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Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Met Opera Races to Reopen After Months of Pandemic Silence


Tera Willis was backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, painstakingly attaching strand after strand of salt-and-pepper hair to a half-finished wig — one of dozens she and her team were racing to finish in time for opening night later this month, after the pandemic had prevented performers from being measured until mid-August.

Ms. Willis, the head of the company’s wig and makeup department, stated, “I would love about six months.” “We’ve got six weeks.”

Chorus members in the Met’s underground rehearsal rooms were straining to project through the masks they were required to wear, with a few pulling the fabric a couple of inches away from their faces for a moment or two. Stagehands were reupholstering some worn red velvet seats just outside the opera house’s gilded auditorium, which has been empty since the pandemic forced it to close a year and a half ago. An electrician was installing wiring beneath the arched entrance to the opera house to make some of the heavy front doors touchless.

Reopening after a lengthy closure was never going to be easy for the Metropolitan Opera, the country’s largest performing arts organisation. Unlike a Broadway theatre, which must safely bring back one show each season, the Met, a $300 million-a-year operation, plans to stage 196 performances of 22 different operas this season, with what’s on its massive stage changing each night.

The stakes are high in terms of money: The Met, which lost $150 million in earned revenue during the pandemic, must now entice audiences back to its 3,800-seat opera house amid renewed concerns about the Delta variant’s spread. Will people return in droves once they’ve gotten out of the habit of spending their nights at the opera? Will the Met’s strict vaccine mandate, which forbids audience members under the age of 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated, reassure operagoers, particularly older ones? How much will travel bans hurt the box office, where international visitors account for up to 20% of ticket buyers?

The Met is keeping a close eye on sales. According to the company, it has sold about $20 million in season tickets so far, down from $27 million at the same point in the season prior to the pandemic. Subscriptions at American symphony orchestras and opera companies are down by about a quarter from before the pandemic, but officials expect more subscribers to renew once they feel safe attending. Strong recent sales, as well as the speed with which the Met sold out an affordable performance of Verdi’s Requiem on Saturday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, provided hope that audiences would return.

Because of the financial uncertainty, the Met sought concessions from its unions, some of which will be restored if and when box office returns to pre-pandemic levels. The ensuing labour disputes complicated the reopening even more: the company did not reach an agreement with its stagehands until July, delaying summer technical rehearsals, and only settled another, with its orchestra, late last month, removing the last major barrier to reopening.

So the company is quickly preparing to marshal the forces of approximately 1,000 singers, orchestra players, conductors, dancers, and actors who are scheduled to perform this season. It began last weekend with two free outdoor performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” at Lincoln Center; will perform Verdi’s Requiem on Saturday, its first performance back inside the opera house, a concert that will be broadcast on PBS; and will finally open the opera season on Sept. 27 with Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” its first opera by a Black composer. The company hopes that “Fire” and another contemporary opera, “Eurydice” by Matthew Aucoin, will attract new audiences.

The entire organisation is preparing to reopen. Keith Narkon, a ticket seller, was stuffing tickets into envelopes with his colleagues behind the Met’s box-office windows, happy to be back after the virus had taken their jobs for more than a year.

“It was just this numbness,” Mr. Narkon, an opera enthusiast, said of the lengthy shutdown.

There are still bruised feelings from the labour battles as the opera house buzzes with preseason anticipation, but there is also a palpable sense of relief to finally be back in the building together and working again after so many months of unemployment checks and uncertainty.

“You don’t realise how much you appreciate your job until you don’t have it,” said Phillip D. Smith, a stagehand who has worked at the Met for more than 20 years, as he ripped the worn velvet off a seat cushion.

Backstage, however, life is far from normal, as company officials keep a close eye on the Delta variant and the precautions that must be taken to keep the company and the audience safe.

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The company’s vaccination policy is so strict that an unvaccinated telecom worker who showed up for work was turned down. A special patron’s entrance area has been converted into a testing centre, where rehearsal participants must undergo nasal-swab tests twice a week. Additionally, the first two rows of seats in the auditorium will be blocked off until the end of the year to keep audience members separate from the performers.

“On the one hand, the rate of infection is frightening and frustrating,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. “But it’s so exciting to see the possibility of actually opening performances within reach.”

Some resentment remains from the labour disputes, which were settled when the company’s three largest unions agreed to new contracts that reduced their pay modestly while saving the company money by moving some workers to a different health care plan and reducing the number of guaranteed full-time orchestra and chorus members.

Ryan Hixenbaugh, an artist, lamented in the props department, where scenic artists were working to create corn on the cob and a pat of butter for a Thanksgiving dinner in the upcoming production of “Fire,” that some of the work had been completed in California, where Met management outsourced work after locking out its stagehands in December in a pay cut dispute.

Mr. Hixenbaugh explained, “We had the capability of making all of the scenery for all of these operas here.”

During the shutdown and lockout, some stagehands made ends meet by constructing outdoor shelters for the city’s new al fresco dining spots. Others found work in television production, which resurfaced prior to live performance.

When the stagehands returned to the Met in July, they discovered an enormous amount of work. The opera house had been motionless for more than a year, as if frozen in time. The decades-old machinery that powers the Met’s stage was not designed for such inactivity.

Earlier this year, two scenic backdrops that had been hanging for months had fallen to the ground. The weight of the sets that had been left on top of the wheels on the Met’s waggon system, which is powerful enough to quickly shuttle its mammoth sets of Ancient Egypt, Imperial China, or Fin-de-Siècle Paris on and offstage. Parts of the fly system, which was made up of wire rope lines and riggings, had also rusted.

“It was terrifying to leave it sitting still for that long,” said David Feheley, the Met’s technical director. “Many of these systems have lasted as long as they have because they have received constant attention.”

The Met’s technical rehearsals were moved from the beginning of August to the end of the month to accommodate all of the urgent maintenance work. Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” opera was cancelled.

According to the orchestra committee, which negotiates labour issues on behalf of the musicians, 11 of the orchestra’s 96 regular full-time members retired or left their jobs during the pandemic. A number of veteran stagehands also retired.

The company hopes that the excitement of reuniting will outweigh any residual resentment.

“The Met is perhaps slightly fractured,” Mr. Gelb admitted, “but it is a family.”

At this point in the pandemic, no one under the age of 12 can be a part of the family, not just the audience. The Met’s performers must also be young. A part that is typically sung by a boy soprano will be given to an adult mezzo-soprano in “Boris Godunov,” which is set to open on September 28. And in “Fire,” which is based on a memoir by Charles Blow, a New York Times Opinion columnist, a 13-year-old, Walter Russell III, will play young Charles, who is supposed to be 7.

Mr. Russell explained, “I’ve been trying to get into the mind of a 7-year-old kid.”

The Met’s staff members still have a number of battles to fight in order for the museum to reopen smoothly.

Everything from costume fabrics to stage lighting machinery to basic materials like plywood and steel is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain due to pandemic supply-chain issues. Booking the international performers on whom opera relies has become a tangle of unpredictability, with visa issues and virus-related travel restrictions.

One of the few times when performers can remove their masks these days is when they are being fitted in the costume shop for photos that help designers see the effect of each costume.

“Normally, I would be able to see an unspoken feeling on a performer’s face, but I can’t,” said Paul Tazewell, the Tony-winning costume designer for “Fire.”

But, if everything goes as planned, the masks will come off on Sept. 27, the Sputnik chandeliers will ascend, the curtain will rise, and live opera will return to the stage.

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