Met Opera to reopen after months of pandemic silence

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Tera Willis was backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, painstakingly adding strand after strand of salt and pepper hair to a half-finished wig – one of the dozen she and her team were running to finish in time for opening night plus late that month after the pandemic had kept artists from being measured until mid-August.

“I would like about six months,” said Ms. Willis, head of the company’s wigs and makeup department. “We have six weeks.

In the underground rehearsal rooms of the Met, the choir members struggled to project themselves through the masks they were to rehearse in, a few pulling the fabric inches from their faces for a moment or two. Just outside its golden auditorium, empty since the pandemic forced the opera house to close a year and a half ago, stagehands were upholstering worn red velvet seats. Under the arched entrance to the opera house, an electrician was installing wiring to make some of the heavy entrance doors contactless.

Reopening after the long shutdown was never going to be easy for the Metropolitan Opera, the nation’s largest performing arts company. Unlike a Broadway theater, which has to bring a show back safely, the Met, a $ 300 million-a-year operation, plans to put on 196 performances of 22 different operas this season, typically changing what’s on. its gigantic scene every night.

The financial stakes are high: The Met, which lost $ 150 million in earned revenue during the pandemic, must now bring audiences back to its 3,800-seat opera house amid renewed concerns about the spread of the Delta variant. Will people come back in force, after they’ve lost the habit of spending nights at the opera? The Met’s strict vaccine mandate – it will ban viewers under the age of 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated – will it reassure viewers, especially older ones? How will travel bans hurt the box office, where international visitors made up up to 20% of ticket buyers?

The Met watches sales with suspicion. It has sold around $ 20 million in tickets for the season so far, the company said, up from $ 27 million at the same time of the season before the pandemic. Subscriptions, which have steadily eroded in U.S. symphony orchestras and opera companies in recent years, are down about a quarter from before the pandemic, but officials expect it to be. that more subscribers renew when they feel safe to attend. Recent strong sales and the speed with which the Met sold an affordable performance of Verdi’s Requiem on Saturday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, has raised hopes that audiences will return.

Financial uncertainty has led the Met to demand concessions from its unions, some of which will be restored if and when the box office approaches pre-pandemic levels. The ensuing labor disputes further complicated the reopening: the company only reached an agreement with its stagehands in July, delaying the summer technical rehearsals, and settled another one, with its orchestra, at the end of last month, removing the last major obstacle to reopening.

So now the company is preparing quickly, preparing to mobilize the forces of approximately 1,000 singers, orchestral musicians, conductors, dancers and actors scheduled to perform this season. It all started with two free performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” outdoors at Lincoln Center this past weekend; will perform on Saturday Verdi’s Requiem, his first performance inside the opera, a concert that will be broadcast on PBS; and he will finally open the opera season on September 27 with Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”, his first opera by a black composer. The company hopes that “Fire” and another contemporary opera – Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice” – will attract new audiences.

The whole organization is preparing to reopen. Keith Narkon, a ticket seller, was with his colleagues behind the Met box office counters, filling tickets into envelopes – and happy to be back after the virus took them from their jobs for more than a year.

“It was just that numbness,” said Mr. Narkon, a self-proclaimed opera fanatic, of the long shutdown.

As the opera buzzes with anticipation of the preseason, there are still bruised feelings of the work battles, 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 realize how much you respect the job until you don’t have it,” said Phillip D. Smith, a machinist who worked at the Met for over 20 years, as he ripped off the worn velor of a seat cushion. .

But life behind the scenes is still far from normal, as company officials are keeping a close eye on the Delta variant and the steps they need to take to keep the company and the public safe.

The company’s vaccination mandate is so strict that an unvaccinated telecommunications worker who arrived for a job was turned away. A special entrance area for clients has been transformed into a testing center where repeaters are required to undergo saliva collection tests twice a week. And to separate spectators from artists, the first two rows of seats in the auditorium will be blocked until the end of the year.

“On the one hand, it’s scary and frustrating to see the rate of infection,” said Peter Gelb, chief executive of the Met. “But it’s so exciting to see the possibility at hand to open performances. “

Some bitterness persists over the labor disputes, which were resolved when the company’s three largest unions agreed to new contracts that modestly reduced their wages, saving the company money by displacing some workers. to another health care plan and reducing the number of guaranteed full-time employees. members of the orchestra and the choir.

In the props department, where stage artists worked to create corn cobs and a pat of butter for a Thanksgiving dinner in the upcoming production of “Fire,” Ryan Hixenbaugh, an artist, lamented that some of the work was completed in California, where Met management outsourced the work after locking out its machinists in December in the fight against wage cuts.

“We had the capacity to do all the landscape for all of those operas here, ”Hixenbaugh said.

Some machinists have made ends meet during the shutdown and lockdown by building outdoor shelters for the city’s new outdoor restaurants. Others found work in television production, which rebounded ahead of live performances.

When they returned to the Met in July, the stagehands found a tremendous amount of work. For more than a year, the opera had stood still, as if frozen in time. The decades-old machinery that runs the Met’s stage was not designed for such dormancy.

Two scenic backdrops that had been hung for months had fallen to the ground earlier in the year. The wheels of the Met’s wagon system – which is powerful enough to quickly haul its gigantic sets from Ancient Egypt, Imperial China, or Fin-de-Siècle Paris on and off the stage – have been flattened by the weight of the sets that had been left on top of them. And parts of the fly system, made up of cables and rigging, had rusted.

“Leaving him still for that long was terrifying,” said David Feheley, technical director of the Met. “So many of these systems have lasted as long as they have because of constant attention.”

To accommodate all urgent maintenance work, technical rehearsals at the Met have been postponed from early August to the end of the month. An opera, Iphigénie en Tauride by Gluck, has been canceled.

The orchestra has seen 11 of its 96 full-time regular members retire or quit their jobs during the pandemic, according to the orchestra’s committee, which is negotiating labor issues on behalf of the musicians. A number of veteran machinists have also retired.

The company hopes that the enthusiasm of working together again will outweigh any residual resentment.

“The Met may be slightly fractured,” Mr. Gelb said, “but it’s family.”

At this stage of the pandemic, it is a family that cannot have any members under the age of 12, and not just in the public. Met artists can’t be young either. In “Boris Godunov”, scheduled to open on September 28, a part often sung by a boy soprano will be entrusted to an adult mezzo-soprano. And in “Fire” – which is based on the memoir of Charles Blow, an Opinion columnist for the New York Times – a 13-year-old boy, Walter Russell III, will play the role of young Charles, who is supposed to be 7 years old. . .

“I tried to get into the mind of a 7-year-old,” Mr. Russell said.

To reopen smoothly, the staff of the Met still have many battles to fight.

Everything from costume fabrics and stage lighting machines to base materials like plywood and steel are proving difficult to obtain due to pandemic supply chain issues. And booking the international artists that opera relies on has become an unpredictable waste of paperwork, between visa issues and travel restrictions linked to viruses.

One of the few times artists can remove their masks these days is when they’re set up in the costume store, for photos taken to help designers capture the effect of each costume.

“If there’s an unspoken feeling, normally I could see it on an artist’s face, but I can’t access it,” said Paul Tazewell, the Tony award-winning costume designer for “Fire”.

But, come on September 27 – if all goes according to plan – the masks will come off, the Sputnik chandeliers will go up, the curtain will rise, and the live opera will be back on stage.

Zachary Woolfe contributed reporting.


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