COVID-19 does not stop the show at the Madrid opera

MADRID (AP) – On the stage of the Teatro Real in Madrid, none of the actors wears a mask, an unusual image in times of a pandemic.

And that’s even before a scene from the second act of Antonín Dvořák’s opera “Rusalka” about a water nymph who falls in love with a mortal, where the cast members kiss and grope in a mock orgy without social distancing.

Although many of the world’s great operas are closed, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Covent Garden in London and La Scala in Miáan, attending a performance at Madrid’s Teatro Real can almost make you forget about the coronavirus.

Located in one of the cities hardest hit by the virus, the Royal Theater is making a Herculean effort to keep the show going, investing in security measures that have allowed it to hold performances, albeit with fewer audiences, since July.

In March and April, the increase in infections filled the hospitals of the Spanish capital with COVID-19 patients. The situation improved during the summer, but the second wave hit the city and its suburbs again. Authorities appear to have won the game now, with hospital occupancy rates steadily dropping. At the national level, the Ministry of Health has registered more than 1.54 million infections and has attributed about 42,300 deaths to the virus.

“Theater and culture have to bet on remaining open at all times,” said the general director of the Teatro Real, Ignacio García-Belenguer, to The Associated Press. “It is not about rowing against the current, nor about being exceptional … . is that we believe that is what we have to do “.

With an annual budget of 60 million euros ($ 71 million), the country’s main cultural center recognizes that it has the capacity to keep going.

Its financing, made up of public aid, sponsors and ticket sales, places the Royal Theater in a unique position to cover its expenses, unlike other operas, which are usually mostly public or private, said García-Belenguer. State aid for the pandemic will also help, he added.

But the luck of being located in a region that has decided to adopt a different approach to the virus and apply fewer and more localized restrictions also plays a role, allowing bars, restaurants and cultural venues to remain open with reduced capacity.

The opera was closed for the three months that the first wave’s lockdown lasted, from March to May, but preparations for its reopening continued. He implemented a series of measures that allowed him to perform “La Traviata” by Giuseppe Verdi ‘with an audience in July. Since then, two more operas, ballets and flamenco shows have passed through its stage, and it expects a full calendar for 2021.

Everyone who enters the theater passes automatic temperature controls carried out by machines. Hand sanitizer abounds and surgical masks are distributed to all. Additionally, there are UV lamps to disinfect the main theater, dressing rooms and clothing, and the air conditioning has been adapted to ensure healthier airflow and temperature.

By the end of the year, the institution will have invested 1 million euros ($ 1.2 million) in security measures, García-Belenguer said.

“I feel like I’m in a miracle,” said Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian, the star of “Rusalka,” a co-production with companies from Dresden, Bologna, Barcelona and Valencia. These cities will not be able to host opera performances for a while.

“They always test us, (and) with masks, it’s really strict in the theater,” added Grigorian, who saw his debut at the Met canceled, scheduled for October 2021, while performances in Berlin and elsewhere were not. are guaranteed.

“I have no idea where I will go after Madrid,” he added. “If everything remains isolated, I will stay in Madrid.”

She and the director of “Rusalka”, Christof Loy, believe that Madrid is being a pioneer.

“I think governments are wrong to close theaters,” Loy said. “People need music, they need art.”

For García-Belenguer, the situation is similar to the security measures, now universal, adopted after 9/11. The “new normal”, he pointed out, requires “a deployment to minimize health risk when someone comes to a theater or enters a plane.”

The key to staying open during the pandemic was the Teatro Real’s decision to establish a medical committee with specialists from five Madrid hospitals as advisers, he said.

Off stage, masks are a must for everyone. The cast, choir, and orchestra go through checks every three days, and the rest of the staff have regular checks. Stage hands must cover health questionnaires every day.

There have been isolated positive cases, but in each of them, the theater said it acted quickly and subjected more than 50 people who had been in contact with the infected to tests for the virus.

The around 1,000 spectators who attend each function – 65% of the total capacity – are divided into 19 sectors with separate refreshment and restroom areas, and a small army of ushers who make sure that no one wanders around the premises.

“It is a very complex machinery to try to reduce the impact as much as possible,” said García-Belenguer.

You know that any outbreak could be embarrassing. The memory of a performance of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” in September lives on. The show was interrupted and canceled when the spectators in the cheapest seats protested loudly because they were crowded, while those with the most expensive tickets had more space.

The venue was compliant with regulations at the time, but since then, the separation of one seat between two is the norm.


The Associated Press photographer Bernat Armangue contributed to this report.