MADRID — No one performing onstage in Spain’s Teatro Real opera house is masked, and that alone looks odd these days amid a pandemic.
And that's even before the second act scene in Antonín Dvorák’s “Rusalka” — about a water nymph who falls in love with a mortal — in which cast members kiss and grope in a feigned, non-socially distanced orgy.
While many of the world's major venues are shut down, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Covent Garden in London and La Scala in Milan, watching a performance at the Teatro Real in Madrid can almost make you forget about the coronavirus.
Located in one of the cities hit hardest by the virus, the Teatro Real is making a herculean effort for the show to go on, investing in safety measures that have allowed it to stage performances — albeit with smaller audiences — since July.
In March and April, soaring infections had Madrid’s hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients. That eased in the summer, but another wave saw cases surge in the city and surrounding region. Authorities now seem to have gained the upper hand, with hospital occupancy rates falling steadily. Overall, Spain's Health Ministry has recorded more than 1.54 million cases and has attributed almost 42,300 deaths to the virus.
With a yearly budget of 60 million euros ($71 million), Spain’s prime cultural
García-Belenguer says its financing from public subsidies, sponsors and ticketing puts Teatro Real in a unique spot to break even, unlike other opera houses that are normally mostly public or private. Extra state funding because of the pandemic will help too, he adds.
But it also has the good fortune of being in a region that has decided to take a different tack with the virus and apply fewer and more-localized restrictions, allowing bars, restaurants and cultural venues to stay open with reduced attendance.
It was closed during Spain’s three months of national confinement between March and May, but preparations for reopening went on. It rolled out an array of measures that allowed it to stage a work with an audience, Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” in July. Since then, it has put on two other operas, ballets and flamenco shows, and plans a full season for 2021.
Everyone entering the
García-Belenguer says they will spend 1 million euros ($1.2 million) on safety measures by year's end.
“I feel like I’m in a miracle, “says Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian, the star of “Rusalka,” which is a co-production with companies in Dresden, Bologna, Barcelona and Valencia. Those sites will not be able to stage the opera for some time.
“We are always tested, (and) with masks, it’s really strict in the
“I have no idea where I am going after Madrid,” she says. “If everything will be locked down then I’ll stay in Madrid.”
She and “Rusalka” director Christof Loy believe Madrid is leading the way.
“I think the governments are wrong in closing
García-Belenguer compares the situation to now universally accepted security measures adopted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The “new normality,’’ he says, demands “a deployment to minimize the health risk when someone comes to the
Key to staying open during the pandemic was Teatro Real’s decision to set up a medical committee with specialists from five Madrid hospitals giving advice, he said.
Offstage, masks are compulsory for all. The cast, chorus and orchestra are tested every three days, with others monitored regularly. Stagehands and other workers must fill out health questionnaires every day.
There have been isolated positive tests, but in each one, the
The average of 1,000-plus audience members — about 65% of normal capacity — are divided into 19 sectors with separate refreshment areas and toilets and a small army of ushers ensuring there is no roaming about.
“It is a complex system to try to reduce to the maximum the impact,” García-Belenguer said.
He knows any outbreak could prove embarrassing. Memories are still fresh of the furor at a performance of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” in September, when a show was interrupted and eventually
The opera house was in full compliance with regulations at the time, but since then, a one-seat separation between every two is the norm.
Associated Press photographer Bernat Armangue contributed.
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CiaráN Giles, The Associated Press