event, “not a single positive case has been reported to the authorities.” And of the 3,600 coronavirus tests carried out on the 1,400 people involved in festival preparation, just one came back positive in early July. That individual had a “very light case” and didn’t pass the virus on to any others, the festival organizers said.

“Who could have imagined that in times of corona, something like [the operas] Elektra or Così would be possible again?” Markus Hinterhäuser, the festival’s artistic director, said in a press release. “The message sent from Salzburg will be the strongest, most vital and essential one can broadcast to the world.”


Barbara Gindl/AFP via Getty Images
Employees of the Salzburg Festival wear protective face shields on August 2.

Barbara Gindl/AFP via Getty Images
Seats are left empty between guests in order to enforce social distancing rules during the music festival.

The success at Salzburg helped the Vienna State Opera House, or Wien Staatsoper, restart indoor performances in September with a little more confidence. And so far, it’s kept outbreaks at bay with behind-the-scenes infection control practices that rival those of a hospital.

When rehearsals started in August, every one of the nearly 1,000 staff members was tested before entering the house and asked to mask up. They were then split into four groups according to their risk level: Singers and people working directly with the singers are part of the red group and are tested every week (since they can’t always wear masks or keep distance onstage). Administrators are part of the orange group and are tested every four weeks. The yellow and white groups — people who don’t have close contact with artists, such as delivery people — are only tested if there’s a known exposure. And everyone wears colored lanyards to denote their risk, while groups are instructed to stay apart.

Like the Salzburg Festival, the Staatsoper has a host of protocols during performances: Audience members, who must divulge personal details for contact tracing, are assigned entrances to minimize exposure to others. They’re also asked to wear masks until they reach their seats, which are assigned in a checkerboard pattern. There’s a plexiglass wall in front of the orchestra. Of course, there are no bravos allowed. “Please express your enthusiasm exclusively by clapping as loudly as possible,” the instructions from the opera house read.

But Uta Sander — the artistic administrator of the company’s Young Artist Program and wife of baritone Klemens Sander — said enthusiastic audiences don’t always comply, and even the stringent approach hasn’t kept out the coronavirus entirely.

On September 10, a singer in her program tested positive for the virus after attending a student performance in Vienna. At that point, testing at the opera house became even more frequent, Sander said: Anyone who had contact with the singer was tested every day for 10 days. “They found and isolated a few people who had no symptoms at all but were positive,” she added, and the cases didn’t turn into an outbreak.

With cases rising in Austria since late August, no one knows how long the opera house will stay open. If the situation worsens, the government could cancel the performing arts again. For now, though, Sander said, “Looking to other countries, it feels like being on an island of the blessed.”

Artists risking their lives

The elaborate coronavirus prevention program at the Staatsoper is possible because it’s supported by the deep coffers of public funding for the arts in Austria. But most of the performing arts economy is made up of smaller institutions without generous state support. And they either can’t afford or aren’t obliged to regularly test crew members and artists, who are predominantly freelance or self-employed.

That includes Klemens Sander. For Toteis, which opened at the Akzent Theater in Vienna, the main Covid-19 protection he and his colleagues relied on was herd immunity: Several performers who were part of the production caught the virus in March in Italy. Sander still took precautions during rehearsals, wearing a mask whenever possible and trying to keep his distance from others — but he hasn’t had to submit to testing.

This means artists are left to take health risks at the same moment they’ve been hit with even more financial uncertainty than usual, said Franz Gürtelschmied, a Vienna-based tenor. Before September, he hadn’t earned any money since March, when 25 of the remaining performances he had scheduled around the world got canceled.

His next major gig, a part in The Magic Flute at the Paris State Opera House in January, hasn’t yet been called off, but with coronavirus cases rising again in France, he’s not hopeful.

“We don’t know what will happen in the next week,” he said. “There are no guarantees, and all the contracts — you can blow them in the wind too.”

In a post on Facebook, another Austrian baritone painted a grim picture. Because fewer people are attending the shows that are open, artists are getting paid less, he wrote, and new contracts put the burden of cancellation on the artists. “No matter what we try to build, a week later, [it could] collapse like a house of cards,” he wrote.


Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images
Guests arrive to a concert at Vienna’s State Opera on June 8.

There’s also the challenge of performing in houses that aren’t nearly as full as they once were. Marlis Petersen, an established German soprano who is currently rehearsing a new role in Brussels, said she’s worried about the dynamic that will create for artists. “Opera is very much performing a role or a piece in order to move the audience, in order to make them feel, to make them cry, make them laugh,” she said. “There [will be] something very big missing.”

Still, life without performing feels devoid of meaning, said Gürtelschmied. During the lockdown, many of his colleagues fell into a depression. These days, he’s happy to be working again — even with the anxiety about the virus.

“You’re standing in a choir and you don’t know the person singing next to you — where they have been before and if he or she is positive or negative,” he said. “We are working at our own risk. If I want to work, if I want to sing, I have to cope with that.”


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