Corona and the Opera – Opinion

Essay by Oxana Arkaeva

read in Spanish on ProOpera

After the initial shock at the beginning of social look down in Germany after the March 13th and an attempt by the government to offer a temporarily (three months) financial support to self-employed freelancers, including artists and art workers, a broad-range, feverish artistic activities over-flooded the world of an Internet. Singers, dancers, artists, actors performed, sang, danced, painted, online life, in real-time or per videos and for free, in an attempt to withstand the state of inactivity and stare. Locked-in audience applauded, cheered up, and sent as well locked in, jobless artists and performers thousands of likes and red hearts. Despite all this outburst of creativity and public recognition, the arts, and artists, as system relevant contributor to the society, were not addressed by the government in their direct needs and challenges for more than two months.

Virtual choire. Picture source

The primary intention of State, media, and networks were to inform the population about the virus and intended measures to keep people safe and healthy. The smart and very effective Anti-Corina strategy executed by the German government has resulted in the successful management of crises and reducing the number of infected and diseased when comparing to Italy, France, and Spain. Beginning of May, Germany has entered the next phase of slow relaxation of restrictions by easing the social distancing regulations and step-by-step reopening of such institutions and public places like restaurants, bars, schools, selected children institutions, museums, libraries, and soon fitness clubs and stores of large size. However, the cultural, performing institutions and venues were not on the list, which ignited a creative outrage in the press, social network, on the Internet, and among the cultural folk. This outrage has grown even bigger after a prime minister of some southern German state, where the culture and performing institution build one of the most significant sectors of state revenue, failed to address the situation with culture institution and culture, and talked instead about the football and beer gardens.

Corona performance reality in Wiesbaden, Germany. Source

Considering an amount of 100,5 Milliard Euro revenue and 140 Million visitors (football only 22 million) achieved by a cultural sector in Germany p.a., such negligence was felt by many as a slap in the face. Consequently, the mentioned prime minister experienced the power and strength of the freedom of speech and expression, so to say on his own skin. He ruled back, kind of excused himself and acknowledged culture and culture workers as an essential pillar of German modern democratic society, promising swift and effective help. Even the Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel felt obliged to address culture and artists in a video assuring the cultural sector to be “at the top of the priority today’s list…For it is our goal that our…diverse cultural landscape can continue to exist even after overcoming the pandemic,…” She though had to admit that it is a challenging task and that “for some, however, it will still be remain difficult, especially for those who organize large concerts and festivals.” But, already far bevor Merkel’s statement, many, in fact by now, almost all theaters and festivals in Germany have ended their current season.

One of the firs was Bayreuth Festival, who’s audience consists of its core so-called risk-patience, as the majority of the Bayreuth audience is 60+. Here and there, some smaller theaters are engaged in a sort of experimental trial program, but in general, this season is over, and only some few festivals, among others in Salzburg, will go on performing during the late summer with modified programs. At the moment, theatres are tinkering with coming up season program, hoping that by September 2020, the pandemic will be over, and the government and responsible institutions will present an efficient and practical concept for the reopening. Finally, just last week, things have started to move forward in this direction. The German Federal Ministry of Culture has issued a basic plan for the gradual reopening of cultural institutions. It foresees a.o. programs/performances adapted to the new conditions, such as small-scale performances in closed venues or outdoors, smaller casts, no breaks, and reduced playtime of maximum 90 minutes. Multiple performances on one day are also possible. Thus, the coming season will likely be dominated by solo, monologue like or reduced programs with a maximum of 5 performers on stage. When this plan might appear to be manageable for the dramatic theatre, it might have an extraordinary impact on season’s programming of musical theaters, opera houses, and ballet companies. Puzzling recommendations and instructions coming from scientists or governmental organizations about the rules of social distancing between the orchestra players or singers during the performance or concert (with up to 5 meters), the performances of the regular opera, ballet, musical or a choir concert seem impossible. Not even talking about massive logistic and personal efforts, these companies must overcome to guarantee their audience the corona-free and secure environment. In the last two weeks the anxiety about the future of performing, especially self-employed artists in Germany, had increased even more. Some artistic unions like Ensemble Network fear that crisis will lead to fewer new productions in the coming season and the cast to be built out of the existing house ensemble members, with guest actors left aside.

Marc Grandmontagne © Dt. Bühnenverein

The current Managing Director of the Federal Association of German Theater and Orchestra and successor of Rolf Bolwin, lawyer and political scientist Marc Grandmontagne, described the situation with upcoming auditions, especially when concerning foreign artists, as “difficult to predict.” First, “the pandemic is not over yet, and secondary diverse individual travel bans, and strict visa regulations are still enforced by both home and guest countries. And even if one might be able to travel, at least 14 days quarantine paid by own expenses should be taken into consideration.” When asked about the prospect of future engagements for the guest artists, he again could not give a clear answer or guarantee any protection or support by his organization since “the legal situation is not clear…. and therefore, there is no uniform solution.”

The author of this interview was also informed by one of the employees of the Ministry of Culture and Education in Germany that internally they are not expecting any major relief in this field (culture) until the end of 2020. However, not everyone sees crisis as a disaster. Some among intendants and directors of major German opera houses like Bernd Loebe from Frankfurt Opera see the outcome of Corona rather in positive than in a negative way. “One consequence of the crisis could well be that the ensemble aspect emerged stronger from it.” says Loebe in his recent interview (link in German) for “Frankfurter Rundschau”. He continues that “At the moment it suddenly appears as very attractive for singers to have a permanent job, as even for stars among the traveling soloists…” It might well be that, according to Loebe, “the fees for guests will go a bit down,” which “is something an artistic director cannot regret.” One way or the other, it is clear that for now, we artists have received a unique opportunity to review our goals and ask ourselves about the legitimacy of and belief in the chosen path. After the mentioned above after-shock enthusiasm had subdued, a major part of performing artists and musicians became preoccupied with matters of everyday life and survival. For now, the greatest task is to keep calm and to try not to be affected too much by the new, and at times quite controversial, information popping-up every day in the press, media, and Internet. One can also look at the positive side of this crisis as many of us finally will find time to spend with the family, to practice enough, learn new music, and just to let the voices rest. Though, let us hope, not for too long time.

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